EPA Seeks to Monitor GM Crops from Space

Published November 21, 2003

The Environmental Protection Agency has announced it is considering a project that would allow it to monitor gene-spliced crops from space. Experiments will begin in Spring 2004 to determine whether satellite surveillance can distinguish conventional from gene-spliced corn.

EPA’s proposal has led many to wonder whether there is something particularly sinister or worrisome about gene-spliced crops—in particular, corn that has been engineered for improved resistance to predatory insects. Is it potentially toxic, or more invasive than conventional corn? Does it have a history of stealing lunch money from children as they pass the fields en route to school?

In fact, the gene-spliced corn is wholesome, as well-behaved as any other variety, and has eliminated the need for millions of pounds of chemical pesticides. So why the attempt to monitor it, at tremendous effort and expense? Evidence suggests this is one of those examples of government intervention creating the need for more government intervention to correct a distortion government caused in the first place.

Resistant Insects?

The monitoring project originated out of concern that overuse of gene-spliced varieties of Bt-corn (which contain a bacterial protein that confers resistance to insects) could result in the development of resistant insects, reducing the usefulness of the approach.

Of course, if insect resistance to Bt crops were to appear, this would not raise an environmental safety or human health issue, but would indicate only compromised effectiveness of the Bt protein. Insects usually develop resistance to conventional pesticides over time, so it would not be unexpected to find resistance to Bt as well.

EPA requires farmers who plant Bt-corn to maintain a “refuge” of conventional (insect-susceptible) corn on 20 percent of their acreage. EPA suspects as many as one-fifth of farmers are not adhering to the refuge requirement.

In spite of a substantial rate of likely non-compliance, USDA-funded researchers have found no insect resistance to Bt-corn (or Bt-cotton) at all, in spite of their cultivation on more than 25 million acres worldwide.

The requirement for refuges remains, however, and, undeterred by the data, EPA is determined to use overhead surveillance to measure compliance.

Monitoring Compliance with Bad Policy

The pivotal issue here, according to scientists, is not whether farmers are adhering to the refuge requirement. It is that the very basis of EPA’s regulatory policy towards gene-spliced plants and foods is unscientific and nonsensical.

EPA holds gene-spliced plants to a higher standard than other similar crop and garden plants, requiring hugely expensive testing—as though they were chemical pesticides—of varieties of corn, cotton, wheat, and tomatoes that have been genetically improved for enhanced pest- or disease-resistance. The policy fails to recognize there are important differences between spraying synthetic, toxic chemicals, and genetically improving plants’ natural pest and disease resistance.

EPA’s policy toward gene-spliced plants is so potentially damaging and outside the norms of sound science that it has galvanized the scientific community. A consortium of dozens of scientific societies representing more than 180,000 biologists and food professionals published a report warning the policy will discourage the development of new pest-resistant crops and prolong and increase the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, increase the regulatory burden for developers of pest-resistant crops, limit the use of biotechnology to larger developers who can pay the inflated regulatory costs, and handicap U.S. companies competing in international markets. All of these warnings have been borne out by the facts.

Safe, Sound Technology

Scientists worldwide agree that adding genes to plants does not make them less safe, either to the environment or for humans to eat. Dozens of new plant varieties produced through hybridization and other traditional methods of genetic improvement enter the marketplace each year without scientific review or special labeling.

Gene-splicing is more precise, circumscribed, and predictable than other techniques and can better exploit the subtleties of plant pathology. For example, unlike conventional chemical pesticides, Bt-corn is highly specific: It produces a protein toxic to corn borer insects, but not to people or other mammals.

Another advantage of Bt-corn is that it is less likely than conventional corn crops to contain Fusarium, a toxic fungus often carried into the plants by the insects. Bt-corn thus has significantly lower levels of the fungal toxin fumonisin, which is known to cause fatal diseases in horses and swine and esophageal cancer in humans.

Government agencies have regulated gene-spliced foods in a discriminatory, unnecessarily burdensome way. They have imposed requirements that could not be met by conventionally bred crop plants. Paradoxically, only the more precisely crafted, superior, gene-spliced crops are exhaustively, repeatedly (and expensively) reviewed before they can enter the field or food supply. Policymakers have ignored a fundamental rule of regulation: The degree of scrutiny of a product or activity should be commensurate with the risk.

It is unwise to punish those who develop and market insect-resistant, pesticide-replacing, low-fungal-toxin, potentially more healthful corn. It makes far more sense to regulate as science and common sense dictate. Regulation would then cost less, offer greater benefits to the consumer and the environment, and stimulate innovation.

EPA should turn its satellite surveillance to something more constructive, like checking on whether people are putting the right stuff into recycling bins.

Henry I. Miller, a physician, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. From 1979 to 1994 he was an official at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. His email address is [email protected].