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Green Groups Sue USDA to Stop Bio-Pharm Planting

Date: 13-Nov-03
Country: USA
Author: Randy Fabi

Environmentalists, consumer advocates and food industry groups have urged the USDA to impose stricter regulations on pharmaceutical crops, fearing the unapproved plants could accidentally slip into the food supply.

Biotech companies like Dow Chemical Co. and Monsanto Co. are experimenting with corn, soybeans, tobacco, rice and sugar crops as a cheaper way to mass produce medicines to treat a range of human ailments.

The coalition, which includes Friends of the Earth and Center for Food Safety, accused the USDA of allowing the experimental crops to be planted in open fields without assessing the risk to other crops, wildlife and humans.

The lawsuit was filed in a federal district court in Hawaii, one of the top producing states of pharmaceutical crops.

"The existing regulatory system merely assumes that growing these crops is harmless, even in places where they can contaminate the environment and get into the food supply," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director for Center for Food Safety.

A USDA spokesman would not comment on the lawsuit.

The biotech industry said USDA's regulatory system was effective. "This lawsuit can only serve to impede the potential medical benefits of the technology," said Lisa Dry, spokeswoman of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Before field testing pharmaceutical crops, biotech companies must obtain a USDA permit that sets strict planting requirements to minimize environmental risks. This includes planting experimental crops at certain distances away from other crops and cleaning farm equipment.

In March, the USDA imposed tougher rules on planting industrial and pharmaceutical crops after a Texas biotech firm was accused of accidentally contaminating other crops. Privately held ProdiGene Inc. last year agreed to pay about $3 million to settle the matter.

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