Statement of CSPI biotechnology project director Gregory Jaffe

The recently released Pew Initiative report correctly identifies significant gaps in the government’s ability to ensure that marketed biotech products continue to be safe to humans and the environment after government review. That report, however, grossly understates how serious this problem is. There are virtually no testing, monitoring, or inspections conducted by FDA, EPA, or USDA for commercial biotech products. Instead, the government relies on the biotechnology industry to police itself and self-report any problems. Such an oversight system, where the guiding principle is “don’t ask, don’t tell,” will not uncover human health or environmental harms until it may be too late to reverse any harmful effects. The system was extremely lucky to catch both the StarLink and Prodigene incidents before there were any health consequences but the public might suffer when the next incident goes undiscovered due to inadequate government oversight.

Although not directly discussed in the report, the oversight system for experimental releases of genetically engineered foods is just as pitiful. In the past year, several incidents (the Prodigene violations, the University of Illinois transgenic pig incidents, and the violations of permit conditions by Dow AgroScience and Pioneer in Hawaii) have uncovered significant weaknesses in the oversight system. They also illustrate the industry’s propensity to ignore government-imposed requirements. Oversight of experimental releases is absolutely essential to safeguard consumers and the environment because, at the experimental stage, those crops and animals have not been proven safe.

Something is definitely wrong when the industry’s trend has been to experiment with more potentially dangerous applications of biotechnology (such as growing industrial compounds or pharmaceuticals in plants) while the government has not comparably increased its regulatory oversight. –30–