GM Watch comment: Below are some very telling comments from Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and a former biotech specialist for the EPA, about a report on the regulation of GM specialty crops.
The report is extremely important, as Dr Gurian-Sherman makes clear, because it's intended to help shape future GM regulations in the US for all crops, and to make them even more industry friendly than the notoriously lax regulatory system that currently exists.
The report is the work of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. Although the Pew Initiative concluded its work at the end of March 2007, its various reports, not least this final one, live on. In the words of Michael Fernandez, Pew's Executive Director, the Pew Initiative is all about being "a credible 'honest broker' that could bring together stakeholders of differing views to discuss the opportunities and challenges that agricultural biotechnology presents. Through its reports, fact sheets, polls and conferences, the project served as a respected information source on ag biotech and related policy issues for policymakers, educators, the public and the media in the U.S. and globally." And Fernandez says he hopes their reports "will be a valuable resource in the years to come."
But the final report from Pew shows just how misleading Pew's self-representation as an impartial go-between looking for the consensual middle ground, and bringing an open-minded approach to all sides of the debate, really is.
The report on GM specialty crops is a joint one from Pew and and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) - something that should of itself raise questions given USDA's notoriously partisan record as a regulator. On top of that, as Dr Gurian-Sherman notes below, the meetings that led up to the report were packed with industry and academic scientists that are all known to have a long history of being very pro-GM and to support weaker regulations.
The only public interest representative at these meetings was Greg Jaffe of CSPI - the Center for Science in the Public Interest. CSPI has, like the Pew Initiative, won big funding to "constructively engage" in the GM debate. As PR Watch has pointed out, after years of sitting on the sidelines in the GM debate, CSPI in the wake of its biotech funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, promptly set about praising the alleged benefits and safety of GM foods.
And while Greg Jaffe has raised questions around regulatory issues, these are more than offset by his promotion of the so-called "tremendous" benefits of GM, and his and CSPI's loud complaints in their most recent reports about the slow pace of GM crop approvals! Jaffe has even backed the elimination of the separate regulation of each GM transformation event and he has called for the streamlining (i.e. speeding up!) of the regulatory process (see, for example, Agricultural Biotechnology Withering on the Vine)
Unsurprisingly, given the extraordinarily narrow range of stakeholders consulted and the striking similarity of their views, Pew's final report contains little more than USDA-industry wish lists for further weakening US regulations (and, thereby, putting pressure on international regulations, e.g. at Codex).
What is particularly insidious about this is that, as we've noted, Pew has passed itself off as constructively reflecting the various positions on biotech. So when it makes pronouncements, or publishes reports like this, there's a real danger that those who don't follow this closely will assume that what it has to say somehow reflects broad consensus opinions.
Read the report at
Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman's comments on the report Emerging Challenges for Biotech Specialty Crops:
As well as the many industry representatives behind this report, there are also long-familiar GE-promoters like Alan McHughen of UC Riverside, Steve Strauss of Oregon State University, Bruce Chassey of University of Illinois, etc. Then there are people like Karen Hokanson, formerly of USDA, now at University of Minnesota, and people with a biotech industry background like Jeff Wolt, now at Iowa State but formerly with Dow Chemical/Dow AgroSciences, or Hector Quemada, now at Western Michigan University but formerly Associate Director for Biotechnology for the Asgrow Seed Company and the founder of an ag biotech consulting firm that does work for the private sector. There is no one I recognise who has been seriously critical of any aspects of GE.
And the report reflects the one-sided input - sometimes to an almost bizarre degree. For instance, although ostensibly about smaller specialty crops, there were representatives of companies like Forage Genetics (alfalfa), and Symplot (potatoes). Representatives from both of those companies are quoted in this report. For example, on page 12, the Forage Genetics reepresentative complains about the slow process for approving Roundup Ready alfalfa. The Pew meeting was, of course, prior to the recent ruling by the US District Court overturning the alfalfa approval because of the lack of regulatory rigour! But in any case, alfalfa is one of the biggest acreage crops in the US (at about 21 million acres) so is by no means a "specialty crop," and this gives the lie to claims that this report is about helping biotech developments in relation to small crops.
The fact is that the proposed changes in regulations would likely affect all crops (as actually acknowledged later in the report). The main beneficiaries would be the large acreage crops, which in any case will continue to dominate GE because the main problem is not the supposedly awful burden of what are in reality overly lax regulations, but the very high R&D cost and the long time it takes to develop these crops, not to mention the fact that many of these crops have not really worked very well (where are the drought resistant crops promised for the last 15 years?).
The report pushes old favourites of the pro-GE cabal that have been around for years. For example, Steve Strauss's idea of reducing or eliminating regulation of so-called "low risk" GE, through a tiered risk system. This often fails to take into account the importance of environmental context - focusing on the risk of "genes," as if they existed in a vacuum. Strauss has over and over used genes for short-stature (dwarf) plants as an example of safe genes, while ignoring the fact that short stature is actually favored in many environments, e.g. fragile alpine ecosystems. It also fails to understand that many genes are associated with multiple phenotypes (traits), where some of these may be unrecognized by companies or regulators, and have important environmental or health consequences. Another proposal is to eliminate regulation based on transformation event (even though each event can have unique unintended effects). As noted on page 11, this could lead to "...whole categories that are excluded or exempted from the regulatory process."
There is a long discussion about transparency, but not as most would define it. Instead of opening the regulatory process in a democratic manner that lets the public see data and participate, this discussion is about how to make the regulatory process MORE TRANSPARENT TO BUSINESS AND RESEARCHERS by giving them support and help. It is fine to make sure that researchers know the regulations, but what about making sure that the public can see the safety data instead of hiding behind "confidential business information"?
The workshop recognizes that USDA is in the middle of re-evaluating its regulations, and may make sweeping changes in the near future. This report is explicitly intended to influence that process. It can perhaps best be summed up by the representative of Forage Genetics, who had the last word about US regulations: "Define the process, compress it, simplify, commit and do not regress."