A land-mark federal court case in the US in 2010 has, at last, formally recognised the existence of real dangers from gene pollution, and at the same time highlighted the irresponsible attitude of regulators and industry.
GM sugar beet
The case ended with an order from the Judge for the immediate destruction of hundreds of acres of GM sugar-beet which he declared had been planted in violation of federal law.
In the court, the many ways in which GM sugar beets could harm the environment and consumers were outlined. It was also noted that containment efforts are currently insufficient and that past contamination incidents were “too numerous” to allow the illegal beet crop to remain in the ground. In his court order, the Judge ruled that “farmers and consumers would likely suffer harm from cross-contamination” between GM sugar beets and normal crops. He continued “the legality of Defendants' conduct does not even appear to be a close question”, and noted that the government regulators and Monsanto had tried to circumvent his prior ruling which had made the GM beet illegal to grow.
The problem is that artificial gene constructs can't be contained. Insect-pollinators, wind, water, farm and transport equipment, GM weeds and crop volunteers all can and do play their part in spreading man-made DNA far and wide. This has never been more obvious than in the waves of genetic pollution seen in 2010.
In areas where GM crops are being legally grown, waves of artificial DNA will stream in from neighbouring GM crops.
One Australian organic canola (oilseed rape) farmer has lost his vital organic certification after two-thirds of his arable land was found to be contaminated by GM plants. Since rape seed can persist in the soil for more than 10 years, the farmer is acutely aware that “Our livelihood is at stake as we ... rely on the premium that comes with selling guaranteed GM-free organic food in Australia and in overseas markets ... Governments that allow GM canola to be grown must ensure whatever a farmer does within their boundary does not impact on neighbouring farms ... clearly, the technology can't be contained.” Gene Ethics Cropwatch pointed out that:
“A majority of people will not buy GM contaminated food products and are flocking to organics, but this incident puts that trust under a cloud.”European and Japanese grain buyers have threatened to cancel Australian contracts over fears of contaminated canola.
The Australian organic farmer is considering suing his neighbour, but as Monsanto pointed out, the GM grower had complied with all his legal obligations (a laughable 5-metre buffer zone). The Australian Agricultural Minister responsible for allowing the GM canola to be grown in the first place professes to be confident the incident is a 'one-off'. However, this problem could be the beginning of a new backlash against GM crops, because Monsanto has determined to back the offending GM neighbour if it comes to a lawsuit. This will inevitably rally conventional farmers world-wide to support the organic farmer, and generate a lot of biotech-unfriendly PR.
Several waves of DNA pollution have come from the importing of contaminated seeds from areas where the GM contaminant is legal or is under development.
Conventional maize seed planted in seven states in Germany and in Ireland was found to be contaminated with NK603 GM (herbicide-tolerant) maize. The Saxony Environment Minister said the 2000-hectare problem came from two rogue sacks of seed. Gene pollution can spread from maize at a rate of up to 1200 metres a year, however in this case both countries took action to destroy the offending crops before the outward march of genes could begin. Of more concern here is that the imported maize was accompanied by a certificate of analysis 'assuring' it GM-free.
Similarly, a new non-GM soya imported into Europe for trials was found to be contaminated by an unauthorised GM variety. The French authorities caught it before it was planted, and the UK Department of Environment and Rural Affairs, less on-the-ball, discovered it after it was in the ground in Sussex.
The latest GM crop to be commercialised in Europe, the Amflora potato for industrial starch and animal feed got off to a bad start when some of the first batch was found to be another, quite different and illegal, GM spud, 'Amadea'. The mix-up was spotted in Sweden, and raised an alarm in Germany and the Czech Republic where Amflora planting was also taking place. Greenpeace described the discovery of Amadea as a “deplorable lapse of bio-security”.
Of course, the wave of gene contamination not spotted in the fields will make its way into the stores.
Illegal Bt 63 genes for insect-resistance flowed all the way onto Chinese supermarket shelves in rice products. Ironically, the offending grains originated in strategic stores intended for emergency relief following natural disasters. In this case, the 'relief' was the disaster. These incidents were only uncovered due to testing by Greenpeace. The Chinese rice-contamination seems to derive from earlier experimental field-tests of the GM strain.
The big question is, once out there, can genetic contamination ever be purged?
Previous field tests of a GM grass in America are threatening to become a significant environmental problem. A herbicide-tolerant strain of GM creeping bent-grass is spreading uncontrollably on field margins and irrigation canals in Oregon. The glyphosate-resistant GM seed intended for golf-courses was trialled in 2005 in neighbouring Idaho. After 5 years, the GM weeds are well-established and spreading rapidly as all grasses do. The catch-22 difficulty in controlling such a glyphosate-tolerant plant is that this same weedkiller is the only one deemed 'safe' enough to use in the waterways through which the GM grass is spreading.
Besides these new gene contamination waves of 2010, Triffid flax continues to pop up around the world (most recently in Finland). It seems the illegal gene has now been found in seed stocks in Russia, Turkey, China, the USA and Moldova in addition to its site of origin in Canada (See THE DAY OF THE TRIFFID FLAX – News, November 2009).
