GENTECH archive


Regulating plants engineered to resist pests

Title:  Science-Based Decision Guide May Be Answer To EPA's Controversial Rule


Contact: Angela Dansby
312-782-8424 X127
Institute of Food Technologists

Science-Based Decision Guide May Be Answer To EPA's Controversial Rule

CHICAGO-A two-year dispute between an 11-society scientific consortium and
the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the agency's proposed rule
to regulate genetically modified pest-resistant plants has culminated in
the near finalization of a rule that the consortium maintains is
"scientifically indefensible." The crux of the consortium's concern is
that the rule seeks to regulate inherited traits in plants as though they
were chemical pesticides. Since the scientists' concerns have apparently
been ignored to date, members of the consortium have proposed a risk- and
science-based decision guide for incorporation in the final rule that
would exclude safe plants from onerous EPA regulation.

"Calling plants 'pesticides' does not make any scientific sense," said
Calvin O. Qualset, head, Genetic Resources Conservation Program,
University of California at Davis. "The U.S. government stands alone among
nations in viewing safe, pest-resistant plants this way."

In a series of six "yes or no" questions, the "Decision Guide for EPA
Review of Plants with Inherited Traits for Resistance to Pests" would
exclude from review as a "plant pesticide" any plant with an inherited
pest-defense trait that is:

1) naturally-occurring and heritable, derived from plants of the same or
sexually compatible species (i.e., gene transfers from one potato species
 to another);

2) new to the plant species and its sexually compatible relatives and
results in changes in physical structure or form (i.e., leaves with hairs
that prevent or discourage insect attack);

3) involved in defense mechanisms expressed as a cascade of biochemical
and genetic events triggered by incompatibility between the pest and the
plant (i.e., hypersensitive reaction or programmed plant cell death);
4) responsible for pest defense effects that are widely known and common
within the plant, animal, and microbial kingdoms, and are not
characteristic of pesticides, such as enzymes; or

5) derived from pest genes, such as a viral coat protein.

Rightly included in EPA regulation under the decision guide would be
plants with pest-defense substances that act as pesticides when extracted
from their hosts and tested in vitro and in the environment, such as
nicotine, scorpion toxin, spider venom, and crystalline Bt endotoxin.

The EPA's proposed rule will not only financially burden land grant
universities and small companies developing pest-resistant plant
varieties, it will also slow down the development of safer, genetic
alternatives to synthetic chemical pesticides as well as worldwide
consumer acceptance of safe genetically modified foods. EPA's proposed
rule fails to provide for and in fact, stigmatizes, current developments
in plant breeding that permit precise, multiple gene transfers. Further,
it is the product, not the process, that matters in terms of assessing
safety. The 11-society consortium urges the EPA to base its regulations on
the toxicological characteristics of plants, rather than the techniques
used to develop them.

"The EPA's proposed rule sends a signal to the world that the United
States views its own genetically modified plants as hazardous to people or
the environment," said R. James Cook, Ph.D., plant scientist and endowed
chair in wheat research at Washington State University. "No evidence
exists that these plants produce any hazard, and it is scientifically
indefensible to regulate them as though they were synthetic chemical

"Moreover, labeling seeds or crop commodities as pesticides would
 undermine global public confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply.
If plants are safe for human consumption, there is no reason to label them
as pesticidal, creating unnecessary concern for consumers worldwide."

As the consortium's views, articulated in "Appropriate Oversight for
Plants with Inherited Traits for Resistance to Pests" (July 1996) and a
public meeting with EPA, have apparently been excluded from the nearly
final rule, it is hoped that the decision guide may yet bring a risk- and
science-based rationale to this important public policy.


The 11-society scientific consortium includes the American Institute of
Biological Sciences, American Phytopathological Society, American Society
for Horticultural Science, American Society for Microbiology, American
Society of Agronomy, American Society of Plant Physiologists, Crop Science
Society of America, Entomological Society of America, Institute of Food
Technologists, Society of Nematologists, and Weed Science Society of