New York Times
January 3, 2006


By Andrew Pollack

The Department of Agriculture has failed to regulate field trials of
genetically engineered crops adequately, raising the risk of
unintended environmental consequences, according to a stinging
report issued by the department's own auditor.

The report, issued late last month by the department's Office of
Inspector General, found that biotechnology regulators did not always
notice violations of their own rules, did not inspect planting sites
when they should have and did not assure that the genetically
engineered crops were destroyed when the field trial was done.

In many cases, the report said, regulators did not even know the
locations of field trials for which they granted permits.

The regulatory branch "lacks basic information about the field test
sites it approves and is responsible for monitoring, including where
and how the crops are being grown, and what becomes of them at the end
of the field test," the report said.

The audit results are likely to renew calls by environmental groups
for tighter regulations. "Over all, I thought the report was
devastating," said Margaret Mellon, director of the food and
environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in

Critics say genetically engineered crops could cause environmental
harm, if, say, a gene for herbicide resistance spread to weeds, making
them harder to kill.

In addition, the critics say, there could be harm to public health if
a crop genetically engineered to produce a pharmaceutical or
industrial chemical, for instance, accidentally found its way into the
food supply.

The audit did not find any instances of known harm to public health or
the environment.

However, the report said that weaknesses in regulations and in the
internal management controls at the Department of Agriculture
"increase the risk that genetically engineered organisms will
inadvertently persist in the environment before they are deemed safe
to grow without regulation."

In a written response, the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant
Health Inspection Service, which regulates biotech field trials, said
that it was already taking steps to adopt 23 of the 28 recommendations
made by the inspector general, and that more changes were on the way.

W. Ron DeHaven, the administrator of the service, known as Aphis,
wrote in the response, "Since 1987, Aphis has safely regulated G.E.
organisms and provided oversight and enforcement for over 10,000 field
tests with no demonstrable negative environmental impacts having
arisen from these tests."

A biotechnology industry spokeswoman said the report would have little
effect because changes were already under way. "This is a report that
was pretty much obsolete before it was ever published," said the
spokeswoman, Lisa Dry of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

The inspector general's office, however, said that further
improvements would be required beyond those already planned.

Field trials are used to test experimental genetically engineered
crops. Crop developers proposed to use 67,000 acres for such tests in
2004, up from 8,700 acres in 1994.

Once crops have proved themselves in field trials, the Agriculture
Department can deregulate them, and seeds and harvested crops can be
sold pretty much like any other seeds and crops.

The main varieties of genetically modified corn, cotton and soybeans
grown in the United States have been deregulated.

The audit was conducted from May 2003 to April 2005 and involved
visits to 91 field test sites as well as looking at records. The
report said auditors found 13 instances of violations of rules at 11
of those sites.

One of the most controversial areas of agricultural biotechnology
involves genetically engineering crops to produce pharmaceuticals or
industrial chemicals. The Agriculture Department has stricter
requirements for those crops than for genetically modified crops meant
for food or animal feed.

However, the new report said the department often failed to enforce
those stricter requirements. In most cases the auditors checked, the
sites were not inspected five times each during field tests, as the
department had promised. Nor were they inspected twice after the trial
to make sure the crop was destroyed and the field fallow.

The report said that in two cases large harvests of pharmaceutical
crops remained in storage for more than a year after the field test
ended with regulators' not knowing of the storage facility or
approving it.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company