WASHINGTON - June 18 - Federal government agencies are failing to monitor genetically engineered crops to protect the environment and public health, according to two separate studies released today.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says that according to its review of government data farmers are routinely overplanting corn that is genetically engineered (GE) to be insect resistant.
The corn growers are failing to comply with a government requirement to plant 20 percent of their acreage with non-GE corn as a refuge. The refuge is intended to prevent the breeding of insects resistant to the pesticide produced by engineered corn that contains a protein from the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).
The protein kills Lepidoptera larvae, in particular, the European corn borer. Growers use Bt corn as an alternative to spraying insecticides for control of European and southwestern corn borers.
The data analyzed by the CSPI was collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. The statistics show that 19 percent of all Bt corn farms in Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska - about 10,000 farms - violated the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) refuge requirements in 2002.
Thirteen percent of farmers growing Bt corn in those three states planted no refuges at all.
"Noncompliance on this scale shows that current regulations aren't up to the task," said Gregory Jaffe, director of CSPI's biotechnology project. "Both the EPA and the biotech industry must do more to make sure that farmers meet these very basic obligations, so that the benefits of this technology won't be squandered."
Because of its pesticidal properties, Bt corn is regulated by the EPA, rather than by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In its report, "Planting Trouble," the Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends that the EPA determine farmers' compliance with its refuge requirements using data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, rather than what the organization terms "the less reliable data" from the biotechnology industry's telephone survey of farmers.
In a letter today, the CSPI urged EPA Administrator Christie Whitman to implement the report's recommendations. The CSPI wants biotech firms to conduct on farm inspections and to require farmers to document their compliance with maps and seed purchase records.
Unlike some environmental or consumer groups, the CSPI does not oppose agricultural biotechnology as long as it is appropriately regulated to safeguard human health and the environment, but the Center has often faulted the biotech industry for its disregard of government oversight.
"As biotech applications become even more advanced, and potentially more dangerous, this kind of noncompliance will be even less tolerable," Jaffe said.
In a separate report, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) criticizes the Agriculture Department's oversight of field experiments in the United States. The report is critical of testing procedures used in monitoring experimental genetically modified crops in the field.
USPIRG warns that nearly 70 percent of all field tests of genetically engineered crops conducted in the last year contain secret genes classified as confidential business information to which the public has no access.
A field test last fall of a genetically engineered crop designed to produce a pig vaccine contaminated commercial crops, USPIRG reports. As a result, 500,000 bushels of soybeans had to be quarantined and were destroyed.
USPIRG quotes a 2002 National Academy of Sciences report confirming that the federal government permitted commercial growth of a variety of genetically engineered corn found toxic to monarch butterflies under field conditions.
If field experiments are not properly monitored, PIRG says the resulting genetic pollution can put farmers' livelihoods and the environment at risk.
"Our environment is being used as a laboratory for widespread experimentation on genetically engineered crops with profound risks that, once released, can never be recalled," said USPIRG environmental advocate Richard Caplan. "Until proper safeguards are in place, this unchecked experiment should stop."
Federal food law requires premarket approval for food additives, whether or not they are the products of biotechnology, molecular techniques that are used to insert genes from one type of organism into another - in this case the insertion of a Bt gene into a corn plant.
The federal agency responsible for regulating foods, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), treats substances added to food products through biotechnology as food additives only if they are significantly different in structure, function or amount than substances currently found in food.
If a new food product developed through biotechnology does not contain substances that are significantly different from those already in the diet, it does not require premarket approval.
Currently, genetically modified foods in the United States do not require special labeling to notify consumers that a food or ingredient is a bioengineered product.
Testifying Tuesday before a House of Representatives subcommittee, FDA deputy commissioner Lester Crawford said the agency has found no evidence that the more than 50 bioengineered foods on the market today are unsafe to eat.
"The evidence shows that these foods are as safe as their conventional counterparts," Crawford told the lawmakers.
"Bioengineered foods and food ingredients must adhere to the same standards of safety under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that apply to their conventionally bred counterparts," he said.
Crawford told the subcommittee that scientists have been changing the genetic makeup of plants since the late 1800s. Hybrid corn, nectarines, and tangelos, a hybrid of a tangerine and grapefruit, are examples of such cross breeding, he said.
Genetic engineering, by contrast, is the manipulation of an organism's genetic structure by introducing or eliminating specific genes through modern molecular biology techniques. A broad definition of genetic engineering also includes selective breeding and other means of artifical selection.
Crawford did address one concern of biotechnology critics, the possibility of allergic reactions to genetically engineered foods. "As to potential allergens," he said, "foods normally contain many thousands of different proteins. While the majority of proteins do not cause allergic reactions, virtually all known human allergens are proteins. Since genetic engineering can introduce a new protein into a food plant, it is possible that this technique could introduce a previously unknown allergen into the food supply or could introduce a known allergen into a new food."
Food and Drug Administration guidelines and a consultative process help food product developers meet U.S. requirements for the bioengineered foods they intend to market, Crawford said.
The FDA wants to assure that compounds in the engineered foods are safe for consumption, that no new allergens or higher levels of natural toxicants have been introduced and that there is no reduction of nutrients in foods being developed for market, Crawford said.
One risk to farmers of improperly monitored field tests is loss of export markets for their crops. Wheat, which has been authorized for more than 330 field tests of genetically engineered varieties, is of particular concern, the PIRG report says. Many international trading partners have told wheat exporters that they will stop buying U.S. wheat if any genetic contamination is detected.
Biotechnology is expected to be a major theme when world agricultural ministers meet next week at the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology in Sacramento, California.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2003