Transgenic Crops Report Fuels Debate

WASHINGTON--Wading into one of the most politically charged of scientific issues, a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel today called for fine-tuning the regulation of plants genetically modified to repel pests. Interest groups immediately added their own spin: The biotech industry trumpeted the panel's conclusion that biotech foods on the market are safe, while environmentalists dismissed the report, calling the panel "tainted" by industry ties.

The panel, chaired by Perry Adkisson, a professor emeritus of entomology at Texas A&M University, College Station, was formed a year ago to look at the environmental and health risks of so-called pesticidal plants, such as corn and cotton, which exude a pest-killing bacterial toxin called Bt. First sown by farmers in 1995, these and other transgenic plants last year made up 28 million hectares of crops in the United States. But many environmentalists and some scientists have argued that the risks of pesticidal plants haven't been adequately assessed.

The NAS panel shared these concerns. Its report recommends more research--in areas such as the flow of genes from crops to weedy relatives and testing for allergenicity--and a better organized regulatory system. It says the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration should coordinate their regulations and build a joint database on safety information. The report also recommends scrapping EPA policies that assume certain genetic engineering techniques, such as adding a gene from a plant similar enough to interbreed, are safe. But the panel concludes that, despite those shortcomings, there is no evidence that genetically modified foods are unsafe.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) seized on that finding as proof that biotech foods "are thoroughly tested and safe," according to a press release. Environmental groups objected, pointing out that the study's original director, Michael Phillips, left the NAS in the middle of the project for a job with BIO. And seven of the 12 panelists either have worked directly for industry or have received research funding from it, they note.

The NAS itself claims that two members with industry ties had conflicts of interest, but executive officer Bill Colglazier says "we felt their expertise was needed" and that the charges of bias are "incorrect and not true." One outside activist gave the report a mixed review. "It's good news for people who want stronger regulation," says ecologist Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists, even though "it is obviously a result of a biased committee."