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A Lack of Oversight of New Genetically Engineered Crops

Crop developers are leveraging new genetic engineering technologies to skirt regulatory oversights, alarming some who fear that the lack of controls could have unexpected consequences, The New York Times' Andrew Pollack reports. 

Regulation of genetically modified crops in the US has been shared by the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration. Rather than using newly created laws that specifically cover genetically engineered crops, the three agencies have used existing statutes to make their regulatory decisions. 

The result is that some firms are exploiting loopholes in the law that don't cover the use of new methods and technologies, such as genome editing, Pollack writes. He points to the case of Scotts Miracle-Gro, which by inserting genes from other plants, has developed genetically modified grass that would need less mowing, have a richer color, and be more resistant to the weedkiller called Roundup. 

Because the inserted gene is from other plants, rather than from plant pests, the new grass is not subject to government oversight, at least in Scotts' view. 

Pollack quotes Scotts CEO Jim Hagedorn telling analysts in December 2013, "If you take genetic material from a plant and it's not considered a pest, and you don't use a transformation technology that would sort of violate the rules, there's a bunch of stuff you can do that at least technically is unregulated." 

Hagedorn further says that Scotts almost shut down its biotech program after an earlier attempt at developing genetically engineered grass ran into problems. Its new strategy created "a stunning array of products that are not regulated," Hagedorn says, according to Pollack. 

The lack of oversight worries some people. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union tells the Times that Scotts' new grass "can have all sorts of ecological impact and no one is required to look at it." 

Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, added that as a flood of new genetically engineered crops are poised to seek regulatory exemptions, a discussion around how to regulate them will soon be required.

While she doesn't believe the crops being developed with the new methods are necessarily dangerous, "the very fact that this is the route we are taking without any discussion is troubling," she says.