By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON ¿ In the face of growing public sentiment against genetically modified crops, Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) issued a report concluding there are no unique risks associated with these crops.

The chair of the House Science Committee¿s Subcommittee on Basic Research urged regulatory agencies to focus on the characteristics of the plants, rather than the process used to develop them, when writing new regulations. The report is the culmination of a series of three hearings held on agricultural biotechnology issues.

¿Agricultural biotechnology has come of age,¿ Smith said. ¿This technology provides a significant advance in the techniques that mankind has been using for over a hundred years to improve food crops.¿

Smith acknowledged the negative publicity surrounding agricultural biotechnology and noted the publicity had fostered a climate of unease about the technology. As a result, he conducted the hearings and issued the report in order to ensure Congress had access to the purely scientific issues surrounding the controversy.

¿Ultimately, the decisions made regarding this technology will be political,¿ Smith said. ¿But, it is important that Congress be provided with a thorough discussion of the scientific issues if it is to make informed decisions.¿

Smith¿s report, titled ¿Seeds of Opportunity: An Assessment of the Benefits, Safety, and Oversight of Plant Genomics and Agricultural Biotechnology,¿ found agricultural biotechnology had the potential to deliver more nutritious foods and potentially less allergenic foods than classical breeding methods. In addition, the report found ¿no evidence that transferring genes from unrelated organisms to plants poses unique risks.¿ The report also stated there was no significant threat to the Monarch butterflies from Bt toxins engineered into crops, and there was no scientific justification for labeling agricultural biotechnology products.

Smith recommended Congress increase funding for the National Plant Genome Initiative, work to ensure international markets for biotechnology aren¿t restricted by ¿scientifically unsound¿ measures and increase efforts to educate the public about agricultural biotech. Smith went so far as to recommend the U.S. ignore the Biosafety protocol, which created special regulations for ag biotech products.

Smith pointedly noted all federal oversight of ag biotech should be risk-based and guided by the individual characteristics of the plant, its intended use and the environment into which it is to be introduced.

¿The FDA has adopted a risk-based regulatory approach that is consistent with these principles and provides essential public health protections,¿ Smith said. ¿I am concerned, however, that regulations at the Department of Agriculture and proposed regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency depart from the scientific consensus and target plants produced using biotechnology.¿

Susanne Huttner, director of the Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program at the University of California in Berkeley, endorsed Smith¿s report, calling it ¿a landmark among biotechnology policy analyses ¿ both national and international ¿ of the past 15 years.¿

Huttner praised Smith¿s report for providing an informative primer describing more than a century-long continuum of scientific advances in plant breeding, genetics and genomics. She also endorsed Smith¿s call for strong federal support for basic plant research.

Smith¿s report comes on the heels of a National Research Council report on ¿Genetically Modified Pest Protected Plants: Science and Regulation¿ issued April 5. The report found there was no scientific evidence that biotech foods are unsafe to eat, but noted additional regulatory attention may be desirable to enhance public confidence. Huttner took issue with the council¿s report.

¿That report is seriously flawed, in my opinion,¿ Huttner said. ¿They state there is certainly no evidence these products cause harm, but they make recommendations the federal government spend taxpayers¿ money to address fears that have no basis. That is why I¿m so encouraged by this report.¿

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) is on record endorsing the National Research Council¿s report, and also endorses Smith¿s report.

¿We think a great deal of what is in Rep. Smith¿s report is also in the [council¿s] report,¿ said Michael Phillips, director of food and agriculture at BIO. ¿They do differ a little bit in what they would regulate, but we have no big problems with the [council¿s] report.¿

Phillips noted the council¿s report calls for more communication between the regulatory agencies ¿ FDA, EPA and USDA ¿ and transparency within the agencies. He also noted BIO supports the publication on the web of summary data on these ag biotech products.

¿A large part of this is just educating folks on what are the facts,¿ Phillips said. ¿Activists are very loose with the truth and they make you think no one is looking at this industry when that just isn¿t true.¿