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Report raises farmer liability concerns over pharm corn pollen drift

(May 9, 2002 CropChoice news) -- The American Corn Growers Association (ACGA) is alerting farmers to a report concerning genetically modified crops (GMOs) and potential farm liability resulting from inadequate regulatory oversight. Environmental Effects of Transgenic Plants, The Scope and Adequacy of Regulations, a 2002 publication of the National Academy of Science's National Research Council, analyzes the scientific basis that supports the scope and adequacy of USDA's oversight of environmental issues related to transgenic plants.

"The promoters of biotech crops regularly tell farmers about someday producing high value pharmaceuticals out in their corn fields, but those biotech cheerleaders seldom mention liability concerns if contamination occurs through pollen drift or other means," says Dan McGuire, program director of the ACGA Farmer Choice - Customer First educational program. "This National Research Council publication, especially chapter five, looks closely at the regulatory process and the agencies charged with assessing the safety of transgenic plants, particularly the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of USDA, and farmers should read it, McGuire urged."

"There is no question that regulators are struggling to keep pace both with changes in technology and the number of new applications filed," said Larry Mitchell, ACGA Chief Executive Officer. "But, while we commend APHIS for the work it's done, we also must urge farmers to be very careful if they are going to use corn fields as production plants for pharmaceuticals," Mitchell added. "Where does the liability lie if pollen drifts into another corn field, contaminates it with a pharmaceutical drug which ends up in corn products for human consumption, resulting in adverse health consequences? Biotech companies must be made liable, because the alternative could bankrupt farmers."

Chapter five of the publication includes a case where GMO corn that produces the glycoprotein avidin has been grown commercially under the APHIS notification procedure since 1997. The avidin is extracted from the corn and used commercially for a number of purposes, including medical diagnostic procedures. The report states that,

"[T]he avidin molecule binds to the coenzyme biotin with high affinity and results in biotin inactivation. Because biotin is involved in the basic metabolism of all organisms, avidin can act as a general toxicant. Avadin has been known to have antivitamin effects on insects with more recent literature indicating that at least 26 insect species have been shown to be killed or chronically impaired by low doses.

The report further describes how corn-based avidin falls between the regulatory cracks at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the one hand, and APHIS on the other. "Since it's not being produced as a pesticide, EPA doesn't regulate it or any field testing on it," Mitchell explained, adding that APHIS regulations are limited to situations in which something feeds on a standing plant, rather than dispersed plant parts, such as seeds, pollen, or plant residue.

"We doubt that most U.S. corn farmers are aware of this recent analysis from the National Research Council but because GMOs impact all corn producers by jeopardizing markets and corn prices, farmers and their lawyers need to take the time to review the findings and liability ramifications of the report," added McGuire. "It's unfortunate that Congress didn't earmark the $15 million appropriated in the new farm bill for promoting GMOs in foreign markets that don't want them and instead devote those dollars to correcting weaknesses in the U.S. system."

As a service to all farmers, the American Corn Growers Association is posting the findings and recommendations from the report at http://www.acga.org/news/2002/050902_factsheet.htm.