ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

6 June 2002


Background: Biotech industry scientists face contamination, liability problems

Brian Tokar, Institute for Social Ecology Biotechnology Project

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 investment."

"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 liability cost of genes from GM crops ‘escaping and going rogue’ or comingling and adversely affecting quality of other plant-based products is significant."

"...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 Candian 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" (GURTs).  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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