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Gene Giants Blunder in Field Trials

New Scientist
August 24, 2002
Seed firms bungle field trials
By Kurt Kleiner

Three separate seed companies have made mistakes in field trials of
genetically modified crops in the US and Britain, raising questions about
the standard of quality control in thousands of open-field tests.

In Hawaii, two companies failed to follow regulations designed to make sure
pollen from GM maize doesn't contaminate other crops, according to the US
Environmental Protection Agency. And in Scotland, a seed company discovered
that the GM canola, or oilseed rape, it was testing contained a small amount
of another kind of GM rape that wasn't supposed to be there. The incidents
are the latest in a long series of errors and mix-ups involving GM crops
(New Scientist, 30 December 2000, p 22), although in none of these cases has
there been any evidence of harm to the environment or human health.

Last week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington DC
published letters sent by the EPA to Mycogen Seeds and Pioneer Hi-bred
International. The EPA says they didn't follow proper procedures while
setting up test plots in Hawaii for a root-worm-resistant maize that has a
gene for a bacterial toxin.

In particular, Mycogen failed to plant trees to act as a windbreak and
didn't plant a buffer of hybrid corn to prevent pollen spread. And Pioneer
Hi-bred planted maize in an unapproved location, too close to other crops. A
Pioneer Hi-bred spokeswoman denies the company broke any rules. Mycogen
says it is investigating the matter.

The incidents are worrying because the US doesn't fully assess whether GM
crops are safe to eat until after field trials have been carried out. With
other experimental crops there might be a risk to human health if food crops
near trial sites were contaminated by stray pollen, although in this case
the toxin from the added gene has been shown to be safe to eat.

Earlier this month, the Bush administration did propose tightening the
rules, so that companies would have to submit details to the EPA and the
Food and Drug Administration about novel proteins that might cause allergies
before trials take place. But even if the proposals are accepted, they won't
come into force for months.

In Britain, food safety assessments are carried out before field trials. But
that doesn't help if the wrong crop is planted. Aventis CropSciences mixed
up the seed for a herbicide-resistant rape approved for field trials with
seeds from an unapproved variety that contained genes for antibiotic
resistance.

The level of contamination was low - just 3 per cent - and other crops with
these genetic modifications have already been grown commercially in other
countries without any problems. Nevertheless, Aventis's admission sparked a
media furore. Britain's Department of the Environment, Food and Rural
Affairs says it will consider toughening the rules and checks on seed
purity.

Watchdog groups say the incidents raise serious concerns about safety. "This
is another example of the industry's inability to regulate the pollen flow
and the gene flow of these crops, and to follow the recommendations and
guidelines they and the agencies have worked out to protect public and
environmental health," says Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Center for Science in
the Public Interest.

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