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Biotechnology Risk Assessment Research

The changing agriculture landscape in the 21st century includes increasing use of biotechnology to enhance agriculturally important crops and animals.  USDA’s Economic Research Services (ERS) has estimated that about 310 million acres of genetically engineered (GE) crops with herbicide tolerance (HT) and/or insect resistance traits were cultivated worldwide in 2008, an 9 percent increase over acreage in 2007, and U.S. acreage accounts for about 50 percent of this.  In the United States in 2009, HT soybeans expanded to 91 percent of U.S. soybean-planted acreage, HT cotton reached 71 percent of cotton acreage, and HT corn expanded to 68 percent of the corn acreage.  Adoption of insect-resistant crops, containing the gene from a soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), has also expanded.  Use of Bt cotton reached 65 percent of planted cotton acreage in 2009 and Bt corn use grew from about 1 percent of corn acreage in 1996 to 63 percent in 2009.  Details of this information are available at the ERS newsroom website.

Agricultural biotechnology holds great promise for increased crop productivity, maintaining sustainability of natural resources, and minimizing detrimental environmental effects caused by the use of herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones associated with large agricultural practices. In addition, agricultural biotechnology may lead to enhanced nutrient composition of foods and cheaper production of human pharmaceutical proteins.

The expanded use of agricultural biotechnology, however, has been met with considerable debate. Consumers, public interest groups, the news media, producers of organic or specialty products, and other stakeholders have voiced concern about possible environmental, human health, animal health, or food safety risks associated with genetically modified organisms. These concerns have translated into increased pressure on U.S. regulatory agencies to ensure the safety of crops and animals generated by biotechnology with regards to the environment, human health, and biological diversity.

Since 1992, NIFA has served as the lead administrative agency for the USDA Biotechnology Risk Assessment Grants (BRAG) program, which supports environmental risk assessment and risk management research projects. BRAG is administered jointly by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the Forest Service. The purpose of the program is to support science-based information regarding the safety of introducing into the environment genetically modified animals, plants, and microorganisms. Applications submitted to this program must address one of the following areas:

  • Research designed to identify and develop appropriate management practices to minimize physical and biological risks associated with genetically engineered animals, plants, and microorganisms.
  • Research designed to develop methods to monitor the dispersal of genetically engineered animals, plants, and microorganisms.
  • Research designed to further existing knowledge with respect to the characteristics, rates, and methods of gene transfer that may occur among genetically engineered animals, plants, and microorganisms and related wild and agricultural organisms.
  • Environmental assessment research designed to provide analysis that compares the relative impacts of animals, plants, and microorganisms modified through genetic engineering to other types of production systems.
  • Conferences that bring together scientists, regulators, and other stakeholders to review the science-based data relevant to science-based risk assessment and management of genetically modified animals, plants, and microorganisms released into the environment.

CRIS reports of current and previous BRAG Program funding are online.


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