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New technique does little to alleviate GM concerns

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer

(Friday, May 23, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- A report from Agriculture Canada last week generated some enthusiastic newspaper stories. One Associated Press report declared that a new technique would "allow farmers to reseed crops yearly without worry about affecting nonmodified crops". The actual story was less dramatic but still attracted attention from media around the world. It seems that research scientists at Ag Canada have discovered a way to prevent genetically modified (GM) tobacco plants from outcrossing with other related plant species. By inserting a pair of genes into a tobacco plant, the scientists rendered sterile any seeds produced by tobacco pollen drifting to other plants.

The media were not the only ones to see huge benefits in the new technology. One scientist with the National Research Council saw the possibility of "alleviating concerns around the whole issue of contamination". It was a heady week for the supporters of GM crops.

Some media reports managed to make it sound as if technology had at last found a solution to GM problems. If only it were so easy.

In fact, of all the issues surrounding GM crops, the issue of outcrossing and the adventitious spread of rogue genes to related species hardly makes the top ten. True, farmers once worried that the transfer of chemical resistant genes into weeds might create a generation of super weeds, and Percy Schmeiser insisted that pollen flow to his standard canola contaminated it with Roundup resistant genes. There is no doubt that both of these situations are possible and do occur, but many years now of experience with GM crops show they are not the most pressing concerns regarding contamination.

The spread of GM material will and does occur in much simpler ways. Likely the most common is when small amounts of seed left in the bottoms of bins or the edges of truck boxes, seeding or harvesting equipment get mingled with non-GM seeds. Second most common is probably through volunteer plants in fields. These events might be minimized by intensely scrupulous actions on the part of farmers, seed growers, elevator operators, and all modes of transport, but how likely is that level of care to occur constantly in all quarters?

Mingling of seed from GM and non-GM varieties of a specific crop is inevitable. The more widely grown the GM crop, the sooner and more widespread such contamination will be. Hence the results of studies in Manitoba show that even foundation seed of some canola varieties is contaminated with GM canola. This unavoidable contamination has caused some importers of Canadian wheat to declare that if GM wheat is grown here they will immediately look elsewhere for their needs.

There is a difficulty with the new technique that received little mention. Even though it makes seed from outcrosses sterile, it does not prevent the production of seed if pollen accidentally flows to another crop. Hence, if organic wheat were grown next to GM wheat, the organic crop might still produce seeds containing GM genes, and these would show up in genetic testing. That these seeds could not reproduce is not likely of much interest to the customer who wants pure organic grain.

And of course, Agriculture Canada's new technique does nothing to change the fact that large numbers of consumers around the world simply do not want to eat GM grains and do not see the need for these to be produced. Right or wrong these folk may be, but the merchant who tells his customer he is wrong is violating the first rule of successful business.

The technique discovered this week might be useful if outcrossing of GM crops becomes a major problem at some time, but it does not solve the many problems posed by their introduction. Enthusiastic media and narrowly focused scientists could do the public a favor by putting such stories in their larger context.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone, 868-2009 fax