Report due today: US National Academy of Sciences questions rigor of USDA review process for genetically engineered crops

Academy finds environmental evaluation

Press release - 22 February, 2002

The US National Academy of Sciences is expected to release a report later today that criticises the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for inadequately protecting the environment from the risks of genetically engineered (GE) plants and calls on the USDA to make its review process for the GE plants "significantly more transparent and rigorous."

According to an advance copy of the executive summary of the report, the academy suggests the USDA should seek evaluation of its findings by scientific experts outside the agency and solicit greater input from the public.

"This report exposes another example of corporate interests trumping environmental protection and the public interest," said Dr. Doreen Stabinsky, science advisor to Greenpeace. "The USDA has to start doing its own homework and stop turning in work done by the biotech industry. By failing to seriously address the threats posed by gene-altered plants, the USDA has broken trust with the American people."

The report, 'Environmental Effects of Transgenic Plants: The Scope and Adequacy of Regulation' takes the USDA to task for regulations that lack scientific justification and are not applied uniformly. The academy found that the USDA's assessment of certain environmental risks, particularly regarding plants genetically engineered to be insect resistant, was "generally superficial.

The academy's scientists also found that the USDA's process "hampers external review and transparency" by keeping too much information on environmental assessments confidential in order to protect corporate trade secrets.

Even more troubling, the academy noted that gene-altered crops that produce pharmaceutical or industrial products are an area of particular concern: "(T)he production of non-edible and potentially harmful compounds in crops such as cereals and legumes that have traditionally been used for food creates serious regulatory issues." The USDA has virtually no special regulations for managing such crops, though dozens of varieties are currently grown. Companies developing such crops merely notify the USDA when planning to grow them in open fields.

"Politicians from the US travel the globe boasting that their regulations are the tightest in the world," said Charles Margulis, Greenpeace USA GE specialist. "But scientists know the truth - the US is more concerned with protecting biotech business than with protecting the environment or the public health."