COLUMBIA, Missouri Robert Kremer, a U.S. government microbiologist who studies Midwestern farm soil, has spent two decades analyzing the rich dirt that yields billions of bushels of food each year and helps the United States retain its title as breadbasket of the world.
Kremer's lab is housed at the University of Missouri and is literally in the shadow of Monsanto Auditorium, named after the $11.8 billion-a-year agricultural giant Monsanto Co. Based in Creve Coeur, Missouri, the company has accumulated vast wealth and power creating chemicals and genetically altered seeds for farmers worldwide.
But recent findings by Kremer and other agricultural scientists are raising fresh concerns about Monsanto's products and the Washington agencies that oversee them. The same seeds and chemicals spread across millions of acres of U.S. farmland could be creating unforeseen problems in the plants and soil, this body of research shows.
Kremer, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS), is among a group of scientists who are turning up potential problems with glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup and the most widely used weed-killer in the world.
"This could be something quite big. We might be setting up a huge problem," said Kremer, who expressed alarm that regulators were not paying enough attention to the potential risks from biotechnology on the farm, including his own research.
Concerns range from worries about how nontraditional genetic traits in crops could affect human and animal health to the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds.
Biotech crop supporters say there is a wealth of evidence that the crops on the market are safe, but critics argue that after only 14 years of commercialized GMOs, it is still unclear whether or not the technology has long-term adverse effects.
But whatever the point of view on the crops themselves, there are many people on both sides of the debate who say that the current U.S. regulatory apparatus is ill-equipped to adequately address the concerns. Indeed, many experts say the U.S. government does more to promote global acceptance of biotech crops than to protect the public from possible harmful consequences.
"We don't have a robust enough regulatory system to be able to give us a definitive answer about whether these crops are safe or not. We simply aren't doing the kinds of tests we need to do to have confidence in the safety of these crops," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a scientist who served on a FDA biotech advisory subcommittee from 2002 to 2005.
"The U.S. response (to questions about biotech crop safety) has been an extremely patronizing one. They say 'We know best, trust us,'" added Gurian-Sherman, now a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit environmental group.
CALL FOR CHANGE
The World Health Organization has not taken a stand on biotech crops generally, simply stating "individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis."
And while many scientists around the world cite research they say shows health and environmental risks tied to GMOs, many other scientists say research proves the crops are no different than conventional types.
With a growing world population and a need to increase food production in poor nations, confidence in the regulatory system in the leading biotech crop country is considered critical.
"One of the things that we think is important to do is to have regular reviews and updates of our strategies for regulating products of biotechnology," said Roger Beachy, a biotech crop supporter who was appointed last year as director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
"We want to look carefully to see that they are logical and science-based but still maintain the confidence of the consumer to ensure that the projects that are developed and released have the highest level of oversight," added Beachy.
So far, that confidence has been lacking. Courts have cited regulators for failing to do their jobs properly and advisers and auditors have sought sweeping changes.
Even Wall Street has taken note. In January, shares in Monsanto fell more than 3 percent amid a rush of hedging activity during a morning trading session after a report by European scientists in the International Journal of Biological Sciences found signs of toxicity in the livers and kidneys of rats fed the company's biotech corn.
Monsanto has said the European study had "unsubstantiated conclusions," and says it is confident its products are well tested and safe.
Indeed, farmers around the world seem to be embracing biotech crops that have been altered to resist bugs and tolerate weed-killing treatments while yielding more. According to an industry report issued in February, 14 million farmers in 25 countries planted biotech crops on 330 million acres in 2009, with the United States alone accounting for 158 million acres.