After years of dramatic growth, field tests of genetically modified crops have hit a plateau - and may even be declining. Meanwhile, companies and research organizations are increasingly shielding those tests from public view.
These findings - in a new report from the US Public Interest Research Group - suggest that biotechnology companies are slowing their efforts to commercialize the controversial technology. The national coalition of state public-advocacy groups, based in Washington, along with many other consumer and environmental groups, is calling for a stop to field tests and commercialization of bioengineered crops until they can be thoroughly and independently tested for their impact on human health and the environment.
"It is clear that USDA [the US Department of Agriculture] has generally served as a rubber stamp for applications to conduct field tests," concludes the report released yesterday. The department has rejected only 4 percent of all applications.
For the first time since field testing started in the 1980s, the number of such tests has declined for two years in a row. After peaking at 1,086 in 1998, the number of approved permits and notifications for field tests fell slightly to 931 last year, according to the report. The top states where testing has occurred are Hawaii, Illinois, and Iowa.
Any slowdown in commercialization has not had much effect on public research, biotech critics and supporters agree. For example, Bob Zeigler, director of the plant biotechnology center at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., has seen no slowdown at his institution. It takes years of research before a crop gets to the field-test stage, he points out. So while commercialization may have reached a plateau, the pipeline is full of new engineered crops that will be ready to hit the fields in the next few years.
The controversy boils down to this question: How menacing do foods become when a couple of their genes - in a long string of genetic code - are altered? Until now, the federal government has generally sided with industry, which has argued the techniques should come under the same scrutiny as traditional plant breeding, which also alters the genetic makeup of plants. But critics contend that the technology's ability to introduce exotic genes into plants - which traditional breeding could never do - requires a much higher level of testing.
"We see this system of oversight at this point as fundamentally flawed," says Richard Caplan, author of the report.
Increasingly, biotech companies are keeping details of their tests under wraps. As late as 1989, all genes involved in field tests were publicly disclosed, the report found. By last year, two-thirds of the field-tested crops contained genes labeled "confidential business information." So regulators, but not the public, knew which genes were being used in the environment.
The practice extends beyond corporations anxious to protect trade secrets. Universities are also putting field tests under wraps, according to the report, though many biotech researchers oppose such secrecy. "Most of the scientific community would always prefer maximum disclosure and openness," says Dr. Zeigler at Kansas State University. "Free exchange and access to information is critical to progress."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor