The threat of GM Everything Jun 9, 2004 17:49:42 GMT -5
Post by Big Bunny on Jun 9, 2004 17:49:42 GMT -5
Approved for livestock but not people, StarLink caused an uproar when it was found in taco shells and dozens of other products in 2000. Its manufacturer, Aventis, pulled it out of the market, but a wave of product recalls eventually cost food companies up to $1 billion.
How it spread remains a mystery. "There are all kinds of ways StarLink could have moved into other corn supplies," said Ellstrand, the UC Riverside geneticist. "It could have been by cross-pollination, by seed mixing in farm machinery."
Across the Midwest, elaborate systems now are in place to prevent contamination incidents. They include a dramatic upswing in testing and redesigned grain-storage facilities, along with education. The Illinois Corn Growers Association distributes a booklet on proper grain handling called, "Know Before You Grow - Know Where To Go."
But could a StarLink-style disaster happen again?
Count on it, said lawyer Ronald Osman, who represented farmers whose grain was tainted by StarLink corn. "It's just a matter of time. There is no way anyone can keep it all separate," Osman said. The case brought a judgment of $110 million total for about 75,000 U.S. farmers.
Even when farmers and grain handlers are meticulous, engineered genes still escape. They have a key accomplice, one that laughs at even elaborate containment schemes: nature.
On the wind-whipped plains of Saskatchewan, Arnold Taylor - the canola farmer - said it's impossible to contain anything. A few springs back, a storm front swept across the region, tugging and tearing at whatever lay in its path. "It rained GM canola all over the country," Taylor said. "We think we've got a science-based world - and it's not. Nature bats last."
Last summer, Saskatchewan organic farmer Pat Neville was eating dinner when two of his sons, Cale and Andrew, burst through the door. "We've got canola, dad!" the teens shouted.
Neville winced and headed for the door. Since he bought the farm in 1997, he had never planted canola. His specialty was organic seeds, including flax and oats. He prided himself on their purity.
After learning the stray canola was genetically modified and had probably blown in from a neighbor's field, Neville took action: He asked Monsanto - which makes the modified canola seed - to remove it.
"They asked if I was growing without a permit," Neville said. "I said 'You bet I am growing without a permit; and I don't want it.' "
In all, 57 acres were contaminated. Monsanto sent out a crew with garbage bags, which pulled out the genetically modified canola by hand. It took three trips.
Canola farmer Taylor took a different course. He rallied farmers into a class-action lawsuit, claiming biotech contamination is making organic farming impossible. The case, still pending, says that in Saskatchewan: "As a result of widespread contamination by GM canola, few, if any, certified organic grain farmers are now growing canola. The crop has been lost."
Such courthouse action is becoming more common across the heartland, raising a tantalizing legal question - one that is pitting giant companies against small farmers and farmer against farmer, too.
"Who's responsible if somebody's nontransgenic crop gets inadvertently contaminated with transgenes?" said Robert Goodman, a professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin. "The law will have its day with that decision."
Goodman, a former director of research at Calgene Inc., the Davis biotechnology firm now owned by Monsanto, added his opinion. "As a scientist," he said, "it seems to me the person responsible is the one who's growing the transgenes, because they should be controlling them."
Seeds from government
Tracking truant genes to their origin can be difficult, though. Scientists still scratch their heads about the discovery of engineered corn four years ago in Mexico - a country where the planting of genetically modified corn is banned.
A trip to the rustic town in Oaxaca, where the genes first turned up, helps unravel the mystery. Visit with Alberto Cortes, the Capulálpam farmer, and he will tell you who planted the mysterious seed: He and his neighbors did.
And he will tell you where they bought it: at the government food store. That store, known as Diconsa, is one of about 22,000 across Mexico that sell food to the rural poor.
The genetically engineered corn that sprouted like steel in Cortes' 2-acre plot was most likely American - bought by the Mexican government and shipped south to feed hungry people through the Diconsa outlets. In 2001, Mexico's National Institute of Ecology found a third of Diconsa's corn was genetically engineered.
As Mexican government food aid, the corn was meant to be sold at a discount and eaten. Because most corn kernels look alike, Cortes and his wife had no way of knowing they were buying biotech corn.
Olga remembers someone telling them the corn wouldn't grow well in Oaxaca's cool climate and mountainous terrain. They took it as a challenge. "Let's buy it," Alberto urged Olga. "Let's farm it."
Today, in the void of definitive scientific information, some organizations claim the foreign genes have spread to eight Mexican states. In maize-growing rural communities, fear and frustration about genetic pollution are commonplace.
"I tell people: 'Watch out for the transgenics,' " said Pedro Aarón Ramírez, manager of the government food store in Capulálpam. " 'Don't even think about growing it.' "
Most scientists, though, say the biodiversity of Mexican maize is not in danger.
"The local varieties are going to be fine," said Snow, the Ohio State professor, who attended a gene-flow conference last fall in Mexico City. "What I worry about is the future. There's nothing out there now that is very dangerous or scary. It just has a lot of potential to go that way.
"Is the technology moving faster than our ability to evaluate it? That's what I worry about."
Biotechnology: Any technology involving living cells or organisms. In general use, and in this series, it refers to gene-splicing technology. Synonyms: bioengineering, genetic engineering (GE) and genetic modification (GM).
Bt: Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that produces toxins lethal to certain insects but is considered safe for humans and other mammals. When the bacterial gene responsible for the toxin is put into crops, the plants make their own pesticide.
Clone: Genetically engineered replica of a DNA sequence. "Cloning a gene" means isolating and making copies of a gene, typically using engineered bacteria. (The more common use of "clone" means an organism derived from the DNA of a single "parent.")
Gene: A DNA segment that is the basic unit of heredity, containing instructions that cells need to make proteins, the workhorse of cell activity.
Genetically modified organism (GMO): An inexact term that refers to a life form changed through genetic engineering.
Genome: All the genetic information in an organism.
Organic foods: As defined by the U.S. government, organic animal products come from livestock that are not given antibiotics or growth hormones, while organic crops are grown without genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge or most conventional pesticides.
Processed foods: Foods altered from their raw state, typically resulting in changes in appearance, culinary characteristics, nutritional value, shelf life and structure. Examples: canned goods, cereals or crackers.
Roundup: Trade name for herbicide glyphosate made by Monsanto. Kills plants by inhibiting an enzyme made in plants but not in mammals, fish, birds or reptiles. Crops are "Roundup Ready" if they are genetically engineered to survive exposure to Roundup.
Transgene: Genetic material transferred from one organism to another through genetic engineering.