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Report Says More Farmers Don't Follow Biotech Rules

The New York Times June 19, 2003 By ANDREW POLLACK

A new study, drawn from government data, shows that more farmers are failing to comply with standards governing the planting of genetically modified corn than the industry has claimed.

Nearly one-fifth of farms growing the main type of genetically engineered corn, BT corn, are violating government rules aimed at preserving the usefulness of the corn, a consumer group said yesterday.

The group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that 19 percent of the farms growing BT corn did not plant at least 20 percent of their acres with corn other than the modified variety, as required by the Environmental Protection Agency. That figure is higher than the 14 percent noncompliance rate reported by the biotechnology industry.

"Noncompliance on this scale shows that current regulations aren't up to the task," said Gregory Jaffe, author of the report, adding that the government should stop relying on biotech companies to enforce the rules.

BT corn contains a gene from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium that causes the plant to produce a toxin that kills the corn borer and some other pests. But overuse of the crop could result in pests becoming immune to the BT toxin, which would diminish the effectiveness not only of the corn, but also of BT sprays widely used as a natural pesticide by organic farmers.

So the E.P.A. requires farmers to plant 20 percent of their corn acres with non-BT corn, to serve as a refuge for insects that would otherwise be killed by the toxin.

The agricultural biotechnology companies that sell BT corn seeds have monitored compliance with a telephone survey.

But the center received its data from the Agriculture Department under a freedom-of-information request. The data was for three states - Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska - that account for about half of all the BT corn grown in the nation. About 19 percent did not plant a large enough refuge, with 13 percent planting no refuge at all, the data showed.

One reason for the discrepancy was that the industry surveyed only large farms. The center also looked at small farms, which had a higher rate of noncompliance.

Lisa Dry, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, dismissed the significance of noncompliance by small farms, saying those farms account for only 8 percent of the BT corn grown.

Mr. Jaffe of the consumer group underscored the importance of having refuges close to BT corn, the reason the requirement is for each farm, not for each county.

An E.P.A. spokesman said the agency was evaluating the report.

Another report released yesterday by an activist group said that there had been almost 40,000 field tests of genetically modified crops authorized by the Agriculture Department from 1987 to 2002. The report, by the United States Public Interest Research Group, said that the Agriculture Department had acted as a rubber stamp, rejecting only 3.5 percent of the applications, usually because they were incomplete or had minor paperwork errors.

The report also said that in an increasing number of field trials - nearly 70 percent last year - the identity of the gene being put into the crop was not publicly disclosed because it was considered confidential business information.

David Hegwood, special counsel to the agriculture secretary, said in an interview that the current rejection rate was 8 percent and that the department gave robust scrutiny to trials.

In yet another development related to genetically modified crops, the Bush administration gave signs of pulling away from a proposed requirement that companies notify the Food and Drug Administration before putting a new genetically modified crop on the market. Right now, consultation with the F.D.A. is voluntary, though the agency and companies say it is always done.

The proposal was made in January 2001 in the final days of the Clinton administration. But Lester Crawford, deputy F.D.A. commissioner, told Congress on Tuesday that the regulation was "not a pressing public health priority" because the voluntary system was working.

The mandatory notification was favored by biotechnology companies, which thought it would improve consumer confidence in the regulation of biotech foods. Opponents of such foods had mixed feelings, saying the proposed regulation was an improvement but did not go far enough in ensuring F.D.A. scrutiny.

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