A debate is raging over whether biotechnology crops such as Bt corn should be labeled as plant pesticides, as directed by the EPA. What will consumers think?

Consumers may decide that America's golden fields of waving grain are not so golden once they learn that Washington, DC, considers the plants pesticides.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shocked plant scientists four years ago when it came out with an interpretation of the term "pesticide" that includes many field crops. In the interpretation, EPA says plants with the ability to resist insects or disease are pesticides and therefore subject to its oversight. EPA calls plants like Bt corn "plant-pesticides." This means that the agency considers any plant that has been genetically altered to resist pests and cut the need for insecticides and herbicides to be a pesticide.

Plants are not what they used to be. Sound crazy? Not to EPA and some biotechnology companies involved in developing the new pest-resistant plants. They believe someone needs to provide oversight of plant varieties with pesticidal properties. With European activists clamoring about genetically modified organisms, the United States needs some avenue to prove these plants are safe.

Since announcing its plant-pesticide interpretation, the EPA has spent four years developing a proposed list of exemptions to it. The exemptions take the pressure off plant varieties generally derived through traditional breeding methods.

But some scientists are not satisfied with the exemptions. In what it calls a "dying gasp," a group of plant researchers recently authored a report pleading with EPA to revise its interpretation and proposed exemptions.

"To call a living plant the same thing as DDT goes against my understanding of the plant as a living organism," states Arthur Kelman, a North Carolina State University plant pathologist who helped author the report. "This is like saying a chicken with a resistance to a bacteria should be called a pesticidal chicken."

The debate between these groups of highly educated, biotechnology experts and a government agency highlights the dilemmas sure to face the food industry in the years ahead. Biotechnology and gene manipulation have changed the nature of growing food. And farming will never be the same.

EPA steps in. The EPA first was given its duty to oversee pesticides in a 1947 bill called the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFR). Until 10 years ago, this basically meant that the EPA regulated the chemicals applied to plants. But then genetic manipulation blossomed and plants were developed to resist insects and disease without the use of chemicals. In 1994, EPA extended its interpretation of FIFR to include all plants with pest-resistant traits.

EPA's regulation of plant-pesticides requires plant developers to register the plant with the agency. The registration involves testing to prove the plant does not pose a danger to humans and the environment. The testing and then labeling are much simpler for these plants than the testing and labeling required for chemical pesticides. For example, no label is posted on seed bags stating that the plant is a pesticide.

EPA also will not require plant breeders to register their plants until the exemptions are finalized, possibly by spring.

When EPA first announced its plant-pesticide interpretation, a bevy of opposition formed. Eleven plant science societies pulled together an extensive report detailing their concerns, according to Kelman. The report was presented to EPA and meetings were held to discuss it.

In the meantime, a group called Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) decided to voluntarily meet EPA's registration rule. BIO represents companies in the biotechnology business, including Monsanto and Pioneer. Many of these companies have registered plant varieties and provided testing to EPA. Bt corn already has been registered with EPA and is listed as a "plant-pesticide." In fact, EPA has registered 125 different Bt corn hybrids.

"Lots of things that have no toxicity have a pesticide registration," reports Allen Goldhammer of BIO. "I did notice that EPA has registered canola oil as a pesticide." He admits that although calling these foods pesticides may not make sense, the EPA registration process appears appropriate.

But some groups still oppose parts of EPA's interpretation, including the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST). In a recent report, CAST spells out its concerns. Some CAST members are part of the group that sent a critical report to EPA four years ago.

Key fears. The CAST report lists one of the group's main concerns with EPA's interpretation as being how the public will perceive plants labeled "pesticides."

"We have a lot of concern about the public's perception and their disdain for the use of pesticides," says Dick Stuckey, CAST executive vice president. "Scientists say these plants are not dangerous to humans. But the public will say, 'Wow, plants are now pesticides. Do I want to eat pesticides?' I think the public will be quite concerned and quite confused."

BIO representative Goldhammer disagrees. He says the pesticide name has not stigmatized plants in the marketplace. Some BIO members have finished their third year with crops like

Bt corn and Bt potatoes with no problems except the inability to meet grower demand.

