Who is guarding the pharma-crop henhouse?

Regulators swear the dangers of gene contamination are under proper control. An internal audit begs to differ.

Published April 9, 2007 10:27PM (EDT)

From Denise Caruso's Sunday New York Times article on the problems of properly containing genetically modified crops designed to produce pharmaceuticals or other industrial compounds:

"Under our system, the degree of oversight is commensurate with the risk of the crops," said John Turner, director of the policy coordination program for the [USDA's] Biotechnology Regulatory Services (BRS). "We take extraordinary measures to make sure these pharma and industrial crops are kept separate and confined."

From an audit of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) (of which the BRS is a subdivision) by the USDA's own inspector general, released in late 2005:

In September 2003, we visited a field test site where a permit holder had planted a pharmaceutical crop in 2002. [Plant Protection and Quarantine] had not inspected the site during the postharvest monitoring period in 2003. When we visited the site, we learned that the permit holder's cooperator had planted soybeans on the field, violating APHIS requirements that restrict the production of food and feed crops at pharmaceutical and industrial GE field test sites in the following season. Those [genetically engineered (GE)] field test sites are to be left fallow in the following growing season so that volunteer GE plants are not inadvertently harvested with an unregulated food crop. Although the cooperator's 2003 monitoring record stated that the 2002 GE field was fallow, the cooperator told us that he had planted unregulated soybeans in the former GE field and cut them down the day before our visit. He left the soybeans standing in the larger field surrounding the former GE field.

Another field, says the report, had "volunteer" plants from the previous season's pharma crop growing among a follow-up crop of soybeans. So much for BRS' "extraordinary measures."

Caruso's article recapitulates points made in her book, "Intervention," which has made several appearances in How the World Works. (Scott Rosenberg also interviewed Caruso for Salon.) But Caruso doesn't dwell on the key question of how well the regulations that actually are in place are being enforced. In that respect, the USDA inspector general's 75-page audit makes for chilling reading. Anyone who might be disposed to believe that regulators are keeping a close eye on the burgeoning number of field tests of pharma-crops should think again.

The inspector general found that in many cases APHIS was not even aware of the actual locations of field tests. In the case of pharma crops, the I.G. found that APHIS failed to conduct the minimum number of field tests per site it had promised the public. The inspector general uncovered evidence of 13 violations of APHIS regulations. APHIS followed up on only one. APHIS also allowed the applicants for field test permits to verbally self-report to field inspectors what their plans were for gene containment, without requiring written documentation of the plans or following up to see if the self-submitted protocols were actually followed.

The report states that "According to APHIS officials, even the agency's critics have acknowledged that no demonstrable negative environmental impacts have arisen from the field tests that have been planted." For this we can be thankful. But we are also only at the very beginning of the rollout of these new crops. Since 1986, the USDA has approved over 10,600 applications for more than 49,300 field sites. The number of acres of regulated genetically modified plants for which the USDA has oversight responsibilities increased "from over 8,700 acres proposed for 1994 to over 67,000 acres proposed for 2004." That growth curve is likely continuing to point up.

The report also includes APHIS' response to the inspector general's findings and recommendations, and in most cases, APHIS promises that it will do better, tighten its standards, conduct more inspections, upgrade its databases, etc. It would be nice to have some faith in those promises, to believe that APHIS is committed to its role as a public guardian, and not just content to act as a rubber stamp permitting industry to do what it pleases.

Yeah, it would be nice. How the World Works is agnostic about whether genetically modified crops pose a clear and present danger to the world's food supply. But the capture of regulatory agencies by the industries that they are supposed to monitor is another matter entirely. In that respect, our zeal knows no bounds.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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