Regulatory Oversight Inadequate

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Fourteen years after commercialization of the world’s first biotech crop, the U.S. regulatory agencies charged with overseeing biotech crops – USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – are under attack on several fronts.

The USDA is most directly in the line of fire after a string of Federal Court decisions found its officials acted illegally or carelessly in approving some biotech crops.

In one recent case, a Federal Court banned the sale of a herbicide-tolerant alfalfa engineered by Monsanto until the government more thoroughly evaluates its safety.

U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer of the Northern District of California ruled that the USDA violated federal law in allowing unrestricted commercial planting of “Roundup Ready” alfalfa without a solid review.

Breyer ordered the USDA to prepare an environmental impact statement that explores potential negative consequences that critics say could include contamination of non-GMO alfalfa fields. The spread of herbicide-tolerant weeds is also a concern and is a mounting problem in many key farming areas.

Monsanto has appealed the ruling and the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case on April 27, marking the first time the high court has taken up biotech crop concerns.

In a similar case, a Federal Court found that sugar beets altered to be “Roundup Ready” were approved without adequate USDA evaluation.

U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White declined to immediately ban all GMO sugar beet plantings, but said he would consider a permanent injunction at a hearing on July 9.

Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, which filed the sugar beet lawsuit, said the court actions should be a “wake-up call” for the U.S. government.

“They will not be allowed to ignore the biological pollution and economic impacts of gene-altered crops. The courts have made it clear that USDA’s job is to protect America’s farmers and consumers, not the interests of Monsanto,” he said.

The USDA, EPA and FDA say they work hard to ensure that crops produced through genetic engineering (GE) for commercial use are properly tested and studied to make sure they pose no significant risk to consumers or the environment.

But a November 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, cited several problems. Among the shortcomings mentioned in the report is a lack of a co-ordinated program to determine whether the “spread of genetic traits is causing undesirable effects on the environment, non-GE segments of agriculture, or food safety.”

It recommended the FDA publicize the results of food safety assessments of genetically engineered crops and advised the three agencies to develop a risk-based strategy to monitor use of GE crops.

But more than a year later, most of the recommendations remain unimplemented, according to Lisa Shames, director of the natural resources and environment arm of the GAO.

“We can only influence agencies to take action. We can’t compel them to,” she said.

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