Agriculture Policy & Farm Bill Briefing Book
Congressional Research Service

Redistributed as a service of the National Library for the Environment

Agricultural Biotechnology

Alex Segarra & Jean Rawson

Between 1996 and 2000, American farmers adopted agricultural biotechnology at an impressive rate. Today roughly half of all soybeans and cotton and one third of the corn in the United States is grown from seeds that have been genetically engineered (GE) to resist insects or withstand herbicides applied for weed control. Proponents of this technology contend that it has helped producers lower input costs, reduce the need for chemicals, and increase yields, and that it produces items that are not substantially different from conventionally produced counterparts. Recently, however, evidence of unintended environmental impacts (e.g., possible damage to monarch butterflies), genetic contamination of food supplies (e.g., StarLinkTM corn controversy), and rejection of U.S. commodities in foreign markets (e.g., the European Union's (EU) de facto moratorium on biotech crop approvals), have begun to erode confidence in crop biotechnology. Critics argue that federal regulation of GE crops is inadequate. Government agencies are struggling under their existing authorities to ensure consumer safety while maintaining public confidence in the technology. No resolution was reached on bills introduced in the 106th Congress that proposed to require mandatory labeling of GE products and to increase government agencies' authority to regulate GE crops.

Internationally, the adoption of the Biosafety Protocol by 176 nations (not including the United States) may directly affect U.S. economic interests by setting new procedures and rules concerning trade in biotech products. In addition, key trade partners such as Japan, Korea, and the EU have established stringent standards for GE material in imported commodities that may force U.S. exporters to meet costly segregation and identity preservation requirements. Among the issues these developments raise for the Congress are:

In Congress

Resumption of legislative efforts for mandatory product labeling, and increased regulation of GE crops is expected in the 107th Congress. While these actions are anticipated, key policy makers are waiting on previously commissioned analyses by the National Academy of Science and USDA's Economic Research Service which are due by the 2nd quarter of 2001. New proposals designed to curtail market power and concentration in GE seed companies are also likely.

Key CRS products

CRS Report RS20732, StarLink corn controversy: background.
CRS Report RS20507, Labeling of genetically modified foods.
CRS Report RL30594, Biosafety Protocol for genetically modified organisms: overview.
CRS Report 98-861, U.S.-European agricultural trade: food safety and biotechnology issues.
CRS Report RL30198, Food biotechnology in the United States: science, regulation, and issues.
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Page last updated May 9, 2001.

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