NRDC-Led Coalition Calls for USDA to Stop Environmentally Harmful Releases of Genetically Engineered Crops

Groups also demand agency take approved crops off the market

WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 26, 2000) - Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has allowed farmers and agribusinesses to plant genetically engineered fruits and vegetables without sufficient environmental safeguards. Today, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and five other environmental organizations filed a legal petition demanding that the agency stop approving the use of genetically engineered crops without adequately determining the threat they pose to "non-target" insects and animals, and other plants. The groups -- NRDC, Center for Food Safety, Environmental Defense, Greenpeace, Sierra Club and Union of Concerned Scientists -- also call for the agency to withdraw its existing approvals of genetically engineered crops that pose environmental risks until it changes its policy.

"Earlier this month the National Academy of Sciences published a study that found that USDA policy on genetically modified crops does not protect the environment," says David Adelman, an NRDC attorney and scientist. "We need to know a lot more about the impact of these crops before we introduce them helter skelter into the environment."

Genetically engineered crops currently on the market include potatoes, tomatoes, soybeans, corn and squash, and other engineered crops are in development. U.S. farmers planted 37 million acres of genetically engineered crops in 1999 alone. The crops contain genes from viruses, bacteria, and a variety of species.

The USDA’s system for testing genetically engineered crops is rigged, says Adelman. The agency maintains that it allows farmers and agribusinesses to cultivate genetically engineered crops only if the crops do not pose a threat to other crops or plant species. However, the agency does not require growers to conduct specific environmental tests or meet specific standards. Instead, USDA defers to agribusinesses to determine which tests are necessary. Without any real oversight, these companies conduct inadequate studies to avoid negative findings.

The major risks of genetically engineered crops, such as squash and rapeseed, are that they may become aggressive weeds that displace local plant species or, worse, reduce the genetic diversity of key agricultural crops. The United States already has experienced problems with alien organisms accidentally introduced from abroad, including gypsy moths, kudzu and zebra mussels. Although these "exotics" are not genetically engineered, they illustrate what can happen when new organisms are transplanted into native ecosystems. Genetically engineered crops also may threaten so-called non-target organisms, such as bees, butterflies or soil microbes, which could disrupt local ecological systems or harm endangered and threatened species.

The USDA’s recent approval of two varieties of genetically engineered squash is a glaring example of the agency’s failure to protect the environment. The squashes were engineered to be resistant to several plant viruses. The agency made its decision based on a survey of only 14 plants. No other studies were conducted.

"USDA’s squash study does not meet even the most rudimentary scientific standards," says Linda Greer, a NRDC senior scientist. "USDA appears perfectly satisfied with qualitative rationalizations and incomplete field studies that, in some cases, have ignored important contradictory data." Dr. Greer’s criticisms were echoed by the National Academy of Sciences’ recent report, which concluded that the USDA approval of the two squashes was not adequately supported by scientific studies. The academy called for the agency to "establish a scientifically rigorous monitoring program."

The environmental groups are demanding USDA stop approving the release of genetically engineered crops that are indigenous to the United States, have interbreeding wild relatives, or may harm non-target organisms until the agency:

  • establishes requirements for field testing to approve genetically engineered crops for commercial cultivation;
  • initiates an independent research program to assess the potential environmental risks from genetically engineered crops and conducts studies to ensure that they safe; and
  • completes an environmental impact statement on its regulations governing approval of genetically engineered crops for commercial release under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The groups also are specifically demanding that USDA immediately withdraw its approval of the two varieties of genetically engineered squash for commercial release.

At a time when the development of genetically engineered crops is coming under increasing public scrutiny, it is all the more important that the public have confidence in USDA’s regulatory process. "The National Academy of Sciences’ recent report on genetically engineered crops is a wake-up call for USDA to revamp its regulations," says Adelman. "USDA must abandon its ad hoc approach and institute rigorous requirements for evaluating genetically engineered crops."

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 400,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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