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EPA needs a biotech crop policy

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor
(June 15, 2002 -- CropChoice commentary) -- The Environmental Protection Agency has failed to regulate properly and comprehensively plants that contain pesticides, namely the insecticidal bacterium bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that scientists insert into the genetic structure of corn, cotton, and other commodity crops.
First, the Agency has no policy to prevent the genes of these engineered crops from "drifting" to their conventional and organic counterparts. Second, it has surrendered to biotech companies the job of ensuring compliance with requirements for use of these so-called Plant Incorporated Pesticides.
Genetic drift
Farmers increasingly face difficulty growing conventional and organic corn and canola because of cross-pollination with genetically modified varieties. When their crops test positive for genetic contamination, farmers often have to accept less money for them; in some cases, they lose the customers who don't want food containing genetically modified organisms. (The EPA is not responsible for policing the bigger cause of contamination -- the mixing of seed during processing, transportation, storage and planting. However, the Department of Agriculture is, but it likewise has done little to address the problem.)
Section 3 of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, Rodenticide Act authorizes the EPA to consider economic impacts, along with the ecological and health effects, of pesticides as part of its regulatory authority. Yet the Agency has chosen to ignore the issue. Why? It has no data, says Janet Anderson, Director of the Biopesticides and Pollution Prevention Division at EPA.
Maybe she should talk with David Vetter, a Nebraska grower of organic corn. He has lost money over the last two years because of foreign genes ending up in his corn.(*)
Only now, some 6 years AFTER licensing the sale of these insect-resistant crops for large-scale commercial release, is the Agency beginning to establish a research agenda to define the scope of the problem with genetic drift and with enforcement of planting protocols.
Compliance oversight
The Environmental Protection Agency attaches terms and conditions to its commercial registration of a plant incorporated pesticide. It requires the growers of Bt corn, for example, to plant buffer zones and refuges of conventional corn in an effort to prevent or delay corn borers and other pests from developing resistance to the insecticide that's part of the plant. (Over time, insects and weeds develop resistance to pesticides.)
But when it comes to enforcement, the EPA is not out there at the field level. Instead, third party companies contract with the registrant to annually survey growers to ascertain whether they're following the planting rules. The results go back to the biotech purveyors. Theoretically, Monsanto, Aventis and others are supposed to strip violators of the "privilege" of purchasing any more of their Bt corn seed. If they don't the Agency can revoke their product registration.
Several problems with this nascent national compliance strategy come to mind.
Again, why didn't the Agency examine the problem before approving the crops for sale? Do the biotech companies pay these neutral third parties to survey the farmers? How neutral can they be if they're being paid? How can the government verify that its assumptions about the safety of these products are correct without participating directly in compliance oversight as it does with every other class of pesticides? Has it chosen a different oversight strategy in order to support this class of products based largely on biotech proponents' unproven claims of lower risk? And how can anyone make such a case in the absence of any field monitoring data to prove it?
Perhaps the biggest question is why the Environmental Protection Agency has assigned the responsibility for regulating these genetically modified, plant incorporated pesticides to the industry that wants to profit from them?
(*)Related stories/commentary --
Is it noisy enough at the Organic Trade Association?;http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=701
Nebraska organic farmer bears costs of GM testing; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=289