GMO experiments receive questionable oversight

Central Coast corn used for varied experiments

Washington -- At a secret location among the vineyards of California's Central Coast, a plot of genetically engineered corn is producing proteins for industrial and pharmaceutical uses, including an experimental vaccine for hepatitis B.
The altered corn is growing with federal approval 100 feet from a steelhead stream in San Luis Obispo County, in designated critical habitat for the threatened California red-legged frog. Agriculture Department inspectors have reported two "incidents" at the site, including conventional corn sprouting in a 50-foot fallow zone, but the findings did not rise to the level of a fine or even to a formal notice of noncompliance for the company that planted it, Applied Biotechnology Institute Inc.

Details of Applied Biotechnology's inspections and hundreds of other field trials with genetically modified plants were obtained by Hearst Newspapers under Freedom of Information laws. The inspection reports and other Agriculture Department records present a picture of vast, swiftly expanding outdoor experimentation and industry-friendly oversight of those experiments.

The founder and president of Applied Biotechnology, John A. Howard, previously founded another company that was permanently banned from trials of genetically modified organisms - GMOs - after creating such contaminated messes in the Midwest that a half-million bushels of soybeans and more than 150 acres of corn had to be destroyed.

Yet since 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved the Applied Biotechnology Institute's little-known plantings, albeit with limits so strict that ears of corn must be locked up and plant remains must be buried 3 feet deep. Indeed, things are proceeding so well for Applied Biotechnology that Howard is seeking land to expand the 5-acre "pharming" operation.

The outdoor tests are at the leading edge of a technological revolution based on reordering the building blocks of life. The advent of GMOs has spawned global debate and protest over issues of consumer safety and the uncertain effects of altered genes on the environment.
Industry-friendly approach

The documents show how the obscure Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), part of the Agriculture Department, takes an industry-friendly approach in seeking to prevent contamination or economic harm from field trials.

Among the findings of a Hearst Newspapers investigation:

-- Minimal penalties. The Agriculture Department issued just two civil penalties for field trials since 2010 despite sending out nearly 200 notices of noncompliance - incidents from paperwork violations to lost seeds to modified plants sprouting where they shouldn't.

-- Monsanto mistakes. The Missouri biotech giant received at least 35 notices of noncompliance from 2010 through 2013, more than any other company. In 2010, the company paid a civil penalty for accidentally ginning experimental cotton in Texas two years earlier, an error that led to unapproved cottonseed meal and hulls being consumed by Texas livestock and exported to Mexico for animal feed. Monsanto blamed human error.

-- Natural perils. Dozens of times, heavy rains washed out or otherwise damaged test plots, raising the specter of unwanted dispersal of GMOs. Animals pose other threats. Birds, insects and larger animals don't distinguish between gene-altered crops and conventional varieties.

APHIS says it has approved nearly 20,000 field-trial permits, covering an estimated 100,000 plantings of gene-altered crops. The agency says it has no firm count.

Once genetically engineered crops become commercialized, no government agency tracks them. That underscores the importance of monitoring field trials, particularly with crops like alfalfa and canola, and grasses with sexually compatible wild relatives.
Economic risks

Besides threatening the environment, escaped or unapproved crops can generate economic problems, as did last year's discovery of wheat engineered to resist Monsanto's Roundup weed-killer.

Bill Lambrecht | September 7, 2014