New Report Finds Diversity in States' Tools for Managing Ag Biotech

New Report Finds Diversity in States' Tools for Managing Ag Biotech

The ability of states to collaborate with federal regulators to oversee agricultural biotechnology and address the unique issues the technology raises at the local level varies state-to-state, according to a new report released today by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. A consistent concern among many stakeholders, however, is whether state governments have the critical tools they need -- including proper legal authority, financial resources and trained staff -- to play their oversight role.

The report, titled Tending the Fields: State & Federal Roles In the Oversight of Genetically Modified Crops was prepared by Michael R. Taylor, Jody S. Tick and Diane M. Sherman of Resources for the Future to provide a national overview of the federal-state relationship in the oversight of genetically modified crops. The report is based on targeted data collected from 17 states and includes an analysis of 78 survey responses and interviews with biotech stakeholders across the country; along with vignettes intended to illuminate how some of these states are handling specific policy and process issues. No policy recommendations were included in the report.

"The states are on the front lines when it comes to managing agricultural biotechnology," said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. "Federal regulators rely on their state counterparts to be their 'eyes and ears' in the fields and communities where agricultural biotechnology products are being grown. Therefore, it is important to determine if state regulators have the tools they need to be effective partners in the oversight of agricultural biotechnology."

Key findings of the report include:

  • Most officials and stakeholders at the state level believe state regulation of biotechnology should address local concerns whereas primary responsibility for human health and environmental protection should rest with federal regulators.  
  • The definition of "local concerns" with respect to biotech differs from state to state. For example, states with large agricultural sectors are intensely interested in the economic promise of agricultural biotechnology, but in some cases also need to take into account concerns that new GM crops could threaten valuable export markets for existing producers of conventional or organic crops. Local concerns in some states also include potential environmental and food safety risks of GM crops and other ag biotech products.  
  • There is broad sentiment among those interviewed for the report that many states do not have the legal tools, technical expertise and financial resources needed to effectively partner with federal regulators and carry out the necessary level of oversight.  
  • Legal frameworks that support federal regulators are problematic at the state level. For instance, companies that apply for permits to conduct field trials of GM crops can ask federal regulators to withhold key information--such as where trials will be conducted--from state regulators because such information is considered Confidential Business Information (CBI). While some states are responding to the issues raised by agricultural biotechnology in an innovative manner, others are struggling to find approaches to managing conflicts. In Colorado, state officials have used the possible introduction of "pharmaceutical" crops to develop a unique public participation process, and in North Carolina, concerned parties have developed voluntary protocols to prevent genetically modified and conventional strains of tobacco from mixing. In contrast, litigation has been filed in Hawaii to challenge aspects of Hawaii's biotech oversight, including its practice of classifying some data submitted for permits as CBI.

"The regulatory system for agricultural biotechnology is dependent on state and federal regulators playing a complementary and collaborative role," noted Michael R. Taylor, key author of the report and Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future. "The diverse levels of preparedness of states reflected in this report suggests that the federal-state partnership needs to be reviewed and strengthened to ensure that states have the resources they need to be full partners with federal regulators and to enable them to respond to unique local concerns."

Tending the Fields: State & Federal Roles In the Oversight of Genetically Modified Crops is the fourth product produced by the Pew Initiative that looks at the role of the states. In 2001 the Pew Initiative began tracking legislation pertaining to agricultural biotechnology that was being introduced at the state level. This data was compiled into a database and factsheet which have been updated annually since early 2002. Data and information related to the 2004 state legislative activity will be released in early 2005.

Resources for the Future previously prepared two other reports for the Pew Initiative. The first report, published in October 2001, examined the circumstances surrounding the accidental commingling of genetically modified corn, which was not approved for human consumption to the U.S. food supply. The second report, published in April 2003, examined the role of federal agencies in overseeing biotech crops after they entered the environment.

Downloads Tending the Fields