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Report Finds GE Crops Threaten Public Health and the Environment
(Beyond Pesticides, June 19, 2003)
Nearly 40,000 field tests of genetically engineered (GE) crops were authorized by the Department of Agriculture between 1987 and 2002 (10,000 of which were in the past two years), despite serious environmental threats and inadequate regulations to monitor their impacts, according to a report released by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) on April 18, 2003.

The report, Raising Risk: Field Testing of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S., highlights potential health and environmental risks associated with the release of GE plants. For example, when a field test of a GE crop designed to produce a pig vaccine contaminated commercial crops last fall, 500,000 bushels of soybeans had to be quarantined and eventually destroyed. In addition, a National Academy of Sciences' report last year confirms that the government permitted commercial growth of a variety of GE corn found toxic to monarch butterflies under field conditions. The report concludes that, if field experiments are not properly monitored, 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 GE crops with profound risks that, once released, can never be recalled," said U.S. PIRG Environmental Advocate Richard Caplan. "Until proper safeguards are in place, this unchecked experiment should stop."

Findings of the U.S. PIRG report include:

  • As of January 2003, the ten states and territories that have hosted the greatest number of field test sites are Hawaii (4,566), Illinois (4,014), Iowa (3,831), Puerto Rico (2,957), California (1,709), Nebraska (1,699), Pennsylvania (1,672), Minnesota (1,414), Indiana (1,256), and Idaho (1,170).
  • Since 1995, seven of the top ten companies seeking to conduct field tests have merged into two companies: Monsanto and DuPont.
  • Between 1987-2002, Monsanto (or a now wholly-owned subsidiary) applied to conduct the greatest number of field tests, with more than 3,000 applications.
  • Nearly 70% of all field tests conducted in the last year now contain secret genes classified as "Confidential Business Information," allowing the public no access to information about experiments being conducted in their communities.

U.S. PIRG charges that field-testing GE crops in such a widespread way poses serious threats to the environment, public health, and neighboring farmers. 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 GE varieties, is of particular concern. Many international trading partners have told U.S. wheat exporters that they will stop buying U.S. wheat altogether if any contamination is detected.

Biotechnology is expected to be a major theme of the meeting of world agricultural ministers in Sacramento next week. "U.S. field testing of GE crops, wheat in particular, have our trading partners abroad very concerned," said Caplan. "The U.S. should stop trying to force other countries to change their rules for GE crops and work on improving our own inadequate system," he continued.

U.S. PIRG also charges that USDA-approved field tests ask all the wrong questions. These experimental GE crops are grown in the open environment primarily to determine whether or not an engineered seed successfully grows and expresses the desired trait. Despite the large number of field experiments that have occurred, fundamental questions about their impact remain unanswered, including long-term impacts on the soil and non-target species.

U.S. PIRG calls for a moratorium on GE foods unless:

  • Independent testing demonstrates safety;
  • Labeling for any products commercialized honors consumers' the right to know; and
  • Biotechnology corporations are held accountable for any harm done.

"GE foods have no place on supermarket shelves or in our environment until proper safeguards are in place," added Caplan. "This rush to market without regard for human health and the environment could be disastrous."

Source: U.S. PIRG. For more information contact Richard Caplan or Jen Mueller at 202-546-9707.