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[SANET-MG] gene altered crops denounced
Gene-Altered Crops Denounced
Environmental Groups Seek Moratorium on Open-Air Tests
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Environmental groups yesterday called for a moratorium on open-air tests
of crops genetically engineered to produce medicines and vaccines,
citing a federal court's conclusion last week that the Agriculture
Department repeatedly broke the law by allowing companies to plant such
crops on hundred of acres in Hawaii.
In a toughly worded 52-page decision released without fanfare late last
week, a U.S. District judge in Hawaii concluded that USDA's Animal and
Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which grants permits for the
planting of genetically engineered crops, should have first investigated
whether the plants posed a threat to any of that state's hundreds of
The corn and sugar cane plants, already harvested because the
experiments involving them were completed before the case was decided,
had been modified to produce human hormones, drugs and ingredients for
vaccines against AIDS and hepatitis B.
"APHIS's utter disregard for this simple investigation requirement,
especially given the extraordinary number of endangered and threatened
plants and animals in Hawaii, constitutes an unequivocal violation of a
clear congressional mandate," wrote Judge J. Michael Seabright in his
Aug. 10 decision.
The ruling is the first by a federal court on the controversial practice
of "bio-pharming," in which crops are engineered to produce potentially
therapeutic human proteins. But it is not the first damning federal
critique of APHIS's oversight. A December 2005 audit by the Agriculture
Department's Office of Inspector General found multiple failings in the
agency's enforcement of research rules for gene-altered plants.
APHIS spokeswoman Rachel Iadicicco said yesterday that the agency had
already corrected the major problems cited in the 2005 report and had
recently made policy changes to satisfy the court's concerns, as well.
In addition, she said, APHIS is crafting a sweeping "programmatic"
environmental impact statement addressing larger, long-standing concerns
about its oversight of biotech crops.
But opponents said they have heard such assurances before.
"We are asking the judge to enjoin the issuance of any biopharma permits
anywhere in the country unless and until APHIS completes a programmatic
analysis of their regulatory program," said Paul H. Achitoff, managing
attorney for Earthjustice in Honolulu, which litigated the case with the
Washington-based Center for Food Safety.
The judge has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday to decide what remedies to
The court ruling is the latest in a decade-long struggle that has pitted
biotech companies against an uneasy coalition of environmentalists and
conventional food producers and distributors.
Advocates believe that some drugs and vaccines may be produced more
economically in crops than in the laboratory cultures that are commonly
used today. Some even envision "edible vaccines," such as bananas laden
with proteins that would boost blood levels of protective antibodies --
an attractive strategy for developing countries, where the refrigeration
needed for many conventional vaccines is often not available.
But opponents fear that ordinary crops may become contaminated with
drug-spiked versions grown in open fields, and that unwanted drug
exposures from foods could trigger allergic reactions or other problems
in people or animals.
Fears of admixture gained credence in 2002 when a Texas company was
found to have broken rules in its cultivation of corn plants engineered
to make a pig diarrhea vaccine. The error necessitated the destruction
of 500,000 bushels of potentially contaminated soybeans, and left the
now defunct company, ProdiGene, stuck with millions of dollars in
"The use of food crops to produce materials not intended to be in the
food supply must only proceed under systems proven to prevent any
contamination or adulteration of the food supply," said Jeffrey Barach
of the Food Products Association in Washington. "To date, effective
control programs have not been demonstrated to our satisfaction."
The federal court decision responds to a 2003 lawsuit filed by several
public interest groups. Taking a novel tack, the groups charged that
APHIS failed to consider the potential impacts on endangered species
when it approved four Hawaii field studies in the previous three years.
The plants were produced by ProdiGene, Monsanto, the Hawaii Agriculture
Research Center and Garst Seed of Slater, Iowa.
The plaintiffs -- including Friends of the Earth, Pesticide Action
Network North America and Kahea, a Hawaiian environmental alliance --
noted that Hawaii is home to 329 endangered or threatened species, more
than any other state, including many birds with easy access to test plots.
Seabright agreed with the groups that, although proof of harm is
lacking, APHIS's issuance of the permits for 800 acres on four Hawaiian
islands without consideration of those potential impacts was "arbitrary
"This is probably the strongest message yet to USDA that they need to do
a much better job at regulating all genetically engineered crop field
trials," said Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety, noting that
about a dozen pharma permits are approved in a typical year. "They've
been rubber-stamping for too long, and they need to get serious about
But the judge rejected the groups' broader claim that APHIS had broken
its promise to improve its overall system of oversight.
"Although the Plaintiffs are understandably upset by the fact that this
process has taken over three years, the court accepts APHIS's
representations" that the delay is justified and progress is under way.
Stephanie A. Whalen, president of the Hawaii Agriculture Research
Center, which ran the studies involving sugar cane engineered to make a
human blood protein, said the ruling "looks backward" at problems
"The idea that this has got the potential for harm has been all blown
out of proportion," she said. "We're really proud of the work we do, and
we know how important it is to safeguard the environment."
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