Agricultural Biotechnology: Overview and Selected Issues


Publication Date: December 2004

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Agriculture, forestry and fishing



Since the first genetically engineered (GE) crops (also known as 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, the policy debate over costs and benefits has intensified.

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. Relatedly, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) published a notice of intent January 23, 2004, to prepare an environmental impact statement evaluating its rules.

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. Now before the World Trade Organization (WTO) is a U.S. complaint regarding the EU’s de facto moratorium, in place since 1998, on approvals of new GE crops. Even though the EU says it has ended its moratorium (by approving in May a GE variety of canned sweet corn for import), U.S. agricultural interests are concerned that new, stricter EU rules for labeling and tracing GE products, now taking effect, will continue to discriminate against U.S. exports. Also, there is debate over whether agricultural biotechnology will improve (according to proponents) or undermine (according to opponents) food security in developing countries.

In the 108th Congress, interest continued in the trade impacts and regulation of agricultural biotechnology. For example, the conference report to accompany the Consolidated Appropriations Act for FY2005 (H.Rept. 108-792; H.R. 4818) provides $3.3 million to USDA for “cross-cutting trade negotiations and biotechnology resources.” After the U.S. filed its complaint against the EU moratorium, the Senate passed a resolution in support (S.Res. 154), on May 23, 2003. A similar House measure (H.Res. 252) passed on June 10, 2003. Introduced legislation included H.R. 2447, H.R. 3472, and H.R. 4651 to create an interagency task force to promote agricultural biotechnology; H.R. 2916, H.R. 2917, H.R. 2918, H.R. 2919, H.R. 2920, and H.R. 2921 to broaden regulatory oversight of GE foods; and S. 2546, requiring the Food and Drug Administration to review all GE animals and plants that may enter the food supply for environmental and safety issues. None of these bills was enacted.

The 109th Congress may continue to be interested in trade impacts and U.S. regulation, particularly the result of APHIS’ evaluation of its rules.