New EPA Regulations Could Hinder Specialty Crop Breeding

New EPA Regulations Could Hinder Specialty Crop Breeding

Russell Nemetz
Russell Nemetz
Senators were warned Wednesday that the EPA’s new regulations for plant-incorporated protectants will slow the breeding of new fruit and vegetable varieties that are more resistant to pests and diseases.

The new EPA rule “adds bureaucratic layers of red tape for products developed using gene editing. This is true even though the agency views those products as having no additional safety risk compared to those used with conventional breeding,” Margaret Leigh Worthington, a crop scientist at the University of Arkansas, told a Senate Agriculture subcommittee.

Worthington, who leads research on fruit genetics and molecular breeding, said the EPA regulations are out of line with USDA’s new regulatory process for gene-editing crops and also will be more burdensome than regulations in Canada and other countries.

“What this is going to do is make it more difficult to commercialize those products,” Worthington told the top Republican on the full committee, Arkansas Sen. John Boozman.

“So, I think that ultimately you're going to see more consolidation in the industry with this regulation. And the innovation will be on a few large crops by a few … very large companies like you have seen with older transgenic technologies, despite the fact that we're dealing with a very, very different technology here,” she added.

She said the regulations would have a “disproportionate impact” on specialty crops, which have smaller markets and were the focus of the hearing.

The EPA regulations have also come under fire from the seed industry and soybean growers.

Under the final rule released last month, plant-incorporated protectants, or PIPs, created using genetic engineering to confer pesticidal traits to plants, could be exempt from requirements of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act when the modifications could have been made through conventional breeding and pose no greater risk than PIPs the agency already approved.

But in a departure from the original proposal, EPA narrowed the option for crop developers to “self-determine” whether they've met the exemption criteria. The exemption will be limited to “loss-of-function” PIPs, where the genetically engineered modification “reduces or eliminates the activity of a gene, which then helps makes the plant resistant to pests,” the agency said.

The agency said it would consider additional exemptions from two federal laws in the future.

Boozman said the EPA regulatory process would “frustrate U.S. innovation, drive companies to export their staff (and) investments in technologies to our international competitors, and create market barriers that only the largest multinational corporations can overcome.”

EPA's rule goes into effect July 31.

Representatives of producers of different scales and specialty crops used the hearing to outline priorities for the farm bill.

Charles Wingard, vice president of field operations for a South Carolina-based farming operation that produces leafy greens, herbs, sweet corn and other crops, said research funding was critical to the industry, including for the development of robotics, as well as increased incentives for low-income consumers to buy fruits and vegetables.

Wingard, who represented the International Fresh Produce Association at the hearing, told Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., incentivizing the purchase of fruits and vegetables would lead to healthier diets.

Booker asserted that farm bill programs are heavily tilted toward crops other than fruits and vegetables, including foods that contribute to obesity. “It's not like you're working in a free market. You're working in a market that is stacked against … the crops you're growing,” Booker told Wingard.

“We have subsidized obesity,” Wingard responded.

Wingard also opposed means testing of USDA assistance, saying income limits punish farmers “who did the best, those who took the risk, invested in their companies.”

He had an ally on that point from Nicholas Carter, owner of a small diversified farm in Indiana and co-founder of Market Wagon, which connects consumers with local farmers. Carter told the senators he was opposed to means testing disaster assistance programs. Telling high-income farmers “they are not eligible to have risk mitigation doesn’t stand to reason for me,” he said.

At the same time, Carter said existing crop insurance options don’t work well for very small farms and that he manages his risk on his operation — which includes laying hens, sheep and specialty crops — through diversification.

Source: Agri-Pulse

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