Daily News Archive
January 17, 2006
Failures Found in Tests of Gene-Altered Crops
(Beyond Pesticides, January 17, 2006) The
Department of Agriculture has failed to adequately regulate field trials
of genetically engineered (GE) crops, raising the risk of unintended
environmental consequences, according to a stinging report issued by
the department's own auditor.
The report, issued late last month by the department's Office of Inspector
General, found that biotechnology regulators did not always notice violations
of their own rules, did not inspect planting sites when they should
have and did not assure that the genetically engineered crops were destroyed
when the field trial was done. In many cases, the report said, regulators
did not even know the locations of field trials for which they granted
The regulatory branch "lacks basic information about the field
test sites it approves and is responsible for monitoring, including
where and how the crops are being grown, and what becomes of them at
the end of the field test," the report said, according to an article
in the New York Times.
The audit results are likely to renew calls by environmental groups
for tighter regulations. "Over all, I thought the report was devastating,"
said Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at
the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.
Critics say genetically engineered crops could cause environmental harm,
if, say, a gene for herbicide resistance spread to weeds, making them
harder to kill. Studies have found evidence of this; genes from genetically
engineered (GE) bentgrass are known to pollinate grasses 13 miles away,
carried by ultra-light pollen particles (see story).
In addition, there could be potential harm to public health if a crop
genetically engineered to produce a pharmaceutical or industrial chemical,
for instance, accidentally found its way into the food supply.
The audit did not find any instances of known harm to public health
or the environment. However, the report said that weaknesses in regulations
and in the internal management controls at the Department of Agriculture
"increase the risk that genetically engineered organisms will inadvertently
persist in the environment before they are deemed safe to grow without
In a written response, the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant
Health Inspection Service, which regulates biotech field trials, said
that it was already taking steps to adopt 23 of the 28 recommendations
made by the inspector general, and that more changes were on the way.
Field trials are used to test experimental genetically engineered crops.
Crop developers proposed to use 67,000 acres for such tests in 2004,
up from 8,700 acres in 1994. Once crops have proved themselves in field
trials, the Agriculture Department can deregulate them, and seeds and
harvested crops can be sold pretty much like any other seeds and crops.
One of the most controversial areas of agricultural biotechnology involves
genetically engineering crops to produce pharmaceuticals or industrial
chemicals. The Agriculture Department has stricter requirements for
those crops than for genetically modified crops meant for food or animal
However, the new report said the department often failed to enforce
those stricter requirements. In most cases the auditors checked, the
sites were not inspected five times each during field tests, as the
department had promised. Nor were they inspected twice after the trial
to make sure the crop was destroyed and the field fallow. The report
said that in two cases large harvests of pharmaceutical crops remained
in storage for more than a year after the field test ended with regulators'
not knowing of the storage facility or approving it.
ACTION: Protect our land and food from genetically engineered
ingredients and crops by buying USDA certified organic products. Lobby
your supermarket to label GM food. Support local efforts to prohibit
growing GM crops. Contact your U.S.
Senators and U.S.
Representative and USDA Secretary Ann
M. Veneman and put pressure on them to toughen the regulation of
GM crops so that it is scientifically based. . For more information,
see Beyond Pesticides' Genetic Engineering