Scientists Admit Frankencrops Pollution is Inevitable

By Brian Tokar, Institute for Social Ecology Biotechnology Project
June 2002

Background: Biotech industry scientists face contamination, liability problems

Since the first commercialization of GE crops in the mid-1990s, the
industry's main strategy has been to deny the possibility of crop contamination
and other environmental hazards. This has most recently come to fore in the
controversy surrounding University of California scientist Ignacio Chapela's
findings of contamination of indigenous Mexican corn varieties by transgenic
DNA from GE corn. While some industry scientists have rallied behind the
absurd claim that this contamination represents an improvement in the diversity
of Mexican corn germplasm, the industry's main response has been to continue
to deny that such contamination has occurred. The editors of Nature took the
unprecedented step of withdrawing Chapela and his colleague David Quist's
paper over their objections, and despite studies by Mexican government agencies
that overwhelmingly support the finding of widespread contamination.

Now, in the immediate aftermath of the Chapela controversy and on the eve
of this year's BIO convention and Biojustice counter-events, the June 2002
issue of Nature Biotechnology (vol. 20) - probably the world's most
prestigious journal devoted specifically to biotechnology - offers
compelling new evidence that industry scientists are indeed quite preoccupied
with the problem of GE contamination of non-GE crops. An editorial and a
series of three research articles in this month's issue makes it clearer than
ever, not only that contamination is undeniable, but that industry-friendly
scientists are beginning to see the problem of gene flow as a definitive obstacle
to the marketing of new generations of GE crops:

"Second-generation crops, which involve output modifications (traits with
health and nutritional benefits), will likely only be viable if their purity
or quality can be assured, which is problematic given the difficulty of
attaining gene containment. Third-generation crops with new industrial,
neutraceutical, or pharmaceutical properties will likely require effective
gene control systems or simply will not be permitted to be released."
(S. Smyth, et. al., p.537)

While the Mexican evidence is never cited, examples such as the triple-
herbicide resistant canola in Alberta (which is sprayed with the herbicide
2,4D in an attempt to eradicate it), Starlink corn in the US and
government-mandated destruction of contaminated crops in Europe are
cited as definitive examples that the debate over GE crops has evolved
to a qualitatively different level.

Evidence is cited from last year's PNAS studies on Bt and monarch
butterflies suggesting that at least 10% of corn pollen is dispersed beyond
15 feet outside the corn field, and at least 1% reaches beyond 150 feet;
canola pollen has been observed to travel as far as 25 km..

Here are some other salient quotes:

From Nature Biotechnology's editorial (p. 527):

"There are nevertheless at least 44 cultivated plant species that have the
potential to mate with one or more wild relatives somewhere in the world.
With plenty of data suggesting that DNA flies all over the place down on
the farm, evaluations of the risks associated with new cultivars usually assume
that gene flow from crops to relatives can occur."

"Because gene containment is next to impossible with the current generation
of GM crops, this discriminatory stance [i.e., regulations based on "process
rather than products"] has led to several international 'incidents' over the
past few years."

"Current gene containment strategies cannot work reliably in the field."

"The adventitious presence of Starlink in tacos had no consequences for
human health, but could the same be siad of a corps variety designed for
biopharmaceutical production?"

From S. Smyth, et. al. (University of Saskatchewan), pp. 537-541:

"Currently the agrochemical industry faces two major challenges if it is to
realize the potential of GM crops ... On the one hand, to pay for large
development and commercialization costs, investors and firms that have
funded GM-related technologies much capture a share of the return on that

On the other hand, corporations and regulators must also ensure that the new
traits and varieties created do not impose risks or liabilities that offset
(or swamp) the value generated. At the farm level, in particular, there is
signficant risk of profit reduction and for co-mingling of plants with new
traits with other crops, creating potential new liabilities."

"The libility cost of genes from GM crops 'escaping and going rogue' or
comingling and adversely affecting quality of other plant-based products is

"...any infestation of herbicide-resistant wild mustard above four plants
per square meter would reduce the benefits of transgenic herbicide-tolerant
canola to below zero."

"...honey shipments to the EU [from Canada] dropped $4.8 million between
1998 and 2000 (or by 55%) to the lowest level in more than ten years. . .
Recently the EU banned Canadian honey because of the inability of Canadian
honey producers to guarantee the absence of pollen from GM plants not yet
approved in the EU."

"In brief, plants and people cannot be trusted to do what markets require."

"Irrespective of scientific rationale, current political and social pressures
are likely to lead to more stringent regulation of future GM varieties."

The authors' main suggestion is that a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis
of the release of terminator seeds be undertaken in order to facilitate and
ultimately "justify commercialization" of terminator and other "genetic use-
restriction technologies" (GURT's). Two other papers in the June issue
address the wider scope of possible containment strategies, including some
new approaches, as well as the development of molecular methods to excise
selectable marker genes, such as the genes for antibiotic resistance, that
are currently used to detect successful gene transfers in the laboratory.

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