When Genetically Modified Plants Go Wild ; Even Advocates of These Crops Were Shaken Recently When Modified Plants 'Escaped' from Test Areas

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In rice-growing states, traces of an unapproved genetically modified (GM) rice have been found mixed in with conventional rice meant for human consumption.

In Oregon, genetically engineered creeping bentgrass, being tested for possible use on golf courses, has been found miles outside its test beds, making it the first GM plant known to have escaped into the wild.

In Hawaii, a federal judge has admonished the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for displaying "utter disregard" for the state's endangered native plant species. The judge says the USDA failed to conduct research on the environmental effects of fields of experimental corn and sugarcane that had been genetically modified to produce pharmaceuticals. Environmental and food-safety groups have asked for a moratorium on all field tests of experimental drug- producing plants until their safety precautions can be reviewed.

Early indications are that in each case little substantial harm has been done. The experimental rice, for example, is similar to two other GM strains already approved for general use.

But many who closely watch how biotechnology is changing agriculture, including those who see a valuable role for GM crops, are disturbed by what appears to be a series of recent incidents showing lax supervision of experimental plantings by the government and agribusinesses.

"You absolutely should be in compliance with regulations," says Martina Newell-McGloughlin, an internationally recognized advocate for the uses of biotechnology based in Davis, Calif. She directs the University of California's systemwide biotechnology program. The three incidents "aren't health concerns, but they are regulatory concerns," she says. "It's incumbent on the companies, on the USDA ... to ensure that everybody complies with these regulations."

The three incidents convey a message that "the US government has been somewhat lax in its oversight of the biotechnology industry and in some instances has not taken its responsibility to regulate as strongly as it should," says Gregory Jaffe, director of the biotechnology project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group in Washington that has expressed qualified support for the use of genetic modification in agriculture.

"Clearly this shows that the companies and the government don't have as much control over experimental crops as they need to have," Mr. Jaffe says. "I think there's a sloppiness out there. Industry doesn't take the rules of conduct as seriously as it should."

Government agencies, he says, have adopted what almost amounts to a "don't look, don't find" policy. "We have a fairly passive regulatory system," he says, that does "a little spot checking" but mostly relies on businesses to step forward and report their own problems.

The cases of the escaped GM grass and the mysterious appearance of experimental rice in the food supply raise important questions, says Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a nonprofit group in Washington that seeks to be an independent and objective source of information on agricultural biotechnology. "How do you know that [GM crops] are staying where you want them to stay?" he asks. "As there are more kinds of genetically-engineered crops out there, it continues to pose challenges for companies and for regulators."

Some amount of movement of GM crops outside their containment areas "is virtually inevitable," Mr. Fernandez says. "The question is, how do we feel about that? How important is that? Does it matter what the crop is?" The bentgrass may pose no significant danger, he says, but "would we feel differently" if it were a plant that produced pharmaceuticals?

Last December, a report from the USDA's own Office of the Inspector General urged the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) division "to strengthen its accountability for field tests of [genetically enhanced] crops. …