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Rules Tightened on Engineered Crops

March 07, 2003|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department told the biotech industry Thursday that it will increase inspections of crops that have been genetically engineered to make medicine, part of an effort to protect food crops from contamination.

"We will have government inspectors on-site at every critical event of every field test," said Cindy Smith, acting deputy administrator for the department's biotech regulation services.

Under guidelines to be published Monday, inspectors will visit test fields at least five times, from before their planting until after the harvest, looking for signs of mixing, Smith said.

They also will check the fields twice in the off-season to see whether stray plants are sprouting, and they will examine farm equipment, including tractors, for cleanliness.

The guidelines require biotech companies to:

* Keep an unplanted perimeter of 50 feet around the medicine crop.

* Plant the crop one mile from food crops to ensure they won't come in contact with each other.

* Dedicate farm equipment for cultivating, maintaining and harvesting pharmaceutical crops, and not use the same equipment on food crops.

Growers will have to follow the rules to obtain permits this year for growing pharmaceutical and industrial crops.

Biotech companies are genetically engineering plants, typically corn, to grow large quantities of pharmaceutical proteins and enzymes to make medicine or grow materials for industrial products.

The food industry and watchdog groups, worried that bioengineered crops will get mixed with food, say the guidelines aren't tough enough.

Food companies don't want to have to tell the biotech industry how to grow crops, but "it's our right to tell them what they need to achieve," said Rhona Applebaum, head of science for the National Food Processors Assn.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group, is asking the Agriculture Department to impose a moratorium on such crops until it can assure food will be safe.

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