WASHINGTON, DC, February 24, 2004 (ENS):
Scientists have found DNA from genetically engineered
crops in traditional varieties of three major U.S. food
crops that have no history of genetic engineering. The
study released Monday by the Union of Concerned Scientists
suggests this contamination is pervasive and the U.S.
based research group warns that regulators are failing
to address an issue that could have stark economic,
environmental and public health consequences.
"This study shatters the presumption that at least
one portion of the seed supply - that for traditional
varieties of crops - is truly free of genetically engineered
elements," said Dr. Margaret Mellon, a microbiologist
with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and lead
author of the new study.
"There is no reason to believe that the contamination
of the seed supply is limited to what we found,"
Mellon said. "The door to the seed supply is wide
The research group purchased six traditional varieties
of canola, corn and soybeans from commercial distributors
and sent the seeds for testing at two independent commercial
The labs tested for specific sequences of DNA that
have been introduced by genetic engineering, varieties
that are currently grown on U.S. farms.
One lab detected DNA in half of the corn and soybean
varieties and in all six of the canola varieties tested.
The second lab found the sequences in five of the six
varieties of all three crops.
"Contamination appears not to be sporadic, but
rather pervasive across the seed supplies for these
crops," Mellon said.
The researchers acknowledge that their study is too
limited to provide a reliable estimate of the levels
of contamination across the entire U.S. seed supply,
but say the study suggests a range of 0.05 percent to
one percent genetically modified seeds in those tested.
But even those low levels could translate into hundreds
of tons of contaminated corn and soybean seeds inadvertently
planted on U.S. farms, according to Dr. Jane Rissler,
a UCS plant pathologist and coauthor of the report.
"We must confront the reality of seed contamination
now," said Rissler, who noted that most of the
specific DNA sequences tested for in the study are found
in popular genetically engineered varieties currently
on the U.S. market.
These varieties have primarily been modified for pesticide
resistance, but the labs were unable to test for a slew
of other biotech crops - including plants modified for
industrial or pharmaceutical purposes - that have been
the subject of field trials in the United States.
Those future genetically engineered crops could pose
much more serious health concerns.
"Until we know otherwise, it is prudent to assume
that engineered sequences originating in any crop, whether
it was approved and planted commercially or just field
tested, could potentially contaminate the seed supply,"
Rissler said. "Among the potential contaminants
are genes from crops engineered to produce drugs, plastics,
Rissler said the contamination likely occurred either
through cross-pollination or physical mixing. U.S. regulators
require buffers between genetically engineered and traditional
crops, but critics say these are insufficient to prevent
The Union of Concerned Scientists warns that seed contamination,
if left unchecked, could disrupt agricultural trade,
unfairly burden the organic agricultural industry, and
allow hazardous materials into the food supply.
Evidence of seed contamination could make it more difficult
for U.S. exporters to assure Japan, South Korea, the
European Union, and other export customers that grain
and oilseed shipments do not contain unapproved genetically
engineered crop varieties and to supply commodity products
free of engineered sequences.
The reports call on U.S. regulators to launch a widespread
study of seed contamination, tighten rules on biotech
crops to address the concern and to set aside a reservoir
of traditional seeds free from the DNA of genetically
"We need to acknowledge and confront the problem.
This is a problem that will hurt the United States economically
and could threaten our health," Mellon said. "No
one wants drugs or plastics in our corn flakes."
Mellow did not have an estimate for how much it might
cost the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a
widespread survey for seed contamination, but told reporters,
"the costs of not doing it are going to be far
greater than doing it."
The report comes as negotiators from some 86 nations
and the European Union are meeting in Kuala Lumpur,
Malaysia, at the first official conference of the parties
to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
The meeting began Sunday and will last through February
Adopted in January 2000 as a supplementary agreement
to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity,
the protocol is designed to protect biological diversity
from the potential risks that may be posed by genetically
The nations that have signed onto the protocol are
wrestling with issues of shipment labeling, liability,
compliance and capacity building for those countries
without the resources to develop their own regulatory
regimes for biotech crops.
The United States, which produces about two-thirds
of the world's biotech crops, pulled out of negotiations
on the Cartagena Protocol in 1999, under the Clinton
Some 34 percent of U.S. corn and 75 percent of U.S.
soybeans are genetically modified and the United States
is embroiled in a bitter dispute with the European Union
over the biotech crops issue.
The EU has refused to grant import licenses for biotech
crops since October 1998 because many Europeans are
worried about possible health and environmental risks.
Prior to October 1998 the EU had approved nine agriculture
biotech products for planting or import.
The EU is moving forward with legislation on traceability
and labeling, two issues that have irked Bush administration
officials and some supporters of biotech foods who believe
these requirements would scare consumers and result
in higher food costs for consumers and producers.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All