When genetically modified plants go wild

Even advocates of these crops were shaken recently when modified plants 'escaped' from test areas.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In rice-growing states, traces of an unapproved genetically modified (GM) rice have been found mixed in with conventional rice meant for human consumption.

In Oregon, genetically engineered creeping bentgrass, being tested for possible use on golf courses, has been found miles outside its test beds, making it the first GM plant known to have escaped into the wild.

In Hawaii, a federal judge has admonished the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for displaying "utter disregard" for the state's endangered native plant species. The judge says the USDA failed to conduct research on the environmental effects of fields of experimental corn and sugarcane that had been genetically modified to produce pharmaceuticals. Environmental and food-safety groups have asked for a moratorium on all field tests of experimental drug-producing plants until their safety precautions can be reviewed.

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Early indications are that in each case little substantial harm has been done. The experimental rice, for example, is similar to two other GM strains already approved for general use.

But many who closely watch how biotechnology is changing agriculture, including those who see a valuable role for GM crops, are disturbed by what appears to be a series of recent incidents showing lax supervision of experimental plantings by the government and agribusinesses.

"You absolutely should be in compliance with regulations," says Martina Newell-McGloughlin, an internationally recognized advocate for the uses of biotechnology based in Davis, Calif. She directs the University of California's systemwide biotechnology program. The three incidents "aren't health concerns, but they are regulatory concerns," she says. "It's incumbent on the companies, on the USDA ... to ensure that everybody complies with these regulations."

The three incidents convey a message that "the US government has been somewhat lax in its oversight of the biotechnology industry and in some instances has not taken its responsibility to regulate as strongly as it should," says Gregory Jaffe, director of the biotechnology project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group in Washington that has expressed qualified support for the use of genetic modification in agriculture.

"Clearly this shows that the companies and the government don't have as much control over experimental crops as they need to have," Mr. Jaffe says. "I think there's a sloppiness out there. Industry doesn't take the rules of conduct as seriously as it should."

Government agencies, he says, have adopted what almost amounts to a "don't look, don't find" policy. "We have a fairly passive regulatory system," he says, that does "a little spot checking" but mostly relies on businesses to step forward and report their own problems.

The cases of the escaped GM grass and the mysterious appearance of experimental rice in the food supply raise important questions, says Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a nonprofit group in Washington that seeks to be an independent and objective source of information on agricultural biotechnology. "How do you know that [GM crops] are staying where you want them to stay?" he asks. "As there are more kinds of genetically-engineered crops out there, it continues to pose challenges for companies and for regulators."

Some amount of movement of GM crops outside their containment areas "is virtually inevitable," Mr. Fernandez says. "The question is, how do we feel about that? How important is that? Does it matter what the crop is?" The bentgrass may pose no significant danger, he says, but "would we feel differently" if it were a plant that produced pharmaceuticals?

Last December, a report from the USDA's own Office of the Inspector General urged the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) division "to strengthen its accountability for field tests of [genetically enhanced] crops." The report added that "weaknesses in APHIS regulations and internal management controls increase the risk that regulated genetically engineered organisms (GEO) will inadvertently persist in the environment...."

The report also criticized APHIS for lacking "basic information about the field test sites it approves and is responsible for monitoring, including where and how the crops are being grown, and what becomes of them at the end of the field test."

In a response, APHIS agreed to implement 23 of the inspector general's 28 recommendations. Among those it rejected was a request to develop guidelines to physically restrict public access to unapproved edible GM crops.

US corn and cotton are mostly GM

America is awash in genetically modified crops that already have been approved for use both as animal feed and for human consumption. This year, 61 percent of all corn and 89 percent of all soybeans planted in the United States were GM varieties, the USDA estimates. More than 80 percent of the US cotton crop is also GM.

But despite that wide usage, the development of other applications and other crops has largely stalled. Plans to introduce a GM wheat to the market have yet to go forward. Nearly all widespread applications of GM to agriculture have been limited to two functions: enhancing resistance to insects or to herbicides. Plans to alter plants through genetic modification to improve such qualities as their flavor, growth rates, or size have yet to blossom.

Suspicion of GM foods in Europe, and to some extent in Asia, is limiting the world market for GM crops. China had been expected to OK the use of GM rice by now, but appears to be dragging its feet. After the news spread that unapproved GM long-grain rice had been found in US consumer supplies, the European Union announced it would require imports of long-grain rice from the US to be certified as free from the GM strain. Japan has suspended its imports of American long-grain rice pending further review.

Farmers sue over 'contaminated' rice

Earlier this month, the USDA reported that a long-grain GM rice strain produced by Bayer CropScience had been found in bins of conventional commercial rice. It marked the first instance in which an unapproved GM rice had been found in the rice supply. The GM rice poses no health or environmental threat, the USDA said. But rice farmers in Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas filed a lawsuit against Bayer this week alleging its genetically modified rice contaminated the crop, according to the Associated Press.

The USDA is conducting an investigation to determine how the contamination occurred, and Bayer now is petitioning to have the strain approved for general use, a spokesman for APHIS says.

In Oregon, APHIS is continuing to monitor the escaped creeping bentgrass, an APHIS spokeswoman says.

The ruling in Hawaii by a federal judge was the first to involve drug-producing GM plants. A coalition of consumer and environmental groups is asking that the government suspend all field tests of drug-producing plants until its process for issuing permits can be reviewed.

In addition, says Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, a consumer group in Washington that is among those seeking a moratorium, the USDA should follow all the recommendations in its inspector general's report. It should also take additional measures, such as regularly testing fields neighboring GM test beds for potential contamination, he says.

But Dr. Newell-McGloughlin hopes that this summer's outbreak of GM fiascos won't be taken out of context.

"The few missteps that have occurred, in my opinion, are tiny in the context of the large amount of good that has been done with this [GM] technology," she says. Genetic manipulation has much more promise for good that has yet to be tapped. By overreacting, we could miss out." The risks, she says, always must be weighed against the benefits. "There is the cost of not doing something," she says.

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