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Reports show lax enforcement of biotech rules

Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Press

USDA's oversight of field trials for genetically engineered crops is inadequate,
and the agency is unable to track even the number of “noncompliance” incidents that developers report, critics say.

USDA’s oversight of field trials for genetically engineered crops is inadequate, and the agency is unable to track even the number of “noncompliance” incidents that developers report, critics say.

Though only 21 incidents are included in a summary on the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website, about 170 incidents are described in records the Capital Press obtained from APHIS under a Freedom of Information Act request. The records cover the years 1998 to 2013.

The number of events may be even higher. Records APHIS released last year to the Reuters news agency showed biotech developers had reported 483 noncompliance incidents.

A representative of APHIS said the agency would search its records again in an attempt to explain the discrepancies.

The discovery of genetically modified wheat in an Eastern Oregon field last year has turned the spotlight on how APHIS monitors the development of such crops. APHIS investigators are yet to release their report on the source of the wheat, which has not been approved for commercial cultivation.

Critics say the list of violations released to Capital Press highlights deficiencies in APHIS oversight.

“You can’t control it if you don’t know the basics, like where a crop is planted,” said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, an environmental nonprofit.

“It’s not adequate. APHIS needs to get a better handle on the whole field trial system,” he said.

The inconsistency in noncompliance incidents reported by the agency could be an attempt to minimize the problem, Freese said.

“APHIS wants to project the image of being responsible,” he said. “Putting out the full list to the public, as they should, would reflect poorly on them.”

Under APHIS rules, biotech developers must notify the agency of field trials for genetically engineered crops that haven’t been deregulated for commercial cultivation. The companies must also abide by protocols to prevent the restricted crops from escaping into the environment.

Critics have complained that the rules are far too loose, as APHIS regulations allow companies to establish their own protocols and the agency has limited resources to enforce them.

Some of the noncompliance incidents released to Capital Press raise concerns about the possibility of cross-pollination or escape, said Carol Mallory-Smith, a weed science professor at Oregon State University. 

While some incidents seem to be paperwork errors, others appear more substantive — for example, the failure to monitor volunteers, she said.

“There could be seed loss,” Mallory-Smith said.

Improperly cleaned equipment and animal intrusions also provide ways for genetics to spread, she said.

“You don’t know where those animals went. They could have moved seed around,” Mallory-Smith said.

Following are some of the biotech field trial incidents described in the FOIA records released to Capital Press:

• Soybean seeds lost in shipment.

• Failure to clean a planter in a cotton field trial and “potential commingling in other plantings.”

• Improperly cleaned tillage equipment, with biotech corn kernels later found on the machinery.

• Animal damage from cattle in a corn trial, including a case that wasn’t timely reported to APHIS.

• Deviations from authorized isolation distances for several crops.

• Corn kernels and whole ears found after harvest at a trial site that was supposed to be tilled.

• A truck rolled over and spilled regulated corn by a highway.

• Soil from a restricted corn trial site was used to fill a drainage ditch.

• Planting in excess of the authorized acreage.

• Crops planted in a different location than reported to APHIS.

• Corn with red kernels that connote biotech genes was found at an unauthorized site and during commercial production. The companies named in the APHIS records include major global biotech developers such as Bayer, BASF, Dow, Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta and Ventria, as well as turf and garden products producer Scotts.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization said its members go far beyond the minimum compliance measures required by APHIS.

“Stewardship is a top priority,” said Karen Batra, communications director for BIO. “We have every reason to believe this should not be a problem.”

Developers are required to report even the smallest deviation from the APHIS notification or permit, said Garry Hamlin, a spokesman for Dow.

In one case, for example, Dow reported a package that had ruptured and spilled three to five seeds, he said.

The company conducts “multifunctional internal reviews” of each incident to prevent future problems, Hamlin said.

“On the rare occasion when a compliance situation is identified, we work with the authorities to quickly resolve any concerns and improve our procedures for ongoing and future trials,” said Greg Wandrey, director of stewardship and compliance for DuPont Pioneer.

Monsanto has conducted 26,000 biotech field trials since 1990 and less than one-fourth of 1 percent were associated with a non-compliance incident, said Tom Helscher, spokesman for the company.

Lance Latham, spokesman for Scotts, said the company experienced setbacks when its biotech bentgrass was found growing outside field testing sites.

The company has cooperated with USDA and is “still awaiting regulatory approval for this variety of bentgrass,” he said.



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