Green Groups Fight EPA Over Transgenic Crops

A coalition of farmers and environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today to suspend approval and develop tougher guidelines for genetically engineered crops that produce an insect-killing toxin. The groups say that their widespread use will hasten the spread of insects resistant to the toxin and threaten farmers who do not plant such crops.

Last year, EPA approved the use of plants that express genes from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacterium that kills pests such as the corn borer and cotton bollworm. The popularity of these crops--in particular cotton, corn, and potatoes--has alarmed some organic farmers because widespread use is expected to hasten the development of insect resistance to the toxin. Once insects become resistant, Bt sprays--an important pest control tool for organic farmers--will become less effective.

EPA spokesman Al Heier says that there are "resistance management programs in place adequate to stem any kind of resistance." For example, farmers are required to plant some of their acreage with nonengineered plants. These sections are designed to serve as areas of refuge--acreage that will maintain populations of nonresistant insects.

But the coalition says these measures may not be enough. "We are asking the EPA to suspend approval of existing Bt crops and to undertake an environmental impact statement on Bt engineered crops," says Paul Clark, a spokesman for Greenpeace, which has teamed up with the Sierra Club, the National Family Farm Coalition, and organic farmers in the legal action.

EPA has 90 days to respond to the petition, which Heier says they will consider "very seriously." If their concerns are ignored, Clark says, the coalition "may pursue litigation in a U.S. District Court."