State and Federal Roles in Oversight of Genetically Modified Crops

Dec 1, 2004 | RFF Staff


The ability of states to collaborate with federal regulators to oversee agricultural biotechnology and address the unique issues the technology raises at the local level varies state-to-state, according to a new report prepared by researchers at Resources for the Future and released by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. A consistent concern among many stakeholders, however, is whether state governments have the critical tools they need -- including proper legal authority, financial resources and trained staff -- to play their oversight role.

The report, titled Tending the Fields: State & Federal Roles In the Oversight of Genetically Modified Crops is prepared by Michael R. Taylor, Jody S. Tick and Diane M. Sherman of Resources for the Future to provide a national overview of the federal-state relationship in the oversight of genetically modified crops.

The report is based on targeted data collected from 17 states and includes an analysis of 78 survey responses and interviews with biotech stakeholders across the country; along with vignettes intended to illuminate how some of these states are handling specific policy and process issues. No policy recommendations were included in the report.




Link to RFF Report
Tending the Fields:
State & Federal Roles In the Oversight of Genetically Modified Crops

Key findings of the report include:
  • Most officials and stakeholders at the state level believe state regulation of biotechnology should address local concerns whereas primary responsibility for human health and environmental protection should rest with federal regulators.
  • The definition of "local concerns" with respect to biotech differs from state to state. For example, states with large agricultural sectors are intensely interested in the economic promise of agricultural biotechnology, but in some cases also need to take into account concerns that new GM crops could threaten valuable export markets for existing producers of conventional or organic crops. Local concerns in some states also include potential environmental and food safety risks of GM crops and other ag biotech products.
  • There is broad sentiment among those interviewed for the report that many states do not have the legal tools, technical expertise and financial resources needed to effectively partner with federal regulators and carry out the necessary level of oversight.
  • Legal frameworks that support federal regulators are problematic at the state level. For instance, companies that apply for permits to conduct field trials of GM crops can ask federal regulators to withhold key information -- such as where trials will be conducted -- from state regulators because such information is considered Confidential Business Information (CBI).
  • While some states are responding to the issues raised by agricultural biotechnology in an innovative manner, others are struggling to find approaches to managing conflicts. In Colorado, state officials have used the possible introduction of "pharmaceutical" crops to develop a unique public participation process, and in North Carolina, concerned parties have developed voluntary protocols to prevent genetically modified and conventional strains of tobacco from mixing. In contrast, litigation has been filed in Hawaii to challenge aspects of Hawaii's biotech oversight, including its practice of classifying some data submitted for permits as CBI.
"The regulatory system for agricultural biotechnology is dependent on state and federal regulators playing a complementary and collaborative role," noted Michael R. Taylor, key author of the report and Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future. "The diverse levels of preparedness of states reflected in this report suggests that the federal-state partnership needs to be reviewed and strengthened to ensure that states have the resources they need to be full partners with federal regulators and to enable them to respond to unique local concerns." 

Tending the Fields: State & Federal Roles In the Oversight of Genetically Modified Crops is the third report RFF has prepared for the  Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology and the first analyzing state level issues.

  • The first report, published in October 2001, examined the circumstances surrounding the accidental commingling of genetically modified corn, which was not approved for human consumption to the U.S. food supply. (The StarLink Case: Issues for the Future)


For more information on biotechnology at the state level, visit the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology's website.


Link to RFF Discussion Paper
The StarLink Case:
Issues for the Future

Michael R. Taylor
and Jody S. Tick
October 2001

Link to RFF Report
Post-Market Oversight
of Biotech Foods: Is the System Prepared?

Michael R. Taylor
and Jody S. Tick
April 2003
Executive Summary