Permits for 'biopharming' deserve strict standards
A federal judge has ruled that a federal agency was wrong in issuing permits for planting genetically modified crops.
HAWAII has been regarded as a potential leader in the area of genetically engineered crops, and a federal judge has ruled that "biopharms" be operated in a way that protects nearby crops from contamination
. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's permits to seed companies in Hawaii neglected environmental concerns, and the judge's ruling should provide adequate protection.
The Agriculture Department issued two-year permits in 2001 to four companies without bothering to ask other federal agencies about Hawaii's endangered species or explain why no environmental impact statements were needed. Its only rationale was that the permits involved "confined field releases of genetically engineered organisms" of corn or sugarcane on Kauai, Maui, Molokai and Oahu.
Actually, they were open-air plantings, according to environmental groups that sued the government. The ruling follows a report by the Agriculture Department's inspector general that its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has failed to review permit applicants' "containment protocols, which describe how the applicant plans to contain the (genetically engineered) crop within the field test site and prevent it from persisting in the environment."
U.S. District Judge Michael Seabright pointed out in his ruling that Hawaii's 329 endangered and threatened plant and animal species are more than those listed in any other state and 25 percent of all those listed nationally. It also has hosted more than 5,000 test sites for genetically engineered crops, more than anywhere else in the world. The department's failure to ask for the list of threatened species was inexcusable.
Genetically modified crops have been touted as a futuristic melding of agriculture and technology to produce pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals. Proponents say they could combat infectious and chronic diseases such as herpes and influenza, and produce growth hormones, blood clotting agents and contraceptives. While environmentalists focus on their risk to endangered species, farmers have expressed concern about contamination of nearby crops.
Seabright, President Bush's most recent addition to Hawaii's federal court, rightly ridiculed the department for its argument of "no harm, no foul" -- that no listed species or habitat was harmed by activity that ensued from the permits. "This argument is absurd," the judge wrote, with the department relying on "after-the-fact justification (and good fortune)."
"The ruling is a clear victory for Hawaii's government," said Joseph Mendelson of the Center for Food Safety, one group represented in the suit by the Earthjustice law firm. "It will help protect the islands from the illegal field-testing of genetically engineered, drug-producing crops."
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