By Brian Tokar

Since the first commercialization of genetically engineered (GE) crops in the mid-1990s, the industry’s main strategy has been to deny the possibility of crop contamination and other environmental hazards. This has most recently surfaced in controversy surrounding the findings of University of California scientists Ignacio Chapela and David Quist, who in the November 2001 issue of Nature documented the contamination of indigenous Mexican corn by transgenic DNA from GE corn (see “Transgenic Maize in Mexico” in GeneWatch Vol. 15 No. 4). While a few industry scientists rallied behind the absurd claim that this contamination represents an improvement in the diversity of Mexican corn, the industry’s main response has been to simply deny that it happened. 

In the immediate aftermath of the Chapela controversy, and on the eve of this year’s industry convention, the June 2002 issue of Nature Biotechnology — perhaps the world’s most prestigious biotechnology journal — offered compelling new evidence that many industry-friendly scientists are indeed quite preoccupied with the problem of GE contamination of non-GE crops. An editorial and three research articles made clearer than ever not only that contamination is undeniable, but that scientists are beginning to see the problem of gene flow as a definitive obstacle to the marketing of new generations of GE crops: 

Second-generation crops, which involve output modifications (traits with health and nutritional benefits), will likely only be viable if their purity or quality can be assured, which is problematic given the difficulty of attaining gene containment. Third-generation crops with new industrial, neutraceutical, or pharmaceutical properties will likely require effective gene control systems or simply will not be permitted to be released. (S. Smyth, et. al., p.537) 

While the Mexican evidence is not cited directly, examples such as the triple herbicide-resistant canola found in Alberta (which was sprayed with the herbicide 2,4D in an attempt to eradicate it), Starlink corn in America, and government-mandated destruction of contaminated crops in Europe are cited as definitive examples that the debate over GE crops has evolved to a qualitatively new level. Evidence from last year’s published studies on Bt and Monarch butterflies affirmed that corn pollen is dispersed farther than previously thought; canola pollen, in fact, has been observed traveling distances as great as 25 kilometers.
The lead editorial in June’s Nature Biotechnology (p. 527) reinforces several points that GE opponents have been raising for years. “There are nevertheless at least 44 cultivated plant species that have the potential to mate with one or more wild relatives somewhere in the world,” the editors wrote. “With plenty of data suggesting that DNA flies all over the place down on the farm, evaluations of the risks associated with new cultivars usually assume that gene flow from crops to relatives can occur.” 

They reiterated industry complaints that regulations are still being proposed and enforced on the basis of “process” (that, say, a soybean was created using recombinant DNA technology) rather than “product” (a soybean is a soybean), but with a surprising admission: “Because gene containment is next to impossible with the current generation of GM crops, this discriminatory stance has led to several international ‘incidents’ over the past few years.” They pointedly went on to say that “Current gene containment strategies cannot work reliably in the field,” and wondered just how long their luck would hold: “The adventitious presence of Starlink in tacos had no consequences for human health [sic], but could the same be said of a crop variety designed for biopharmaceutical production?”
In the same issue, a team of researchers based at the University of Saskatchewan offers a comprehensive outlook on the prospects of next-generation GE crops (pp. 537-541): 

Currently the agrochemical industry faces two major challenges if it is to realize the potential of GM crops ... On the one hand, to pay for large development and commercialization costs, investors and firms that have funded GM-related technologies must capture a share of the return on that investment. On the other hand, corporations and regulators must also ensure that the new traits and varieties created do not impose risks or liabilities that offset (or swamp) the value generated. At the farm level, in particular, there is significant risk of profit reduction and for co-mingling of plants with new traits with other crops, creating potential new liabilities.

In their view, GE crops have demonstrated clear advantages, yet neither farmers nor governments in most countries have taken adequate steps to realize the benefits. They see this as purely irrational, and it is eminently clear what kind of rationality they’d like the world to follow: “In brief, plants and people cannot be trusted to do what markets require.” Under what are to them unfortunate circumstances, “Irrespective of scientific rationale, current political and social pressures are likely to lead to more stringent regulation of future GM varieties.” 

The Saskatchewan group’s basic request is for a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of the Terminator seed release in order to assess and ultimately “justify commercialization” of Terminator and other use-restriction genetic technologies. Two other papers in the June Nature Biotechnology address the wider scope of possible containment strategies, as well as the potential for molecular methods to excise selectable marker genes — such as the controversial genes for antibiotic resistance — that are currently used to detect successful gene transfers in the laboratory. Clearly, with so many corporate fortunes still resting on public acceptance of GMOs, millions of dollars will continue to be wasted on developing ways to assuage public concerns and wish away fundamentally intractable environmental problems.

Brian Tokar is the author of Redesigning Life? The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering, and director of the Institute for Social Ecology’s Biotechnology Project (

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