Biopharming permits have quadrupled in the last year, and the permitting process is "shrouded in secrecy," according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is planning to issue within the next two weeks environmental impact statements on current permits and a written explanation of how those permits were issued.
The CSPI reported June 1 that the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service issued 16 permits in the last year—up from four the previous year—to grow biopharmaceutical crops, despite the fact that in 2002, biopharm crops were accidentally mixed with conventionally grown soybeans.
Biopharm crops are genetically modified to produce substances that can be used in pharmaceutical products.
APHIS officials said seven of the permits issued in the last year have been approved and nine are pending. Some of the permits were for corn, rice and mustard, according to CSPI. The permits involve a total of 240 acres, including farmland in Nebraska, Texas and California.
"It is impossible to know whether these biopharmed crops present any food safety or environmental risk" because much of the growing information is proprietary, said Greg Jaffe, director of biotech projects at CSPI and author of the report.
Rebecca Bech, APHIS associate deputy administrator for biotechnology regulatory services, said many of the biopharm permitting policies are posted at the Web site, www.aphis.usda.gov/brs.
"I'm not sure how things are so secretive if Mr. Jaffe himself pulled information for his report from our Web site," she said.
Nevertheless, Bech said APHIS will issue a statement this month explaining how it makes "decisions around permitting and getting that information to the public." The exact date for the announcement hasn't been set, she said, but will coincide with a notice published in the Federal Register about environmental assessments on some of the current biopharm permits. The assessments will include safety and risk factors, Bech said.