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U.S. consumer groups to sue USDA over GMO medicine crops

(Thursday, March 6, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Randy Fabi, Reuters: WASHINGTON A coalition of U.S. environmental and consumer groups Wednesday threatened to sue the U.S. Agriculture Department unless it temporarily halts planting of biotech crops engineered to produce medicinal and industrial products.

At issue is the worry that some new kinds of bioengineered crops could inadvertently contaminate corn, soybeans, and other nearby crops grown for human and livestock food.

A coalition of 11 groups, including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and Center for Food Safety, accused the USDA of allowing the experimental crops to be planted without conducting required environmental risk assessments.

Without such analyses, the USDA "is risking permanent contamination of the environment and our food supply with numerous drugs and chemicals," said Peter Jenkins, attorney for the Center for Food Safety.

USDA officials were not immediately available for comment.

The coalition of activist groups has long criticized biotech crops, even those approved for food and livestock feed, saying they may harm the environment and could cause an increase in allergic reactions in consumers.

American farm groups and foodmakers are strong supporters of biotech foods but are split on the future of so-called "bio-pharm" crops.

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

The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration are expected to propose new rules for growing medicinal crops this week.

Industry sources said on Tuesday that the new proposed rules will require U.S. farmers to plant experimental pharmaceutical crops further away from nearby fields with food crops. They will also urge growers to use completely separate farm equipment when planting, cultivating, and harvesting the pharmaceutical plants, the sources said.

No pharmaceutical crops have yet been approved by U.S. regulators for commercial use.

Last year, about 300 acres of American farmland in Hawaii, Iowa, and other states were planted with experimental pharmaceutical crops.

The crops have attracted new attention since late last year, when ProdiGene, a small Texas biotech company, paid about $3 million in fines and costs to settle USDA allegations that the firm accidentally contaminated food crops with its pharmaceutical corn.

The activist coalition said that incident showed the new crops pose a danger to the nation's food supply. The groups said they will file a lawsuit against USDA unless the government imposed a temporary ban by early May.