Feds Eye Industrial Biotech Crops

A man who has lost a leg during the war tries a new prosthesis at the International Committee of the Red Cross orthopedic center in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2009.
AP Photo/Altaf Qadri
The Agriculture Department will require biotech companies to get permits for the genetically engineered crops used for industrial purposes, like making detergent.

Until now, the department simply asked companies to notify federal officials before planting industrial crops and randomly checked the crops. The department received five such notices in 2003 alone; between 1993 and 2001 it received just 10 notices.

Cindy Smith, a deputy administrator of biotech regulation for the agency, said that the crops will be routinely tested under the new rule to be issued Wednesday.

"The government will inspect these field tests much more often than the typical food and feed field tests, as well as audit company records of those field tests," Smith said.

Each site where a test crop is planted will be inspected seven times — five during the growing season and twice after harvest, Smith said.

The food industry and watchdog groups had complained that there was a lack of oversight.

Smith said the new rule will require industrial crops to be surrounded by an unplanted perimeter of 50 feet to ensure that the plants don't mix with others nearby. Biotech farmers also will have to plant the industrial crops at least one mile away from food crops and dedicate farm equipment to cultivate, maintain and harvest the industrial crops.

The government has allowed most genetically engineered crops to be harvested and mixed into the food supply for humans and animals. Industrial crops must be segregated because they produce chemical compounds for making items like laundry soap and paper — a health risk if found in the food supply.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization said it agrees with the new rule.

The food industry is pressing the government and biotech companies to make sure medicines or industrial products grown in biotech fields stay out of the food chain.

The National Food Processors Association said the department should issue further restrictions.

"We have to have 100 percent assurance," said Tim Willard, a spokesman for the group. "We don't think they're there yet in terms of full oversight and controls and containment."

The department doesn't require biotech firms to publicly disclose what they are growing, arguing it is protected trade information.

Watchdog groups said that this needs to change.

"The public doesn't know what's being grown, where it's being grown, what compounds are being engineered into these plants," says Greg Jaffe, biotech director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the public should be allowed to comment on new crops.

"This is a grand opportunity for the USDA to step up to the plate and take responsibility for the environmental and public health risks of biotechnology crops, to set up a new stronger regulatory system that has more opportunities for public input," Mellon said.

The interim rule goes into effect immediately but expires December 2004. Smith said officials want to gather public comments about it before making it a long-term regulation.