Fewer Signs of Support for Genetically Altered Crops ; Efforts to Bring Such Foods to the Market Appear to Wane a Bit, a National Consumer Group Says

Article excerpt

After years of dramatic growth, field tests of genetically modified crops have hit a plateau - and may even be declining. Meanwhile, companies and research organizations are increasingly shielding those tests from public view.

These findings - in a new report from the US Public Interest Research Group - suggest that biotechnology companies are slowing their efforts to commercialize the controversial technology. The national coalition of state public-advocacy groups, based in Washington, along with many other consumer and environmental groups, is calling for a stop to field tests and commercialization of bioengineered crops until they can be thoroughly and independently tested for their impact on human health and the environment.

"It is clear that USDA [the US Department of Agriculture] has generally served as a rubber stamp for applications to conduct field tests," concludes the report released yesterday. The department has rejected only 4 percent of all applications.

For the first time since field testing started in the 1980s, the number of such tests has declined for two years in a row. After peaking at 1,086 in 1998, the number of approved permits and notifications for field tests fell slightly to 931 last year, according to the report. The top states where testing has occurred are Hawaii, Illinois, and Iowa.

Any slowdown in commercialization has not had much effect on public research, biotech critics and supporters agree. For example, Bob Zeigler, director of the plant biotechnology center at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., has seen no slowdown at his institution. It takes years of research before a crop gets to the field-test stage, he points out. …