Gene pollution update 2013

November 2013

Wheat growing in Oregon, USA. Photo Gary Halvorson
Oregon State Archives [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons
The chance discovery of illegal GM wheat growing in a field in Oregon highlighted some uncomfortable home-truths (see GM CONTAMINATION DÉJÀ VU - June 2013).

Despite its wholesale move to GM agriculture and widespread field-trials of experimental GM plants, America isn't monitoring gene 'escapes': the rogue herbicide-tolerant wheat only became obvious when it survived spraying with Roundup herbicide, and its source has never been pin-pointed. While it seems unlikely that a single field could become so widely contaminated accidentally, no other similarly polluted areas have been identified.

GM wheat isn't approved or grown commercially anywhere in the world. If this biotech plant can find its way out into a field, what's the extent of gene pollution from the hundreds of legally trialled and commercially grown GM crops? Biotech crops with traits other than herbicide-tolerance or those never exposed to the herbicide they tolerate could well be silently suffusing our environment and our entire food chain.

In America, an apparently pointless GM alfalfa grass is now widely planted (see WHY WAS GM ALFALFA GRASS EVER DEVELOPED? - January 2012). One farmer growing conventional alfalfa recently discovered his crop was contaminated only when his broker rejected it. While GM alfalfa can be exported to the United Arab Emirates, Japan and South Korea (with China in the 'hopeful' pipeline) over 60 of America's trading partners won't accept it.

Oilseed rape has already proven particularly problematic. America and Australia have certainly had the issue drawn to their attention but don't seem to have a solution (see PROOF THAT WILD GM PLANTS CAN QUICKLY BECOME A REALITY - October 2011). Canada has been growing GM oilseed rape on a large scale for decades, but while the uncontrollable spread of these plants through the environment is known, no measures have ever been taken to stop it. In the EU, there has never been any major planting of GM oilseed rape, but nevertheless the Commission has been forced to extend its previous set period of allowed contamination from 5 years to 10 because gene pollution is still on-going.

Elsewhere in the world, many countries have been much more cautious in their acceptance of GM crops than any of the above countries. This hasn't, however, made them immune to gene pollution.

Switzerland has had a ban on GM cultivation since 2005. With characteristic Swiss efficiency, a monitoring system is in place which carries out spot checks at key locations. These have revealed “isolated examples” of GM thale cress close to some university laboratories, and GM oilseed rape growing near a station.

Thale cress is a tiny plant used as a model in plant genetic studies because it's easy and convenient to grow in a laboratory situation. There shouldn't be any way for experimental material to escape from a well-run research facility, but clearly it has. If laboratory thale cress can spread itself around in the environment, then so can any other experimental GM plant.

The emergence of GM oilseed rape near transport routes is fast becoming accepted as inevitable. It's also inevitable that roads, rails and depots are going to become a hub for stacked artificial DNA in subsequent generations of GM weedy crop plants. These novel weeds with any number of GM traits represent a complete unknown: they are not only untested but will have had no risk assessment whatsoever.

South Korea also doesn't grow GM crops, but does import them for animal feed and processing. Regular monitoring by the National Institute of Environmental Research around suspected hotspots (ports, factories, farms and roads) revealed contamination in 19 regions including cities, a 33% increase in the four years since 2009.

There are three strands to the implications of these creeping genes:

One is, of course, economic. Finding his lucrative conventional crop could only be sold for the price of a GM crop was a financial blow to the US alfalfa farmer. However, the knock-on effects in the long-term may be far worse: because GM contamination is bad news for profits and land values, farmers and the seed industry have every reason to keep evidence of gene pollution under their hats.

The second is practical and legal: so far, the blame has been heaped on seed handlers for environmental gene contamination while the root source, the biotech industry, has been given free reign by governments to avoid responsibility.

The third is the thorniest of all, the biological implications. Living organisms evolve and their genes and gene-functions change. No one can tell what man-made DNA might become or might do in future generations. Risk assessment on an evolutionary scale is simply not feasible.

One of the researchers for the Korean National Institute of Environmental Research has an answer to all these gene contamination incidents: they show that:
“GMOs cannot be contained either in the field, or in the food chain and certainly not within research trials ... Until a solution to prevent contamination is found, the answer is to stop transporting these genetically engineered crops across the world; stop feeding them to animals; and even to stop growing them”.


Quite. And the easiest way to stop is never to start. Keep supporting our government in its determination to keep Scotland GM-free. Perhaps Westminster will learn eventually by our example.

  • Christoph Then, Genetically engineered oilseed rape out of control, Test Biotech Media Release, 17.09.13
  • Non GM South Korea Finds GMO Contamination,,, 18.06.13
  • Genetically modified alfalfa confirmed in Washington test sample, Associated Press, 13.09.13
  • Modified plants found outside laboratories, Swiss Info, 16.12.2011

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