A National Academy of Sciences panel said on Thursday the United States has allowed American biotech companies to market genetically modified crops without fully probing their potential environmental impact.

The independent science panel recommended that the U.S. Agriculture Department involve the public and scientific community more when deciding whether to approve new biotech crops for commercial use.

The study could hinder efforts by U.S. farmers and agriculture biotechnology companies to open new markets for U.S. exports of corn and soybeans, which are largely genetically altered.
A number of large U.S. trading partners, including Japan, China and the European Union, have not embraced bioengineered foods because of concerns about consumer and environmental safety. They have pushed for more testing, labeling and regulation.

USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service reviews about 1,000 applications each year from biotech companies wishing to either test or sell their new GMO — genetically modified organism — products.

The NAS panel of experts called USDA's environmental assessments of biotech plants were “generally superficial.” It also said USDA does not follow-up on the impact of new gene-altered crops once they are available to the public.

“Without systematic monitoring, there is no way to ensure that environmental damage has not occurred,” the panel said in a statement. “Ecological testing and monitoring should continue after transgenic plants have entered the marketplace.”

It said USDA had “substantially improved” its regulatory process for biotech crops, but said further improvements could be made.

The science panel recommended USDA allow more than the current 60 days for consumer groups, environmentalists, farmers and scientists to comment on biotech crops before they are approved. It also said USDA should consult an independent scientific group before changing any biotech regulations.

APHIS Administrator Bobby Accord said the agency had already addressed some issues highlighted in the report, and was reviewing ways to further improve its system. “APHIS is currently assessing options for monitoring already commercialized transgenic plant products,” Accord said. “The agency can already bring the organisms back under regulation if a plant pest risk is discovered.”

Environmental groups, who are the harshest critics of biotech crops, welcomed the study saying it was proof that current federal regulations were inadequate.

“The report is justifiably critical of (USDA's) cult of secrecy, shutting out the public from reviewing the agency's decisions,” Genetically Engineered Food Alert, a coalition of green groups, said in a statement.

The coalition urged USDA to halt new biotech plant approvals until tougher regulations were implemented.

The biotech industry played down the findings, saying USDA had approved more than 30,000 permits without a single injury to human health or the environment.

“The report is not an indictment of the existing system,” said Michael Phillips of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. “Instead, it is a validation of a very good regulatory system with an excellent track record.”

Biotech crops are popular with U.S. farmers because they reduce the need for costly chemicals and help protect plants from harmful pests. Last year, plantings of biotech corn in the United States accounted for 24 percent of all corn acreage, a slight drop from 25 percent a year earlier. Gene-altered soybean acreage rose to 63 percent from 54 percent.

A recent Reuters poll found American farmers planned to boost U.S. biotech corn plantings by more than 13 percent this year. Genetically modified soybean plantings were forecast to climb by 8 percent.