October 4, 1995
USDA Proposes to Abandon Oversight of Field Testing of
Genetically Engineered Organisms
On August 22, 1995, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
proposed a new rule to dramatically deregulate field testing
and commercialization of genetically engineered crops
(Federal Register 60:43567-73). According to the Union of
Concerned Scientists (UCS), a non-governmental organization
that closely follows this issue, the proposed rule will
exempt almost all transgenic plants from the current field
testing permitting process, leaving them subject only to
With very few exceptions, USDA would no longer consider
potential dangers of field tests as is required under the
current permitting program. Field tests of genetically
engineered plants, containing combinations of genes and
traits not possible in nature, may involve hundreds and
thousands of acres. UCS maintains that under such conditions
in many cases the novel genes may be transferred via pollen
from the crops to populations of wild relatives, potentially
disrupting whole ecosystems.
Most viral genes, including those not yet discovered, also
will be exempted from evaluation in the proposed rule,
leaving them subject only to notification requirements.
Genetic engineers take genes from viruses that cause plant
disease and splice them into crop plants, which by some
unknown mechanism makes the crops resistant to the disease.
Scientists, however, know very little about the ecological
implications of adding viral genes to plants.
In addition, the proposed rule would no longer require
companies to submit reports on field trials to USDA. The rule
would also expedite the commercialization of crop varieties
that are "closely related" to varieties already approved for
commercialization. However, the USDA does not define what the
term "closely related" means.
The Union of Concerned Scientists urges readers to write
letters telling the USDA that the proposal should be revised
to protect the environment from the risks of genetically
engineered crops. UCS suggests the following: 1. USDA should
require thorough evaluation and permits for all plants which
have wild relatives in the U.S. with which they can
interbreed. Flow of new genes from transgenic crops to wild
relatives may present serious ecological risks that should be
evaluated before field testing is allowed. (Under the
proposed rule, sunflowers engineered to produce insecticidal
toxins could be tested on thousands of acres without any
analysis of the possiblity of transgene flow, even though the
sunflower is a native plant with many wild relatives in the
2. USDA should require comprehensive evaluation and
individual permits for all plants engineered to contain virus
particles until more is known about the ecological impacts of
viral genes in crops.
3. USDA should continue to require companies to submit
reports on field tests that they conduct. This information is
critical to the public's ability to assess the safety of
field testing in the U.S.
4. USDA should not expedite the commercial approval of plant
varieties that are "closely related" to varieties already
commercialized. This provision potentially opens a huge
loophole for companies to avoid evaluations of new crop
varieties once they have obtained approval of one variety.
For example, a company that has received approval for a
variety determined to present little ecological risk may then
reengineer that variety to contain genes that do present
ecological concerns, but claim that the new variety is
closely related to the approved one. To further guard against
this happening, USDA should also carefully define "closely
related" so that no variety with a potential for ecological
impacts escapes a thorough evaluation.
5. USDA should provide data and scientific publications to
justify any deregulatory proposal.
Send letters before October 23 to:Docket No. 95-040-01,
Regulatory Analysis and Development PPD, USDA APHIS, Suite
3C034700 River Road, Unit 118Riverdale, MD 20737-1238.
Source/contact: Dr. Jane Rissler, Union of Concerned
Scientists, 1616 P St., NW, Washington, DC 20036; phone (202)
332-0900; fax (202) 332-0905; email email@example.com.
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