The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced on Friday that it would deregulate Syngenta Seeds, Inc.’s corn genetically engineered specifically to produce an enzyme called alpha-amylase for biofuel production. Deregulation means that the product would no longer be subject to USDA oversight and could be grown without any restrictions at any scale in the United States. The approved corn will be the first genetically engineered industrial crop destined to be planted on millions of acres.
In response to USDA’s decision, a consumer advocate group, Center For Food Safety (CFS), announced that it is planning litigation.
According to CFS, the GE corn – known as Event 3272 – is genetically engineered to contain high levels of a heat-resistant and acid-tolerant enzyme derived from exotic, marine microorganisms. The enzyme breaks down starches into sugars, the first step in conversion of corn to ethanol, and has not been adequately assessed for its potential to cause allergies, a key concern with new biotech crops. Part of the problem is that this GE corn will contain novel proteins, which, according to Union Of Concerned Scientist (UCS), have never been in food and were never intended for human consumption. “In fact, except for a small cadre of scientists, human beings have never encountered them.” Furthermore, “[a]gronomists suggest that unharvested corn will deposit large quantities of this enzyme in the soil, which could adversely affect soil carbon cycling.”
To make matters worse, massive diversion of corn to ethanol has played a significant role in raising food prices and thus aggravating world hunger. As CFS reports:
Leading food experts have blamed excessive conversion of corn to ethanol for exacerbating the world food crisis by driving up prices of corn and other staples. The World Bank reported an 83% rise in food prices from 2005 to 2008, and estimates that 100 million additional people have been pushed into hunger and poverty as a result. USDA data show that 23% of US corn (3 billion bushels) was converted to ethanol in 2007, jumping to over 30% (3.7 billion bushels) in 2008, with further increases expected as more ethanol refineries are constructed.
If GE crops contribute to world hunger then the biotech industry cannot use the problem as a justification for its products.
The UCS also reports that producing ethanol from corn may actually contribute to—rather than reduce—global warming emissions. “Recent studies suggest the production of biofuels from corn and other food crops—whether genetically engineered or not—may increase climate changing pollution.”
Syngenta, a giant multi-national pesticide company, announced that it will form an “advisory council” to review the “closed loop system” that the company has in place for this GE corn. Accepting an invitation from Syngenta, USDA agreed to be part of the council. According to an APHIS press release, Syngenta is also willing to share information on amylase corn production (wait, here it comes, the back-door escape clause), “within appropriate legal and privacy limits, with members of the advisory council.”
In explaining the agency’s deregulation decision, Michael Gregoire, deputy administrator for APHIS’ biotechnology regulatory services said that “APHIS conducted a plant pest risk assessment and found this line of corn does not pose a plant pest risk, and should no longer be subject to regulation by APHIS.” The agency, however, did not conduct an environmental impact statement.
Neither Gregoire’s assurances nor Syngenta’s “advisory council” calms farmers, consumers and consumer advocate groups concerned about safety. “Syngenta’s biofuels corn will inevitably contaminate food-grade corn, and could well trigger substantial rejection in our corn export markets, hurting farmers” said Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety.
In the face of numerous instances of USDA’s failure to regulate crops within the existing regulatory framework, which, itself, should be reformed and revamped and when the agency suffers from the revolving door syndrome, favoring, often times industry interests over those of consumers, it is hard to feel assured. (See our articles here, here and here discussing USDA’s failure to regulate GE crops.)