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New Lawsuit Against USDA Gene-Editing Approvals 

By: Sydney Sheffield

In 2020, The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued its final rule to modernize agricultural biotechnology regulations. The rule was revised to enable USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to regulate organisms developed using genetic engineering for plant pest risk with greater precision and reduces regulatory burden for developers of organisms that are unlikely to pose plant pest risks. The Center for Food Safety has filed a lawsuit against former USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, Administrator for USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), Bruce Summers, and the USDA, claiming that the exemptions for broad genetically modified categories are risky. The standard requires mandatory compliance by January 1, 2022. 

"The Trump administration broke the law in multiple ways when it handed the car keys to pesticide companies on the future products they develop, regardless of the consequences," said George Kimbrell, legal director for Center for Food Safety and counsel in the case. "The rules unlawfully eviscerate and abandon USDA's responsibility to protect farmers and the environment." 

The revised rule indicates that developers have the option of requesting a permit or a regulatory status review of a plant developed using genetic engineering that has not been previously evaluated and determined to be non regulated. Previously, APHIS assessed the plant pest risk of each plant transformation event separately, even though the inserted genetic material may have been identical or very similar to transformation events already assessed. 

When the rule was finalized, Secretary Perdue said that the revisions “will streamline and modernize our regulatory system, facilitate science-based innovations, and provide our farmers with the tools they need to produce the world’s safest, most abundant, and most affordable food supply, which will help us continue to Do Right and Feed Everyone – safely.”

The Center for Food Safety claims that the rule has had the opposite effect. The Center’s press release claims that genetically modified crops have caused farmers billions of dollars in market losses from transgenic contamination. 

"Eliminating USDA oversight of GE organisms will only exacerbate the rampant consolidation of the agricultural seed and pesticide industry," said Jim Goodman, board president of the National Family Farm Coalition, a plaintiff in the case. "Farmers, consumers, and the environment will suffer harm, while industry—the only winner in this model—will see profits increase at our expense."

In addition to the Center for Food Safety, other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Natural Grocers, Citizens for GMO Labeling, Label GMOs, Rural Vermont, Good Earth Natural Foods, and Puget Consumers Co-Op. 

The lawsuit requests that the court dissolve the USDA’s action “that is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law,” as well as awarding plaintiffs their legal fees associated with the litigation.