MOVEMENT of gene-tailored organisms from lab to field has quickened in the United States. With some two dozen tests now under way and many applications pending, federal regulators want to firm up their controls. They sought the advice of the National Research Council (NRC) - the operating agency of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering. The NRC responded last week with a report that reflects wide agreement among biotechnologists, ecologists, and many environmentalists that the only way to assess the potential risks and benefits of genetically engineered organisms is through carefully controlled field tests.
The Ecological Society of America had already expressed this consensus in a report of its own last March. It's the reason so many field tests have already started with little protest.
The latest field test began Sept. 6, when Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. in Iowa set out alfalfa plants tailored to resist a viral pest. A month earlier, scientists had released a redesigned virus itself at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station at Geneva. They want to see if they have fixed the microbe so it won't survive if it escapes.
Two basic themes emerge from the NRC's study.
First, just because an organism is genetically altered doesn't mean it's dangerous. Regulation should be based on the nature of the resulting organism and its environmental interaction, not on the means used to produce the alteration. This puts gene-tailored organisms on a par with products of traditional breeding. A 1987 National Academy of Sciences study had already made this point.
Second, regulation should reflect the degree of familiarity with the organism and its environment.
Slight changes to long-bred crop species are far different from putting bacterial genes in plants. In many cases, centuries of experience with conventional breeding of a plant should give regulators extensive insight. The NRC, however, emphasizes that familiarity is not synonymous with safety. The more regulators know about an organism, the better they can assess safety and the degree of control needed for test approval. But this assessment must be done carefully in every case with more stringent regulation where there is less prior knowledge.
Testing is likely to proceed briskly as the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Agriculture refine regulation along these lines. But the NRC hints that limited field tests are the least of challenges regulators will face.
It notes that the report does not deal with altered animals or with large-scale commercial applications and the scientific, economic, ethical, and social issues associated therewith.
It also ignores issues related to bringing genetically altered food products to market. Moreover, there is no background agreement at all among interested parties as to the safety or wisdom of letting release of gene-tailored organisms go beyond the field test stage.