Scientists Confirm Risks Of Genetically Engineered Crops
by Richard Caplan
November 2, 2003
With hardly a mention in the American press, the results of the largest field study ever conducted on genetically engineered crops were just made public in Europe. The British government research concluded that genetically engineered crops could lead to significantly lower numbers of insects, an important part of the wildlife food chain.
Of the three crops examined - corn, canola, and sugar beet - the genetically engineered varieties of canola and sugar beet were found to be more harmful to wildlife than conventional varieties. The results for corn were inconclusive because the chemical used to kill weeds in non-genetically engineered fields was an insecticide so dangerous that the European Union has now decided to ban it.
The environmental risks of genetically engineered crops are many, and this research only examined a small subsection. For example, the long term impacts of genetically engineered crops on the soil, or the impacts of gene flow from genetically engineered varieties to conventional varieties, were not examined in this research, and the incomplete research on these two issues alone raises serious issues that should necessitate caution before going forward with commercial plantings of genetically engineered varieties. But with only the findings of the research from the new studies, overseen by Britain's Scientific Steering Committee, the independent research work recommended that canola and beet should not be grown in Britain.
In the United States, more than 40,000 Department of Agriculture (USDA)-authorized field trials have taken place over the past 16 years, with each trial an opportunity to examine the environmental impacts of genetically engineered crops on the environment. Yet because of a policy seemingly designed to find nothing, nothing has been found.
Thus the British government was able to determine in three years of research what the U.S. government and biotechnology industry couldn't figure out in sixteen.
Last week, the USDA released information about compliance with their field testing regulations. After years of pressure to release this information under the Freedom of Information Act by U.S. PIRG and other groups, the agency announced that 115 violations of their regulations have taken place over the past decade, that most were not previously disclosed, and that in almost all cases the response to institutions breaking the rules was nothing more than a phone call or letter.
So we are left with an unfortunate situation: the most recent and comprehensive research on the environmental risks of genetically engineered crops indicate negative environmental impact, and yet the crops are already planted widely in the United States. Of course the situation is even more serious, because the risks associated with genetically engineered crops are not limited to their environmental impacts, but also include human health risks. While oversight at USDA regarding environmental risk is inadequate, oversight at the Food and Drug Administration regarding human health risk is almost nonexistent, since the agency does not even require any mandatory pre-market safety assessments for genetically engineered crops.
Genetically engineered crops were introduced in the U.S. before regulations were put in place to handle them., Research on their environmental and human health risks increasingly points to serious problems. Hopefully the most recent round of studies will jolt U.S. regulatory agencies into taking appropriate action to protect the American public.
Richard Caplan has been a Food Safety Advocate with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington, DC since 1999. U.S. PIRG is the national lobby office for the state PIRGs, non-profit, non-partisan public interest advocacy organizations active around the country.