The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it’s ditching a 2008 proposal that would have updated GMO regulations.

A little background: The USDA is one of three agencies that regulate GMOs (along with the EPA and FDA). When these engineered crops landed in our fields and grocery aisles, U.S. decision makers chose to rely on a patchwork of existing laws, many of which predate the technology, instead of creating a new law to oversee biotechnology. This resulted in a mishmash of agency interpretations for regulating GMOs.

The U.S.’s patchwork approach to regulating GMOs has left many holes: the absence of mandatory GMO labeling and post-market monitoring, and a mechanism for compensating non-GMO growers harmed by contamination, to name a few. Lacking a robust regulatory framework, each agency has, in different ways, abdicated their regulatory responsibility.

That’s why when the USDA began a process to update regulations in 2004, Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) was eager to see the results. It took four years, but in October of 2008, the agency published proposed regulations per its authority under the Plant Protection Act (PPA) of 2000.

Those proposed regulations fell far short of protecting the public good by strengthening GMO oversight, which is why OSA is supportive of the USDA’s withdrawal of its 2008 proposed regulations. The biggest shortcomings are outlined here. We strongly encourage the rapid development of new and stronger regulations to protect the environment, human health, and farmers and their markets from direct and indirect impacts of GMOs.

But there hasn’t been any progress made in more than a decade, and the USDA is still operating under regulations developed for its previous authority under the Plant Pest Act (regulations developed in the 1980s and 1990s), which means the holes remain. Here’s one glaring example: The USDA recently approved a new generation of herbicide-tolerant crops engineered to survive douses of toxic chemicals, including 2,4-D (a component of agent orange) and dicamba. The USDA claims, dubiously, that it doesn’t have the authority to look at indirect harms, such as the development of herbicide-tolerant weeds, dubbed one of the largest threats to production agriculture – and which lead to more herbicide use. The USDA’s environmental assessment of dicamba-tolerant cotton and soybeans acknowledged that resistance is likely, but rubber-stamped it anyway. The agency would argue that it had no choice.

In the agency’s announcement that it’s withdrawing its 2008 proposal, it promises “fresh stakeholder engagement,” which could be a positive thing, but only if coupled by a good faith effort on the part of the USDA to develop robust regulations that protect all sectors of agriculture – including organic – and that reflect the agency’s expanded authority under the Plant Protection Act, as explained here.

The public is eager to engage: 2008’s proposed regs drew 88,300 comments. Many of the farmers and groups we work with are concerned about the impacts GMOs, especially those most widely planted, are having on soil health, pollinators, and human health. And, of course, pollen doesn’t stay put. The genetic contamination of organic and other non-GE seed and crops is routinely being discovered.

Acknowledging the problem of contamination, the USDA is hosting an invitation-only meeting next week on “coexistence” in Durham, North Carolina. The meeting serves as follow-up to recommendations published by the agency’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology for 21st Century Agriculture, or AC21. OSA provided comments to these recommendations here. A comment period will open following this meeting from March 13 – 27, 2015. The public can watch the meeting online.

These discussions – and subsequent public comments – must call on the USDA to put policies in place that help prevent the problem of contamination to begin with and hold patent owners of GMOs accountable for losses that result when prevention measures fail. The organic community should no longer shoulder the burden of prevention and the consequences of contamination alone.

Updated regulations that reflect USDA’s mandated authority are long overdue. But it remains to be seen whether last Friday’s announcement will lead to necessary change or business as usual.