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In These TimesMarch 17, 2002

 

Seeds of Destruction;

Genetic contamination raises stakes on GMOs

 

By Karen Charman

 

Last fall, a University of California, Berkeley researcher announced the discovery of genetically engineered corn in the remote highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico. The corn was popping up along roadsides, out of cracks in the sidewalks and seemingly anywhere else it could find soil, in scores of mountain settlements.

 

The discovery sent alarms through the scientific community: Mexico banned the use of such corn in 1998. Scientists say it provides yet more evidence that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) cannot be controlled once they are released into the environment. The discovery is especially significant because the contamination occurred in the ancestral homeland of corn. Crop homelands must be preserved because they contain important genetic information scientists return to for developing blight-resistant crop strains when catastrophic pests or diseases strike. Oaxacans speculate the transgenic varieties sprouted after falling off government trucks that brought subsidized bioengineered corn as food aid to local communities. "Genes flowing from genetically modified crops can threaten the diversity of natural crops by crowding out native plants," Ignacio Chapela, the Berkeley scientist who discovered the contamination (published in Nature in September), said in a statement.

 

GM contamination like that in Mexico is one reason many countries have strongly resisted the introduction of GMOs, especially in the genetically diverse developing world. In January 2000, more than 130 developing nations led the fight for an international treaty, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, that would permit a country to refuse transgenic imports if it believes the shipment would endanger its population.

 

The United States has long argued there is no reason for such a protocol at all, and successfully weakened the accord, which is currently being ratified by signatories, with help from a handful of other grain-trading nations.

According to Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade

Policy, the United States has not yet ratified the protocol, nor is it expected to do so anytime soon.

 

Last year, an estimated 130 million acres of biotech crops were grown by 5.5 million farmers in 13 countries. In the United States, which planted 88.2 million acres of bioengineered crops last year -- 68 percent of the global total -- genetic pollution is already rampant. Virtually all Midwestern organic com samples tested in 2000 showed some degree of transgenic contamination, says Fred Kirschenmann, executive director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. "It's becoming clear that transgenic contamination can only escalate."

 

Conventional corn farmers who grow non-GM varieties are suffering as a result of the introduction of GM crops. International markets for U.S. corn have shriveled, if not evaporated, since a global consumer revolt against bioengineered foods began in Europe in 1998. Bill Cristison, president of the National Family Farm Coalition, says the market disruption due to biotech corn has slashed nonorganic corn prices about 30 cents a bushel, or roughly 15 percent. It is a drop growers can ill afford, since it costs them more to produce their crop than the market returns.

 

Aside from market trouble, farmers are being targeted by biotech companies

-- especially Monsanto -- when bioengineered seeds show up on their land (see "Bad Seeds," June 25, 2001). Biotechnology companies hold patents on their seeds, and Monsanto is currently suing more than a dozen farmers across Canada and the Midwest for "patent infringement." Many more farmers are reported to be under active investigation. Considering that transgenic contamination is proving impossible to prevent, such legal action may eventually force farmers to buy bioengineered seed whether they -- or their customers -- want it or not.

 

Though transgenic contamination threatens the lucrative and growing international and domestic markets for organic produce, the U.S. government doesn't seem to care. Last November, the Food and Drug Administration warned organic food manufacturers not to label their products "GMO free," because organic manufacturers likely could not substantiate the claim -- which the agency views as misleading, in any case, since it insists GM foods are safe. But legislation opposing or regulating GM products is appearing around the country. Last year, Maryland banned genetically engineered fish in its waters, and Oregon has a similar measure in the works. New York and Vermont are considering GM crop moratoriums, and Massachusetts, North Carolina and Hawaii are considering laws that regulate growing and marketing certain GM crops. Grassroots farming organizations are also pushing legislation to protect them against lost markets, transgenic contamination, and liability resulting from GMOs.

 

But of the 11 states that have introduced labeling laws, only Maine's -- which is voluntary -- has passed. On the other hand, according to the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, as of October 2001, two-thirds of the state laws related to biotechnology enacted last year were promoted by biotechnology companies and targeted activists vandalizing GM crops or animals.

 

Meanwhile, the United States has embraced biotechnology as one of the pillars of economic growth. The federal government continues to operate as the biotech industry's principal cheerleader and bully, and calls for moratoriums on future GMO releases from scientists and the public are ignored or vigorously fought. Despite the demands of foreign governments and consumers in the United States and abroad to label bioengineered food, the feds continue to refuse -- working hard to prevent anything that might hinder the technology's acceptance.

 

The Bush administration has inserted a provision into "fast track" trade legislation that would deem labeling GM food by other countries an unfair trade barrier and make violators liable for costly trade sanctions. The administration is also preparing to challenge the European Union's requirement for labeling transgenic food at the World Trade Organization. At the beginning of February, activists from more than 50 countries announced support for a treaty to establish the earth's gene pool as a global commons, called the "Intiative to Share the Genetic Commons." They are also beginning an active campaign to challenge government and corporate claims on patents on life in every country. More than 300 organizations have signed on to the effort.

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