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Green groups sue USDA to stop bio-pharm planting

(Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Randy Fabi, Reuters, 11/13/03:

WASHINGTON -- A coalition of environmental groups and consumer advocates sued the U.S. Agriculture Department in federal court Wednesday to try to halt the experimental planting of biotech crops engineered to make medicine.

Environmentalists, consumer advocates, and food industry groups have urged the USDA to impose stricter regulations on pharmaceutical crops, fearing the unapproved plants could accidentally slip into the food supply.

Biotech companies like Dow Chemical Co. and Monsanto Co. have experimented with corn, soybeans, tobacco, rice, and sugar crops as a cheaper way to mass-produce medicines to treat a range of human ailments.

The coalition, which includes Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety, accused the USDA of allowing the experimental crops to be planted in open fields without assessing the risk to other crops, wildlife, and humans.

The lawsuit was filed in a federal district court in Hawaii, one of the top producing states of pharmaceutical crops.

"The existing regulatory system merely assumes that growing these crops is harmless, even in places where they can contaminate the environment and get into the food supply," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director for Center for Food Safety.

A USDA spokesman would not comment on the lawsuit.

The biotech industry said USDA's regulatory system was effective.

"This lawsuit can only serve to impede the potential medical benefits of the technology," said Lisa Dry, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Before field-testing pharmaceutical crops, biotech companies must obtain a USDA permit that sets strict planting requirements to minimize environmental risks. This includes planting experimental crops at certain distances away from other crops and cleaning farm equipment.

A Monsanto spokesman said the company has decided to shut down its plant-made pharmaceuticals program to cut costs and focus its resources on its seeds and biotechnology businesses. The St. Louis-based company said it expects to complete the process by the end of the year.

In March, the USDA imposed tougher rules on planting industrial and pharmaceutical crops after a Texas biotech firm was accused of accidentally contaminating other crops. Privately held ProdiGene Inc. last year agreed to pay about $3 million to settle the matter.