Health

TRANSGENIC POLLUTION: A NEW CONCERN
By Francesca Lyman
MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR

Sept. 14 - It has the ring of a sci-fi thriller - "transgenic" foods illegally traded on the international market, detected and rejected by border police - a kind of food version of "Bladerunner". Wasn't Rachel (Sean Young), hunted down by Rick (Harrison Ford) for being a replicant? Hardly science fiction, it's a real problem for some food producers who have found to their surprise that their products can be rejected for being contaminated by genetically modified organisms.

In an ad for Apache Tortilla chips, a slice of succulent red pepper grins out at you over a line of plump, yellow ears of sweet corn ? the promotion for an organic line of corn chips, available in "five delicious flavors ? yellow, blue corn, nacho, sesame, and red."

But far from being welcomed at their distribution point, the chips - made by Terra Prima, a certified organic producer in Hudson, Wisc. - were discovered by an independent tester to contain traces of genetically modified corn, and their Netherlands importer was notified.

A BIG BITE

It was a devastating blow to Terra Prima, a small producer that prides itself on a superior product free of chemicals or other substances. The company chose to destroy 87,000 bags of their corn chips and essentially swallow $147,000 when they couldn't sell their product as organic - a big bite out of a company with only about $4 million in total sales, says Chuck Walker, its president.

Walker didn't blame the Texas organic farmer who sold them the corn, which was grown using rotational methods, minimal pesticides and no genetically modified, or GM, seed varieties. But he did blame the contamination on pollen from GM corn that was blown over from another farm and whose patented gene was the same one picked up in the test.

That apparent cross-pollination is what environmentalists and organic farmers are calling "transgenic" pollution.

LAWSUIT AGAINST EPA

Last February Terra Prima joined environmentalists and consumer groups in a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency, charging the EPA with registering genetically engineered crops without adequately considering their health and environmental impacts.

The lawsuit, filed by the Center for Food Safety, asked the EPA to withdraw all current registrations and deny future approvals of crops engineered with the Bt (Bacillus thuriengensis) insecticide - a natural bacterial toxin used for years as a spray by organic farmers who grow crops without using industrial pesticides.

It was this toxin that was detected on the Terra chips.

The lawsuit charges that the EPA did not properly assess three major environmental risks: the development of insects resistant to Bt, the transfer of Bt genes to other plants, and effects of Bt crops on beneficial, nontarget insects. Included among the more than 70 plaintiffs are Greenpeace, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (with 650 member groups in 100 countries) and environmental organizations.

ORGANICS AT RISK

Walker says he'd like to see a moratorium on GM crops until farmers can be assured they won't cross-pollinate. "More than that," says Walker, "I'd like to see an open public dialog on the whole issue of genetically modified foods. Does the public even want the foods already being served to us, as well as others waiting in the back pantry?"

The issue is particularly poignant to organic farmers because once organic crops are pollinated with biotech genes, their crops can lose their organic status, which takes three years to accomplish, and cause them to suffer financially.

In Canada, for example, the National Farmers Union has said it wants Ottawa to make agricultural biotech firms liable for the "genetic pollution" of organic and traditional crops.

In the United States, organic farmers are equally militant. "Organic growers are very clear that they don't want contamination of their crops and will hold owners of these licenses responsible," says Robert Scowcraft of the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

OTHER QUESTIONS

But the Terra chip incident in winter 1999 continues to have other ripple effects on farming, food and environmental policy questions. What happens with genetic pollution from "transgenic" produce - when pollen from genetically engineered crops drifts to neighboring fields? Will crops modified for pest resistance pass those genes on to weedier species, making them harder to eradicate, lead to more virulent pests, and decimate other species in their path?

And a recent study published in the science journal Nature found that pollen >from GM corn can kill monarch butterflies if they ingest it.

In the wake of the study, several environmental groups - including the Union of Concerned Scientists, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council - wrote to the EPA in August asking the agency to restrict the planting of Bt corn.

"Monarch butterflies are already under pressure as a result of changes in their overwintering habitats," they wrote. "Additional threats to monarch populations feeding on toxic corn pollen as they migrate through the Midwest are of serious concern."

CONVENTIONAL FEARS

The furor over GM products has also struck fear into conventional farmers who have invested in GM seed varieties and other technologies and who don't want to be hurt either.

Today, only three years after the first large-scale commercial harvest, genetically modified crops now cover more than 90 million acres, according to the latest estimates ? nearly a quarter of America's croplands.

But many countries, including Brazil, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union, have moratoria or restrictions in place against GM foods. As a result U.S. corn exports alone have dropped precipitously - and experts are estimating as much as $1 billion in export trade losses for this year's crops.

The international scene is forcing food shippers such as Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill to segregate their grain supplies.

"There's definitely concern about this," says Warren Pufahl, managing editor for Agrinews, an agriculture newsletter. Farmers are worried that "they've invested a lot of money in these seed varieties and that here's a good product they may not be able to use ? or maybe not as much."

BT DEBATE

Most of the GM seeds on the market have been engineered to make crops more tolerant of pesticides or to carry their own pesticide.

In the case of Bt, Walker says that whereas Bt spray as used by organic farmers degrades easily in the soil, in Bt corn the pesticide is in the food and doesn't wash off.

"It does not degrade. It is at its full potency all the time," he adds. "We don't even know what the health effects of eating it are ? at what doses. What if you eat Bt potatoes, Bt tomatoes, and Bt corn together all the time ? what's the effect of that?"

Organic farmers are also concerned because use of Bt crops could create a class of insects resistant to it, rendering their most effective weapon and last line of defense ? Bt as a spray - useless.

COSTS, BENEFITS

Seed companies like Monsanto, Novartis and Pioneer Hi-Bred International maintain that altering crops to contain the Bt will ultimately decrease the need for chemical pesticides and therefore benefit the environment.

However, the Biotechnology Industry Organization has reported that the introduction of Bt corn reduced insecticide use on only 2.5 percent of the total U.S. corn acreage in 1998.

And new studies from the Department of Agriculture show that engineering crops genetically does not necessarily guarantee pesticide reductions, and might do the opposite. Data for the Heartland region show that insecticides were reduced only minimally in 1997 for corn borers using Bt compared to non-Bt corn, and showed no difference in insecticide use for other corn pests.

Charles Benbrook, a biotechnology consultant for Consumers Union and former head of the National Research Council's board on agriculture, argues that "while Bt corn might work for a few years, those gains would be offset by big problems long term.

"The real problem," he believes, "is that saturating the soil with these novel organisms will shift the competitive balance in the soil and stimulate other pests moving in. And by taking away farmers' use of Bt as a spray, genetic engineers are robbing them of a most valuable tool."


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