June 3, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- Andrew Pollack, NY Times, 06/02/04:
Responding to criticism that a controversial farming
practice is shrouded in secrecy, the Department of Agriculture
plans to disclose more information about crops that
are genetically engineered to produce pharmaceuticals,
an official said yesterday.
The official, Cindy Smith, the deputy administrator
for biotechnology regulatory services, said in an interview
that the department planned to begin using its Web site
to post its analysis of the risks and environmental
impacts of the crops that are being grown in field trials.
"We do agree that more transparency would reassure
the public and the stakeholders," Ms. Smith said.
"We want to be more transparent in advance of this
technology really scaling up."
Biotechnology companies say that genetically modified
crops could be a way to produce certain pharmaceuticals
Food companies and environmental groups, however, have
objected, particularly to the use of food crops for
this purpose. A commonly expressed fear is that drugs
might inadvertently end up in somebody's corn flakes.
Critics have also complained about the lack of information
about the field trials and the lack of public discussion
before permits are granted.
The Department of Agriculture makes some information
about field trials available. But it usually leaves
out what pharmaceutical is being produced, the acreage
involved, and the location other than the state, because
such data are usually classified as confidential business
information by the company conducting the trial.
The new policy seems likely to mollify critics, although
not completely. It would allow the public to comment
before a permit is issued for field trials deemed large
or risky enough to require a formal environmental assessment.
But there would be no comment period, Ms. Smith said,
for smaller, more routine trials that receive a more
abbreviated risk assessment.
The Agriculture Department would still not disclose
information that companies consider confidential, she
The new policy comes as the number of such field trials
is on the rise after a hiatus.
Companies applied for 13 permits and public research
institutions for three, in the 12 months that ended
in April, according to a report being issued today by
the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer
That came after a sharp decline in trials that occurred
after incidents in 2002 in which corn containing a pig
vaccine became intermingled with food crops, even though
the authorities said the problems were caught before
any such food was eaten.
The company involved in those incidents, ProdiGene,
was fined, regulations were toughened and applications
for field trials slowed.
From July 2002 to June 2003, the government approved
only four trials, down from 25 in the previous year,
according to the consumer group's report, which used
data from the Web site listing trials of genetically
The report said that 11 of the 16 applications involved
a food crop and the rest tobacco. Six applications were
to grow corn in Iowa, Nebraska or Texas, states that
produce large amounts of corn for food and feed.
Some companies, including ProdiGene, are already selling
products made in genetically modified crops grown in
the trials, the report said.
ProdiGene applied for four permits in the last year,
according to the report. Other applicants included Large
Scale Biology, Chlorogen and SemBioSys.
Ms. Smith said that field trial activity is still not
back to the level it was before the ProdiGene incidents.
Many field trials being applied for now are very small,