GMO crop critics fear USDA will ease regulations

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Critics of biotech crops were trying to head off rule changes by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the waning days of the Bush Administration that the critics said would ease restrictions on the controversial crops.

“USDA is laying the statutory groundwork to eliminate a lot of genetically modified plants from any regulation at all, even at the field test stage,” said Center for Food Science policy analyst Bill Freese.

Monday is the deadline for comments on proposals that could impact how a range of genetically modified organisms are regulated, as well as limit state and local government regulation of such crops.

There is also language that would formalize an existing policy providing that low levels of contamination by unauthorized biotech crops would not necessarily require remedial action.

Several environmental, consumers and farm groups alarmed at the details of the changes are urging members to sign petitions opposing the changes.

“We want to stop these last-ditch attempts by the Bush Administration to put through bad genetic engineering rules,” said Anne Petermann, co-director of the Global Justice Ecology Project.

The USDA and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which regulates certain genetically engineered organisms including plant pests that may damage crops and other plants, have been revising their policies after coming under criticism for lax oversight practices.

Last year, a judge found USDA acted illegally when it allowed unrestricted commercial planting of Monsanto Co’s “Roundup Ready” biotech alfalfa without fully analyzing the environmental impact.

USDA has said the new rules came after comprehensive review and would allow USDA to provide effective oversight of the technology.

APHIS spokeswoman Rachel Iadicicco said the goals were to insure the safe development and use of certain genetically engineered organisms while reducing the “regulatory burden.”

“There are some things in there to lessen the regulatory burden but also we want to ensure that the organisms are overseen appropriately,” she said.

Iadiciccio said all public comments would be considered.

Biotech critics said one particular concern deals with language that states “all state and local laws or regulations that are inconsistent... (with APHIS rules) will be preempted.”

That potentially could impact actions like that seen last month in Hawaii where a county council recently banned growing biotech coffee as well as taro.

Genetically modified crops, particularly corn and soybeans that are resistant to herbicide, are popular with U.S. farmers. St. Louis, Mo.-based Monsanto Co is the leading developer of such crops.

In all, 23 countries allow the cultivation of biotech crops, but much of Europe, Japan, and most of Africa remain opposed to genetically altered crops.

Opponents say genetically altered crops can hurt human and animal health and damage the environment. And many farmers fear they will lose customers if their nongenetically altered crops are contaminated with the biotech varieties.

A recent study out of Austria indicated a correlation between genetically engineered corn and infertility, prompting the Center for Food Safety to call for a moratorium on the distribution of genetically engineered foods until the risk can be further assessed.

Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by Marguerita Choy