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A U.S. study of GM crops spells trouble for Europe

(Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- via checkbiotech.org:
Wind blows pollen. That's not news, unless the pollen in question happens to be genetically modified and blowing across Europe. In that case, GM pollen is politically explosive stuff, apt to be seized upon by both sides in the region's ongoing GM food war. Wandering pollen hit the headlines last week when the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a U.S. journal, published a study carried out on genetically modified bentgrass in Oregon.

The study showed that genes from the grass, developed by Monsanto and Scotts for use on golf courses, were found in test plants around 20 kilometers away -- a spectacular distance, and much farther than observed in any other GM-crop study.

The Oregon study may just turn the debate over GM crops on its head. The news sent shivers through Brussels, where bureaucrats fear it could wreak havoc with the EU's newly muscular policy on biotech. Indeed, the findings come just as the EU is trying to clear the way for the first new GM food imports in six years and defend itself against charges of obstructing trade before the World Trade Organization.

Environmental organizations pounced on the study, claiming it as proof that GM crops are a Pandora's box. Once the crops are planted in Europe's fields, they argue, the foreign genes, borne by pollen, will insinuate themselves into every furrow and seedling.

There'll be no such thing as a non-GM crop.

The pollen study has given Europe's environmental activists plenty of grist, but it may wind up undercutting their argument. The fear that genes engineered into crops could escape into the environment, perhaps combining with other species to form super-weeds or contaminating non-GM crops, has —been the environmentalists' most potent argument against GM crops. One potential implication of the study, though, is that this threshold may already have been crossed—the GM genie may already be floating free. Pollen-borne genes can travel for immense distances. (The 20-km range was the maximum measured in the Oregon study; it's likely, say scientists, that grass pollen could travel even further.) Sand from the Sahara Desert can easily make it into Europe, note biotech researchers. Given the right atmospheric conditions, "even the Atlantic might not be big enough" to keep out pollen floating from the United States," says Vivian Moses, biology professor at the University of London.

Don't look to scientists to settle the political questions just yet. For one thing, scientists have known about so-called gene flow -- the transfer of genes from one species of crop to another -- for decades. And they caution that one can't generalize too much from the new study. Bentgrass, even your ordinary garden variety, has notoriously light pollen, and is prone to pollinating species at great distances. The region of Oregon where the study was conducted is extremely dry, which would cause the pollen to travel farther than it would in a relatively wet region like Germany. Furthermore, the area studied is subject to strong winds out of the Rocky Mountains, which can carry pollen greater distances than the gentle breeze off the Italian Riviera. A pollen study on grass in Oregon has virtually nothing useful to say to corn farmers in Brittany or Thrace.

The facts have done little to bridge the divide. Biotech companies continue to maintain that gene-flow can be managed easily. "You talk with neighboring farmers to make sure they're not planting a crop that's affected by the gene crop, and you make sure to grow gene crops the necessary distance from others," argues Tony Combes, a director of Corporate Affairs at Monsanto in the United Kingdom. Environmental groups, on the other hand, say the findings are proof that GM crops can't be kept discrete from conventional ones. "Genetically engineered organisms, once released into the environment, will contaminate other crops," says Greenpeace's Lindsay Keenan. The anti-GM lobby wants more European countries to follow Denmark's lead by trying to create laws making GM companies pay conventional or organic farmers compensation if cross-contamination takes place. (A German draft law to that effect stalled in the Bundestag last week, after some states argued for loosened guidelines.) The bentgrass study has renewed calls from the anti-GM camp for legally recognized GM-free zones, although last year the EC made it clear, via a test case against Upper Austria, that they were not feasible. "We're fairly unsympathetic to GMO-free zones, unless the GMOs are particularly prone to bite children in Salzburg," notes Mark Cantley, a biotech adviser to the European Commission. "In which case, we want to see the teeth marks."

The bentgrass study comes at a diplomatically tricky moment in Europe's GM saga. In the spring the EU lifted a six-year moratorium on genetically modified food, establishing a new regulatory framework for traceability and labeling. And the two-year-old European Food Safety Authority is in place, designed to review GM issues on a case-by-case basis on the grounds of science, not politics. The European Commission is keen to show that the system works, not least because the United States, Canada and Argentina are still going ahead with a 2003 WTO case against the EU moratorium. "We're conscious of the political need to demonstrate we've got a working system," observes Cantley.

As the EU's unelected executive, the European Commission has had to chivvy along skittish nation-states. In May, after member states remained divided on whether to approve a Swiss-made strain of modified sweet corn for sale, the European Commission was forced to allow it. And only last week, when an EU committee was due to decide on authorizing a GM maize, Monsanto's MON 863, for use as animal feed, individual nation-states balked, and the maize went back for another round of tests.

In the long run, the pollen-drift studies may ultimately be a boon for the pro-GM camp. The research, say some biotech advocates, offers a reality check for consumers. To be GM-free in Europe, a product has to have less than 0.9 percent GM-derived content. Any more and it's got to be clearly labeled that it contains GM bits, which must be traceable back to their origins. The anti-GM activists may advocate a Europe where some seeds are completely GM-free. But in a world where the wind blows pollen, that ultimately may not be possible.

With Emily Flynn in London, Tracy McNicoll in Paris and Stefan Theil in Berlin

(Source: http://www.checkbiotech.org/root/index.cfm?fuseaction=news&doc_id=8708&start=1&control=200&page_start=1&page_nr=101&pg=1