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[SANET-MG] USDA oversight seen lacking
Reuters News Service 2006
ANALYSIS - US Oversight of Biotech Crops Seen Lacking
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Criticism is mounting over the US government's
efforts to control experimental genetically modified crops in the wake
of admissions that a discarded biotech rice has contaminated US
The disclosure of the contamination of experimental biotech rice owned
by Bayer CropScience, a unit of Bayer AG, coupled with statements by
USDA officials that they have no idea how the contamination occurred or
how extensive it may be, has outraged players up and down the food chain.
Farmers, food and beverage makers and exporters all are positioning
themselves for a long, and likely costly, ordeal.
Already, Japan has suspended imports of US long grain rice because of
the contamination, and Europe, a major export market for US rice, has
insisted rice imports be tested and any contaminated rice excluded from
shipments to the 25-member European Union.
Other US rice customers are also reportedly reviewing their planned
purchases even as US rice prices have dropped sharply.
Meanwhile, with much of the US rice industry in turmoil because the
extent of the contamination is unknown, an official with the USDA's
Animal Health and Plant Health Inspection Service said it would likely
take two to three months before the agency had many answers.
"This is real money that farmers are losing," said Arkansas Rice Growers
Association executive director Greg Yielding, who said he has fielded
dozens of calls from frantic rice farmers. "It is a big deal. We do not
feel that USDA and APHIS have adequate funds or staff to do this job.
They can't tell you where anything is even though they get permits for it."
HOLES IN OVERSIGHT
Over the last decade, the USDA has approved applications for more than
49,000 field site tests of GMO crops and APHIS has deregulated more than
70 GMO crop lines, many of which have been embraced by farmers because
they are easier and/or more profitable to grow.
USDA and APHIS have touted the government's ability to oversee the
growth of biotechnology in agriculture and repeatedly assured consumer
groups and foreign governments that safety was a foremost concern for
But an Office of Inspector General audit of APHIS' and its biotechnology
regulatory services unit found numerous holes in oversight efforts and
issued a stern warning in its December 2005 report.
It said APHIS 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
The OIG said that even though APHIS was supposed to inspect experimental
fields, it was not even requiring companies to provide site location
information. The government did not require companies to document
efforts to make sure GMO crops were segregated, and it didn't test
neighboring fields to look for contamination during or after field trials.
The OIG also said it found widespread violations of a rule requiring
experimental crops to be shipped in metal containers, instead allowing
them to be shipped in boxes or bags.
Overall, the OIG audit found the APHIS regulatory system so weak that it
increased the risk that experimental GMO crops would "persist in the
The contaminated rice is only one example of unapproved GMO's slipping
into the mainstream. Last year, Swiss agrochemicals firm Syngenta
revealed that its unapproved, experimental strain of corn known as Bt10,
was found to have contaminated corn supplies from 2001-2004.
Also, a biotech grass resistant to weedkiller developed in part by
Monsanto Co. has been found growing in the wild, while ProdiGene Inc.
had to buy back and destroy millions of dollars of grain after tainting
crops with an experimental corn plant used to produce medicine.
And earlier this month, a US district judge ruled that APHIS broke
environmental rules when it allowed the planting of certain biotech corn
and sugarcane between 2001 and 2003 in Hawaii.
Because of the government oversight concerns, Greenpeace International
has called for a ban on US GMO rice and the Center for Food Safety has
said it wants a moratorium on all field tests of genetically modified
crops until government oversight improves.
"There is all this stuff in writing to give you a sense of security but
when you look at what they're actually doing, it's nothing," said Center
for Food Safety scientist policy analyst Bill Freese.
Cindy Smith, deputy administrator for APHIS' biotechnology regulatory
services acknowledged in an interview some issues with oversight, but
said those problems were largely in the past and had been corrected or
would be soon.
"You will likely continue to see the program evolve in different ways.
As long as we're regulating this technology, we're going to have to
continue to grow and expand and respond based on the nature of the
technology," Smith said.
Story by Carey Gillam
Story Date: 29/8/2006
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