Science-Based Decision Guide May Be Answer To EPA's Controversial Rule

December 14, 1998

CHICAGO-A two-year dispute between an 11-society scientific consortium and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the agency's proposed rule to regulate genetically modified pest-resistant plants has culminated in the near finalization of a rule that the consortium maintains is "scientifically indefensible." The crux of the consortium's concern is that the rule seeks to regulate inherited traits in plants as though they were chemical pesticides. Since the scientists' concerns have apparently been ignored to date, members of the consortium have proposed a risk- and science-based decision guide for incorporation in the final rule that would exclude safe plants from onerous EPA regulation.

"Calling plants 'pesticides' does not make any scientific sense," said Calvin O. Qualset, head, Genetic Resources Conservation Program, University of California at Davis. "The U.S. government stands alone among nations in viewing safe, pest-resistant plants this way."

In a series of six "yes or no" questions, the "Decision Guide for EPA Review of Plants with Inherited Traits for Resistance to Pests" would exclude from review as a "plant pesticide" any plant with an inherited pest-defense trait that is:

1) naturally-occurring and heritable, derived from plants of the same or sexually compatible species (i.e., gene transfers from one potato species to another);

2) new to the plant species and its sexually compatible relatives and results in changes in physical structure or form (i.e., leaves with hairs that prevent or discourage insect attack);

3) involved in defense mechanisms expressed as a cascade of biochemical and genetic events triggered by incompatibility between the pest and the plant (i.e., hypersensitive reaction or programmed plant cell death);

4) responsible for pest defense effects that are widely known and common within the plant, animal, and microbial kingdoms, and are not characteristic of pesticides, such as enzymes; or

5) derived from pest genes, such as a viral coat protein.

Rightly included in EPA regulation under the decision guide would be plants with pest-defense substances that act as pesticides when extracted from their hosts and tested in vitro and in the environment, such as nicotine, scorpion toxin, spider venom, and crystalline Bt endotoxin.

The EPA's proposed rule will not only financially burden land grant universities and small companies developing pest-resistant plant varieties, it will also slow down the development of safer, genetic alternatives to synthetic chemical pesticides as well as worldwide consumer acceptance of safe genetically modified foods. EPA's proposed rule fails to provide for and in fact, stigmatizes, current developments in plant breeding that permit precise, multiple gene transfers. Further, it is the product, not the process, that matters in terms of assessing safety. The 11-society consortium urges the EPA to base its regulations on the toxicological characteristics of plants, rather than the techniques used to develop them.

"The EPA's proposed rule sends a signal to the world that the United States views its own genetically modified plants as hazardous to people or the environment," said R. James Cook, Ph.D., plant scientist and endowed chair in wheat research at Washington State University. "No evidence exists that these plants produce any hazard, and it is scientifically indefensible to regulate them as though they were synthetic chemical pesticides.

"Moreover, labeling seeds or crop commodities as pesticides would undermine global public confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply. If plants are safe for human consumption, there is no reason to label them as pesticidal, creating unnecessary concern for consumers worldwide."

As the consortium's views, articulated in "Appropriate Oversight for Plants with Inherited Traits for Resistance to Pests" (July 1996) and a public meeting with EPA, have apparently been excluded from the nearly final rule, it is hoped that the decision guide may yet bring a risk- and science-based rationale to this important public policy.
The 11-society scientific consortium includes the American Institute of Biological Sciences, American Phytopathological Society, American Society for Horticultural Science, American Society for Microbiology, American Society of Agronomy, American Society of Plant Physiologists, Crop Science Society of America, Entomological Society of America, Institute of Food Technologists, Society of Nematologists, and Weed Science Society of America.

Institute of Food Technologists

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