HONOLULU (AP) - A federal judge has ruled that U.S. agriculture officials violated environmental laws in permitting four companies to plant genetically modified crops in Hawaii to produce experimental drugs.
The order involves plantings of corn or sugarcane on Kauai, Maui, Molokai and Oahu between 2001 and 2003.
U.S. District Judge Michael Seabright said the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service flouted both the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act by not conducting preliminary environmental reviews before issuing the planting permits.
"APHIS's utter disregard for this simple investigation requirement, especially given the extraordinary number of endangered and threatened plants and animals in Hawaii, constitutes an unequivocal violation of a clear congressional mandate," the judge said in the order issued late last week.
The islands are home to 329 rare species _ a quarter of all threatened and endangered species in the nation, Seabright noted.
Even if the agency is correct in its assertion that no habitats or species listed as endangered were harmed by the plantings, the agency's actions still are "tainted" because it failed to comply with a basic procedural requirement, Seabright said.
EarthJustice, which represents plaintiffs in the cases, said in a news release Monday that the decision is the first federal court ruling involving biofarming.
Rachel Iadicicco, a spokeswoman for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the agency can't comment on pending litigation but has established procedures to guide it in complying with federal environmental laws.
The four companies issued the permits were ProdiGene, Monsanto, Hawaii Agriculture Research Center and Garst Seed. All of the companies' plants used to make pharmaceutical crops already have been harvested and the companies have stopped planting the crops under the permits, according to the order.
Spokesmen for both Syngenta, which now owns Garst, and Monsanto said they have since gotten out of the business of making drugs from plant crops.
Stephanie Whalen, president of Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, said her company is continuing its research with sugarcane. But it won't return to field testing until researchers find ways to make using the plants more economical - which is long way off.
Once the company does decide to commercialize its drug-making plant technology all the techniques for controlling the spread of the plants in the environment will be figured out, she said.
The practice of using genetically engineered food crops to produce proteins that can be turned into medicines has faced growing opposition from farmers, environmentalists and big-time corporate food interests whose businesses might be affected by crop contamination, including Anheuser-Busch Inc.
Concerns center around the fear that the altered crops will crossbreed with conventional crops and thereby make it on to the plates of unknowing consumers.
But there is also the concern that such crops could hurt local endangered species such as the Hawaiian nene goose, the state bird which likes to feed on corn, said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Washington-based Center for Food Safety, one of four plaintiffs in the case.
Other plaintiffs in the case were the Hawaii environmentalist group KAHEA, Friends of the Earth, Inc., and Pesticide Action Network North America.
"I think this court ruling shows once again that the USDA is not doing their job. They're being negligent - not regulating these crops. They're not up to the job of regulating these crops," Freese said.
Both sides of the case have been ordered to appear in court on Aug. 22 to discuss remedies for the violations.
In his order, Seabright said the service skipped the mandatory step under the Endangered Species Act of gathering information about local listed species and critical habitats.
The National Environmental Policy Act also requires federal agencies to evaluate the impact of their actions on the environment.
The service, however, did not review the impacts of the crop projects or clearly explain in advance why it might be exempt from the requirement, making the decision to issue the permits "arbitrary and capricious," Seabright said.
Several counts in the case remain open for discussion at the upcoming hearing, including a request by the plaintiffs that the Agriculture Department complete an environmental review of its program for granting permits for the crops, Freese said.
On the Net:
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: http://www.aphis.usda.gov
for Food Safety: http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/
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