By Pesticide Action Network North America
In an unprecedented victory for citizen oversight,
a federal district court judge has ordered the United States Department
of Agriculture (USDA) to disclose the locations of open-air field
tests of biopharmaceutical crops in Hawai`i.
The USDA and the biotech industry had resisted public
disclosure of test plot locations, citing fears of "espionage,"
"vandalism," and "civil unrest."
However, on August 5, 2004, District Court Judge
David A. Ezra ordered USDA to provide crop locations to the parties
in a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice for PANNA, the Center for
Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, and KAHEA -- The Hawaiian Environmental
Alliance. The court order also required the locations of the test
sites to be publicly announced within 90 days unless USDA provides
better evidence of specific harm.
Pharmaceutical and biotech corporations are interested in biopharming
-- the growing of genetically engineered (GE) food crops to produce
industrial or pharmaceutical chemicals and drugs -- as a relatively
inexpensive way to produce large quantifies of chemicals, including
contraceptives, hormones, vaccines, and other potent, biologically
active substances. Biopharm test crops are frequently grown outdoors
in open fields, and are virtually indistinguishable from edible
varieties. As a result of the ruling, neighboring farmers and
residents will be able to learn if biopharm test crops are located
near conventional varieties that may be at risk for cross-pollination,
or are being grown in ecologically sensitive areas or near schools
Despite its designation as a biological "hot spot"
with a high number of endangered species, Hawai`i has been the
site of more than 4,000 open-air field tests of GE crops, including
biopharmaceuticals. Conducted by corporate agribusiness and industrial
chemical giants such as Monsanto, Prodigene, DuPont, and Dow,
the tests produce crops that have not been approved for human
or animal consumption, or for general release into the environment.
In 12 years of open-air testing, not one biopharmed drug has been
approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Genetically engineered crops have been known to contaminate conventional
food crops, as in the StarLink fiasco, in which genetically engineered
corn that was not approved for human consumption ended up in dozens
of products on supermarket shelves and had to be recalled. Potentially
disastrous slip-ups in biopharm field tests have already occurred.
In 2000, USDA quarantined and destroyed 500,000 bushels of Nebraska
soybeans meant for human consumption because the crop had been
contaminated with corn engineered to produce a pig vaccine. That
same year, potential contamination led to the destruction of 155
acres of conventional corn in Iowa. Prodigene, the grower in both
instances, is currently conducting open-air tests in Hawai`i.
"Almost everything about the regulation of gene-altered
crops suggests that the federal agencies are far more responsive
to industry than to the public," says PANNA's Skip Spitzer.
"That the court has to step in to force disclosure of such
basic information highlights that problems like biopharming come
from big agribusiness having too much control over our food."
He adds that the court victory "poses a real problem for
the agribusiness industry if this precedent, as expected, stimulates
challenges, and hopefully positive rulings, elsewhere."
Sources: Press Release, August 5, 2004, PANNA, Earthjustice,
Center for Food Safety; PANUPS, USDA Sued for Overlooking Risks
of Biopharm, Nov. 20, 2003.
Contacts: Center for Food Safety, email email@example.com,