by Danielle Knight
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
of environmental, farmer and consumer groups took the U.S. government to court on Feb. 18 for registering genetically modified crops without adequate research on possible environmental and health impacts.
More than 650 organizations -- including Greenpeace and the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements -- filed a lawsuit against the EPA over the approval of crops genetically altered to contain the natural insecticide known as Bt.
Their action coincided with a meeting in Colombia of delegates from 170 countries who were negotiating agreement on such genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Environmental, consumer and public health groups said the environmental impact of such organisms had not been adequately studied and therefore should not be certified and available on the market.
"Genetically engineered crops are a threat to farmers, consumers, and the environment," said Charles Margulis, a genetic engineering specialist with Greenpeace. "The threat to farmers and the environment is imminent and requires immediate action."
A large percentage of the genetically modified crops on the market contained the Bt insecticide -- a natural bacterial toxin used for years as a spray by organic farmers who grow crops without using industrial pesticides.
Seed companies including Monsanto, Novartis and Pioneer Hi-Bred International have stated that altering crops to contain the toxin would decrease the need for chemical pesticides and therefore benefit the environment.
Instead of being flattered by the imitation, however, organic farmers and many scientists warned that the widespread use of Bt in biotech crops was likely to lead to insect resistance, thus robbing organic growers of one of their most critical tools.
approved the use of Bt in potatoes in 1995 and has since agreed to its use in corn and cotton. The spray has not caused resistance because in this form the toxin breaks down in sunlight and is not used often. But with Bt crops, insects are constantly bombarded with the chemical.
"The emergence of resistance will mean that Bt-crop growers will likely return to synthetic insecticides and organic growers and conventional farmers alike will lose an irreplaceable, safe biological pesticide," said Jane Rissler, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The coalition also warned that the EPA had not adequately studied if the Bt toxin could be carried to other plants through cross pollination, a process known as "geneflow" or "outcrossing." Reports of such cross pollination has been reported by farmers in Germany, the United States and Canada.
The impact of constant exposure to Bt on soil organisms and other insects also had not been studied, charged the groups.
"The EPA has shown a blatant disregard for federal law and its own regulations by approving Bt crops without fully assessing their environmental safety," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director at the Center for Food Safety and the lead counsel in the case. "Continuing failure to regulate this untested technology forces us to turn to the courts for protection."
An EPA spokesman said, however, that the agency had adequately tested Bt crops.
"EPA carefully makes sure that the biotech products we review fully comply with all legal requirements designed to ensure that they are environmentally sound and environmentally beneficial," said spokesman David Cohen. "We believe the actions we've taken with regard to Bt will be sustained against this legal challenge."
Organic food producers already have encountered problems over Bt crops. Chuck Walker, spokesperson for Terra Prima, an organic food producer based in the state of Wisconsin, said the company was forced to recall thousands of dollars worth of tortilla chips that had been contaminated with genetically engineered corn.
An organic farmer who supplied the corn to the company had not intentionally planted Bt corn, but the chips tested positive in a routine check made by organic food certifiers. Risking its reputation as a reliable organic food company, Terra Prima was forced to pull the product from stores in seven European countries, costing the company more than $100,000.
"We were the first organic food company that has had to pull a product from our shelves from GMO contamination," said Walker. "I am sure we will not be the last. Unless Bt is withdrawn it will soon contaminate fields across the nation."
Several European countries have been particularly cautious of allowing Bt crops to be grown within their borders. Britain recently announced it would wait three years before approving such crops.
In December, the highest court in France upheld the suspension of the growing permit for Bt corn there and Austria, Luxembourg, and Norway also banned the corn. Greece recently voted against EU approval of Bt corn, based on "reservations about possible effects on the environment and public health."
Fearing threats to their livelihood, farmers in developing countries have also strongly protested Bt crops. In India farmers raided small fields where Monsanto and government officials were testing Bt cotton.
"Our knowledge of these things is too scanty," said Tewolde Gebre Egziabher, a head environmental official in Ethiopia participating the Protocol negotiations. "Until proven not dangerous, they must be presumed dangerous."
March 1, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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