Violations raise questions about compliance elsewhere

For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took enforcement actions against two biotechnology companies whose plantings of experimental genetically engineered crops were found by EPA inspectors to violate the law. That August 5 crackdown was hailed by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which today said that EPA should conduct more frequent inspections of genetically engineered crops to ensure that biotech companies comply with regulations designed to protect human health and the environment.

In one case, Mycogen Seeds, a unit of Dow AgroSciences, failed to isolate its experimental insect-resistant corn with a border crop of hybrid corn and failed to plant trees to act as windbreaks. In the second case, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a DuPont subsidiary, planted its experimental corn crop at an unapproved location too close to other crops. Both companies’ violations were in Hawaii and uncovered by EPA Region 9 inspectors. The provisions violated are designed to protect neighboring corn crops from breeding with the experimental biotech crops.

The two corn crops at issue are engineered to be resistant to the pest corn rootworm by using genetic material from bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium. Such crops—referred to as “Bt corn”—produce their own pesticide, reducing the need for spraying with conventional chemical pesticides. Corn rootworm destroys millions of dollars worth of corn each year.

“It is distressing that the two biotech companies didn’t properly isolate their experimental crops, as they themselves had promised to do,” said CSPI biotechnology project director Gregory Jaffe. “If the seed producers can’t abide by their own proposals, it is likely that many commercial farmers are not complying with the regulations on crops that have already been approved and are widely grown.”

In a letter today to EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, Jaffe called for 100 percent inspection of experimental field trials of GE crops and random inspection of commercial plantings of approved GE crops.

CSPI, unlike many other consumer or environmental organizations, believes that the genetically engineered foods already on the market are safe to eat and that biotechnology holds great promise for reducing the use of environmentally-damaging pesticides. But CSPI has also advocated stringent approval processes for genetically engineered foods and for major reforms in the uneven regulatory standards that govern GE plants and animals.