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U.S. District Judge orders USDA to disclose 'biopharm' locations in Hawaii

(Thursday, Aug. 5, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Sean Hao Honolulu Advertiser:
The federal government must reveal where companies grow genetically modified pharmaceutical crops in Hawai'i, a judge ruled yesterday.

Public interest groups are seeking the information to force the government to study the environmental impact of the crops they see as potentially dangerous. The government and industry contend public disclosure could lead to crop vandalism and corporate espionage of trade secrets.

After weighing the arguments, U.S. District Judge David Ezra ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture to identify where four companies have received permits for open-field testing of pharmaceutical crops in Hawai'i and to reveal the locations to the environmental watchdog group Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit that challenges food production technologies.

"It's definitely a victory," said Isaac Moriwake, an attorney for Earthjustice. "It's basically an affirmation that the defendants haven't been able to show that this kind of information is confidential."

Ezra gave the USDA another 90 days to prove that releasing the locations to the public would cause irreparable damage to the biotech industry. That step could force biotech companies to look elsewhere to conduct their pharmaceutical crop tests, a biotech industry representative said yesterday.

"It's disappointing," said Lisa Dry, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. If crop locations were made public, it would be "a real detriment for continuing to do business in that area. Basically it would be viewed as an unfriendly business environment for technology of any sort."

Earthjustice sought the locations of so-called biopharms to force the USDA to conduct environmental impact statements before allowing open-field crop research. Biopharming is a relatively new area of research where plants are engineered to produce nonfood items, such as drugs or industrial chemicals. Without confirmation of the locations, Earthjustice would have difficulty making the case for an environmental impact statement.

Ezra said yesterday that the locations of such tests don't constitute confidential business information. He also said the government and the Biotechnology Industry Organization failed to provide sufficient evidence that such crops would be damaged if their locations were revealed.

Representatives for both sides of the issue said this would be the first time in the United States that locations of biopharm tests would be revealed to an outside party. That could set a precedent for similar disclosures in other states and could pave the way for disclosing the locations of all genetically modified crop research.

In Hawai'i, Monsanto Co., the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, ProdiGene Inc. and Garst Seed Co. have been granted permits to test biopharm crops. Under Ezra's order, the locations of the testing will be disclosed to Earthjustice, but they must keep the information confidential for at least 90 days.

Environmental groups and food processors contend that open-field testing of biopharm crops is racing ahead of what is known about potential risks to the environment, people and the food supply. Industry officials contend that government regulations sufficiently minimize such risks.

Dry said research into using plants to produce drugs or industrial chemicals holds promise for producing compounds cheaper and faster than in factories. The seed-crop industry employs an estimated 1,190 people in Hawai'i in relatively high-wage jobs. In the past decade, the value of the state's seed-crop industry, 40 percent of which is estimated to involve genetically engineered crops, has grown fivefold, to a record $50.5 million. The amount spent on biopharm crop tests is unknown, but represents a small fraction of the industry in Hawai'i.

Hawai'i leads all states in open-air test sites of genetically engineered crops.

Michael Rodemeyer, executive director for the independent Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, said there are strong arguments on both sides of the disclosure issue.

"Certainly there are ways to make more information available to consumers," he said. "It's not clear that crop location information is really going to help people understand more about what these safety issues are.

"It may give them a greater sense of confidence, but that has to in turn be weighed against the potential that these crops could end up being destroyed which may end up spreading some of these crops around."