ANALYSIS - US Oversight of Biotech Crops Seen Lacking
Author: Carey Gillam
The disclosure of the contamination of experimental biotech rice owned by Bayer CropScience, a unit of Bayer AG, coupled with statements by USDA officials that they have no idea how the contamination occurred or how extensive it may be, has outraged players up and down the food chain.
Farmers, food and beverage makers and exporters all are positioning themselves for a long, and likely costly, ordeal.
Already, Japan has suspended imports of US long grain rice because of the contamination, and Europe, a major export market for US rice, has insisted rice imports be tested and any contaminated rice excluded from shipments to the 25-member European Union.
Other US rice customers are also reportedly reviewing their planned purchases even as US rice prices have dropped sharply.
Meanwhile, with much of the US rice industry in turmoil because the extent of the contamination is unknown, an official with the USDA's Animal Health and Plant Health Inspection Service said it would likely take two to three months before the agency had many answers.
"This is real money that farmers are losing," said Arkansas Rice Growers Association executive director Greg Yielding, who said he has fielded dozens of calls from frantic rice farmers. "It is a big deal. We do not feel that USDA and APHIS have adequate funds or staff to do this job. They can't tell you where anything is even though they get permits for it."
HOLES IN OVERSIGHT
Over the last decade, the USDA has approved applications for more than 49,000 field site tests of GMO crops and APHIS has deregulated more than 70 GMO crop lines, many of which have been embraced by farmers because they are easier and/or more profitable to grow.
USDA and APHIS have touted the government's ability to oversee the growth of biotechnology in agriculture and repeatedly assured consumer groups and foreign governments that safety was a foremost concern for regulators.
But an Office of Inspector General audit of APHIS' and its biotechnology regulatory services unit found numerous holes in oversight efforts and issued a stern warning in its December 2005 report.
It said APHIS lacks "basic information about the field test sites it approves and is responsible for monitoring, including where and how the crops are being grown and what becomes of them at the end of the field test."
The OIG said that even though APHIS was supposed to inspect experimental fields, it was not even requiring companies to provide site location information. The government did not require companies to document efforts to make sure GMO crops were segregated, and it didn't test neighboring fields to look for contamination during or after field trials.
The OIG also said it found widespread violations of a rule requiring experimental crops to be shipped in metal containers, instead allowing them to be shipped in boxes or bags.
Overall, the OIG audit found the APHIS regulatory system so weak that it increased the risk that experimental GMO crops would "persist in the environment."
The contaminated rice is only one example of unapproved GMO's slipping into the mainstream. Last year, Swiss agrochemicals firm Syngenta revealed that its unapproved, experimental strain of corn known as Bt10, was found to have contaminated corn supplies from 2001-2004.
Also, a biotech grass resistant to weedkiller developed in part by Monsanto Co. has been found growing in the wild, while ProdiGene Inc. had to buy back and destroy millions of dollars of grain after tainting crops with an experimental corn plant used to produce medicine.
And earlier this month, a US district judge ruled that APHIS broke environmental rules when it allowed the planting of certain biotech corn and sugarcane between 2001 and 2003 in Hawaii.
Because of the government oversight concerns, Greenpeace International has called for a ban on US GMO rice and the Center for Food Safety