USDA Investigators Slam Agency for Poor Oversight of Biotech Crops
HONOLULU In a report released quietly just before Christmas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's investigative arm disclosed that the department failed to properly monitor thousands of acres of experimental biotechnology crops.
The report by the department's inspector general said USDA didn't thoroughly evaluate applications to grow experimental crops and then didn't ensure the genetically engineered plants were destroyed after experiments.
In several cases, the agency didn't even know where so-called field trials were located.
"The system has been set up practically as a self-reporting system," said Greg Jaffe, biotech director for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It's a 'don't look, don't find' policy."
The two-year audit, which ended in April, made 28 separate recommendations for improving oversight, the job of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
In a written response, W. Ron DeHaven, the inspection service's administrator, said USDA has safely regulated biotechnology experiments since 1987 "with no demonstrable negative environmental impacts."
A new biotechnology department was created at the start of the audit that is addressing most of the concerns raised by the report, he said.
Still, many scientists worry that biotechnology crops will inadvertently cross-pollinate with conventionally grown crops. That poses a particular problem for organic farmers who charge a premium to guarantee customers their groceries are free of genetic engineering.
Soy and corn are the most commonly planted genetically engineered crops in the United States. Soy is engineered to resist weed killer and the corn spliced with a bacteria gene to resist bugs.
The report said the inspection service "lacks basic information about the field test sites it approves and is responsible for monitoring, including where and how the crops are being grown, and what becomes of them at the end of the field test."
The report also said the agency failed to keep a promise to inspect more crops engineered to make drugs using human and other animal genes.
Three years ago, the agency vowed to do a better job of monitoring crops after it fined Prodigene Inc. of College Station, Texas, $250,000 for failing to remove corn engineered to produce a pig vaccine before soybeans were planted.
The audit did not find any environmental harm but said the USDA's inadequate safeguards "increase the risk that genetically engineered organisms will inadvertently persist in the environment before they are deemed safe to grow without regulation."
The agency was responsible for monitoring outdoor experiments of genetically engineered crops in all states and U.S. territories. Only Vermont, Nevada and New Hampshire have never hosted such trials within their borders.
Source: Associated Press