"The seed bags are not being labeled as pesticides," he notes. "The farmers are buying it.

"The average consumer is unaware that food products like corn syrup or corn meal may have been derived from any one of a hundred different types of corn, including plant-pesticides," Goldhammer adds.

James Cook disagrees and calls the situation a "public relations nightmare." The Washington State University plant pathologist also is dismayed that the effort to develop plants to reduce the use of pesticides is being turned against them.

"We're just amazed that our own government would say that plants are pesticides if what you've done to them through plant breeding is to increase their ability to defend themselves against their own pests and diseases," Cook states.

CAST members point out that all plants contain some genes that naturally protect them against some insects and diseases. And many plants are naturally toxic. But EPA does not regulate these plants.

Traditional vs. genetic. CAST also objects that the EPA exempts plants with genes moved between sexually compatible plants but does not exempt plants with pest-resistant genes inserted through biotechnology.

CAST says EPA's interpretation is based on the process used rather than the possible toxicity of the plant. If EPA is concerned about the safety of a plant that resists a certain pest, why would the method used to develop it matter?

Ironically, Stuckey reports, genetic engineering allows more precise introduction of foreign matter into plants than traditional breeding does. Many times with traditional breeding, you don't know what you're going to get.

Historically, plant breeding has yielded no horrible super weeds. "Plant breeders have an incredible record of safety in the 100 years that it has been going on in our country," says Cook. "And there is no evidence that these genes for pest resistance do anything to affect food safety any more than they have in the past through traditional breeding."

Often, plant breeding has made plants safer for human consumption. Tomatoes, for example, were toxic to humans until plant breeders took over.

Misconceptions. Elizabeth Milewski, EPA special assistant for biotechnology, reports there are many misconceptions about EPA's interpretation and exemptions.

The EPA is not singling out any particular breeding method, Milewski claims. The agency has a toxicology knowledge of plants bred through traditional methods and already knows those plants pose little danger to the public.

"What we're interested in looking at are things that are novel," Milewski explains. "Bts are novel. We regulate Bt when sprayed or dusted on a plant. It seems logical to regulate it when the plant was engineered to produce it for itself."

How closely related the genetic trait is to the recipient plant determines EPA's scrutiny. "What's important is the source and how closely related the source is to the recipient plant," Milewski says. "The farther away the genetic trait or organism is from the recipient plant, the higher the probability that what you're moving in is something that has a toxicology profile we're not familiar with."

But do the plants always produce a toxin to protect itself? North Carolina's Kelman says not always. Some plants repel pests without becoming toxic. "We're not against regulation," he continues. "We're just saying regulate when a plant does have compounds that when introduced into the food chain could be dangerous."

At the heart of the plant-pesticide debate is concern about the cost of meeting the EPA regulations. BIO's Goldhammer says their members have not found the process terribly costly. And the type of data required must be generated by the plant developer anyway.

CAST members disagree. Cook says a look at EPA's regulation in a similar industry indicates a minimum cost of ¤250,000 to register one variety. This includes conducting the battery of tests to ensure it's safe for humans and the environment. These tests have not been required for traditional field crops before.

To large companies developing varieties for large acres, the cost of the tests will be easily recouped. It's the small companies and lesser used crops that will not be able to afford the gene technology, Cook asserts.

High development costs will affect university research. "We're going to have to limit ourselves in the genes we go after because you have to be able to pay for the high cost of regulation before you can even deploy them," he says.

The cost of the regulation and EPA's cost in administering the new rules will all be passed along to the customer, Cook says.

"We never said that nothing should be subject to EPA oversight," Cook adds. "We did say [EPA's interpretation] is far too inclusive. And we really object to the concept of a plant-pesticide."

Name change. After hearing arguments about its interpretation and exemptions, EPA does acknowledge the name "plant-pesticide" could be changed to be more consumer friendly. If the right name is suggested, EPA may use it.

Otherwise, EPA stands by its interpretation and exemptions. Milewski says trade talks with Europe indicate the United States needs to show the rest of the world that these new plant varieties are indeed safe. Otherwise, a farmer may not be able to sell grain to an export company because the company can't sell the grain to Europe because it has been genetically altered to resist insects or disease.