WASHINGTON — An inspection of an orchard of experimental, genetically modified apples in central Washington last year turned up a troubling finding – gene-altered trees flowering less than 100 feet from conventional apple trees.
The grower, Gebbers Farms of Brewster, Wash., previously had been cited for conducting a field trial too near conventional apples, failing to keep good records and making no effort to keep animals away from the plot.
So last November, the federal Animal Plant Health Inspection Service did what it seldom does – slapped Gebbers with a civil penalty of $19,250 for failing to comply with rules governing field trials of genetically modified crops.
The apple experiment, one of just a handful in the United States, drew extra scrutiny because the U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering legalizing genetically modified "non-browning apples."
The prospect of gene-altered apples entering the market is a worry in Washington's $2.5 billion apple industry amid fears that consumers will reject tinkering with the genes of a fruit that stands as a symbol of healthy eating.
Until now, the location of the experimental apple plot in Washington – which Gebbers says was abandoned this year – had not been publicly known.
Details of Gebbers' field trials and hundreds of inspections of field trials with genetically modified plants were obtained by Hearst under Freedom of Information laws.
The inspection reports and other Agriculture Department records present a picture of the vast outdoor experimentation with genetically modified crops, which is expanding swiftly from common field crops like corn and soybeans into the realm of whole foods and plants with industrial uses.
The documents show how the obscure Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), part of the government agency charged with promoting and protecting agriculture, takes an industry-friendly approach to regulating as it seeks to prevent contamination or economic harm from field trials.
Among the findings of Hearst's investigation:
- Minimal penalties: The Agriculture Department issued just two civil penalties for field trials infractions since 2010 despite sending out nearly 200 notices of non-compliance – incidents from minor paperwork violations to lost seeds to modified plants sprouting where they shouldn't.
- Monsanto mistakes. The Missouri-based biotechnology pioneer, which has conducted about a quarter of all the field trials in the United States, received at least 35 notices of non-compliance from 2010 through 2013, more than any other company. In 2010, the company paid a civil penalty after accidentally ginning experimental cotton two years earlier in Texas, an error that led to unapproved cottonseed meal and hulls consumed by livestock and exported to Mexico for animal feed.
- California "pharming": APHIS is approving permits for pharmaceutical corn in an environmentally sensitive area along the Central Coast even though the head of the company founded another company that contaminated Midwestern crops with genetically modified organisms (GMOs.)
Inspection reports show the many problems that can occur with field trials, including bad weather. Dozens of times, heavy rains washed out or otherwise damaged test plots, raising the specter of unwanted dispersal of GMOs.
Creatures pose another threat. Animals, birds and insects don't distinguish between gene-altered crops and conventional varieties. Among more than 30 incidents: Hogs in Texas destroyed a plot of genetically modified sugarcane; wild pigs in Hawaii preyed on Monsanto modified corn; and in Iowa, "three cows ate regulated corn plants after entering a gate that was inadvertently left open," according to a report from a Dupont Pioneer corn plot.
Even government researchers get sloppy. APHIS sent notices of non-compliance to a sister agency, the Agriculture Department's Agriculture Research Service, for moving modified soybeans from Missouri to Ohio without authorization and planting engineered barley in the wrong Minnesota county.
Vandalism and theft present still another problem. In Iowa, an auto plowed through a DuPont Pioneer field of experimental corn before being abandoned nearly a mile away. Corn was found near the car and in a ditch.
Companies and universities conducting field trials usually are eager to remedy problems and avoid further scrutiny. That apparently wasn't the case last year at the University of Florida, which received a formal letter from APHIS about its failings after a tomato researcher told an inspector that he didn't plan to monitor adjacent land for unwanted volunteer plants and intended to lie about it if asked.
"One good candidate for direct inspection," an inspector noted wryly.
DANGERS OF MISTAKES
Field trials enable companies to gauge the performance of newly engineered traits while generating data for applying to take products to market.
APHIS says it has approved nearly 20,000 field trial permits covering an estimated 100,000 plantings of gene-altered crops. The agency says it has no firm count.
Among government agencies, APHIS plays the dominant role. The Environmental Protection Agency concerns itself only crops engineered to produce pesticides. The Food and Drug Administration's involvement is minimal, consulting with companies on a voluntary basis only in matters of food safety.
That leaves significant duties for the Agriculture Department in overseeing the recombinant DNA methods that have transformed farming and triggered a worldwide debate over labeling and threats to the organic industry.
Once genetically engineered crops become commercialized, no government agency tracks them. That reality underscores the importance of monitoring field trials, particularly with crops like alfalfa, canola and grasses with sexually compatible wild relatives.
