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New Biotechnology With Same Problems
(from February 13, 2003)

Genetically engineered (GE) crops have historically shown a number of problems, including drift of genetically modified material to neighboring areas including organic farms and the wild. While bioengineers have been struggling to solve this predicament, their solutions fall short of fully stopping the spread of GE. A study recently published in Nature documents the failure of new GE technology designed specifically to stop genetically modified gene movement.

Currently, GE crops contain genetically modified material in their cell nuclei, where the potential for drift is a serious dilemma. If an organic farmer's crops become polluted with genetically engineered pollen, they may lose their organic certification and experience great financial losses. Even non-organic farmers face risks. Because of GE pollen drifting from a neighboring farm, some have been accused of using GE crops without paying for them. Monsanto sued a Canadian canola farmer for patent infringement after the company allegedly found their GE crops on his property. The farmer says he has never planted Monsanto's seeds. [Note: The farmer, Percy Schmeiser, will be speaking at the 21st National Pesticide Forum, Toxics in the Age of Globalization, April 25-27, 2003, Austin Texas]

Scientists tried to solve the drift problem by secreting modified genes into the chloroplast, a part of the plant that is self-contained, where they believed the genes would be forced to stay put. However, research at the University of Adelaide in Australia found that genes in some of the plants transferred into the pollen grains. Once the genes are in the pollen, they are no longer controlled. It is possible for them to drift anywhere.

It was originally thought that the new GE technology would be 10 to 100 times more successful in keeping the genes from moving. "We knew this could happen but I am surprised the frequency is so high," said Anil Day, who works on chloroplasts at the University of Manchester, UK. While researchers claim the chance of gene movement is still overwhelmingly small, it still indicates potential hazards. "It's a low frequency, but not when you consider the global acreage of a crop," warned Day.

The study, "Direct measurement of the transfer rate of chloroplast DNA into the nucleus" was published in the online journal of Nature, February 5 2003.

For more information about genetically modified crops, including explanations of their hazards, see the Beyond Pesticides' Genetic Engineering Program Page.