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UCR scientists on committee recommending that regulation of transgenic plants be reinforced

UCR scientists on committee recommending that regulation of transgenic plants be reinforced

(February 27, 2002)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture should more rigorously review the potential environmental effects of new transgenic plants before approving them for commercial use, says a new report from the National Research Council, the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. Two scientists at UC Riverside - Norman Ellstrand, professor of genetics, and Alan McHughen, associate plant biotechnologist - are co-authors of the report. 'Times have changed,' says Ellstrand. 'There's been an increasing awareness of what the real reasonable scientific risks are.'

The report had 12 authors and went through a peer review process as well as an internal review within the National Academy of Science. The report also said the public should be more involved in the review process and that ecological testing and monitoring should continue after transgenic plants have entered the marketplace. Appropriate environmental risk analysis and public acceptance of transgenic plants depend on a federal regulatory system and culture that communicates to society the seriousness with which potential environmental risks are being addressed, the report emphasizes.

'The report notes that the risks associated with new crops is not related to the source or amount of the genetic material or the method of breeding,' says McHughen. 'We need to look at the crop, the new trait and the environment in which it will be grown. Some new crops, whether developed by biotechnology or conventional breeding, will be benign but some may be hazardous. Our concern needs to shift scrutiny to the product and not the process by which the product was made.'

While the committee called for an enhanced regulatory process for transgenic plants, it also noted that the current level of regulation for such plants is higher than for other agricultural products and practices. This is the case despite the fact that the committee did not find any strict distinctions between the types of environmental risks posed by plants genetically engineered through modern molecular techniques and those modified by conventional breeding practices. There also is a need to re-examine which transgenic plants should be tested and allowed to grow commercially through notification, the committee said. The committee called notification an important step in effectively streamlining the field-testing review process.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The National Research Council was organized by the National Academy of Sciences in 1916 to associate the broad community of science and technology with the Academy's purposes of further knowledge and advising the federal government.

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