Besides threatening the environment, escaped or unapproved crops can generate economic problems, as the discovery last year of wheat engineered to resist Monsanto's Roundup weed-killer shows.
The herbicide-tolerant wheat, found on an Oregon farm, had been tested by Monsanto in 16 states from 1998 to 2005 before the company suspended its trials. Monsanto has since resumed research into genetically modified wheat.
Within days after the discovery, Japan, Korea and Taiwan – among countries where consumers are suspicious of modified food – suspended imports of certain wheat varieties from the Pacific Northwest. The European Union demanded new testing of imports from the United States and wheat futures dropped sharply. Nowhere in the world is genetically modified wheat legal.
APHIS investigated but has yet to report its findings. Monsanto has said the rogue wheat might have resulted from sabotage, but it remains a mystery whether it was an isolated incident or a breakdown in the regulatory system.
APHIS's handling of field trials has drawn criticism from scientists and from other federal agencies. The Agriculture Department's inspector general in 2005 identified "weaknesses in inspections and enforcement" as basic as being unaware of the locations of field trials.
In 2008, the Government Accountability Office, citing "controversy and financial harm" from a half-dozen unauthorized releases, recommended a more robust effort to monitor field trials. The GAO also said government agencies should work together after engineered products hit the market to determine unintended consequences to the environment, conventional farming and food safety.
APHIS officials said they are unaware of any new effort related to products already on the market but have followed many other recommendations, bolstering the agency's science capacity and increasing its inspection staff to 130.
Nonetheless, last year more than 150 farm groups and businesses, many in the organic trade, petitioned the Agriculture Department to strengthen oversight of field trials.
APHIS is drawing heat from farmers worried about potential effects of so many field trials – and about what is being tested.
Lynn Clarkson operates a grain trading business in central Illinois that supplies growers around the world with non-GMO seed. But modified corn has become so prevalent in the United States, he said, that he's trying to import corn seed from Europe to be grown in the United States.
"The ease with which people can test things in the open air troubles me," he said. "We've essentially opened up parts of America for experimentation."
Cynthia Sagers, a University of Arkansas biologist who specializes in plant populations, found gene-altered canola thriving widely along North Dakota roadsides in 2010. It was modified to resist proprietary herbicides and had been sprouting for generations, she reported.
"It's still there and it's always going to be there," she said recently. "When you're driving down the road and the only thing standing is herbicide-resistant canola, biodiversity has taken a hit."
Carol Mallory-Smith, a weed scientist at Oregon State University, was the first to connect the Oregon wheat discovery to Monsanto. Over the years she has documented instances of genetically engineered plants growing where they shouldn't, including creeping bentgrass from field trials by The Scotts Company aimed at producing herbicide tolerant grass for golf courses.
In 2007, Scotts paid a civil penalty of $500,000 – the largest ever assessed by APHIS – for failing to comply with performance standards at multiple test sites in 19 states.
Mallory-Smith says these episodes underscore the need to monitor more closely. "When you start those field trials, those genes have not been approved, one of the reasons that monitoring is important," she said.
APHIS defends its limited use of fines – two civil penalties in four years – while insisting it has beefed up monitoring.
"I really don't' want to be fining people because they sent us a report a few days late," said Michael Firko, APHIS's deputy administrator for biotechnology regulation.
But Neil Harl, a retired Iowa State University agriculture professor, said: "That's not very much evidence of oversight."
"We need government agencies that are independent and aggressive in pushing the public interest, but that's not what we're seeing at USDA," said Harl, who has been a member of a half-dozen federal advisory panels.
The Agriculture Department officials say they pay special attention to field trials with pharmaceutical crops. A Colorado-based company producing pharmaceutical rice, Ventria Bioscience, paid an undisclosed penalty in 2011 after seed residue was found on equipment at Kansas farms away from the test site.
Firko said his agency has increased the frequency of field trial monitoring and intends to inspect 735 sites next year.
"We have a completely different level of attention to this program than we did in the early parts of the century," he said.
THE "ARCTIC APPLE"
APHIS is in the final stages of considering a petition by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, Inc., of Summerland, British Columbia, to market the so-called Arctic Apple in the United States without restrictions. The company has yet to win approval in Canada.
Neal Carter, president and founder of Okanagan, said in an interview in early August that he was told by APHIS that he will win approval of his genetically modified Arctic Apple "in one or two months" and that he expects Canada to follow suit this year.
He said he was so confident approval that he canceled plans for a field trial this year in Virginia.
Department of Agriculture officials said Carter has not been told that Okanagan's approval is imminent.
Records show that an entity headed by Jennifer Armen, Okanagan's director of marketing and sales and a United States citizen, was issued permits this year for apple field trials at undisclosed locations in Washington state and New York.
