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Sowing Disaster? | The Nation

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Sowing Disaster?

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Few studies assessing the long-term impact of genetically engineered products on the environment or human health were conducted before they were rushed into mass production. As Benbrook explains, "Promoters of the technology and certainly the federal government in the early 1990s embraced biotechnology so enthusiastically that there was just no patience, no interest in, no serious investigation of those potential problems. It was sort of a don't look, don't see policy. As a result, there really was no serious science done in the United States for most of the 1990s on the potential risks of biotechnology."

Mark Schapiro was the correspondent for NOW With Bill Moyers on the
version of this story that aired on October 4. Research support was
provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute and The Center for Investigative Reporting.

About the Author

Mark Schapiro
Mark Schapiro is a longtime environmental journalist and lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate...

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Those risks, as documented by scientists writing in the American Journal of Botany and the International Journal of Food Science and Technology, and at the Weed Science Society of America, the British Environment Ministry and the Pasteur Institute in Paris, include the emergence of potential allergens that could trigger reactions in humans; the rising resistance rates of pests to the Bt toxin; the persistence of Bt toxins in sediment, threatening nontarget insect populations; lingering residues from Roundup Ready herbicides left behind in the soil, which could injure subsequent seasons of crops; and the crossing of new genes into wild relatives. Unintended environmental consequences are surfacing around the world. In Canada, Bt toxins produced by Bt corn were discovered in the sediment of the St. Lawrence River--which could potentially affect the river soil and marine life. In Switzerland a scientist demonstrated that in Bt corn the "lignin" content--the material that keeps the stalk erect--is tougher than in non-GE varieties, a physiological change with as-yet-unknown consequences. According to an assessment by the US Department of Agriculture's own Economic Research Service last spring, yields from GE crops are no higher than yields from conventional crops, and are already starting to decline--largely because of the extra energy it takes the plant to produce its own insecticide.

Even the industry's spokesman in Washington, Dr. Mike Phillips, executive director of the food and agriculture department of the industry trade group BIO, concedes that industry studies have only followed the trajectory of impact of genetically engineered organisms "for eight or nine generations." That's not a lot of time in evolutionary terms. But once a transgenic crop is introduced, the evolutionary dynamics of living organisms insure that ripple effects will continue for hundreds of years--in fact, they're virtually unstoppable once loose in the environment.

Ten years ago the government's position toward the new technology was expressed by then-Vice President Dan Quayle, who declared that no new "unnecessary regulation" was needed to oversee the genetic engineering of food crops. Genetically engineered crops were, as was later enunciated by USDA policy, not "significantly different" from previously existing means of breeding new types of plants. That principle has provided the foundation of the government's position ever since.

The result has been inattention to potential risks and sporadic regulation by the government. The USDA apportioned just $1.6 million out of a $250 million budget for all biotech-related programs to inquire into risk assessment. (By statute, just 1 percent of the total USDA research budget on agricultural biotechnology is allocated to risk assessments. Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich fought the biotech industry last spring and succeeded in raising that figure to 2 percent, which will double the budget for USDA risk assessments next year.)

The USDA issues use permits for experimental trials of new genetic varieties of crops, but once they enter commercial production, the agency has no mandate to oversee them. For ten years, the FDA has engaged in what it calls "voluntary safety consultations" with biotech companies, reviewing safety data supplied by the companies; not once over the past ten years has it refused to permit development of new GE crop varieties to move forward.

The Environmental Protection Agency has responsibility for any new variety producing its own insecticide--which the Bt gene does for corn, cotton and potatoes. But it relies on the companies to submit studies as to the potential for environmental harm; nor is it required by law to do follow-up inspections or independent monitoring. In August of last year, top officials from each of the EPA's ten regional offices sent an internal memorandum to their superiors in Washington expressing concern about the agency's lack of regulatory authority. A year later the agency still has no rules supporting long-term monitoring of these crops in the field. According to the EPA website, twenty "Experimental or Conditional Use" permits were granted for trial runs of new varieties of Bt corn between November 1998 and June 2002. Not one had been inspected until this past August, when officials from the EPA's Region IX office decided to pay a visit to two experimental plots of Bt corn being grown by Dow Chemical's Mycogen seed division and DuPont's seed subsidiary Pioneer in Hawaii. Both were found to be in violation, and on August 5 were cited for defying requirements intended to protect surrounding fields from the drift of genetically altered pollen from its experimental plots.

Michael Hanson, who follows genetic engineering for the Consumers Union, says that while there are abundant regulations governing the technology on paper, in reality "the lack of legal authority to pursue independent investigations, to do follow-up on producer assertions or to conduct independent assessments of safety claims means that in practice, the biotech industry has been given a free ride."

Lax regulation, however, is only part of the story. The industry received its most important historical spur from Congress, which passed the Plant Variety Protection Act in 1980, giving patentlike, proprietary protection to the developers of new plant varieties. These protections made the seed industry an attractive investment for chemical and pharmaceutical companies. And genetic engineering made patent protection far simpler to enforce; by inserting genetic "markers" alongside the new genes, the proprietary genes inside the plant become clearly identifiable. If Frank McLain, for example, were to defy his agreement with Monsanto and replant the seed he purchases from them every year, the company would be able to tell that its gene was inside his plants. Thus, genetic engineering also serves as a sort of branding mechanism--the brand is imprinted in the very biology of the plant--strengthening the proprietary hold of corporate patent-holders over their creations, and giving them an ever-tighter grip on the farmer.

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