Genetically Engineered DNA Found in Traditional U.S. Crops

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 24, 2004 (ENS) - Scientists have found DNA from genetically engineered crops in traditional varieties of three major U.S. food crops that have no history of genetic engineering. The study released Monday by the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests this contamination is pervasive and the U.S. based research group warns that regulators are failing to address an issue that could have stark economic, environmental and public health consequences.

"This study shatters the presumption that at least one portion of the seed supply - that for traditional varieties of crops - is truly free of genetically engineered elements," said Dr. Margaret Mellon, a microbiologist with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and lead author of the new study.

"There is no reason to believe that the contamination of the seed supply is limited to what we found," Mellon said. "The door to the seed supply is wide open."

The research group purchased six traditional varieties of canola, corn and soybeans from commercial distributors and sent the seeds for testing at two independent commercial laboratories.

The labs tested for specific sequences of DNA that have been introduced by genetic engineering, varieties that are currently grown on U.S. farms. corn

More than a third of corn grown in the United States is genetically engineered. (Photo courtesy Monsanto)
One lab detected DNA in half of the corn and soybean varieties and in all six of the canola varieties tested. The second lab found the sequences in five of the six varieties of all three crops.

"Contamination appears not to be sporadic, but rather pervasive across the seed supplies for these crops," Mellon said.

The researchers acknowledge that their study is too limited to provide a reliable estimate of the levels of contamination across the entire U.S. seed supply, but say the study suggests a range of 0.05 percent to one percent genetically modified seeds in those tested.

But even those low levels could translate into hundreds of tons of contaminated corn and soybean seeds inadvertently planted on U.S. farms, according to Dr. Jane Rissler, a UCS plant pathologist and coauthor of the report.

"We must confront the reality of seed contamination now," said Rissler, who noted that most of the specific DNA sequences tested for in the study are found in popular genetically engineered varieties currently on the U.S. market.

These varieties have primarily been modified for pesticide resistance, but the labs were unable to test for a slew of other biotech crops - including plants modified for industrial or pharmaceutical purposes - that have been the subject of field trials in the United States.

Those future genetically engineered crops could pose much more serious health concerns.

"Until we know otherwise, it is prudent to assume that engineered sequences originating in any crop, whether it was approved and planted commercially or just field tested, could potentially contaminate the seed supply," Rissler said. "Among the potential contaminants are genes from crops engineered to produce drugs, plastics, and vaccines."

Rissler said the contamination likely occurred either through cross-pollination or physical mixing. U.S. regulators require buffers between genetically engineered and traditional crops, but critics say these are insufficient to prevent contamination.

The Union of Concerned Scientists warns that seed contamination, if left unchecked, could disrupt agricultural trade, unfairly burden the organic agricultural industry, and allow hazardous materials into the food supply.

Evidence of seed contamination could make it more difficult for U.S. exporters to assure Japan, South Korea, the European Union, and other export customers that grain and oilseed shipments do not contain unapproved genetically engineered crop varieties and to supply commodity products free of engineered sequences.

The reports call on U.S. regulators to launch a widespread study of seed contamination, tighten rules on biotech crops to address the concern and to set aside a reservoir of traditional seeds free from the DNA of genetically engineered crops.

"We need to acknowledge and confront the problem. This is a problem that will hurt the United States economically and could threaten our health," Mellon said. "No one wants drugs or plastics in our corn flakes."

Mellow did not have an estimate for how much it might cost the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a widespread survey for seed contamination, but told reporters, "the costs of not doing it are going to be far greater than doing it." greenhouse

Public interest groups worry that existing regulations are too loose for new GE crops, including plants engineered for pharmaceutical purposes. (Photo courtesy Monsanto)
The report comes as negotiators from some 86 nations and the European Union are meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at the first official conference of the parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

The meeting began Sunday and will last through February 27.

Adopted in January 2000 as a supplementary agreement to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, the protocol is designed to protect biological diversity from the potential risks that may be posed by genetically modified organisms.

The nations that have signed onto the protocol are wrestling with issues of shipment labeling, liability, compliance and capacity building for those countries without the resources to develop their own regulatory regimes for biotech crops.

The United States, which produces about two-thirds of the world's biotech crops, pulled out of negotiations on the Cartagena Protocol in 1999, under the Clinton administration.

Some 34 percent of U.S. corn and 75 percent of U.S. soybeans are genetically modified and the United States is embroiled in a bitter dispute with the European Union over the biotech crops issue.

The EU has refused to grant import licenses for biotech crops since October 1998 because many Europeans are worried about possible health and environmental risks. Prior to October 1998 the EU had approved nine agriculture biotech products for planting or import.

The EU is moving forward with legislation on traceability and labeling, two issues that have irked Bush administration officials and some supporters of biotech foods who believe these requirements would scare consumers and result in higher food costs for consumers and producers.