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Crops made to make chemicals restricted

(Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Emily Gersema, Associated Press: WASHINGTON - Companies must now get permits to grow crops genetically engineered to make chemical compounds for items like laundry detergent, the Agriculture Department said Tuesday, and department inspectors will frequently visit the crops.

Cindy Smith, a deputy administrator of biotech regulation for the agency, said that a new rule to be released Wednesday will include oversight of crops that make industrial products.

"The government will inspect these field tests much more often than the typical food and feed field tests, as well as audit company records of those field tests," said Smith.

Inspectors will visit each test site at least seven times during the growing season two of them after harvest, Smith said. The final visits are meant to make sure the crop isn't sprouting again.

The government has allowed the use of genetically engineered crops mostly for food and animal feed. The new rule addresses newer crops now being developed to produce industrial compounds that can be used to manufacture household goods, plastics and chemicals.

Until now, companies growing industrial crops simply had to notify federal officials before planting. The food industry and watchdog groups complained that there was too little oversight.

Smith said the new regulations will require an unplanted, 50-foot-deep perimeter around industrial crops to ensure they don't cross-pollinate with neighboring plants. Biotech farmers also will have to plant the industrial crops at least one mile away from food crops and dedicate farm equipment for only cultivating, maintaining and harvesting them.

Those are the same requirements that the agency imposed on companies growing plants that make pharmaceuticals.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization said it agrees with the monitoring.

The food industry is concerned that biotech development has outpaced the government's regulatory system. The industry has increased pressure on biotech firms and federal regulators to confine industrial and pharmaceutical crops to areas far from the fields where farmers grow food.

Tim Willard, a spokesman for the National Food Processors Association, said the new rule is a step toward ensuring that the food supply is protected from contamination from residues and chemicals produced by industrial crops.

Still, the government needs to make other improvements to prevent a food scare, he said.

"We have to have 100 percent assurance," Willard said. "We don't think they're there yet in terms of full oversight and controls and containment."

The biotech industry has only recently begun to focus on growing industrial crops. The Agriculture Department said it received just 10 notices from companies that raised them from 1993 until 2001, but this year it already has received five.

The department doesn't require biotech firms to disclose what they are growing to the public, arguing it is protected trade information.

Watchdog groups said that needs to change.

"The public doesn't know what's being grown, where it's being grown, what compounds are being engineered into these plants," said Greg Jaffe, biotech director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Margaret Mellon, head of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the public should also be allowed to comment on applications because of the plants' potential effects on the environment.

The interim rule goes into effect on Wednesday and will expire in December 2004. Smith said officials want to collect public comments and issue a long-term rule before the end of next year.

On the Net:

USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: http://www.aphis.usda.gov