When genetically modified plants go wild
Even advocates of these crops were shaken recently when modified plants 'escaped' from test areas.
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
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.