Genetically engineered crop trials double since 2003

WASHINGTON, DC, April 13, 2005 (ENS): Biotechnology firms filed more than twice as many applications to the federal government for open air experiments on crops engineered to produce drugs and industrial chemicals in 2004 than in the previous year, a study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group has found.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) is the national lobbying office for the state Public Interest Research Groups. State PIRGs are non-profit, non-partisan public interest advocacy organizations.

The report, "Raising Risk: Field Testing of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S.," highlights potential health and environmental risks associated with the release of genetically engineered plants.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has yet to amend its regulations after being criticized by the National Academy of Sciences for inadequate expertise, still, PIRG’s analysis shows that the agency "continues to rubberstamp applications and fails to collect adequate data on environmental impacts."

U.S. PIRG's study found that as of January 2005, the 14 states and territories that have hosted the greatest number of field test sites are: Hawaii (5,413), Illinois (5,092), Iowa (4,659), Puerto Rico (3,483), California (1,964), Nebraska (1,960), Pennsylvania (1,707), Minnesota (1,701), Texas (1,494), Indiana (1,489), Idaho (1,272), Wisconsin (1,246),Georgia (1,051), and Mississippi (1,008).

Since 1991, USDA has received 240 requests for 418 field releases of crops engineered to produce pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, or other so-called biopharmaceuticals; the number of requested field releases of “biopharm” crops increased from 22 in 2003 to 55 in 2004.

The 10 crops authorized for the most field releases are corn, soybean, cotton, potato, tomato, wheat, creeping bentgrass, alfalfa, beet, and rice.

USDA authorized field tests on several crops for the first time in 2003 and 2004, including American chestnut, American elm, avocado, banana, eucalyptus, marigold, safflower, sorghum, and sugarbeet.

Nearly 70 percent of all field tests conducted in the last year now contain secret genes classified as “Confidential Business Information,” which means that the public has no access to information about experiments conducted in their communities.

These experimental genetically engineered crops are growing in the open environment primarily to determine whether or not an engineered seed successfully grows and expresses the desired trait.

U.S. PIRG charged that field testing genetically engineered crops in such a widespread way poses serious threats to the environment, public health, and neighboring farmers.

“Our environment has become a laboratory for widespread experimentation on genetically engineered crops with profound risks that, once released, can never be recalled,” said U.S. PIRG environmental advocate Richard Caplan. “Until proper safeguards are in place, this unchecked experiment should stop.”

“Evidence continues to mount that the regulatory system in place in this country is based on the principle of ‘don’t look, don’t find,’” said Caplan. “Poorly designed field tests take large risks with no benefits.”

Another goal of the field tests is to obtain information about potential ecological risks associated with genetically engineered organisms. However, independent reviews of the data collected by the USDA demonstrate that very little data has been collected. Despite the large number of field experiments that have occurred, fundamental questions about their impact remain unanswered, including long-term impacts on the soil and non-target species.

U.S. PIRG renewed its call for a moratorium on genetically engineered foods unless independent testing demonstrates safety; labeling for any products commercialized honors consumers’ right to know, and the biotechnology corporations are held accountable for any harm resulting from their products.

“Genetically engineered foods have no place on our dinner tables or in our environment until proper safeguards are in place,” said Caplan. “This rush to market without regard for human health and the environment could be disastrous.”

The USDA holds the general policy that genetically engineered crops are not different enough from traditional crops to consider them unsafe.