PANNA: USDA Sued for Overlooking Risks of Biopharm


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USDA Sued for Overlooking Risks of Biopharm
November 20, 2003

PANNA along with several other public interest organizations filed a lawsuit on November 12, 2003, to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to safely regulate biopharm crops--plants that have been genetically engineered to produce pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals. The suit asks USDA to fully assess the environmental and public health risks of open-air testing of biopharm crops currently underway in Hawai`i and throughout the United States. Attorneys with Earthjustice filed the suit brought by Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, KAHEA--The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, and PANNA.

Monsanto, DuPont, ProdiGene, Dow and others have conducted hundreds of field tests of crops genetically engineered to produce pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals. Experimental genetically engineered plants have produced a blood clotting agent, a blood thinner, blood proteins, experimental animal vaccines, industrial enzymes, antibodies, and a potent abortion-inducing compound once considered for use as an AIDS drug. Open-air field testing has been done in many states, with Nebraska and Hawai`i, where more than two dozen tests have taken place, the favorite sites.

The wildlife, farms and residents of Hawai`i are particularly vulnerable to contamination because the islands are home to more than one third of all U.S. endangered species (more per square mile than anywhere else on earth) and farming takes place close to sensitive wildlife areas and population centers. Some biopharm plants are extremely potent, and are active at billionths of a gram. None have been approved for human consumption. Arguments in the suit point out that biopharm corn, which is the crop most often used, could contaminate Hawaiian seed corn--corn widely grown to produce seeds for sale throughout the world.

Current practices in the field-testing of genetically-engineered crops have raised concerns at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which last year fined Dow AgroSciences and Pioneer Hi-Bred International for increasing the risk of cross-breeding by not complying with permits in tests of non-biopharm genetically engineered corn on Kaua`i and Moloka`i. Also, in 2002, the USDA cited ProdiGene twice for allowing biopharm corn to contaminate crops destined for human consumption. In one case, 500,000 bushels of Nebraskan soybeans stored and ready for processing were found to be contaminated with biopharm corn. In another case, 155 acres of corn was destroyed because it may have been contaminated. A 2002 study by the National Academy of Sciences found the environmental impacts of biopharm agriculture cannot be predicted, and that the novel compounds being produced by these plants may contaminate human and animal food supplies.

Farmers are not informed of biopharm experiments underway near their crops, and the location of testing sites is not publicly available. In July 2003, one of the plaintiffs in the current suit sued the Hawai`i Department of Agriculture seeking public access to records regarding biopharm field tests, as well as the safety measures in place to control them.

In March of 2003, USDA announced it would increase buffer zones between biopharm crops and other food or livestock crops from one-half mile to one mile, increase the number of field site inspections, as well as restrictions on food and feed crops grown at the test sites the following season, and require dedicated mechanized equipment for planting and harvesting. These steps do not remove the risk, argues Skip Spitzer of PANNA: "In the U.S., the approach to biopharm trials has been remarkably casual. Regulatory agencies in general have taken a 'commercialize now, see what happens later' stance, experimenting with public health and the environment."

The lawsuit asks the court to require USDA to develop an Environmental Impact Statement, to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service as required by the Endangered Species Act, to fully consider the effects of growing biopharm crops on listed species, and to develop regulations that adequately protect public health and the environment.

Sources: Lawsuit Challenges Open Air Testing Press Release, November 12, 2003, EarthJustice, Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, KAHEA and PANNA; Backgrounder on Genetically Engineered Biopharmaceutical Crops, Center for Food Safety, http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org; Biopharm Corn Contaminates Food Crop in U.S , PANNA Global Pesticide Campaigner December 2002.

Contact: PANNA, Center for Food Safety, email office@centerforfoodsafety.org.

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