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Agricultural Biotechnology: Background and Recent Issues

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Abstract:

Since the first genetically engineered (GE) crops (also called GM [genetically modified] crops, or GMOs, genetically modified organisms) became commercially available in the mid-1990s, U.S. soybean, cotton, and corn farmers have rapidly adopted them. As adoption has spread, there have been policy debates over the costs and benefits of GE products.

Issues include the impacts of GE crops on the environment and food safety, and whether GE foods should be specially labeled. Underlying these issues is the question of whether U.S. regulation and oversight of biotechnology -- with responsibilities spread primarily among the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- remain appropriate, particularly as newer applications (e.g., biopharmaceuticals -- drugs manufactured with the use of GE crops or animals) emerge that did not exist when the current regulatory regime was established.

On August 18, 2006, the Secretary of Agriculture announced that "trace amounts" of an unapproved variety of GE rice had been found in samples of the 2005 crop of U.S. long-grain rice. The Secretary and other USDA officials sought to reassure the rice trade and consumers that the findings posed no human health, food safety, or environmental concerns. Nonetheless, the findings unsettled rice markets, threatened rice exports, and rekindled longtime criticisms that U.S. oversight of biotech should be strengthened.

Some U.S. agricultural export markets, notably the European Union (EU), have taken a more restrictive approach to regulating agricultural biotechnology than the United States, presenting obstacles for U.S. farm exports. This year, a World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute panel ruled against the EU's de facto moratorium on approvals of new GE crops from 1998 to 2004. Even though the EU says it has ended its moratorium (with its May 2004 approval of a GE variety of corn for import), U.S. agricultural interests are concerned that stricter EU rules for labeling and tracing GE products could continue to discriminate against U.S. exports. (Under U.S. rules, GE crops do not have to be distinguished from non-GE crops.) Also, there is debate over whether agricultural biotechnology will improve (according to proponents) or undermine (according to opponents) food security in developing countries.

Congress generally has been supportive of GE agricultural products, although some Members have expressed wariness about their adoption and regulation. The 109th Congress continues to follow trade developments, particularly the U.S.-EU dispute, the recent GE rice case, and U.S. regulatory mechanisms for approving biotech foods. This CRS report will be updated if significant policy changes occur.