A Maryland biotechnology firm seeking to conduct the first East Coast field tests of a genetically engineered pesticide has come under heavy criticism from an opponent of such genetic experiments.

Crop Genetics International was accused by Jeremy Rifkin, whose activism has been instrumental in delaying similar tests in California and Missouri, with "inadequacies, omissions and illegalities" in seeking to bypass 15 of 19 toxicology tests required before field tests can proceed at Beltsville and on the Eastern Shore.

Rifkin's opposition was contained in a letter delivered yesterday to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"This will be a major environmental battleground, like toxic waste," Rifkin said in an interview. "It will define how rigorous or lax we will be on {regulation of} biogenetic pollution."

The company has conducted limited laboratory tests on the toxin, a natural bacteria known as Bt, which when added to another bacteria known as CXC, is injected into a corn stalk. The resulting organism is lethal to the European corn borer, which causes $400 million in damage in the United States annually.

Company Chairman John B. Henry said his firm decided to limit the tests based on discussion with EPA officials over two years. "It's like the debate on national defense: How much spending is enough?" Henry asked.

The firm, which Henry said has relied heavily on a paid advisory board of former federal officials, is seeking EPA's approval to proceed with the field tests on one-acre sites off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway at Beltsville and near Ingleside, in Queen Anne's County. The company plans to conduct similar tests in France. At Beltsville, they are to be conducted jointly with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

"I wouldn't have entered into an agreement if I thought it was hazardous," said Waldemar Klassen, director of the USDA research facility. "CGI has proposed a good environmental fit. This will only attack {European corn borer} caterpillars attacking the corn."

In addition to seeking the toxicity test waivers from EPA, the firm is attempting to proceed without a pest permit from another branch of the USDA under the federal plant pest act. However, the USDA's animal and plant inspection service has refused to waive its permit requirement.

Comments on the company's application, filed Dec. 16, are due Monday. Then EPA will make public its own internal risk assessment and convene a scientific advisory panel at the end of March to consider the proposal.

Rifkin's group, the Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends, filed its protest yesterday, and Rifkin indicated it was just the opening shot in what he considers an all-out war. "Until they do the appropriate tests and studies, we're prepared to fight this down the line," he said.

Not all environmentalists are as outraged as Rifkin. "We certainly don't see it as posing a major threat of ecological disruption," said Margaret Mellon, director of the National Wildlife Federation's biotech policy center. She characterized as "minor complaints" Rifkin's comments on the toxicity test waivers. Bt has been widely used and tested by other companies, she said.

"This small-scale experiment poses a very low risk," said Becky Goldberg, head of the Environmental Defense Fund's biotech program. "The organism doesn't disperse very well."

Rifkin, however, noted the acknowledgement in the company's application that the endophyte had been spread by cutting tools during greenhouse studies. "The bacteria was demonstrated to survive in corn seed, in corn debris and in standing stalks," he said. "CGI's testing . . . is clearly inadequate."

Rifkin raised a specter of the biogenetic pesticide spreading from the corn stalk to other plants such as weeds, making them insect resistent and, therefore, running rampant over the countryside.

"How many serious weeds of rangeland, forests and cropland are now kept in check by insect feeding?" Rifkin asked. "It is very difficult to control weeds on rangeland because of the vast acreages involved . . . ."

Despite Rifkin's reservations, the company's Henry said there is no risk of the genetically altered bacteria spreading. "It will not put on tennis shoes and run across the field. I've spent two million dollars proving it."

Klassen, the USDA official, said the worst case scenarios raised by Rifkin "obviously have to be assessed, but that's part of the reason we have to get out into the field with it" for tests.

l. The pesticide is transferred to plant by stabbing a loaded needle into the stem of the 2- to 3-week old corn stalk seedling 10 to 20 centimeters above the soil.

2. When European corn borer eats treated plant, it dies.

SOURCE: Crop Genetics International and U.S. Dept. of Agriculture