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Sustainable ag group says genetically modified soybeans spilled into nonmodified stocks

(Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

Mikkel Pates, Grand Forks Herald: North Dakota State University's Foundation Seed-stocks Program has been contaminated with genetically modified crops and cannot be trusted to segregate GM and non-GM wheat seed, a group critical of genetically modified crops said.

Theresa Podoll, executive director of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, sent out a news release Monday, saying NDSU's non-GM, Natto-type soybeans planted in 2002 may have been contaminated with GM beans.

Natto beans are specialty soybeans destined for premium food grade markets in Japan, typically unwelcoming to genetically modified products.

Podoll's group has been a strong opponent of commercialization of GM wheat, which also would have to be marketed to some countries and buyers who don't want it.

NDSU officials acknowledge a problem occurred but say it was properly handled.

Rogue seeds

Two lots of non-GM Natto beans were found contaminated with Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybean genetics, Podoll said.

NDSU officials say that sufficient steps have been taken to minimize the problem and avoid repeating it.

“In soybeans, we make every effort to prevent contamination and - if it occurs - we correct it,” said M. Dale Williams, director of NDSU Foundation Seedstocks.

“Roundup Ready are two different animals,” Williams said. “Roundup Ready soybeans are not regulated. Small amounts of it, or tolerances of amounts, are allowed in most markets. It's not approached with the same amount of diligence as Roundup Ready wheat.”

The soybean contamination occurred in the winter of 2000 when the Natto beans were planted in Chile for seed increase.

The seeds then were harvested and shipped to North Dakota in 2001 and planted at NDSU's Agronomy Seed Farm near Casselton, N.D. Those fields produced some off-type plants, but GMO was not suspected, Williams said.

Later, when some of the larger, off-type seeds were “scalped” off to be discarded, some of them tested positive for GMO. Natto beans are characteristically small.

Foundation seed from “rogued” 2001 fields were tested and no GMO was detected, Williams said. In 2002, seeds from those fields were sold to about 10 growers who would plant them for export or seed increase.

When the Agronomy Seed Farm produced its own seed in 2002, it again was screened for size, and again there were GMO positives in the large seeds. In late October, Williams phoned the 2002 customers to inform them “there could be a minor presence” in lots they were sold.

“Although we did not anticipate that the minor amounts . . . we'd found in our fields would ever be enough to be detected in very sensitive tests, we wanted them to know so that the ‘scalpings' of the very largest seed should not be saved because they might have the presence of the transgenics in them.”

Williams said the response from the growers was “very positive,” and that they were glad to be informed.

Careless combines

Williams says any contamination was in the seed from Chile. NDSU suspects the Chilean company that produced the seeds failed to clean its combines.

“The seed we got from Chile had the contamination in it. They could have been careless in a number of steps,” Williams said.

He said NDSU has changed Chilean cooperators and is beginning to test advanced breeding lines as a potential precaution.

Podoll said Williams told her there would be more on-site inspections of cooperators.

“That raises the issue of who's going to pay those costs,” Podoll said.

Podoll said Foundation Seedstocks should develop its own set of protocols on how to avoid such contamination and how to handle contamination when it occurs.

Foundation seedstocks are literally the “foundation for the entire seed system,” Podoll said. She said contamination “strikes at the very heart of the segregation argument.”

Podoll said she's troubled by the fact that the “decision to destroy these foundation lots has not been made,” despite statements made early this spring that if foundation seedstocks were to become contaminated with transgenic varieties, they would be destroyed.

“It looks like they intend to go ahead with putting them on the market and not recalling them, and/or destroying any seedstocks they have in their possession at this time,” Podoll said.

Purity important

Ted Helms, an NDSU soybean breeder who developed NDSU's Natto bean varieties, said such drastic measures probably would not be applied to soybeans, as they would to wheat seeds. GM wheat seed cannot be legally exported.

Robert Sinner, president of SB&B Foods Inc. of Casselton, who specializes in “identity preserved” shipments of food grade soybeans, acknowledged contamination is a problem. He said the North Dakota State Seed Department must take precautionary measures when certifying and registering seed to “not only verify purity of the variety but also whether it's free of contamination of transgenics.”

NDSU, from its initial varietal work, needs to take very strict management procedures and do regular testing to maintain purity, Sinner suggested.

“All the money that is spent to send those increases to Chile are all for naught if it's contaminated,” Sinner said.

Sinner said he would be disturbed if NDSU planned to continue to market contaminated seed as certified or registered.

“That, to me, goes against the principles of certified and registered seed. You've lost your purity,” Sinner said.

Pates reports on agriculture. Reach him at (701) 297-6869 or mikkel@corpcomm.net.