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Are U.S. Regulators Dropping The Ball On Biocrops?

“The U.S. response (to questions about biotech crop safety) has been an extremely patronizing one. They say, ‘We know best, trust us.’”

DOUG GURIAN-SHERMAN

UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS

Robert Kremer, a U.S. government microbiologist who studies Midwestern farm soil, has spent two decades analyzing the rich dirt that yields billions of bushels of food each year and helps the United States retain its title as breadbasket of the world.

Kremer’s lab is housed at the University of Missouri and is literally in the shadow of Monsanto Auditorium, named after the $11.8-billion-a-year agricultural giant Monsanto Co. Based in Creve Coeur, Missouri, the company has accumulated vast wealth and power creating chemicals and genetically altered seeds for farmers worldwide.

But recent findings by Kremer and other agricultural scientists are raising fresh concerns about Monsanto’s products and the Washington agencies that oversee them. The same seeds and chemicals spread across millions of acres of U. S. farmland could be creating unforeseen problems in the plants and soil, this body of research shows.

Kremer, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), is among a group of scientists who are turning up potential problems with glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and the most widely used weed killer in the world.

“This could be something quite big. We might be setting up a huge problem,” said Kremer, who expressed alarm that regulators were not paying enough attention to the potential risks from biotechnology on the farm, including his own research.

Biotech crop supporters say there is a wealth of evidence that the crops on the market are safe, but critics argue that after only 14 years of commercialized GMOs, it is still unclear whether or not the technology has long-term adverse effects.

But whatever the point of view on the crops themselves, there are many people on both sides of the debate who say that the current U. S. regulatory apparatus is ill equipped to adequately address the concerns. Indeed, many experts say the U. S. government does more to promote global acceptance of biotech crops than to protect the public from possible harmful consequences.

“We don’t have a robust enough regulatory system to be able to give us a definitive answer about whether these crops are safe or not. We simply aren’t doing the kinds of tests we need to do to have confidence in the safety of these crops,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a scientist who served on an FDA biotech advisory subcommittee from 2002 to 2005.

“The U.S. response (to questions about biotech crop safety) has been an extremely patronizing one. They say, ‘We know best, trust us,’” added Gurian-Sherman, now a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit environmental group.

Call for change

With a growing world population and a need to increase food production in poor nations, confidence in the regulatory system in the leading biotech crop country is considered critical.

“One of the things that we think is important to do is to have regular reviews and updates of our strategies for regulating products of biotechnology,” said Roger Beachy, a biotech crop supporter who was appointed last year as director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“We want to look carefully to see that they are logical and science based but still maintain the confidence of the consumer to ensure that the projects that are developed and released have the highest level of oversight,” added Beachy.

So far, that confidence has been lacking. Courts have cited regulators for failing to do their jobs properly and advisers and auditors have sought sweeping changes.

A common complaint is that the U.S. government conducts no independent testing of these biotech crops before they are approved, and does little to track their consequences after.

The developers of these crop technologies, including Monsanto and its chief rival DuPont, tightly curtail independent scientists from conducting their own studies. Because the companies patent their genetic alterations, outsiders are barred from testing the biotech seeds without company approvals.

Concerns about genetically altered crops and the lack of broad testing hit a boiling point last year. In February 2009, 26 leading academic entomologists – scientists specializing in insects – issued a public statement to the Environmental Protection Agency complaining that they were restricted from doing independent research by technology agreements Monsanto and other companies attach to every bag of biotech seed they sell. The agreements disallow any research that is not first approved by the companies.

“No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology,” the scientists said in their statement.

University of Minnesota entomologist Ken Ostlie, who coauthored the statement, said some of the concerns involve corn engineered to resist corn rootworm pests. Biotech corn crops in Minnesota, Iowa, and parts of Wisconsin and South Dakota harvested last fall showed damage and disease, and some fear the biotech corn could sicken livestock.

“We don’t know if something is going on with the plant and the technology or with the insect. We just know things didn’t work the way they were supposed to,” said Ostlie. “It would be nice to have independently verifiable information going into EPA’s decision-making beyond just what the company provides.”

Christian Krupke, an entomologist at Purdue University, said the technology engineered into the plants has many benefits, but more research is needed on effects.

“We are all fans of this technology. The problem is we are not getting access to ask the questions that need to be asked that maybe the companies don’t want to ask,” Krupke said.

Seeking answers

Back in his USDA laboratory, Kremer’s assigned government work is focused on general soil quality. As a side project in support of that research, he has spent the last several years studying soil and plant growth tests that appear to show ravaged root systems in biotech “Roundup Ready” plants.

The crops have been subjected to glyphosate applications and on the surface appear to be impervious to the weed-killing treatments as the genetic alteration allows. But the roots seem to tell a different story.

“This is supposed to be a wonderful tool for the farmer … but in many situations it may actually be a detriment,” Kremer said. “We have glyphosate released into the soil which appears to be affecting root growth and root-associated microbes. We need to understand what is the long-term trend here,” he said.

The development of crops engineered to tolerate glyphosate spurred a surge in use of the chemical – some 383 million pounds were sold from 1996 to 2008, according to a report released by The Organic Center (TOC), the Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Center for Food Safety (CFS).

Monsanto says the chemical binds tightly to most types of soil, is not harmful and does not harm the crops.

But some scientists say there are indications of increased root fungal disease as well as nutrient deficiencies in Roundup Ready crops. They say manganese deficiency in soybeans in particular appears to be an issue in key farming areas that include Indiana, Michigan, Kansas and Wisconsin.

Outside researchers have also raised concerns over the years that glyphosate use may be linked to cancer, miscarriages and other health problems in people.

Monsanto says extensive research shows glyphosate is safe for humans and the environment, and has an entire section on its website devoted to refuting the reports. Monsanto says extensive investigation of questions about changes in soil micro-organisms has found no long-term ill effects.

Peering into his Petri dishes, Kremer isn’t so sure.

“Science is not being considered in policy setting and deregulation,” said Kremer. “This research is important. We need to be vigilant.”

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