Experiments a Threat to Public Health, the Environment, and Farmers

PORTLAND, Maine – More than 47,000 field tests of genetically engineered crops were authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture between 1987 and 2004 despite serious environmental threats and inadequate regulations in place to monitor their impacts, according to a new report released today by Environment Maine Research & Policy Center and Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA).

Both the National Academy of Sciences and the General Accounting Office have criticized the USDA for inadequate oversight and expertise in authorizing the release of genetically engineered crops.

Nevertheless, this new study reveals substantial increases in 2003 and 2004 of testing of crops engineered to produce pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals, as well as of many new crops never before released.

The report, Raising Risk: Field Testing of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S., highlights potential risks associated with the release of genetically engineered plants. The results of large scale field trials conducted over many years were just published in the March 2005 Proceedings of the Royal Society demonstrating adverse effects on wildlife, but experiments conducted in the United States continue to be piecemeal and short term. Scientists have criticized research in this country as deliberately designed to hide any harm.

Coincidentally, this report is released on the heels of three Maine towns, Kennebunk, Brooklin and Kennebunkport considering opposition to genetically engineered organisms. Kennebunk selectmen rejected a petition from citizens to place a ban on genetically engineered organisms, Brooklin citizens voted in favor of a non-enforceable measure to declare their town a GE Free Zone, and Kennebunkport is considering a measure identical to Brooklin.

“Our environment is being used as a laboratory for widespread experimentation on genetically engineered organisms with profound risks that, once released, can never be recalled,” said Environment Maine Advocate Matthew Davis. “Bt corn plants have been found to be toxic to monarch butterflies and other non-target species. Until proper safeguards are in place, this unchecked experiment should stop.”

Findings of the new Environment Maine Research & Policy Center report include:

  • As of January 2005, the fourteen states and territories that have hosted the greatest number of field test sites are: Hawaii (5,413), Illinois (5,092), Iowa (4,659), Puerto Rico (3,483), California (1,964), Nebraska (1,960), Pennsylvania (1,707), Minnesota (1,701), Texas (1,494), Indiana (1,489), Idaho (1,272), Wisconsin (1,246), Georgia (1,051), and Mississippi (1,008).
  • Since 1991, USDA has received 240 requests for 418 field releases of crops engineered to produce pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, or other so-called biopharmaceuticals; the number of requested field releases of “biopharm crops increased from 22 in 2003 to 55 in 2004.
  • Nearly 70% of all field tests conducted in the last year now contain secret genes classified as “Confidential Business Information,” which means that the public has no access to information about experiments being conducted in their communities.
  • The ten crops authorized for the greatest number of field releases are corn, soybean, cotton, potato, tomato, wheat, creeping bentgrass, alfalfa, beet, and rice. Potatoes have had 143 field releases in Maine .
  • USDA authorized field tests on several crops for the first time in 2003 and 2004, including American chestnut, American elm, avocado, banana, eucalyptus, marigold, safflower, sorghum, and sugarbeet.

These experimental genetically engineered crops are grown in the open environment to test the outcome and environmental impact of certain gene combinations. The groups charged that field testing genetically engineered crops in such a widespread way poses serious threats to the environment and neighboring farmers.

“For over a decade, MOFGA has called for the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement under the National Environmental Policy Act prior to any field testing or field release of GE plants or other organisms. We’re still waiting,” said Sharon Tisher, Chair of the MOFGA Public Policy Committee. “Not only the distinguished National Academy of Sciences, but also the staff of the U.S. Department of the Interior, have raised serious questions about the risk of GE crops and animals becoming harmful invasive species. Also, GE crops that present a risk of genetic contamination of organic crops are a direct economic threat to certified organic farms.”

A major goal of the field tests is to obtain information about potential ecological risks associated with genetically engineered organisms. However, independent reviews of the data collected by the USDA demonstrate that very little information has been gathered. As a result, despite the large number of field experiments that have occurred, fundamental questions about their impact remain unanswered, including long-term impacts on the soil and non-target species.

“The evidence continues to mount that the U.S. regulatory system is based on the principle of ‘don’t look, don’t find,'” said Davis.

“Conducting field tests that are poorly designed is taking large risks without any benefits.”

Environment Maine Research & Policy Center and MOFGA called for a federal moratorium on genetically engineered foods unless:

  • Independent testing demonstrates safety,
  • Labeling for any products commercialized honors consumers’ right to know, and
  • The biotechnology corporations are held accountable for any harm resulting from the products.

Environment Maine Research & Policy Center researches problems, proposes policy solutions and educates the public about clean air, clean water and open spaces.

MOFGA’s mission is to help farmers and gardeners grow organic food, to protect the environment, and to recycle natural resources; to increase local food production, to support rural communities, and to encourage sustainable farm economies; and to illuminate for consumers the connections between healthful food, environmentally sound farming practices, and vital local economies.

For more information, contact Environment Maine at (207) 253-1965.

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