A consumer watchdog group Thursday accused the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) of rubber stamping approval of field tests of genetically engineered crops that could harm people and the environment.
"Our environment is serving as the laboratory for widespread experimentation of genetically engineered organisms with profound risks that, once released, can never be recalled," the U.S. Public Interest Research Group said in a 98-page report called "Raising Risk."
The Washington-based group said the USDA authorized nearly 29,000 field tests of genetically engineered organisms through 2000. The agency only has rejected 4 percent of the applications to conduct field tests, the report stated.
The experiments were being done in an open environment with little oversight or public notification, the watchdog group said. Introducing nonnative organisms into the environment is estimated to cost the United States $123 billion annually in ecosystem damage, it added.
"Contrary to popular belief, the technology is not very precise," the report said. "Scientists cannot control the location where the gene is inserted into the hosts' genetic code, nor guarantee stable expression of the gene in the new genetically engineered organism."
The experiments sometime deal with bizarre combinations, such as introducing tomato genes to fish genes, or even combining pig genes with human genes, according to the report.
Between 1987 and 2000, leading U.S. biotech firm Monsanto Co. applied to conduct the most field tests every year.
Hawaii has hosted the most field tests with 3,275 and Illinois ranked second with 2,832, according to the study.
Concerns about genetically modified food reached a frenzy in the United States last year when StarLink, a genetically modified corn which has been approved for animal feed but not for human consumption, was discovered in a number of food products. StarLink is made by the Franco-German pharmaceutical group Aventis.
A report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released on Wednesday found the biotech corn that spawned a nationwide recall last fall did not cause the allergic reactions that people reported after finding out about the grain.
U.S. PIRG recommends a moratorium on field testing and commercialization of genetically engineered foods and crops until it can be determined they do no harm the environment or people.
The demand for testing genetically modified plants surged in the 1980s during the U.S. biotech boom.
The U.S. PIRG report says corporations and universities are becoming increasingly secretive about their genetic testing. From 1989 to 1999, the percentage of crops containing genes declared confidential increased nearly every year. Last year, 65 percent of the genetically engineered crops were declared "confidential business information," the study said.
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© 2001 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.