WASHINGTON — A high-level official of Advanced Genetic Sciences conceded Tuesday that the Oakland company should have notified the Environmental Protection Agency before conducting an open-air test of genetically engineered bacteria in California.
The official, John R. Bedbrook, vice president and director of research, told a House subcommittee that researchers at the biotechnology company did not believe that injecting trees with the bacteria on a rooftop last year constituted a field test because the trees could contain the bacteria.
However, amid an outcry over the test and an EPA investigation into it, Bedbrook told the Committee on Science and Technology's subcommittee on investigations and oversight: "With hindsight we should have asked (the EPA) for notification to carry out the experiment."
The test, conducted in February, 1985, was designed to determine whether the bacteria, which are supposed to prevent frost down to 23 degrees Fahrenheit, would harm plants. Its results were to be used as part of the company's case for gaining EPA approval of an outdoor test on strawberry plants.
Bacteria Could Be Harmful
Bedbrook said the test showed that the bacteria did not harm the plants, but subcommittee Chairman Harold L. Volkmer (D-Mo.) distributed pictures and data asserting that the injections caused cankers on some trees, a sign that the bacteria might be harmful to other plants if they escaped into the air.
The strawberry plant test was approved by the EPA last November; it was supposed to have taken place in Monterey County in February. But it has been delayed as a result of angry residents who resent not being consulted and who question whether the bacteria could float into the atmosphere and alter frost formation in clouds, thus changing weather patterns and the ecological balance.
At the hearing, Steven Schatzow, director of the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs, said he was "very concerned" about the premature test, which violated EPA regulations, but refused to say what penalties, if any, would be imposed on Advanced Genetic Sciences. He said the EPA investigation, to be completed March 24, will look into charges that the premature test caused cankers.
Meanwhile, Schatzow said, the EPA finds "no evidence at this time" that the experiment presents any danger to the environment or to people.
Nevertheless, the residents of Monterey County continued their protest against the test. Sam P. Karas, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, told the subcommittee that it was "unconscionable" that the EPA and the California Department of Food and Agriculture failed to notify the county before approving the proposed test.
Angered by this failure, the supervisors banned field testing on genetically engineered bacteria for 45 days, thus delaying the strawberry test. The ban expires March 28.
Karas said that the board will wait until then "to say yes or no" to the experiment. But when asked where, outside of Monterey County, the experiment would be safe, he said: "You really want me to answer that? Belgium." Bedbrook is a native of Belgium.