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The world of unintended consequences

(Monday, Sept. 13, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Alan Guebert, Farmers Weekly, UK, 08/27 - 09/02/04:
IN THE middle of a mild and amply moist summer, central Illinois is one endless carpet of green. Fields of tall and already heavily-eared maize line the roads for hundreds of miles at every point of the compass.

This vertical and verdant bounty is broken only by roadways and the state' s other principal crop, the just-as-green, more horizontal fields of thickly seeded soyabeans. Every one of those fields i s absolutely weedless; Monsanto has seen to that.

But, as a farmer friend recently noted, a growing numbers of soyabean fields this summer are not without unwanted plants. " I ' ve sprayed my Roundup beans twice this summer and I can see maize still growing in the fields," he said.

Volunteer maize, sprouting from the leftovers of the previous year' s crop, is the bane of all soya farmers. My friend despises it because he, like many farmers on a strict maize-soya beans planting rotation, believes every unwanted maize plant is a tall flag that declares him to be a less-than-good farmer.

In this case, however, it is not his fault. After all, he' s dunked his soya crop not once but twice with Roundup and the maize continues to thrive. Moreover, he has never planted Roundup maize on his farm so the hated maize cannot be a volunteer from his last year's crop. "But," he guesses, " I think it is. My suspicion is the non-GMO seed I planted last year had to have some Roundup maize in it. That's the only explanation for why I can' t kill the volunteer maize with Roundup this year."

Welcome to the wonderful world of unintended consequences.

The main reason eight out of 10 American soya acres sprout genetically modified seed is the simplicity and ease of keeping those acres absolutely clean of every non-soya plant - especially volunteer maize.

That clear victory, however, may be slipping away with the advance of GM maize. Roundup herbicide sprayed on Roundup Ready soyabeans will not kill Roundup Ready maize.

"I may have t o go back to walking my soyabean fields with a hoe to get rid of the maize this year and in the future," my farming buddy sighs.

Going back to what worked is an easy, if not a sweaty, route for him. The same cannot be said about the unknown and unintended health effects of GM food, a Jul y 27 report from US National Academy of Sciences notes.

The detailed report, commissioned by the US Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the US Environmental Protection Agency, recommends that government agencies "should assess the safety of genetically altered foods - whether produced by genetic engineering or by other techniques -on a case-by-case basis to determine whether unintended changes in their composition could adversely affect human health."

In fact, the report's chairman, a chemist from the University of Texas, explains: "All evidence to date indicates that any breeding technique that alters a plant or animal - whether by genetic engineering or other methods - has the potential to create unintended changes in the quality or amounts of food components that could harm health."

The Academy was quick to note, however, that "genetic engineering is not an inherently hazardous process. But the resulting food, along with foods created from other methods of genetic modification, should be examined to determine if the inserted genes produce toxins or allergens."

The report went on to note that GM food currently on the market does not need to be re-tested or traced. It did recommend that newly "genetically-altered food, including those genetically-engineered" should be sampled, analysed and profiled.

And, it continues, "Improved tracing and tracking methods should be implemented for genetically engineered food when warranted..."

The Academy report, authored by members of its National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, also suggests "a significant research effort" needs to be made "to detect health changes in the population that could result from genetic alternation and, specifically, genetic engineering of food."

To no one's surprise, each side of the very quiet GM food debate in America claims the report supports their central theses: that biofood is safe and that biofood may pack unintended health hazards.

As far as my friend the farmer, I suspect he cares little about the report and I know he will not read it. This August, he has bigger problems.

Like seeing volunteer maize in his Roundup soyabean fields every time he looks out his kitchen window, even on moonlit nights.

"You know how life is supposed to go full circle?" he asked me in an end-of-July telephone conversation. "Well, mine just did. I'm back to hand-hoeing maize out of soyabean fields."

I then remind him that I predicted that very consequence just two years ago when we discussed the virtues and vices of planting GM maize.

"But I got it and I never bought it!" he roars.

Alas, the wonderful world of unintended consequences.