GAO Wants More Biotech Monitoring

December 26th, 2008

Auditors recommend agencies look into economic impacts

Capital Press

Genetically modified crops should be tracked to ensure they’re not harming the pocketbooks of organic farmers and other growers, according to congressional investigators.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently released an audit report that calls on several government agencies to begin monitoring genetically engineered crops even after they’re deregulated and released into the market.

“USDA, the agency with the most comprehensive authority regarding GE crops, has no systematic program of postmarket oversight,” according to the report.

Auditors recommend that the USDA cooperate with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration to track potentially adverse environmental and economic effects of genetically engineered crops.

The report cited several possible dangers posed by such crops, such as increased pest resistance to the insecticide Bt, which is derived from Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria, and the emergence of herbicide-tolerant weeds.

Financial repercussions are also worrisome for organic and conventional farmers who sell into markets that reject genetically engineered crops, according to auditors.

“For example, some growers of non-GE crops fear that seeds or pollen containing engineered traits from neighboring fields may commingle with their crops, thereby making those crops harder to sell to customers who prefer not to consume GE products,” the report said.

The potential for economic damage from genetically engineered crops is not unprecedented, according to the report.

In the past, regulated genetically engineered crops were inadvertently released to the public, creating trade disruptions and cutting into farmer revenues, auditors said.

For example, in 2000 a variety of genetically modified corn not approved for human consumption ended up in the food supply, which reduced corn exports to Asia and resulting in a substantial price drop for the crop, according to GAO.

In 2006, a conventional rice cultivar was contaminated with genes from a regulated genetically engineered variety, shutting down exports to Europe and costing U.S. farmers up to $1 billion, the report said.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents developers of genetically engineered crops, said the GAO report disregards numerous modified varieties that were deregulated and have been safely cultivated for years.

“What that proves is that the original determinations by USDA, EPA and FDA were correct,” said Mike Wach, the group’s managing director for science and regulatory affairs. “It turns out they were right. What’s the point of revisiting that? It doesn’t make any sense.”

The GAO’s recommendation that federal agencies should monitor deregulated genetically engineered crops may indicate the auditors didn’t understand the full rigor of the deregulation process, he said.

“Maybe they thought, ‘What’s the harm in being extra safe?'” said Wach.

In reality, federal agencies thoroughly vet genetically engineered varieties before releasing them into the market, so continued monitoring would needlessly waste limited government resources and undermine the credibility of the deregulation process, he said.

“It’s just not borne out by what we see in the field,” Wach said.

Rachel Iadiciccio, spokeswoman for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said it’s beyond her agency’s authority to track the economic effects of genetically engineered crops.

The agency can exercise only regulatory authority over noxious weed and plant pests that threaten the environment, she said.

“We’re not looking for economic harm, per se,” said Iadiciccio.

However, if a modified variety is found to pose economic threats during the agency’s environmental review process, APHIS will take those financial considerations into account, she said.

“If there is an environmental impact, then we’re required to look at economic harm,” Iadiciccio said.

Groups that oppose genetically engineered crops view the GAO report as a vindication of their position.

“There have been woefully inadequate safeguards in terms of past approval tracking,” said Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst for the Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog. “It has placed some domestic producers at a handicap in the international market.”

Kastel said the USDA and other federal agencies have been too hasty in their approval of genetically engineered crops.

“We can’t call these things back,” he said. “Once they’re released into the general environment, there’s no turning around.”

The GAO report shows that the USDA and other agencies under the Bush administration have failed to protect consumers and farmers, said Kevin Golden, attorney for the Center for Food Safety.

The activist group has sued the agency over its deregulation of genetically engineered alfalfa and sugar beets.

“Economics need to be a factor,” said Golden. “They need to backtrack on their denial to address economic issues.”

Deregulated biotech crops

      Though corn and soybeans are the most common genetically modified crops in the U.S., a number of genetically modified crops have been approved by federal authorities. Following is a rundown of deregulated crops and their genetic modifications, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Not all have been commercialized, however, and in many cases the products were withdrawn or the GAO was unable to determine if the products ever made it to market.

Staff writer Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem, Ore. E-mail: [email protected].

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