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Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Legal Actions Over Approvals of Transgenic Plants

Crop and Soil Environmental News, October 1997

Charles Hagedorn
Extension Specialist

A formal legal petition against the US Environmental Protection Agency was submitted in Washington, September 16, 1997, by Greenpeace International, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (world organization of organic farmers, certifiers, producers, retailers - 650 members in over 100 countries), the Sierra Club, the National Family Farm Coalition, California Certified Organic Farmers, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and the Center for International Technology Assessment in Washington, DC, were among the 31 organizations on the petition. The central demands of the petition are that the EPA:

1) cancel the registrations of all genetically engineered plants that contain the Bacillusthuringiensis (Bt) insecticide toxin genes.

2) refrain from taking any new registration procedures, or determinations of registration, and

3) complete a programmatic impact statement analyzing the organizations registering genetically engineered plants that express Bt.

Petitioners allege that, in approving transgenic plants carrying the Bt toxin, EPA is seriously threatening the future of organic agriculture and jeopardizing the genetic diversity of major food crops such as corn, potatoes and tomatoes in their Centers of Origin. Petitioners also charge that EPA's actions violate numerous federal laws and regulations and will cause significant human health and environmental problems. The petition alleges breaches of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) where the EPA failed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement which it is required to do; the Administrative Procedure Act where other federal agencies and scientists should have been consulted but the EPA failed to do so; and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) where it must be proved that plant pesticides will only be approved if it can be determined they will not cause environmental harm.

The petitioners will take the EPA to the US Federal District Court if the agency does not react to their legal petition within 90 days. Petitioners allege that, in approving transgenic plants carrying the Bt toxin, the EPA is seriously threatening the future of organic agriculture and jeopardizing the genetic variety of major food crops, such as corn, potatoes and tomatoes.

As reported before, natural strains of Bt have been used as a biological pesticide for nearly forty years to protect crops, vegetables and forests without any known detrimental effects on the environment or human health. Bt sprays today are the single most important biopesticide on the market with an annual overturn of over 60 million dollars in the US alone. They are especially important to organic farmers and integrated pest management programs (IPM). The Bt toxin genes have now been transferred into a variety of plants such as corn, potato, rice, rapeseed, eggplant, grape, tomato, cranberry, cotton, apple, poplar, walnut and tobacco. Major multinational chemical and biotechnology companies have now started to commercialize these transgenic Bt crops. Transgenic Bt cotton, corn and potatoes have been planted in the range of 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) in the US this year.

One of the reasons for the petition is the concern that large scale use of transgenic Bt crops may create resistance within the populations of the targeted insects and thus develop a need for new chemical or biotechnological pesticides - a well known effect with many chemical insecticides. If Bt-resistant insect populations occur, the living Bt sprays that are heavily used by organic and IPM farmers would also be rendered useless within a short time and leave farmers with no biological insect control alternative.

In addition, some research on the environmental effects of transgenic Bt crops has demonstrated that the Bt toxins may also kill both non-target organisms and predators of the target insects. This concern is based on the exposure times, as the Bt crops express the Bt toxin over the entire life of the crop, while farmers who spray living Bt formulations do so only when needed, so the Bt toxin is actually present for a much shorter time. Finally the transfer of the engineered Bt genes to wild relatives of the transgenic plants through cross-pollination could have unpredictable and potentially negative consequences regarding plant biodiversity, especially in the countries where the crops originate.

In summary, my opinion on this petition is as follows. The petition itself is not unusual, as most environmental legislation is refined and interpreted by the legal system as a result of challenges. Regarding the claims that EPA did not satisfy FIFRA or NEPA, the courts will decide this as both of these acts are complicated and almost impossible for the "layperson" to interpret. The claim concerning time of exposure is only partially correct. While Bt toxin in plants is expressed over the duration of the crop, it is not reliably known how often, or in what concentrations, live Bt sprays are actually applied by organic farmers. Also, it is not known how long the live Bts survive (and express toxin genes) after application. Without this type of information, valid comparisons against Bt crops cannot be accurately made.

The other two concerns have better scientific legitimacy. Bt crops are being managed more by the rush to commercialize Bt varieties and to establish market share than by research results. The volunteer "refugia" plan currently being used may or may not work. Many in the scientific community feel that the Bt crops are moving too fast without an adequate understanding of how to avoid resistance of target pests. The biodiversity issue is also valid. The centers of origin of most of the major US crops are in other countries, and thus cross-pollination with wild relatives has not been a major source of worry in the US. Dilution of the toxin based on cross-pollination could occur and result in rapid development of resistance in target insects. Regardless of these issues (and they need to be addressed) there are many more Bt crops in the "pipeline" and future transgenic crop varieties will include multiple Bt toxins to expand the number of insect pests that the crops will be effective against. The single most important issue is: effective for how long?

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