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Mainstream Science Questions GMO Safety and Lack of Testing

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Are US regulators dropping the ball when it comes to biocrops?

COLUMBIA, MISSOURI — Robert Kremer, a US government microbiologist who studies Midwestern farm soil, has spent two decades analyzing the rich dirt that yields billions of bushels of food each year and helps the US retain its title as breadbasket of the world.

India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, blocked the release of a genetically modified eggplant made by Monsanto. — Reuters

Mr. Kremer’s lab is housed at the University of Missouri and is literally in the shadow of Monsanto Auditorium, named after the $11.8-billion-a-year agricultural giant Monsanto Co. Based in Creve Coeur, Missouri, the company has accumulated vast wealth and power creating chemicals and genetically altered seeds for farmers worldwide.

But recent findings by Mr. Kremer and other agricultural scientists are raising fresh concerns about Monsanto’s products and the Washington agencies that oversee them. The same seeds and chemicals spread across millions of acres of US farmland could be creating unforeseen problems in the plants and soil, this body of research shows.

Mr. Kremer, who works for the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS), is among a group of scientists who are turning up potential problems with glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and the most widely used weed-killer in the world.

“This could be something quite big. We might be setting up a huge problem,” said Mr. Kremer, who expressed alarm that regulators were not paying enough attention to the potential risks from biotechnology on the farm, including his own research.

Concerns range from worries about how nontraditional genetic traits in crops could affect human and animal health to the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds.

Biotech crop supporters say there is a wealth of evidence that the crops on the market are safe, but critics argue that after only 14 years of commercialized GMOs, it is still unclear whether or not the technology has long-term adverse effects.

Whatever the point of view on the crops themselves, there are many people on both sides of the debate who say that the current US regulatory apparatus is ill-equipped to adequately address the concerns. Indeed, many experts say the US government does more to promote global acceptance of biotech crops than to protect the public from possible harmful consequences.

“We don’t have a robust enough regulatory system to be able to give us a definitive answer about whether these crops are safe or not. We simply aren’t doing the kinds of tests we need to do to have confidence in the safety of these crops,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a scientist who served on an FDA biotech advisory subcommittee from 2002 to 2005.

“The US response [to questions about biotech crop safety] has been an extremely patronizing one. They say, ’We know best, trust us,’” added Mr. Gurian-Sherman, now a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit environmental group.

Call for change

With a growing world population and a need to increase food production in poor nations, confidence in the regulatory system in the leading biotech crop country is considered critical.

“One of the things that we think is important to do is to have regular reviews and updates of our strategies for regulating products of biotechnology,” said Roger Beachy, a biotech crop supporter who was appointed last year as director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Even Wall Street has taken note. In January, shares in Monsanto fell more than 3% amid a rush of hedging activity during a morning trading session after a report by European scientists in the International Journal of Biological Sciences found signs of toxicity in the livers and kidneys of rats fed by the company’s biotech corn.

Monsanto has said the European study had “unsubstantiated conclusions,” and says it is confident its products are well tested and safe.

Indeed, farmers around the world seem to be embracing biotech crops that have been altered to resist bugs and tolerate weed-killing treatments while yielding more.

According to an industry report issued in February, 14 million farmers in 25 countries planted biotech crops on 330 million acres in 2009, with the US alone accounting for 158 million acres.

Regularity oddities

A common complaint is that the US government conducts no independent testing of these biotech crops before they are approved, and does little to track their consequences after.

The developers of these crop technologies, including Monsanto and its chief rival DuPont, tightly curtail independent scientists from conducting their own studies. Because the companies patent their genetic alterations, outsiders are barred from testing the biotech seeds without company approvals.

Unlike several other countries, including France, Japan and Germany, the US has never passed a law for regulating genetically modified crop technologies. Rather, the government has tried to incorporate regulation into laws already in existence before biotech crops were developed.

The result is a system that treats a genetically modified fish as a drug subject to Federal Drug Administration oversight, and a herbicide-tolerant corn seed as a potential “pest” that needs to be regulated by USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) before its sale to farmers.

The process is also costly and time-consuming for biotech crop developers, which might need to go through three different regulators before commercializing a new product.

Nina Fedoroff, a special adviser on science and technology to the US State Department, which promotes GMO adoption overseas, said even though she is confident that biotech crops are ultimately safe and highly beneficial for agriculture and food production, an improved regulatory framework could help boost confidence in the products.

“We preach to the world about science-based regulations but really our regulations on crop biotechnology are not yet science-based,” said Ms. Fedoroff in an interview. “They are way, way out of date. In many countries scientists are much better represented at the government ranks than they are here.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former governor of top US corn-producing state Iowa, also said he recognizes change is needed. The USDA is in fact developing new rules for regulating genetically modified crops but the process has dragged out now for more than six years amid heavy lobbying from corporate interests and consumer and environmental groups.

“There is no question that our rules and regulations have to be modernized,” Mr. Vilsack told Reuters.

“The more information you find out, the more you have to look at your regulations to make sure they are doing what they have to do. There are some issues we are still grappling with.”

Concerns about genetically altered crops and the lack of broad testing hit a boiling point last year. In February 2009, 26 leading academic entomologists (scientists specializing in insects) issued a public statement to the Environmental Protection Agency complaining that they were restricted from doing independent research by technology agreements Monsanto and other companies attach to every bag of biotech seed they sell.

Backlash abroad

A backlash against biotech crops has swept many countries. India became one of the latest hot spots in February when biotech opponents created such an uprising that the Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, blocked the release of a genetically modified eggplant made by Monsanto.

India already allows planting of altered cotton, but Mr. Ramesh said there was not enough public trust to support the introduction of a GM food crop until more research was done.

Back in his USDA laboratory, Mr. Kremer’s assigned government work is focused on general soil quality.

“This is supposed to be a wonderful tool for the farmer… but in many situations it may actually be a detriment,” Mr. Kremer said. “We need to understand what the long-term trend here is,” he said.

Monsanto says extensive research shows glyphosate is safe for humans and the environment.

Peering into his petri dishes, Mr. Kremer isn’t so sure.

“Science is not being considered in policy setting and deregulation,” said Mr. Kremer. “This research is important. We need to be vigilant.”

See also:

Bayer admits GMO contamination out of control

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  1. […] Naomi Freundlich wrote an interesting post today. Here’s a quick excerptNina Fedoroff, a special adviser on science and technology to the US State Department, which promotes GMO adoption overseas, said even though she is confident that biotech crops are ultimately safe and highly beneficial for agriculture … […]

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