Gene-Altered Crops Denounced

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By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Environmental groups yesterday called for a moratorium on open-air tests of crops genetically engineered to produce medicines and vaccines, citing a federal court's conclusion last week that the Agriculture Department repeatedly broke the law by allowing companies to plant such crops on hundred of acres in Hawaii.

In a toughly worded 52-page decision released without fanfare late last week, a U.S. District judge in Hawaii concluded that USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which grants permits for the planting of genetically engineered crops, should have first investigated whether the plants posed a threat to any of that state's hundreds of endangered species.

The corn and sugar cane plants, already harvested because the experiments involving them were completed before the case was decided, had been modified to produce human hormones, drugs and ingredients for vaccines against AIDS and hepatitis B.

"APHIS's utter disregard for this simple investigation requirement, especially given the extraordinary number of endangered and threatened plants and animals in Hawaii, constitutes an unequivocal violation of a clear congressional mandate," wrote Judge J. Michael Seabright in his Aug. 10 decision.

The ruling is the first by a federal court on the controversial practice of "bio-pharming," in which crops are engineered to produce potentially therapeutic human proteins. But it is not the first damning federal critique of APHIS's oversight. A December 2005 audit by the Agriculture Department's Office of Inspector General found multiple failings in the agency's enforcement of research rules for gene-altered plants.

APHIS spokeswoman Rachel Iadicicco said yesterday that the agency had already corrected the major problems cited in the 2005 report and had recently made policy changes to satisfy the court's concerns, as well. In addition, she said, APHIS is crafting a sweeping "programmatic" environmental impact statement addressing larger, long-standing concerns about its oversight of biotech crops.

But opponents said they have heard such assurances before.

"We are asking the judge to enjoin the issuance of any biopharma permits anywhere in the country unless and until APHIS completes a programmatic analysis of their regulatory program," said Paul H. Achitoff, managing attorney for Earthjustice in Honolulu, which litigated the case with the Washington-based Center for Food Safety.

The judge has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday to decide what remedies to impose.

The court ruling is the latest in a decade-long struggle that has pitted biotech companies against an uneasy coalition of environmentalists and conventional food producers and distributors.

Advocates believe that some drugs and vaccines may be produced more economically in crops than in the laboratory cultures that are commonly used today. Some even envision "edible vaccines," such as bananas laden with proteins that would boost blood levels of protective antibodies -- an attractive strategy for developing countries, where the refrigeration needed for many conventional vaccines is often not available.

But opponents fear that ordinary crops may become contaminated with drug-spiked versions grown in open fields, and that unwanted drug exposures from foods could trigger allergic reactions or other problems in people or animals.


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