Biotech Grass 'Gene Flow' Underscores Growing Concern
SAN FRANCISCO California rice farmers are worried Japanese customers will boycott their products if genetically engineered rice is allowed into the state.
And in Hawaii, organic papaya farmers are outraged because traces of genetically engineered papaya are showing up in their harvest.
Biologists call it "gene flow." It's how plants have swapped genetic material through cross pollination since life first appeared.
But for people who choose to grow crops without genetically altering them, this natural biological exchange is a threat when bioengineered organisms are involved.
This week, already heightened tensions between the biotech industry and its foes peaked when the U.S. government published a study showing that genetically engineered grass found its way into conventionally grown grass some 12 miles away in Oregon's Willamette Valley. The study led to renewed calls for tighter gene flow regulations, especially from farmers who promise customers that their products are free of genetically modified material.
More farmers are reporting finding trace amounts of genetically modified organisms cross-pollinated or otherwise mingled with their organically grown crops. Those are potentially devastating discoveries because organic consumers generally demand that the higher-priced food they buy be free of biotechnological adulteration.
The problem, like the weather, respects no boundaries.
A NAFTA watchdog group said in March it had found genetically engineered corn in Mexico despite that country's six-year-old biotechnology ban.
Meanwhile, consumers in Japan, Europe and elsewhere demand all their crops are grown conventionally. Farmers who can't make those biotech guarantees risk losing those markets.
U.S. labeling rules allow for trace amounts of genetically engineered material in organic products. Still, organic growers and other growers fear market perception will turn against them if customers perceive that gene flow isn't being controlled.
That's why many rice farmers in California opposed a biotechnology company's plan this summer to increase the acreage it devotes to rice spliced with human genes to produce medicines. The state government refused to let the company expand.
It's also why organic growers in Hawaii earlier this month symbolically dumped 20 genetically engineered papayas into a trash bin labeled with a "biohazard" sign. Papaya genetically engineered to resist a virus were commercially grown for the first time in 1998 and are widely credited with turning around a moribund industry devastated by disease. But the bioengineered variety is not the only papaya grown in Hawaii.
"We are finding widespread contamination and farmers are concerned," said Noli Hoye of the Hawaii anti-biotech group that organized the protest. "Once these genetically engineered crops are released commercially, they can't be contained."
An increasing number of scientific studies show evidence that genetically engineered crops are creeping into conventionally grown fields, including the grass study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Union of Concerned Scientists in February found trace amounts of genetically engineered seeds of corn, soy and canola mixed in with seeds that were supposed to be conventionally bred.
"We are concerned about gene flow," said U.S. Agriculture Department spokeswoman Meghan Thomas. But she said the USDA's regulatory reach extends only to experimental crops. Once biotech crops are approved for market, as papayas were in 1997, the government's oversight essentially ends.
The levels of cross-pollination in other studies were found to be minuscule and industry leaders say gene flow concern is overblown.
"Organic acreage has really boomed at the same time biotech acreage has boomed," said Chris Horner, a spokesman for Monsanto Co. "With good agricultural practices there is no reason these two technologies can't coexist."
Horner and others point out that no known lawsuits have been filed against any biotechnology company alleging that gene flow has caused anyone economic harm.
"It has not been a significant problem, and proving gene flow caused you economic harm will be difficult," said Drew Kershner, a University of Oklahoma law professor who has written extensively on the subject. "If you are neighborly and trying to get along, biotechnology and organic farming can coexist very easily."
Still, some organic farmers say the cross-pollination issue already is cutting into their profits because they've undertaken more costly planting processes or lost sales over fears their crops were corrupted by genetically modified organisms.
The Organic Farming Research Foundation said about 11 percent of the farmers responding to a survey last year said they have been DNA-testing crops for the presence of genetically modified organisms.