|GMO protest. Photo Creative Commons|
We've already had two indications of just how bad things might be. 'Starlink' Bt-insecticidal maize which was approved for animal feed only was found to be widespread in maize for human consumption after only two growing seasons, and later turned up in seven countries. Ten years after the first contamination alert, Starlink was found in Saudi Arabia. Two strains of experimental GM rice (one in China, one in America) which were grown in short trials over a very limited area nevertheless succeeded in contaminating global rice supplies.
A recently published review of GM contamination incidents suggests that regulators are neither willing nor able to keep track of gene pollution in the food chain.
The study looked at the GM Contamination Register which collates verified findings of unapproved GM traits in crops, seeds and wild or feral plants. Repeat reporting of the same GMO in the same country and year are not added to the Register.
What the reviewers found was that one-third of all incidents involved GM rice, a crop which has never been authorised for market anywhere in the world. At the other end of the scale, cotton which accounts for a large proportion of crop acreage in America but is not considered a 'food' (although cotton by-products feature significantly in the food chain) accounts for less than 4% of incidents. The four countries in which most contamination has been reported are Germany, America, France and the UK. Three of these do not grow GM crops, but do have a vociferous anti-GM population and do contribute to the EU 'Rapid Alert System on Food and Feed' which records contamination incidents.
The authors conclusion is that the detection of GM contamination is inconsistent from country to country, and bears no relationship to the level of GM crop commercialisation. They also note the role played by the absence of GM-detection methodology in concealing the extent of contamination.
As the Starlink and GM trial rice episodes have proved, genetic contamination is very expensive for growers, food handlers, exporters, manufacturers and retailers, and incurs a huge waste of food.
Regarding the presence of authorised DNA constructs (not considered gene 'contamination'
even if they weren't meant to be where they were found), a pilot study in the USA found this at levels of 50% in 'non-GM' corn and soya, and 83% in 'non-GM' oilseed rape.
Given the apparent higher level of GM contamination in countries whose attention has been focused by public outcry and where a system for reporting incidents is actually in place, and given the restrictions placed on what's recorded and what can be detected, the gene pollution we have become aware of is clearly the tip of a very large, unrecorded, iceberg.
So far the problems have all been legal rather that safety concerns. However when (not if) the first real GM safety issue is recognised belatedly and found endemic in the food chain, your supermarket shelves will look very empty.
Better demand gene testing procedures and consistent comprehensive monitoring be put in place now so that at least we're ready for the emergency.
- Becky Price and Janet Cotter, 2014, TheGM contamination Register: a review of recorded contamination incidents associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), 1997-2013, International Journal of Food Contamination 1:5
- Luca Bucchini and Lynn R. Goldman, 2002, Starlink Corn: A Risk Analysis, Environmental Health Perspectives 110:1