HONOLULU, Hawaii, Feburary
8, 2005 (ENS): The U.S. Department of Agriculture was forced
by court order on Friday to reveal the locations of test sites of
biopharmaceutical crops in Hawaii to four environmental groups that
have sued the government to obtain this information. This marks
the first time the federal government has been forced to disclose
the location of field tests of genetically engineered crops since
it began keeping these locations from the public.
Following the ruling, representatives of the USDA handed over to
Earthjustice attorneys information on the precise locations of open-air
field tests of biopharmaceutical crops genetically engineered to
produce industrial chemicals and drugs.
The court has not yet ruled on the public disclosure issue, and
until then, plaintiffs cannot reveal the locations to the public
Earthjustice, representing citizen groups Center for Food Safety
(CFS), Friends of the Earth, Pesticide Action Network North America,
and KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, filed a lawsuit
in November 2003 in federal district court, seeking to compel USDA
to review the environmental and public health impacts of such activities.
In August 2004, District Court Judge David Ezra ordered the disclosure,
rejecting the government’s and the Biotechnology Industry
Organization’s claims of potential "espionage,"
"vandalism," and "civil unrest."
The government and industry resisted disclosure since that ruling
through a series of delay requests. At a hearing Friday, Judge Ezra
denied their latest motion for a stay of disclosure, and the government
handed the information to plaintiffs’ counsel.
"This ruling is an important first step toward the day when
citizens can find out if biopharmaceutical crops are growing near
their food crops or their back yards," said Paul Achitoff,
an Earthjustice attorney.
"No one wants to accidentally get contraceptives in their
corn flakes," Achitoff said. "Given the potentially disastrous
effects these experiments could have on human health and the environment,
we hope this ruling will result in lifting the veil of secrecy."
The plaintiffs sought information on the locations of these field
tests in response to the government’s arguments that plaintiffs
lacked standing to sue because they had not specified the precise
locations of the field tests.
Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren originally ordered discovery of the
locations in April 2004, ruling that the mere locations of the field
tests were not confidential business information. Judge Ezra affirmed
the ruling in August, but preliminarily limited disclosure to plaintiffs
only, and allowed the government and industry 90 days to come up
with better support for denying public access to the information.
"Allowing food crops to be engineered to produce chemicals
or drugs is bad enough," said Peter Jenkins of CFS, "but
hiding the location of the test fields from an at-risk public is
indefensible. Yet we find our own government fighting on the side
of the biotech industry to keep the public in the dark about drug-laced
Plaintiffs’ attorneys are still reviewing the information
to see whether it complies with the court’s order. This latest
development should allow plaintiffs’ November 2003 lawsuit
calling for environmental reviews to move forward.
"With this order," said Jenkins, "we may at last
be able to find out how close these experiments are to conventional
food crops, ecologically sensitive areas, and our homes and schools.
The next step will be to compel our government to investigate the
impacts from these biotech crops."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved.