The White House on Thursday directed the three U.S. agencies that oversee biotech crop products to improve and modernize their regulatory "framework" to boost public confidence in a system that critics call a failure.
The order, announced in a statement by President Barack Obama's Office of Science and Technology Policy, followed demands by consumers, food-related organizations and businesses for tighter U.S. regulation of genetically modified (GMO) crops, amid a nationwide debate over whether they should be labeled.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) proposed a rule in 2008 after being cited in a government audit for oversight lapses, and after high-profile GMO contaminations that led to food recalls and disrupted trade.
But the USDA never finalized that proposal and withdrew it earlier this year. In recent months, it has been seeking public input on a new rule.
Biotech crops are regulated through the government's "coordinated framework" that involves APHIS, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
On Thursday the White House said "the complexity of the array of regulations and guidance documents developed by the three Federal agencies ... can make it difficult for the public to understand how the safety of biotechnology products is evaluated, and navigating the regulatory process for these products can be unduly challenging, especially for small companies."
The administration said it will clarify the roles and responsibilities of the EPA, USDA, and FDA, and try to develop a long-term strategy to ensure regulators are well equipped to assess risks with future biotech products.
The administration also said it was commissioning an independent analysis of the future for biotech products.
"Reform of the badly outdated system for reviewing GMO crops and other products is long overdue," Scott Faber, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest said in a statement that “If the federal review process announced today determines that FDA's role can't be changed, the Obama Administration should work with Congress to pass such legislation. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s oversight needs to cover all GE crops, not just those that are designed with "plant pest" components. It is a waste of government resources for USDA to focus on whether a GE crop is a "plant pest" and while ignoring some of the real risks of those plants, such as the development of resistant weeds and insects.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), whose members include GMO crop developers, said it welcomed a path toward more efficient and transparent approvals of new products.
"We look forward to reviewing the proposal in more detail and working with the administration on this moving forward," Matt O'Mara, BIO vice president, said in a statement.
Al Jazeera with Reuters