The head of the USDA's Office of Agricultural Biotechnology onWednesday rebutted a call by the Union of Concerned Scientists(UCS) for a temporary ban on approval of geneticallyengineered crops.

UCS is a research group based in Cambridge, Mass., that focuseson environment-related issues. In its report, "Perils Amidst thePromise: Ecological Risks of Transgenic Crops in a GlobalMarket," released this week, authors Margaret Mellon and JaneRissler charge that the U.S. Department of Agriculture'sbiotechnology program is relying on "armchair analysis"instead of actual studies to determine the safety of transgenicplants. There are virtually no data on the possibility that genesmight flow into wild populations and turn some plants intoaggressive weeds, Mellon told BioWorld.

Another untested danger is that "if you put the components ofa virus into plants, they will transcapsidate (combine theprotein core with the core of another virus), creating a newsupervirus," she said. "Experiments that address thosequestions can be done in the same time frame that small-scalefield tests are done, three to six years," she said.

Alvin Young, head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Officeof Agricultural Biotechnology, said UCS's charges werenonsense. "In 1990 and 1992, the office, in conjunction withother agencies and international groups, sponsored theInternational Symposium of BioSafety Results of Field Tests ofGenetically Modified Plants and Micro-Organisms," he toldBioWorld. The two volumes each contain 450 pages, with theresults of "hundreds and hundreds of field tests around theworld." "We've been raising many of the issues raised by thosefolks (UCS) for the last four years." Another internationalsymposium will be held in 1994.

In addition, "Arnold Foudin (the USDA's deputy director ofbiotechnology permits) does tremendous searches of theliterature and personal interviews of scientists involved in theactivity," Young said. "They actually send inspectors out to lookat the field tests."

USDA has also surveyed European studies of transgenic plantsin the wild. "We have some very good studies," said Young.However, "I'll admit they are not long-term in the sense ofyears. ... Some of the studies have gone repeatedly for one totwo years," he said.

Young's office has increased grants for research into theseissues this year to $1.7 million from $1.4 million. Grants titled"Gene Transfer Between Transgenic Canola and Related WeedSpecies" and "Recombinant Events between Virus Genomes andGenome Segments in Plants," for example, examined the typesof problems raised by UCS, Young said.

Under another grant, researchers at the University of SouthCarolina are trying to understand how viruses infect plants,exchange DNA, and whether it is possible for that DNA, onceincorporated, to move to other species, said Young.

Regarding any political impact the UCS report might have,Mellon told BioWorld: "I think the Clinton folks appreciate thecomplexity with regard to biotechnology. They want to achieveits promise, but they do understand it's not a risk-freetechnology."

But Richard Godown, senior vice president of the BiotechnologyIndustry Organization, countered, "I think it will have zeroeffect because each of the concerns has been addressed atlength, in detail over time, with uniformly satisfactory results."

-- David C. Holzman Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.