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Thursday, November 13, 2003



Suit targets genetically
altered crops in isles

U.S. Department of Agriculture
fails to properly regulate them,
several groups claim



The U.S. Department of Agriculture has failed to properly regulate food crops that are genetically engineered to produce pharmaceutical compounds, according to a coalition of environmental groups suing the agency in federal court.

In allowing several dozen permits for open-air plantings of genetically engineered pharmaceutical-producing plant varieties in Hawaii over the past five years, the federal agency is violating the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, the plaintiffs say in a lawsuit filed today in U.S. District Court in Honolulu.

Lawsuit plaintiffs are the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance (KAHEA) and national groups the Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, and the Pesticide Action Network of North America. Hawaii EarthJustice attorneys Paul Achitoff and Issac Moriwake are representing the plaintiffs.

“Open-air field testing of biologically active pharmaceuticals and other genetically engineered crops pose a real and imminent threat to Hawaii’s fragile biodiversity, in turn jeopardizing native Hawaiian cultural practices,” KAHEA Executive Director Cha Smith said in a statement.

“There is virtually no way of preventing biopharm test crops from contaminating our endangered species, native plants or agricultural crops,” Smith said. “KAHEA is calling for an immediate moratorium on field-testing of all genetically modified organisms in Hawaii until there is public notification and adequate regulations that will adequately protect our environment and human health.”

The USDA refused to detail where biopharmaceutical crops are planted in Hawaii, the plaintiffs said.

The suit asks that the USDA halt all open-air field testing of the crops until it:

>> Prepares environmental assessments or environmental impact statements for the tests.

>> Consults with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about possible effects of genetically altered crops on endangered species.

>> Establishes rules that protect human health and the environment.

Achitoff said that as far as he knows, this is the first lawsuit in the country challenging the USDA’s regulation of biopharmaceutical farming.

The USDA has 60 days to respond to the filing, Achitoff said.

Because of its year-round growing season, Hawaii is a “preferred site for open air field tests of these types of crops,” Achitoff said, “but pharmaceutical crops pose additional risks above and beyond all the other risks of genetically engineered crops.”

Before allowing such testing to continue in unmarked, unidentified plots, the USDA must show that “genetic material that could produce vaccines or blood-clotting agents” can’t mix with crops people eat, Achitoff said.

There have been several instances on the mainland of pharmaceutical crops getting mixed in with edible crops, Achitoff said.

A spokesman at the USDA said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

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