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Court Orders Biopharm Crops Disclosed

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 and homes.

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 office@centerforfoodsafety.org, PANNA.


©heal toxics, 2003
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