REGULATION / PLANTS: Genetically engineered crops need moreoversight in the US
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------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------
TITLE: Genetically engineered crops need more oversight
SOURCE: DesMoines Register, USA
AUTHOR: Opinion, by Gregory Jaffe
GREGORY JAFFE is director of the biotechnology project of the
Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Genetically engineered crops need more oversight
Genetically engineered crops are back in the headlines, for all the
- Twice in the past six months, the U.S. Department of Agriculture
announced that rice planted in the United States (and then exported to
our trading partners) contained small amounts of an unapproved
genetically engineered rice variety.
- Last month, two federal judges admonished the USDA for not adequately
evaluating the potential impacts of genetically engineered alfalfa and
Also last month, USDA announced that it is poised to issue a permit this
spring to grow rice varieties in Kansas engineered to produce drugs from
three different human proteins.
Though the illegal engineered rice varieties found in conventional rice
are unlikely to be harmful to humans or the environment, those
contamination cases feed doubts in many consumers' minds, if not
industry's, about the desirability of agricultural biotechnology. Once
again, the international debate quickly moved to how to deal with risks
from genetically engineered crops rather than how to take advantage of
Genetically engineered crops have been widely adopted by farmers because
of their substantial benefits. In 2006, some 10 million farmers grew 220
million acres of genetically engineered crops in 22 countries. In the
United States, 61 percent of corn, 89 percent of soybeans and 80 percent
of upland cotton planted were genetically engineered varieties. Some of
those crops have eliminated millions of pounds of insecticides,
improving the environment and the health of agricultural workers and
increasing farmer income. Others have increased such environmentally
friendly agricultural practices as no-till farming.
Farmers around the world clearly want to grow safe genetically
engineered crops, but mishaps erode consumers' trust and close markets.
In 2005, incidents similar to the rice contamination occurred with an
experimental genetically engineered corn plant, and five years ago, taco
shells and numerous food products were recalled after becoming
contaminated with StarLink corn, a genetically engineered crop not
approved for consumption as a result of potential allergenicity.
Companies brag about stewardship, but their actions demonstrate that
they regularly ignore government-imposed conditions designed to
safeguard our food and the environment and promote confidence in the
products. Aided mightily by corporate mistakes and arrogance in Europe,
forces opposing genetically engineered crops have struck fear in the
public's mind about safe foods and have won passage of overly
Making matters worse, the U.S. regulatory system is not performing the
rigorous and independent oversight that the public deserves. Inspections
to determine compliance with regulations are rare, and when a violation
is identified, the government's knee-jerk response is to give the
violator a "get out of jail free" card.
A few sensible measures would improve oversight. The Food and Drug
Administration must affirmatively ensure that foods made from
genetically engineered crops are safe. The FDA oversees a weak,
voluntary consultation process allowing companies to market crops
without any formal approval. When genetically engineered rice found its
way to our table this past fall, no FDA law had been broken.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., is seeking to solve that problem through
legislation mandating an FDA safety determination before marketing a
genetically engineered crop, similar to what is done in Europe and Canada.
USDA must stop being the biotechnology industry's cheerleader and become
a tough regulator. It must set and enforce strict conditions to ensure
that experimental genetically engineered crops - particularly those
producing drugs or industrial chemicals - don't persist in the
environment or end up in our food. Regular inspections and testing
should be conducted to determine the industry's compliance and the
effectiveness of industry practices.
Strengthening government oversight will not end attacks on
biotechnology, but it would help assure safety, prevent harmful mistakes
and engender greater public confidence. Only then can the international
debate focus on how best to harness this powerful technology to promote
the public good.
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Hartmut MEYER (Mr)