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When genetically modified plants go wild

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The three incidents convey a message that "the US government has been somewhat lax in its oversight of the biotechnology industry and in some instances has not taken its responsibility to regulate as strongly as it should," says Gregory Jaffe, director of the biotechnology project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group in Washington that has expressed qualified support for the use of genetic modification in agriculture.

"Clearly this shows that the companies and the government don't have as much control over experimental crops as they need to have," Mr. Jaffe says. "I think there's a sloppiness out there. Industry doesn't take the rules of conduct as seriously as it should."

Government agencies, he says, have adopted what almost amounts to a "don't look, don't find" policy. "We have a fairly passive regulatory system," he says, that does "a little spot checking" but mostly relies on businesses to step forward and report their own problems.

The cases of the escaped GM grass and the mysterious appearance of experimental rice in the food supply raise important questions, says Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a nonprofit group in Washington that seeks to be an independent and objective source of information on agricultural biotechnology. "How do you know that [GM crops] are staying where you want them to stay?" he asks. "As there are more kinds of genetically-engineered crops out there, it continues to pose challenges for companies and for regulators."

Some amount of movement of GM crops outside their containment areas "is virtually inevitable," Mr. Fernandez says. "The question is, how do we feel about that? How important is that? Does it matter what the crop is?" The bentgrass may pose no significant danger, he says, but "would we feel differently" if it were a plant that produced pharmaceuticals?

Last December, a report from the USDA's own Office of the Inspector General urged the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) division "to strengthen its accountability for field tests of [genetically enhanced] crops." The report added that "weaknesses in APHIS regulations and internal management controls increase the risk that regulated genetically engineered organisms (GEO) will inadvertently persist in the environment...."

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