Share this


Karl Vick

Monsanto Co. and its research partners paid $63,000 in fines for previously undisclosed violations in 2001 in testing genetically modified crops, the government said yesterday. \r\n \r\nThe fines, though small for a multibillion-dollar company, were far higher than any previously known to have been levied against Monsanto in similar circumstances, and they raised fresh questions about how tightly the biotechnology industry can control test crops not yet proven safe. \r\n\r\nThe St. Louis company said it caught the violations itself, and reported them to the government, as part of an auditing program designed to ensure that unapproved crops do not get into human food or other agricultural commodities. Eric S. Sachs, director of scientific affairs for Monsanto, noted that the company had conducted about 12,000 field tests of gene-altered crops since 1990, and in only four cases did the government find violations serious enough to warrant fines. \r\n\r\n""That's not an excuse,"" Sachs said. ""Our commitment is to making sure that every field trial we conduct is in full compliance with the regulations."" \r\n\r\nAdvocates tracking the government's oversight of agricultural biotechnology were less sanguine about the new disclosures, saying that if the government were looking harder for violations, it would probably find more of them. \r\n\r\n""I think this new information provides a strong argument for a much greater oversight and regulatory presence for the federal government to ensure that the biotechnology industry doesn't indirectly harm the environment or the public,"" said Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology programs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington group that supports the technology in principle but has long argued that it is poorly regulated. \r\n\r\nThe Monsanto disclosures were part of a new effort by the Agriculture Department to provide the public with more information about government oversight of biotechnology. In the future, the government said it will release the results of its investigations. Monsanto, following the government's lead, said yesterday that it would start publishing online more detailed information about cases in which it was found to have violated government rules. Monsanto posted a list of 44 cases in which the company, or smaller companies it has bought, violated government rules in testing gene-altered crops. The list was by far the most detailed information to be made available on the company's compliance problems. \r\n\r\nMonsanto is the biggest agricultural biotechnology company and has conducted more field tests of gene-altered crops than any other institution. Most of the 44 cases were minor and did not result in fines or other government penalties, the company said. \r\n\r\nAs part of a push to tighten biotech regulation, the Agriculture Department announced the formation of a new unit, with a few additional staff members, that will oversee testing of unapproved biotech crops. The unit is to be part of a larger office that regulates biotechnology and that office will eventually double, to about 50 people, the department said. Government inspectors will receive additional training and the level of scrutiny will rise, said Cindy Smith, the department's lead biotech regulator. \r\n\r\nThe idea is to prepare for the time when companies are expected to use food crops to grow pharmaceutical or industrial compounds not meant for human consumption. ""Much more inspection and auditing will need to be done,"" Smith said. \r\n\r\nThe prospect of industrial or pharmaceutical crops has alarmed many environmental and consumer groups, who say compounds unsafe for human consumption could wind up in the human food supply. Already, several close calls have required government intervention to protect the food supply. In 2002, a company called ProdiGene Inc. mismanaged pharmaceutical crops in a way that required destruction of fields of corn in Iowa and tons of soybeans in Nebraska. ProdiGene was fined $250,000, the biggest such penalty ever. \r\n\r\nThe newly disclosed Monsanto violations occurred in 2001 and involved tests of unapproved, gene-altered varieties of corn and cotton. At a test plot in Illinois, the government said, Monsanto violated rules designed to keep its test corn out of commercial cornfields. The company was ordered to destroy the commercial corn and paid a $12,500 fine, while a small seed company collaborating with Monsanto was fined $3,750. \r\n\r\nThat same year, the company failed to ensure correct planting of cotton test plots in Tennessee and Georgia and was ordered to destroy those crops, the government said. Monsanto was fined $25,000. A collaborator, Delta and Pine Land Co., paid $15,000 in fines, while the University of Georgia and the University of Tennessee each paid $3,750. \r\n\r\nBoth the cotton and corn varieties involved in those cases have since been deemed safe and approved for sale, but that determination had not been made at the time Monsanto broke government planting rules.Washington Post/Justin Gillis

Filed under