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Global rules for GMOs too late?

(Monday, March 8, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Stephen Leahy, Inter Press Service, 03/07/04: BROOKLIN, Canada - As activists celebrated the emergence of a strong Biosafety Protocol to control genetically-engineered organisms (GEO) last month, U.S. scientists reported that contamination of GEOs is spreading and might be impossible to stop.

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety went into force last September recognizing that GE plants, seeds, and animals (also known as genetically-modified organisms or GMOs) are different, and could pose risks to human health and the environment.

The report warns that crops engineered to produce industrial chemicals and drugs -- so-called ”pharma” crops -- could already be poisoning ostensibly GM-free crops grown for food...

”No one wants drugs or plastics in our corn flakes”

The protocol's 87 signatory countries along with many others -- including the United States -- met in Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur for the first time last month to begin working out the details of the agreement's implementation, including how GEOs will be identified in transborder shipments and who, if anyone, would be liable if they escaped into the environment.

Consensus will be difficult to reach on these issues, acknowledges Juan Lopez of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Friends of the Earth International. Final rules are not expected until 2008.

Lopez believes countries should have a choice to remain GEO-free, adding that after nearly 10 years of GE crops in the United States, the risks, if any, are still unclear. But with new GE crops producing drugs and industrial biochemicals, there are clear and serious potential threats to health and the environment, he says.

”It's crucial to get the rules worked out quickly,” Lopez told IPS.

But it is already too late to prevent GE contamination in the United States, Canada and, likely, in other countries now growing GE crops.

A pilot study by the Washington-based Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS) reported in late February that non-GE maize, soy and oil-seed rape seed (canola) in the United States is widely contaminated by DNA sequences from GE crops.

In the first investigation of its kind, seeds were randomly selected from a variety of suppliers of non-GE varieties and sent to independent labs for analysis. Most seed batches were contaminated, including all six of the rape varieties. Levels of contamination ranged up to one percent.

The study found no health risks from the contamination but argued that it will now be difficult for U.S. farmers to grow GE-free crops.

But the report does warn that crops engineered to produce industrial chemicals and drugs -- so-called ”pharma” crops -- could already be poisoning ostensibly GM-free crops grown for food.

”We need to acknowledge and confront the problem. This is a problem that will hurt the United States economically and could threaten our health,” said report co-author, UCS microbiologist Margaret Mellon, in a statement.

”No one wants drugs or plastics in our corn flakes,” she added.

The contamination results partly from cross-pollination of plants but primarily from the inability of seed growers and distributors to keep GE and traditional seeds apart, adds the study.

Contamination is taking away farmers' right to choose to grow non-GE crops, says Larry Mitchell, chief executive officer of the American Corn Growers Association.

”We're going to lose even more export markets now because we haven't been careful enough with GEOs,” Mitchell added in an interview.

U.S. farmers have lost markets in the European Union (EU), Japan and Korea because their crops were considered GE, or at risk of being so.

DNA (a substance whose molecules carry the basic information for the growth and function of cells) from GEOs is also getting into the environment and becoming integrated into the gene make-up of wild plant relatives.

This transgenic escape is worrisome because it can change the genomes of wild plants, eliminating genes that could be used to improve crops and possibly turn them into aggressive weeds, says Ralph Haygood of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the northern U.S. state of Wisconsin.

A study by Haygood and others concluded there is no way to stop this leakage of transgenes into the environment, even with proposed and controversial ''suicide seed'' (Terminator) technology, designed to make farm-saved seeds sterile.

"The question shouldn't be whether or not transgene escape will happen. It should be how long will it take,” added Haygood in an interview.

That risk is one reason why a leading U.S. scientific organization wants to stop commercialization of new GEOs.

Interdisciplinary scientific studies are needed first to evaluate the environmental benefits and risks posed by GEOs, reads a statement released this week by the Ecological Society of America (ESA).

U.S. regulators have been making decisions about environmental safety of GEOs without good scientific information in many instances, it suggests.

”We're looking toward a future with far more genetically engineered plants, fish, insects, viruses, etc, than there are now,” says Allison Snow, ESA member and professor of ecology and evolution at Ohio State University in the United States.

”All sorts of things are possible, and we need to have a plan for how to avoid creating environmental problems.”

Because these are living organisms, it is impossible in most cases to stop their spread, Snow added in the statement.

”We're entering a whole new generation of risk with GE viruses, insects, animals and fish,” agrees Lopez.

And because they are mobile and could end up in countries that want nothing to do with GEOs, a strong Biosafety Protocol that includes strict liability provisions is needed, he adds.