Panel calls for tightening biocrop oversight

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The government should tighten its review and monitoring of genetically engineered crops to ensure that plants made toxic to pests won't prove harmful to human health or the environment.

Although pest-protected crops can reduce farmers' use of chemicals, there's a potential for "undesirable effects."

So concludes a new study by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Biotech crops caught on quickly with farmers in the 1990s, including a strain of corn that is toxic to a major pest, the European corn borer. The council says there is no evidence that biotech food now on the market is unsafe, but concludes better methods are needed to identify potential allergens in pest-protected plants. It suggests conducting long-term studies of feeding the crops to animals to assess the potential impact on humans.

More research is also needed to prevent pest-resistant genes from spreading to weeds and to protect the biotech crops from hurting valuable insects, the scientists say.

Both sides in the debate over genetically engineered crops see reasons for optimism in the report. It "supports the need for stronger regulation," says Jane Rissler of the Union for Concerned Scientists. "It confirms that there are risks."

Brian Sansoni, a spokesman for the Grocer Manufacturers of America, says the study "reinforces the long-standing analysis that the technology is safe. It solidifies the fact that sound science and common sense should continue to guide the US regulatory approach to biotechnology."

The study was conducted by a panel of university researchers and other scientists outside the government.

Genetic engineering involves splicing one or more genes from one organism into a plant to give it specific traits. The biotech corn became especially controversial last year after a Cornell University study suggested it could be killing Monarch butterflies.

Potatoes have been engineered to be toxic to a virus. Another popular line of biotech crops is engineered to resist a common weedkiller. They were not covered by the National Research Council study.

While US regulators insist that all the crops they have approved are safe, biotech food has met consumer resistance in Europe - in Britain it's derided as "Frankenfood" - and in Asia. A few US companies, including Frito-Lay Inc., have been turning down the crops. Some farmers also are cutting their use of biotech varieties of corn and cotton.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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