Better safeguards are needed to protect the public from ecological and health risks of genetic experiments with crops, a consumer advocacy group said Thursday.
California has 1,435 experimental crop sites, the California Public Interest Research Group said in a report that called for government agencies to exert more control over field test applications and conduct more research on potential damage to the environment and public health.
"Our environment is being used as a laboratory for widespread experimentation on genetically engineered organisms with profound risks that once released, can never be recalled," said Julie Miles, Safe Foods Campaign director for the group.
The report, produced by the group's national parent organization, recommends that all field testing cease unless independent testing proves there is no effect on the health of humans or the environment, the public is informed of field test sites, already commercialized products are labeled and biotechnology corporations are held responsible for any harm.
Proponents of genetic engineering denounced the report.
"It is unbelievable that this report is being put out there as some type of news by this organization," said Lisa Dry, spokeswoman for Biotechnology Industry Organization. Dry said the standards set by the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the USDA are very strict.
Genetic engineering is the process of splicing genes of unrelated species to create new organisms. Biotechnology companies began using the technology for agricultural applications in the 1980s. They touted benefits ranging from better-tasting fruit and vegetables to protein-laden produce, but today, the technology focuses more on protecting plants from insects or viruses.
Experimental crops nationwide use genetic engineering to test different genetic combinations for products ranging from pharmaceuticals to industrial chemicals, Miles said. "They are doing a lot they shouldn't be doing until we determine the implications," she said.
California follows Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa and Puerto Rico in the number of test sites. Critics of the testing say the government does not adequately measure environmental risks of genetic engineering, including the creation of pesticide-resistant species, the harm caused to plants or animals and the potential for the movement of pollen from a test site into crops intended for human consumption.
Supporters of genetic engineering, such as Henry Miller, a senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and former director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology, said the benefits of field testing outweigh any risks.
In three years, the test crops in the United States have not caused any environmental or health problems, he said. And genetically engineered produce could aid in combating health problems such as cardiovascular disease, he said.
"Asking for a moratorium on field testing of gene-spliced plants is tantamount to asking for a moratorium on antibiotics or blood transfusions," Miller said.
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Top areas of the country for testing of genetically engineered crops and the number of test sites:
1 Hawaii: 3,275
2 Illinois: 2,832
3 Iowa: 2,820
4 Puerto Rico: 2,296
5 California: 1,435
6 Idaho: 1,060
7 Minnesota: 1,055
8 Nebraska: 971
9 Wisconsin: 918
10 Indiana: 886
Genetically engineered crops in California that were tested most often:
Source: California Public Interest Research Group