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No deal on biotech food: Industry, opponents fail to agree on recommendation for regulation

(Friday, May 30, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Justin Gillis Washington Post: An elaborate, secretive effort in Washington over the past two years to negotiate a truce between the agricultural biotechnology industry and its critics has ended in failure, with the parties unable to agree on a plan to strengthen biotech regulations in this country.

The talks foundered in recent weeks amid a dispute over whether to seek legislation from Congress that would have given the Food and Drug Administration strong power to judge the safety of foods containing biotech ingredients, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.

The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a foundation-funded group in Washington that sponsored the attempt at compromise, is scheduled to issue a final report today that describes the effort but not the core dispute that killed it. About 20 people and organizations took part in the initiative, ranging from Monsanto Co. of St. Louis, which controls most of the world market for agricultural biotech products, to Washington consumer and public interest groups that have long complained of what they consider to be poor federal regulation of the industry.

The failure to agree means, in the near term, that the groups won't be able to go to Capitol Hill or to regulatory agencies to present a united front in favor of tighter rules, as they had hoped to do. That will leave intact a status quo widely perceived as favoring the biotech industry. Longer term, the collapse of talks raises serious new issues for the American food industry, which has lately grown nervous about agricultural biotechnology.

Food companies could respond to the breakdown by lobbying Congress for tighter regulations without Monsanto's consent, essentially trying to out-politic the biotech industry. And, absent a regulatory scheme that suits them, the food companies will have to decide whether to try to kill particular biotech crops, such as genetically altered wheat, that they fear could cost them sales in foreign markets resistant to the idea of genetic engineering. They might do that by refusing to buy biotech crops, something a few food companies have already done on a small scale.

The Pew Initiative spent some $2 million on the effort to reach compromise, sponsoring 60 meetings and conference calls of agricultural biotech "stakeholders," commissioning reports, polls and studies. It is by far the most elaborate attempt anyone has made at a master compromise on the issues swirling around the genetic manipulation of plants and animals.

Several participants in the discussions said they were deeply disappointed at the failure to reach a deal, but they also emphasized that they had accomplished some important goals nonetheless. Warring parties built new relationships with one another that may yet lead to compromise agreements on piecemeal issues, they said. And the group has agreed to reconvene in a year or 18 months to see if positions have shifted enough that a compromise might be possible then.

The Pew effort is a window into a central but little-known aspect of how Washington works. It is common for the factions in a dispute, often with prodding from Capitol Hill, to meet privately to see if they can reach a consensus. When they do, legislation will often sail through Congress as if by magic, with lawmakers relieved of the burden of having to mediate the conflict. When the parties can't agree, Congress is often paralyzed.

Participants in the Pew discussion would not say publicly what issues foiled their attempt at compromise. But speaking on condition of anonymity, several people knowledgeable about the talks said the core issue was whether to go to Capitol Hill to get legislation to prohibit the introduction of new biotech foods without detailed FDA certification that they are safe.

Consumer and environmental groups and several academics who took part in the discussion felt that was the way to go and pushed the group to agree to new federal legislation, the people said. At least some food companies, though usually wary of too much federal oversight, took that position. But Monsanto, in particular, strongly resisted the idea of a new law and favored what would amount to a tweaking of the patchwork regulatory system already in place to oversee biotech foods, the people said.

"It's not our view to always go to the Hill," said Linda A. Strachan, Monsanto's representative in the Pew talks.

The two factions attempted a compromise that would have called for an initial attempt to get a stronger regulatory system through administrative changes, to be followed -- if that failed -- by a unanimous appeal to Capitol Hill for legislation, the sources said. But the Monsanto-led faction would not agree to the legislative proposal in sufficient detail to satisfy consumer and environmental groups, which would not agree to go forward without detailed commitments, the people said.

One reason the biotech industry was so resistant, knowledgeable people said, was that the Bush administration just filed suit in the World Trade Organization to overturn a ban on many gene-altered crops in European countries. As part of that case, the administration will take the position that the current American regulatory system is fine. European consumer and environmental groups consider it to be egregiously inadequate. As the Pew discussions unfolded, the biotech industry grew wary of endorsing any compromise that would appear to support the European view and thus undermine the Bush legal case, the knowledgeable people said.

"Timing counts for a lot, and our timing was atrocious," said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America.

The FDA reviews biotech foods for safety, and the agency's action on a new biotech crop is often characterized in press accounts as approval. But legally, it isn't.

The FDA operates a voluntary system under which biotech companies decide on their own how to test the safety of their products, submit summaries of their data -- not the full data -- to the FDA, and win a letter that says, in so many words, that the agency has reviewed the company's conclusion that its new products are safe and has no further questions. In most cases, the data on which the safety conclusion is based remain secret. It is a much less rigorous system than the FDA procedures for reviewing new drugs or food additives, in which the agency will spend months if not years going over company claims in detail.

Gene-altered corn and soybeans, mostly from Monsanto, have been planted widely on American farms in recent years. They have been tweaked in a way that allows the crops to resist insects or better tolerate weed killers. The crops are mostly fed to animals, but some processed ingredients, particularly oil and lecithin from altered soybeans, appear in the majority of products on American grocery shelves.

In general, most scientists consider the current generation of biotech products safe to eat. The industry, noting that hundreds of millions of people have eaten genetically altered ingredients, argues that there has never been a convincing case of harm. Most environmental groups acknowledge that to be true, but counter that there have been few long-term studies of the effects. They also argue that the products pose at least theoretical environmental risks that haven't been studied thoroughly. Consumer groups are tactically allied with the environmentalists, supporting the technology in principle but wanting a tougher regulatory system that answers safety and environmental questions more thoroughly before a new crop is commercialized.

Complicating matters further, companies are developing not just biotech plants, but also genetically altered animals, such as a salmon that grows twice as fast as its natural counterparts. Many biotech companies are tweaking food crops like corn to get them to produce pharmaceuticals or industrial chemicals that aren't meant for human consumption.

The Pew discussions deliberately excluded environmental groups that think biotechnology is inherently immoral or dangerous, as well as libertarian groups that think the only problem is too much federal regulation. Participants had to accept the premises that biotechnology is here to stay and that it has to be regulated properly. That still left a wide range of opinion.Several participants said that while the Pew discussions deadlocked, sentiment could change rapidly if a biotech-related disaster were to occur, such as scientific evidence that the new foods are harming people.

"My view is that the American public is generally comfortable with biotech crops and animals, but they don't know a lot about them," said Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology issues at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a participant in the Pew discussions. "If a crisis were to occur, there could be a very swift and strong backlash against the technology."