Okanagan says it has engineered its non-browning apple by inserting genes that, in effect, turn off the enzymes in apples that create brown pigments when mixed with oxygen.
"The bottom line is convenience," Carter said. "It's really the fact that people want more convenience, and a whole apple represents too big of a commitment."
"It's a marketing issue," echoed As president of the Northwest Horticultural Society, Christian Schlect, represents the tree-fruit industry in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Part of his mission is opening foreign markets for apple exports.
Schlect says some Washington apple-growers are aggressive about new technology and but that many others are unlikely to be keen on the marketing risks of engineered apples.
"There's a segment of consumers that is very concerned about this. It really just complicates life, in my opinion," he said.
In New York, a distant second to Washington in apple production, apple industry leaders are sounding alarms.
"It doesn't seem beneficial to open up this wave of controversy in the apple industry," said James Allen, who represents 700 New York Apple growers as president and CEO of the New York Apple Association.
"If this GMO apple solved other major issues, like eliminating disease or insect damage or offering a real benefit to consumers, then I think we'd feel differently. We don't think that protecting an apple so that it will brown at a much lower rate has benefit."
New York apple grower Peter Ten Eyck likens sliced apples to "pre-chewed food," adding: "If this is viewed as a gain for the grower but a pain for the consumer, it's never going to go."
In comments submitted to APHIS supporting approval of non-browning Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples, Lynn Hughes, of Quakertown, Pa., observed: "As an elementary school teacher who often serves cut-up apples to students for their snack, I know that they won't eat the brown ones."
But Deidre Leonard, of Camarillo, Calif., wrote that she is "not interested in an apple that doesn't brown after being sliced. This is one of the ways I, as a consumer, can tell if the apple is fresh or not."
Despite overwhelming opposition in nearly 7,000 public comments, APHIS declared a year ago that its preferred alternative is granting the company the "non-regulated status" that it is seeking. In an environmental assessment, the agency observed that its authority in the matter is limited to determining whether the engineered apple could pose a plant pest risk. APHIS concluded that it doesn't.
Favorable disposition toward genetically engineered apples didn't prevent APHIS from imposing a penalty on Gebbers Farms, of Brewster, Wash., for growing its engineered apples too near conventional varieties – a violation that poses threats of outcrossing.
Gebbers Farms, which operates on 5,000 acres at the base of the Cascade Range, claims to have one of the largest contiguous apple orchards in the world.
Bob Grandy, director of food safety, said his company ended the test trial earlier this year. He declined to discuss the results of the field trials or the merits of the non-browning apple.
But Okanagan's Neal Carter had this to say about critics: "We know there are people who are detractors and aren't keen on genetically modified food. They don't have to eat genetically modified food. They don't have to eat Arctic Apples."
"THE MONSANTO INCIDENT"
Monsanto says it has conducted some 26,000 field trials since 1990 – which would amount to one-fourth of the 100,000 that APHIS says have taken place in the United States.
The company says that it relies on training and audits to continually strengthen field trial procedures and has self-reported some 300 instances of potential violations. But, as Monsanto observes on its website, "we do experience occasional deviations from internal and APHIS standards."
For instance, Monsanto received a notice of non-compliance last year after the company divulged that it had "unintended constructs" of genes at 39 corn trial locations across five states. The corn was being tested in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Tennessee for a variety of engineered traits, including drought tolerance and insect resistance, records show.
In 2010, Monsanto agreed to an $18,690 civil penalty after violations with genetically engineered cotton in Texas referred to in internal APHIS documents as "the Monsanto incident."
According to documents not previously made public, a test plot of cotton genetically modified to resist insects was accidentally harvested on Halloween, 2008 in Dawson County. A Monsanto spokeswoman said recently the error involved less than one-fourth acre and posed no threat.
The altered cotton, along with conventional cotton, was sent to Lamesa, Texas, for ginning – the process that separates fiber from seeds. The seeds were sent to Lubbock for processing.
Eight days later, a Monsanto employee showed up at the field trial and discovered the harvest. It took two more days for the company to inform APHIS of the potential problem, triggering an emergency action order prohibiting removal of seeds and later a rebuke for failing to disclose the release sooner.
Cottonseed typically is turned into products such as meal, oil and flour. When Japanese officials got wind of the accidental release, APHIS asked Monsanto to respond to their questions.
Monsanto said none of the processed seed was consumed by humans but that some of it entered the supply chain and was consumed by livestock and some had been shipped to Mexico for livestock feed.
"This incident occurred due to inadequate communication and is attributed to human error," Monsanto wrote in its explanation.
Originally Published: SeattlePi