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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.

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Not surprisingly, both seed producers and critics agree that no GM crops designed for nonfood use should enter the food chain. But the tricky question, experts suggest, is what level of GM seed deemed safe by the United States should be allowed in shipments labeled as non-GM seed?

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"There is no worldwide uniform standard about what constitutes an appropriate level of seed purity," says Michael Fernandez of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, an independent think tank. This fall, Pew plans to host a conference that will look at ways to set testing standards of GM crops and seed purity.

In the US, producers are required to reveal only how much "off-type" seed is mixed in with the labeled seed, along with any foreign substances, such as weeds.

These are "marketplace standards," Mr. Fernandez says. "They're not designed as safety standards." GM seeds approved for consumption would simply be listed as one of the other varieties present, he says. "The assumption is that no seed [on the market] is 100 percent pure."

However, GM "contamination" of traditional seed could become a problem for trade with nations who are much more skittish about GM foods, the UCS report suggests.

The British government announced Tuesday that it would allow the first commercial GM crop, a type of corn, to be planted there, despite howls of protest. The British Medical Association reported that GM foods were highly unlikely to be a health hazard. But a recent poll cited in the London Times showed that only 4 percent of Britons strongly favored GM food and would eat it, while 85 percent said GM crops would have a negative impact on the environment.

Skepticism also remains high in the rest of the European Union and Africa. Even in the US, Mendocino County in northern California voted last week to ban genetically engineered crops and animals. Other local governments are considering similar laws.

Last month, a meeting in Malaysia of more than 80 countries that have signed a UN protocol on biosafety agreed to require detailed labeling on international shipments of GM crops. (They did not deal with the issue of standard seeds that contain traces of GM seeds.) The US disagreed with the labeling plan, but because it has not signed the UN protocol it could attend the meeting only as an observer.

However, a report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) shows "hope for the future that biotech is continuing to gain acceptance as people have more understanding of the safety of these products," Syngenta's Novak says.

Global acreage devoted to GM crops grew by 15 percent to 167.3 million acres between 2002 and 2003, according to the ISAAA. Nearly 61 percent of that acreage was in the US, and 99 percent was grown in just six countries (US, Canada, China, South Africa, Argentina, and Brazil). In a boost for GM crops, China just gave a green light for seven varieties of foreign-grown GM crops to enter its market.

What next?

The UCS report concludes that the mixing of GM traits into traditional seed supplies is "not entirely reversible," but argues that it can be "substantially reduced." More and deeper studies of GM "contamination" need to be done, the UCS says.

The UCS also calls for the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to conduct an investigation and for the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency to amend regulations for GM pharmaceutical and industrial crops "to ensure that the seed supply for food and feed crops is not contaminated at any level with drugs, vaccines, plastics, or related substances."

These government agencies have yet to respond to the UCS study, Rissler says.

How pure is US seed?

When samples of traditional corn, soybean, and canola seeds were tested by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the seeds were found to be contaminated with transgenic DNA at levels of roughly 0.05 to 1 percent. If these proportions were in US supplies, as much as 6,250 total tons of GM seeds would be entering the US food supply without proper labeling. A 1 percent level would be higher than the purity standards for certified soybean and canola seeds set by the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA), below:

Maximum contamination Hybrid corn Soybeans Canola
Inert matter 2.00% 2.00% 1.00%
Weed seed 0 0.05 25/lb.
Other crop seed No standards 0.60 0.25%
Other contaminants 0.50 0.50 0.25

SOURCE: Union of Concerned Scientists/AOSCA