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When genetically modified plants go wild

Even advocates of these crops were shaken recently when modified plants 'escaped' from test areas.

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In rice-growing states, traces of an unapproved genetically modified (GM) rice have been found mixed in with conventional rice meant for human consumption.

In Oregon, genetically engineered creeping bentgrass, being tested for possible use on golf courses, has been found miles outside its test beds, making it the first GM plant known to have escaped into the wild.

In Hawaii, a federal judge has admonished the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for displaying "utter disregard" for the state's endangered native plant species. The judge says the USDA failed to conduct research on the environmental effects of fields of experimental corn and sugarcane that had been genetically modified to produce pharmaceuticals. Environmental and food-safety groups have asked for a moratorium on all field tests of experimental drug-producing plants until their safety precautions can be reviewed.

Early indications are that in each case little substantial harm has been done. The experimental rice, for example, is similar to two other GM strains already approved for general use.

But many who closely watch how biotechnology is changing agriculture, including those who see a valuable role for GM crops, are disturbed by what appears to be a series of recent incidents showing lax supervision of experimental plantings by the government and agribusinesses.

"You absolutely should be in compliance with regulations," says Martina Newell-McGloughlin, an internationally recognized advocate for the uses of biotechnology based in Davis, Calif. She directs the University of California's systemwide biotechnology program. The three incidents "aren't health concerns, but they are regulatory concerns," she says. "It's incumbent on the companies, on the USDA ... to ensure that everybody complies with these regulations."


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