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MOF&G Cover Winter 2001-2002


  You are here:  PublicationsMaine Organic Farmer & GardenerWinter 01-02Tisher Editorial   
 Interior Department at Odds Over Biotech Policy Minimize

By Sharon Tisher

Little did we know that in the waning weeks of the Clinton administration, Bruce Babbitt’s Interior Department was championing our concerns over biotech risks. In a low profile but definitely high stakes move, the agency in charge of federal lands broke rank from the lockstep complacency of the rest of administration over the future of biotech and the adequacy of federal oversight. Staking out a position clearly at odds with the FDA and the USDA, and far stronger than anything to come out of the EPA, Interior called for a massive overhaul and strengthening of the federal regulatory framework through new legislation, a “Genetic Engineering and the Environment Act,” preventing environmental release of transgenics unless they have been thoroughly assessed and their risks carefully considered.

A first hand account of the behind the scenes battle has just been published in the Environmental Law Institute’s Environment Forum (Sept/Oct 2001), by William Y. Brown, formerly Science Advisor to Babbit, and subsequently Vice President of the National Audubon Society. MOFGA and other environmental activists have long contended that many of the risks presented by transgenics are not regulated at all; that what regulations exist have the flimsiest of legal basis in federal statutes; and that the basic assumption of the Reagan Era “Coordinated Framework,” that all biotech issues could be addressed under existing health and environmental statutes, was fundamentally flawed. Identification of key problems that were falling through the cracks of the Coordinated Framework, such as transgenic fish, was a focus of the 1996 report of the Maine Commission to Study Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. Until now, however, the federal agencies’ rejection of these concerns has been monolithic, complacent, and comfortably in bed with the biotech industry.

It took an agency with no responsibility for regulating biotechnology, and with a mission to protect some of the most sensitive of our ecosystems, to see that the emperor of biotech regulation has no clothes. Coming from an already keen sensitivity to the costs (estimated at $138 billion/year) of environmental damage from natural invasive species, Interior began on its own initiative to focus on potential risks posed by transgenic “alien” species, and to assess the adequacy of the present framework to identify and weed out risks before they were out of control. To its dismay, Brown reported, the agency determined that federal oversight was a “tangle of inadequate laws and programs,” creating a system that was “deficient, beyond public comprehension, and in one major respect contrary to the statutes upon which they are based.” Interior proposed an interagency review, focused on six case studies of potential risks (one, for example, addressing transgenic Atlantic salmon). Portions of the results of the review are still posted at www.ostp.gov/html/012201.html. For Brown and other career staff at Interior, the review only confirmed their impression of the inadequacy of oversight, and the need for new legislation. Interior then presented a detailed proposal for new legislation which would clearly set a process and standards for review of risks presented by transgenics, and remove the shield of secrecy that encompasses current review of transgenic fish, treated (bizarrely) as “New Animal Drugs” under FDA regulations. “The assessment essentially collapsed at the end of the Clinton administration … because of differences among the agencies involved. Interior sought far reaching legislative change, but FDA and especially Agriculture did not support fundamental revisions …. The issue now simmers, waiting on engagement by the Bush administration.” Don’t hold your breath.


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