Hawaii Biopharming Decision Finds USDA in Violation of Environmental Laws

Four USDA-issued permits primarily at issue include drug-producing corn and sugarcane at various sites in four Hawaii islands from 2001 to 2003.

Citing possible harm to Hawaii's 329 endangered and threatened species, a federal district judge has ruled that USDA violated the Endangered Species Act in permitting the cultivation of drug-producing, genetically engineered crops throughout Hawaii.

The court found that USDA violated the ESA and the National Environmental Policy Act, by failing to conduct preliminary investigations prior to its approval of the plantings.

The August 10 decision represents the first federal court ruling ever on "biopharming," the practice of genetically altering food crops to produce experimental drugs and industrial compounds.

The four USDA-issued permits primarily at issue in the case authorized Monsanto, ProdiGene, Garst Seed Company, and the HawaiiAgricultureResearchCenter to plant over 800 acres (1.25 square miles) of drug-producing corn and sugarcane at various sites in Kaua'i, O'ahu, Moloka'i, and Maui from 2001 to 2003.

The plaintiffs in the case - Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, Pesticide Action Network North America, and KAHEA (the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance) - sued the USDA in November 2003.

Hawaii is the nation's leading state for plantings of experimental, genetically engineered crops, having hosted more than 5,000 such tests from 1987 through 2004, including several dozen biopharm crop trials. Biopharm crops produce substances such as experimental vaccines, growth hormones, blood-clotting and thinning agents, antibodies and industrial enzymes.

Plaintiffs have also challenged USDA's practice of concealing the locations of trials from the public. In Judge J. Michael Seabright ordered the parties to appear in court on August 22, 2006, to discuss remedies for the government's violations.

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