Resolved: That the United States should substantially change its federal agricultural policy.

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Source: The Nation, Dec 27, 1999 v269 i22 p19.

Title: Don't Look, Don't Find.(genetically-modified agriculture)
Author: Kristi Coale

Full Text COPYRIGHT 1999 The Nation Company L.P.

In an editorial published last spring, The Economist asserted that Americans weren't protesting genetically modified (GM) foods because they had too much faith in their regulatory system. If so, a close look into the regulatory process should cause massive disillusionment.

The regulatory system for genetically modified products is based on what many scientists believe is faulty logic, spelled out in a May 1992 Federal Register notice. The very title, "Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties," says a lot about how the FDA looks at GM foods: The agency sees no difference between a plant that is the product of traditional breeding methods and one generated through biotechnology. Based on this assumption, the FDA engages in a policy of "Don't Look, Don't Find."

What the FDA and the companies don't look for is any change in the plant resulting from the addition of a modified gene from a different plant or other organism. The FDA thus ignores some basic scientific realities of genetic engineering, namely that the introduction of a new gene into the genome of a plant has the potential to interfere with the ordinary functions of that plant. So a new gene could trigger the production of new antinutrients, toxins and allergens that scientists won't notice because the tests they use aren't designed to look for these compounds.

The absence of this type of testing was among the things the FDA's own researchers pointed out during the crafting of this policy during the Bush Administration. In documents obtained as part of a lawsuit brought by the Alliance for Bio-Integrity and several university scientists against the FDA-and made public this fall-agency scientists pointed out that the type of analysis proposed couldn't possibly detect changes in levels of toxins or the development of new toxins. And as the FDA policy evolved over time, these agency researchers lamented that the science was disappearing. In the end the FDA put together what several agency researchers referred to as a "what do I have to do to avoid trouble" document. One FDA scientist commented that the policy "reads like a biotech redbook...very pro-industry."

One place to look for an explanation for how this happened is the Bush White House. In 1991 the White House Council on Competitiveness released a report that spelled out its proposal for promoting the biotechnology industry; it included insuring that regulations were not created in such a way as to be a burden on the industry. Vice President Dan Quayle, the Administration point person on the council, later described the regulations as part of the President's "regulatory relief program." Quayle described the US biotechnology industry as the world leader and added, "We want to keep it that way."

There was also help for industry inside the FDA in the person of Michael Taylor, a lawyer who had previously worked for King & Spalding, Monsanto's external counsel for regulatory matters. Taylor had approval authority over regulations the agency crafted on GM foods, and his decisions resulted in the final policy. Taylor is now Monsanto's vice president of public policy and head of the Monsanto Public Policy Institute.

Monsanto and its competitors are collaborating on a public relations campaign to combat the negative publicity the agrochemical industry has received over GM foods. Perhaps coincidentally, the FDA is also on a campaign swing, hosting a series of town hall meetings in the hopes of allaying concerns of an increasingly wary US public. In the process, both will find out whether the faith as defined by The Economist truly exists.

Kristi Coale is an associate with the San Francisco-based Center for Investigative Reporting. Her work was funded by the center's Fund for Investigative Reporting on the Environment.

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