For the first time, the U. S. Department of Agriculture is planning to conduct an environmental impact study to evaluate the effects of genetically engineered crops on the environment.
While expert observers are doubtful that the study will stem the flow of new GE crops, they?re hopeful that the environmental assessment will bring more public scrutiny to the issue and perhaps force additional rules on the biotech-agriculture industry.
In the late January announcement, the USDA also said it will rewrite the 18-year-old rules that govern development and planting of GE crops.
While the USDA action could be considered mildly encouraging for organic farmers and supporters of the natural foods industry, don?t expect to see new rules any time soon. It will likely take at least a year for the USDA to complete its work.
Watching the developments closely will be organic farmers whose crops face potential contamination from GE pollen. The primary crops that have been genetically altered so far are corn, soybeans, canola and cotton. Numerous cases of contaminated organic corn have been reported, said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Organic Farming Research Foundation.
Scowcroft is skeptical that the USDA ultimately will challenge the biotech industry, but he?s pleased that the GE issue will at last be opened for public examination and comment.
?It will produce an organized effort to point out the deficiencies of the regulations and to generate a lot of comment,? he said. ?They?ve opened the door.?
Comments on the issue will be accepted through March 23. Scowcroft said he will push to include data that shows how organic farmers are economically affected by transgenic drift. Crops contaminated with genetic material cannot carry the organic label, so farmers are forced to sell at standard commodity prices rather than at premium organic rates despite their higher production costs.
The USDA action finally gives environmental organizations an opportunity to present information about the dangers of genetically modified organisms, said Jim Diamond, chairman of the Genetic Engineering Committee for the Sierra Club. Besides crops, the USDA plans to look at genetic modification of fish, insects and microorganisms.
?We?ve been asking for an [environmental impact study] on this for years,? Diamond said.
Although he?s also skeptical about how the assessment will be handled and what it might accomplish, Diamond said it does provide a forum. ?This is a great opportunity for the Sierra Club and all other environmental groups to ask for more science.?
The announcement by the USDA appears to have been spurred, at least in part, by an extensive report on GMOs published in mid-January by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. The study sounded an alarm regarding the use of GMOs. It explained that little is known about the effects GMOs might have on the environment, and urged the USDA to be careful in its evaluation of them. The study expressed concerns about three issues:
- The development of ?super weeds,? which occurs when wild plants are inadvertently fertilized with pollen from crops genetically engineered to resist pesticides.
- The unknown effects on humans if they eat, for example, corn that has been contaminated with genetic material from other corn that has been modified to grow pharmaceutical ingredients.
- The unknown effects on the marine environment if GE fish escape from farms and breed with wild fish.
The report urged that experiments with GMOs be conducted in confined areas and that GE organisms be released with caution.
Biotech industry OKs study
The Biotechnology Industry Organization welcomes the USDA study, said spokeswoman Lisa Dry. Companies hope that an environmental assessment and regulations will help to dispel fears that GMOs are dangerous. ?We don?t have a problem with regulation as long as it?s based on science,? Dry said. ?[The USDA] will determine what is the appropriate level of risk.?
?No long-term studies [on GMOs] have been done,? Smith said. ?Products can be put on the market without informing the public and without testing.?
Trying to study the full scope of GE food issues will be very difficult, observers said. A thorough study must examine not only regulations and environmental effects, but also economic, health, ethical and research issues.
?What the USDA [is] doing has been a long time coming, but it doesn?t go far enough,? said Craig Culp, spokesman for the Center for Food Safety, a private advocacy group.
?There?s a sense in the biotech industry that the future is all about genetically engineered food. We take strong issue to that,? Culp said. ?We don?t think the USDA shows a clear understanding of the potential threat to organics from pollen drift. Organic food production is the fastest-growing segment of agriculture and it needs to be safeguarded. We want to see an acknowledgement that the threats are understood and that regulations will provide protection."
Joe Lewandowski is a free-lance writer based in Fort Collins, Colo. He can be reached at [email protected]
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 3/p. 22, 24