The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Consumers Unions denounced the United States Department of Agriculture's proposed rules for regulating plants genetically modified to produce pharmaceutical compounds last week.
The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service issued a rule on Oct. 6 governing the use of genetically engineered plants that Cindy Smith, administrator of APHIS, called "the most comprehensive review and revision of our biotechnology regulations since they were first developed in 1987."
The UCS's concerns lie in the area of food crops genetically engineered to produce medicines or industrial materials, the so-called "pharma" crops that the organization says have been grown in 35 states for more than a decade.
"Food crops such as corn, soybeans, rice, peas, barley and safflower have been engineered to produce human and veterinary drugs, hormones, plastics, detergents and other pharmaceutical and industrial substances. Never intended for general public consumption, these chemicals may be harmful if accidentally ingested in food," the organization's Web site said.
Critics of genetic engineering for pharmaceutical and industrial purposes say that planting crops in the open air opens up countless ways for the engineered strain to cross over into the food supply. Insects could pollinate crops meant for human consumption with genetically engineered pollen, for example, or the seed for one could be inadvertently mixed with the other.
"Under the proposed rules, USDA's new motto is 'Only safe levels of drugs in U.S. food.' If these proposals are enacted into law, American consumers must accept the possibility of drugs in their breakfast cereal or other common foods. Moreover, these rules likely will lead to contamination scares, which will hurt the food industry," UCS's Food and Environment Program Deputy Director Jane Rissler said in a press release. "The USDA proposal, unlike the ban we recommended, offers no incentives to drug companies to pursue already existing, safer methods for producing drugs."
The Consumer's Union also denounced the new regulations, saying the new rules might allow the USDA to classify any new pharma plants in ways so that they would receive less oversight than they do now.
"There appears to be a loophole in the regulation which might allow that the plants be regulated less than they are now," Michael Hansen, senior scientist at the Consumers Union, said.
The rule in question states that based on the agency's experience, many new proposals for pharma crops would "carry the same [previous] level of oversight."
"Right now, the current level requires that everything be in this [high-risk] categorization, so going forward, they say that some would fall into low or moderate risk, and that's a decision that would be made be the USDA," Michael Hansen, senior scientist at the Consumers Union said, adding, "I think their current requirements are inadequate."
The UCS points out that there are other alternatives to growing plants outdoors, such as growing in greenhouses or growing in subculture tanks, which Hansen agrees would to be a safer alternative.
"Our position is that if they want to use [pharma crops], they can use subculture systems," Hansen said.
The rule will be open for public comment until Nov. 24.