Biotech crop makers are increasing self-regulation to avoid the accidental spread of genetic material, a move that will definitely benefit you and your grower-customers.
These incidents can cost companies access to foreign markets, consumer confidence, and big legal bills.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington-based trade group, will design and administer the program, dubbed "Excellence Through Stewardship."
Member companies — including the world’s six largest providers of genetically modified seeds — will adopt quality management standards, then undergo independent third-party audits to verify compliance. The goal is to track and control genetic crop traits in research discovery, through field trials, marketing, and eventual phaseout.
No one wants these genes to turn up in places they’re not supposed to be — such as last year’s surprise finding of unapproved LibertyLink genes in commercially available long-grain rice.
Regulators found the trait, developed by Bayer CropScience, was harmless and subsequently approved it for the market. But damage was done: Japan, the European Union, and other countries closed to U.S. rice imports. Prices fell, then growers suffered and filed a class-action lawsuit against Bayer in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, MO.
"The industry is trying its best, in a world that’s not 100 percent perfect, to self-regulate and self-police because it’s in their best interest," says Marshall Martin, associate director of agricultural research programs at Purdue University.
The stewardship program will roll out in three phases. Companies will self-certify they have adopted the program in their domestic operations by early next year. At the end of next year, they will have completed audits by independent firms that are trained and certified by BIO, the industry organization. In 2009, BIO member companies will roll out the program to operations abroad.
Andrew Baum, chairman of BIO’s Food and Agricultural Section Governing Body, notes companies always have had quality management standards. "It’s not as if (the Bayer incident) took place and we had an epiphany," he says. "We were moving towards this anyway."
What’s more, the stewardship program should raise all boats by making the best practices of industry giants available to smaller companies, university researchers and players abroad, according to BIO.
Participants hope the program will stave off future leaks of biotech traits into conventional crops, which damage consumer acceptance of their products.
It’s a pivotal time for the industry, as it nears commercialization of a generation of crops engineered with traits that add consumer benefits– healthy-oil and omega-3 enriched soybeans, for example. Shoppers need to trust the safety of the technology for these to succeed.