All of the above incidents could have, or did, became global problems, and the price of picking up the pieces is staggering. The costs include testing, administration, oversight, market recalls, crop destruction, cleaning up the environment, and re-establishing the market once trust has been eroded. These costs have, so far, been overwhelmingly born by the public and by farmers. Readers will be aware of the on-going US court-cases, in which biotech giant Bayer is being successfully sued for very large sums by US rice farmers (see MINEFIELD OF RICE – News, March 2008, and GM POLLUTION - WHO'S LIABLE? - News, March 2010). The most recent award was nearly $50 million to 12 Arkansas farmers damaged by the escape of the company's experimental LL601 rice. Time will tell whether these payments set a precedent for future compensation.
None of these gene contamination waves would have happened if, to paraphrase Greenpeace, the regulators hadn't said 'no' to public opinion, 'no' to the health and safety concerns of scientists, 'no' to biodiversity, ' no' to farmers' livelihoods and 'no' to food security. The only things they say 'yes' to seem to be the demands of the biotech companies.
Each of these incidents has been characterised by delays on the part of regulators and industry, including unwarranted slowness to publicise the problem, buck-passing, trivialisation denial and concealment:
- The US Department of Agriculture and Monsanto seemed to have pretended not to understand the court ruling that the GM beet was illegal
- The Australian Agriculture Minister curiously changed his tune from 'trials proved GM and non-GM canola can be segregated and marketed separately' when he ended the ban on growing GM in March to “... zero per cent thresholds are unrealistic in biological systems” six-months (and one serious organic crop contamination) later.
- Officials in Germany took 2 months to warn farmers of the GM maize contamination
- Ireland was alerted of the GM maize contamination 3 months after the German discovery and long after the seed had been sown.
- Many of the details of GM contaminations, such as Triffid flax, have only been revealed through freedom-of-information requests.
- The Chinese province of Hubei, which was quick to try out experimental GM rice has been the slowest province to implement essential screening of it's rice supplies for genetic contamination.
- Oregon Department of Agriculture insisted the creeping bent-grass was a federal problem, and all it had to do was find a new weed-killer to get rid of the GM weeds.
- The company which caused the creeping bent-grass problem had already been fined once for a escape of the same GM plants in 2003, but seemed to shrug it off with “you likely are going to have situations where you have seed spills here, pollen flows there.”
- Bayer knew about the LL601 rice contamination in January 2006, but the USDA failed to alert farmers until their crops were almost ready for harvesting.
- Bayer's attitude to the bankrupt and struggling US rice farmers was that their damages were minimal and didn't last long.
The next gene contamination might just be the one that kills or cripples, and if it's not the next one, the perhaps the next again? At the rate the waves of contamination are circulating around the world, a genetic tsunami could be just round the corner.
We have much better, safer, more efficient and sustainable techniques for developing crops to suit our needs. You have the power to promote sensible use of science: just refuse to eat GM.
- Errors spread GM contamination despite 'rigorous' controls, Thin Ice, Issue 19, October 2010
- Jonathan Watts, Greenpeace finds evidence of GM rice contamination in China's emergency grain stores, Guardian, 20.07.10
- International Round Up, Thin Ice, Issue 17, April 2010
- Sean Pratt, Flax tests show GM contamination widespread, The Producer, 19.08.10
- Mitch Lies, GMO bentgrass found in Eastern Oregon, Capital Press, 9.11.10
- Mitch Lies, Agencies refused to publicize spread of biotech bentgrass, Capital Press, 11.11.10
- Dominique Patton, GM rape seeds last at least 10 years, say researchers, www.foodnavigator-usa.com, 2.04.08
- Jury tells Bayer to pay Ark rice farmers $48 (Previous Judgements - $4.5 million), www.google.com/hostednews, 16.04.10
- Scientists Uncover Bees Potential to Mediate Genetically Engineered Material Over Several Kilometres, Citizens' Biotechnology Information Center, 22.09.08
- Victory! Court Orders Destruction of Monsanto's Sugar Beets, Organic Consumers Association Bytes, 2.12.10
- Monsanto to back Kojonup GM grower, www.abc.net.au, 23.2.10
- WA Government hides GM canola test results, www.geneethics.org 23.12.10
- Natasha Bita, GM strain blows organic status away, The Australian, 23.12.10
- Natasha Bita, Europe, Japan GM canola threat, The Australian, 27.12.10
- State government tests confirm GM contamination, www.abc.net.au, 27.12.10
- GM canola contaminates organic farm, GeneEthics, 3.12.10
- Banned GM maize sown in Germany, BBC News, 7.06.10
- Banned GM maize (NK603) sown in Germany, http://news.bbc.co.uk, www.dw-world.de, and www.thelocal.de, 7.06.10
- Illegal GM maize grown in Ireland, GM-free Ireland Press Release, 23.07.10
- Simon Taylor, Illegal GM potato variety found in Sweden, European Voice, 6.09.10
- Illegal GM potato discovered growing in Sweden, Greenpeace, 4.09.10
- Myrto Pispini, Genetically engineered potato? We have a bad peeling about this, Greenpeace, 2.09.10