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Environmental Effects of Transgenic Plants: The Scope and Adequacy of Regulation
decision document or even the appendix to allow an independent critique. One recommendation of another National Research Council study was that “the quality, quantity, and public accessibility of information on the regulation of transgenic pest-protected plant products should be expanded” (NRC 2000c). This recommendation should be expanded to include all new plant products and should be implemented as soon as possible.
Some environmental questions remain. For example, temperate plant species (like soybean) tend to have a higher proportion of polyunsaturated fatty acids in the seed oil than do more tropical or subtropical species (like olive, where monounsaturated fatty acids predominate). Recent studies investigated the effects of fatty acid profile changes on the degree of cold tolerance in plants. Kodama et al. (1994, 1995) transformed tobacco to produce higher amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids and noted an alleviation of cold-induced growth suppression. If polyunsaturated fatty acids help the seed survive cold winters, perhaps the transgenic soybeans, with such a deficit of polyunsaturates, would have reduced winter survival capacity. The data required to address this question might have been considered and investigated but were not included in the report. APHIS reported that DuPont provided evidence on overwintering but did not elaborate. Possibly, the transgenic soybeans suffered more winterkill than the nontransformed soybeans, but since this segment of the report dealt with the increased weediness potential, that fact might not have been considered important. Also, this question might have been considered irrelevant; that is, reduced overwintering potential of the transgenic soybeans would represent a reduced ecological fitness and hence no increased threat. It is unlikely that the modified-oil soybean changed overwintering capacity because the seed oil was modified, not the plasma membrane lipids, which are more relevant for cold tolerance. APHIS might have been aware of this fact and therefore did not think it necessary to mention it. But by not mentioning the possibility, APHIS leaves itself open to the charge that the agency overlooked it.
An interesting aspect of this case study is the prior presence in the market of nontransgenic soybean varieties with similar (high oleic acid content) attributes. The plant pest risk potential and differences between conventional soybeans and the transgenic varieties are uncertain, not because of incomplete information and regulatory scrutiny of the transgenic lines but because of almost complete lack of information on the conventional ones. The functional assumption is that conventional breeding methods, including irradiation, chemical mutagenesis, somaclonal variation, and other mechanisms of dramatic genetic disruption are safe and environmentally benign.
DuPont provided information on the molecular structure, though not