New fears over GM contamination

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Related tags: Dna

A new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) suggests
that genetically engineered DNA is contaminating traditional seeds
of three major crops in North America. The organisation warns that
if left unchecked, seed contamination could disrupt agricultural
trade, unfairly burden the organic industry and allow hazardous
materials into the food supply.

"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, director of the food and environment programme at UCS​ and an author of the new study, 'Gone to Seed: Transgenic Contaminants in the Traditional Seed Supply'. "The traditional seed supply is an agricultural treasure that must be preserved. The government should immediately follow up this study to determine the extent of contamination and the steps needed to protect this treasure."

The pilot study by UCS is the first to examine systematically whether genetically modified (GM) crop varieties now widely adopted in the United States have contaminated the seed supply for crop varieties presumed not to contain GM elements. The seeds tested in the pilot study were for traditional varieties of corn, soybeans, and canola that have no history of genetic engineering. The tests were conducted for UCS by two commercial laboratories employing sensitive techniques capable of detecting specific sequences of DNA.

The degree of concern to attach to seed contamination depends on many factors, including the nature of the genes that are contaminating the seed supply and the levels at which they occur. That information awaits the further, more comprehensive, tests recommended by UCS in its report. However, the study released today argues that contamination is prevalent, especially in rapeseed where one laboratory found six of the six traditional varieties tested contaminated with GM elements.

Most of the specific DNA sequences tested for in the study are found in popular GM varieties currently on the US market. But there is no reason to believe that engineered DNA sequences detected in the study are the only ones moving into the traditional seed supply.

"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,"​ said Dr Jane Rissler, a plant pathologist at UCS and the report's co-author. "Among the potential contaminants are genes from crops engineered to produce drugs, plastics, and vaccines."

UCS argues that serious risks to human health could result if genes from pharmaceutical and industrial crops contaminate the seeds for food crops at a significant level. "Because growers and processors would not be aware of the contaminants, they would inadvertently sell them for food use-a back door to the food supply that must be closed,"​ said Mellon.

The issue of crop contamination is a hot topic at the moment. Last month, FoodProductionDaily.com reported on the case of a farmer in Saskatchewan province in Canada who was taken to court for growing patent-protected rapeseed on his land. The farmer argued that the genetically modified Roundup Ready rapeseed must have blown onto his field from neighbouring fields or from passing trucks, and that he was within his rights to save and replant seed from his plants.

Environmental pressure groups believe that the case illustrates the danger of GM crop contamination. "The fact is that oil seed rape is a very small seed, and can easily be blown around,"​ said UK-based Friends of the Earth GM campaigner Pete Riley.

"The pollen can spread several kilometres. This means that genetically modified seeds are easily blown onto non-GM farmland, and these 'volunteer' crops, as they are called, are finding their way into our food chain whether we like it or not."

The UCS report urges prompt action to protect seed production from sources of GM contamination.

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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