Are there drugs in my corn flakes?
Seeds for biotech foods are slipping into traditional stocks, raising fears that experimental nonfood seeds are there too.
The food industry has already found out the dangers - and costs - of letting unauthorized biotech crops seep into the food supply. Now, another threat has emerged: seeds.Skip to next paragraph
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Traditional corn, soybeans, and canola seeds available for sale to American farmers have a tiny percentage of genetically modified (GM) seeds mixed in with them, a new study shows. The finding poses immediate challenges for farmers and nations trying to keep their crops GM-free.
It also raises key questions as GM acreage continues to increase worldwide. If the genie is out of the bottle for GM seeds approved for human consumption, what's to prevent other experimental GM crops from moving into the food supply? Do consumers want genes meant to produce drugs, plastics, and vaccines hiding in their corn flakes?
"There is no reason to believe that the transgenes detected in this study are the only ones moving into the traditional seed supply," concludes the study, released Feb. 23 by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a watchdog group based in Cambridge, Mass.
It also says GM crops not approved for human consumption have been and continue to be field tested, leaving possible the contamination of traditional varieties.
Not so fast, industry groups counter. The UCS study found levels of GM seeds varying from only 0.05 percent to 1 percent mixed with traditional seeds, they point out. Shipments regularly contain similar amounts of other "off type" seed varieties that have nothing to do with genetic modification. Nor are there any indications that GM-modified crops pose any health hazard, these groups point out.
They add that as biotech crops become commercialized, their seeds will naturally find their way into traditional seed lots - but at very small levels.
"It is expected they will be held to reasonably low levels by the quality assurance procedures," the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) said in a statement.
In other words, "there are low levels that are there, but they're allowed under seed laws," says Christopher Novak, a spokesman for Syngenta, a multinational agribusiness that develops GM crops, in a phone interview. "There's not a question of safety because all of these products have been approved for food use."
And what about the GM crops being field tested for pharmaceutical and industrial purposes?
The conclusion that these crops will comingle with traditional crops is not supported "by science, law, or practice," Mr. Novak says. Companies like Syngenta have a self-interest not to allow pharma and industrial biotech crops into the food chain, he says, if for no other reason than "because of liability for us as a company."
Syngenta uses several methods to keep experimental GM crops separate, including growing them in locations away from traditional crops. The GM crops also may be planted at a different time, meaning they wouldn't flower when traditional crops do, making cross-pollination impossible. Physical alterations, such as detassling corn, can also be used to prevent the spread of pollen.
But Jane Rissler, a scientist at the UCS and coauthor of the study, says these steps aren't enough. While she concedes that experimental GM crops are raised under tougher standards than other crops, the standards were only tightened recently.
"For many years they were not grown under as strict requirements as they are now, so in fact, contamination could have occurred then," she says in a phone interview. "And I fear it still could occur now."
With corn, for example, the possibility of gene flow from one variety to another is high. "Corn pollen can travel so far," Dr. Rissler says. The insistence of seed companies that their pharmaceutical and industrial farming is safe "is not convincing to us and frankly it's not convincing to the food industry," which, she says, has "suggested very, very strongly that [only] nonfood crops be used to produce pharmaceuticals."
The industry has already experienced the costs of letting unapproved GM crops enter the food supply.
In 2000, StarLink, a variety of GM corn designed for livestock feed and not approved for human consumption, was found in taco shells and other grocery items, causing a public fury.
StarLink was removed from the market and its manufacturer, the French drugmaker Aventis, was forced to pay millions of dollars in legal settlements to corn farmers and grain handlers whose businesses were damaged by the controversy.