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How tough are the crop cops?

(Friday, June 11, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Kristen Philipkoski, Wired, 06/02/04:
An environmental watchdog group released a report Wednesday criticizing the Bush administration for being too secretive about its approval process for growing crops that contain drugs.

The Department of Agriculture said it had already planned to outline more transparent, if not stricter, regulations for growing these crops. While the USDA changes have not been outlined specifically, activist groups are skeptical.

The report (PDF), written by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that following a recent lull in applications to plant pharmaceutical crops, interest from biotech companies is increasing. Researchers have filed 16 new applications for permits in the past year, the report says. The majority of proposals for growing drugs in plants -- a method that could be cheaper and more efficient than present-day methods -- call for using food crops, such as corn and barley.

Critics say the practice raises the possibility of drugs winding up in someone's dinner. And, they add, using non-food crops wouldn't be a panacea either. Five of the 16 applications propose using tobacco. One method researchers use to carry genes containing a drug into plants is through a virus called the tobacco mosaic virus, which could spread to other crops, said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Center for Food Safety.

"It's very hard to contain plant viruses," Gurian-Sherman said. "The tobacco mosaic virus can be very stable, and it can also infect food crops like the tomato. We've seen no public risk assessment of any kind about what the potential hazards are."

Compounding such concerns, critics say, is the fact that much of the information about the crops is kept secret, such as where they're located, how big the plot of land is, what pharmaceutical it will contain and the drug's potential hazards.

"The fact that they're purposely growing pharmaceutical drugs in food crops seems indefensible and foolhardy in the extreme," said Craig Culp, a spokesman for the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C.

Interest in planting pharmaceutical crops had waned after the USDA fined ProdiGene in 2002 for allowing experimental, genetically engineered corn to migrate to soybeans headed for the food supply. ProdiGene submitted four of the most recent applications, proposing pharmaceuticals in corn in Nebraska and Texas.

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA has been revamping its regulatory process for several months, said Meghan Thomas, an APHIS spokeswoman.

"We're looking at making confinement conditions and summary statistics available on a yearly basis on our website, as well as our risk-assessment data," Thomas said.

The location and other details about pharmaceutical crops will likely remain secret, however.

"The exact location is considered to be confidential business information," she said.

While he doesn't agree it's confidential business information, Greg Jaffe, the author of the CSPI report believes companies have good reasons for not disclosing addresses -- vandals have destroyed crops in the past.

"I would like to have all non-confidential business information disclosed," Jaffe said. "But as long as we live in a world where (vandalism) happens, my view is that it's legitimate to withhold the information."

The Center for Food Safety sued the USDA in Hawaii in 2003, asking the courts to force biotech companies to reveal the location of pharmaceutical crops. The group won in a lower court, and the USDA has appealed to a federal court.

Peter Jenkins, an attorney and policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, said other industries are held to a different standard from biotech when it comes to revealing project locations.

"If you're going to drill for oil or cut timber, you can't hide the place where you're going to do it," he said. "You have to have an open regulatory process. That's what our environmental laws say."

If the Center for Food Safety wins the Hawaii case, researchers performing field tests in the United States would be required to reveal the location of their crops, Jenkins said.

Source: http://www.wired.com/news/medtech/0,1286,63689,00.html