On July 2 of this year, President Obama issued a bulletin called “Improving Transparency and Ensuring Continued Safety in Biotechnology.” It’s a seemingly benign document, but the bulletin calls for more coordination between the EPA, USDA and FDA when framing the regulatory process, but also calls for “an outside, independent analysis of the future landscape of the products of biotechnology.” Currently, the various agencies have relied upon the principle of “substantial equivalence,” which considers basic nutritional characteristics that non-GMOs and GMOs share, as well as how they taste, look, smell and feel. The principle of substantial equivalence was first employed in the 1970s to assess the safety of medical devices. In the early 90s, Michael Taylor, currently the Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and formerly a lobbyist for Monsanto, established the official U.S. stance on genetically modified foods. He embedded the notion in policy that if genetically modified food is “substantially equivalent” to non-GM food in composition, then there is no need to test it for safety or to label it. In concert with the federal government’s stance on GMOs, the biotech industry has set up user agreements that explicitly forbid the use of the seeds for any independent research. This is why people who advocate for the spread of genetically modified organisms can justifiably claim that no research has ever been conducted that shows GMOs to be harmful. The only research on GE seeds that has been published has been approved by the industry.
Obama’s bulletin, then, may signal an end to the business as usual approach to the rubber stamping of any and all genetically modified plants or animals. Back in the 90s, when GMOs were being initially introduced, most people were ignorant about them, which allowed the biotech companies to set the rules and standards. The Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, first introduced in 1986 and last updated in 1992, will again be updated under the terms of Obama’s bulletin. Specifically, a newly created group, the Biotechnology Working Group Under the Emerging Technologies Interagency Policy Coordination Committee, which will include representatives from the Executive Office of the President, the EPA, the FDA and the USDA, will be assigned to take steps to increase the transparency of the regulatory systems for biotechnology products. All of this could simply prove to be a red herring, but the more significant assignment given the group will be a provision that will require that the FDA, EPA and USDA commission external and independent analyses of new GE products. These external studies are meant to identify risks to human health and the environment and will be re-examined every five years. The Obama bulletin also encourages public discourse, the first such session occurring in Washington, D.C. in the fall.
That the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Trade Representative and the Council on Environmental Quality all weighed in on the bulletin released July 2 can perhaps suggest that the increasingly contentious conversation about the safety of GMOs will be given a closer look. It also suggests that the concerns of the organic movement are being recognized and heeded. Or it could all come to nothing, especially considering the wording of the bulletin which contains the phrase “Continued Safety in Biotechnology.” It is, of course, far too soon to evaluate the outcome of this initiative. That it calls for “high standards that are based on the best available science that deliver appropriate health and environmental protection” is encouraging, but its other goal, one of making the regulatory process more “efficient,” could simply be a way of giving biotech companies better and faster access to markets than they already have. It’s all pretty tame stuff, but maybe, just maybe, it’s a start. We’ll see.
Recipe of the Week
This is a very simple salad, one meant to accompany a more complicated entree. I was sceptical because of the lack of fat in the dressing, but it was quite good.
Butter Lettuce with Red Onion and Black Pepper
One head of organic red butter lettuce
juice from two small limes
onion slices from 1/2 a small red onion
plenty of black pepper, freshly ground
Combine and toss.