Advances in science, many of them from scientists at USDA or through research funded by USDA, have opened up new options for farmers responding to market needs and environmental challenges. Many new plant varieties being developed or grown by farmers have been produced using genetic engineering, which involves manipulating the plant's genes through techniques of modern molecular biology often referred to as recombinant DNA technology. These techniques are included in what is often referred to as "biotechnology" or "modern biotechnology."
USDA supports the safe and appropriate use of science and technology, including biotechnology, to help meet agricultural challenges and consumer needs of the 21st century. USDA plays a key role in assuring that biotechnology plants and products derived from these plants are safe to be grown and used in the United States. Once these plants and products enter commerce, USDA supports bringing these and other products to the worldwide marketplace.
A Shared Government Responsibility for the Safety of Agricultural Biotechnology-Derived Products
Three federal agencies are involved in ensuring that plants produced using biotechnology and the many products derived from them are safe for farmers to use, safe to consume as food or feed, and safe for the environment. These are USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Department of Health and Human Services' Food and Drug Administration, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The three agencies regulate these products based on the characteristics of the actual products and their intended uses, and they operate under the existing laws passed by Congress to ensure the safety of plants used in agriculture, the safety of pesticides used in agriculture, and the safety of foods we eat and feeds given to animals. Many other USDA agencies have roles in the development, use, and marketing of these products as well.
Learn more about How the U.S. Government Regulates Biotech Plants.
Farmer Adoption of Agricultural Biotechnology-Derived Crops
Since the first successful commercialization of a biotechnology-derived crop in the 1990s, many new crop varieties have been developed and made available to U.S. farmers and farmers worldwide. U.S. farmers have rapidly adopted many of these new GE varieties, so that in 2012, 88 percent of the corn, 94 percent of the cotton, and 93 percent of the soybeans planted in the U.S. were varieties produced through genetic engineering. A large proportion of the production of other crops, such as alfalfa, and papaya, and sugar beet, is also biotech-derived.
Read more about the reasons behind this trend and about how farming practices and the marketplace have changed on USDA's Economic Research Service Biotechnology page.
Importance of Trade in Agricultural Biotechnology Products
The United States is the largest exporter of agricultural products, which helps feed the world's population, and our export markets are critical to the health of U.S. farm communities around the country. Most of the corn and soybeans we export are biotechnology-derived, and this means that working with our trading partners is critical to help them understand the technical aspects of new products and how we have determined that they meet our high safety standards, to open up new markets, and to ensure that our products are treated fairly in the global marketplace.
Helping USDA Manage Long-Term Implications
The increasing use of biotechnology in agriculture has changed, and will continue to change, farming and the work of USDA in the long-term. To help understand and address these changes, USDA established the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21). One critical area where the committee has focused its attention is how farmers who produce different crops intended for different customers-biotechnology-derived, conventional, or organic-can best co-exist and produce the crops that meet their customers' needs. The AC21 has provided a report to USDA, with recommendations, on this subject.
Visit the AC21 page to learn more.