GM crops bound to 'escape', says EU

By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
24 March 2002 Genes will inevitably escape from genetically modified crops, contaminating organic farms, creating superweeds, and driving wild plants to extinction, an official EU study concludes. It adds that the three GM crops at present being trialled in Britain - maize, sugar beet and oilseed rape - pose the greatest risks of all the varieties it examined.

The study, just published by the European Environment Agency, confirms environmentalists' worst fears and will make it very difficult for the Government to approve the commercial planting of GM crops in Britain.

Ministers, who have consistently promised not to permit the crops if they are found to endanger the environment, will have to make a decision next year after the completion of three years of trials. But the trials are primarily designed to examine the use of pesticides on GM crops, not to look for escaping genes.

The study concludes that "gene flow can occur over long distances", and that some varieties of GM crops interbreed with others "at higher frequencies and at greater distances than previously thought".

Pollen from the crops, it concluded, travelled far further than the official "isolation distances" laid down to separate them from ordinary crops, to prevent interbreeding, making a mockery of safety precautions.

Cross-pollination by GM oilseed rape has been recorded about two and a half miles away from the crop, compared to an isolation distance of 600m. Research in Scotland has suggested that bees could carry the pollen at least six miles. The report concludes: "Under current farm practices, local contamination between crops is inevitable."

Environmentalists will see it as a vindication of their view that organic and non-GM crops will not be able to co-exist for long before being contaminated, denying shoppers a choice of food. The report warns that "over time even small amounts of gene flow can have important effects on evolutionary change". It expects superweeds, resistant to herbicides, to become "common" if GM crops are grown, and warns organic farmers will find it hard to sell their produce once it has been infiltrated by GM genes. And it adds that the interbreeding could lead to natural wild relatives of the crops becoming extinct.

Peter Melchett, the policy director of the Soil Association, said: "The Government and GM industry seem to have picked three of the most contaminating crops to test in the UK. After this report, there should be no question of ministers considering, even for a moment, allowing them to be grown commercially."

Farmers encouraged to be rational about GMOs

(Monsanto in Indonesia)
Leo Wahyudi S, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta A spokesperson for a company supplying genetically modified crops is urging farmers to remain calm and rational in responding to the increasing use of these crops, saying that extensive lab tests had shown them to be safe. Tri Soekirman, spokesperson for PT Monagro Kimia, played down the increasing harsh reaction to genetically modified seeds, which have not been widely accepted here. "They (the seeds) have been through scientific tests that are reliable," she told The Jakarta Post. Her comments come amid growing reaction from farmers and environmental organizations to the growing presence and use of genetically modified crops and seeds in the country. Farmers in South Sulawesi, aided by environmental groups such as the National Consortium for Nature and Forest Conservation (Konphalindo) and the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), are reportedly on the verge of filing a class action suit against South Sulawesi Gubernatorial Decree No. 89/2001. The decree is considered flawed since it allows the planting of transgenic cotton beyond the seven regencies in the province permitted by Minister of Agriculture Decree No. 107/2001. They also claim that the final yield of transgenic cotton did not lived up to earlier promises, as activists and farmers claim that it produced at the most 1.2 tons per hectare and not three tons as initially claimed. As a result, activists and farmers in the province are also rejecting reports that Round Ready (RR) transgenic corn will also be used there.

Transgenic cotton and corn are supplied by PT Monsanto from South Africa through Jakarta-based PT Monagro Kimia. Transgenic, or genetically modified, organisms are touted to create higher quality crops and stocks by the insertion of genes from other species. The biologically engineered products are meant to protect the plant from pests or make it resistant to a specific herbicide. Tri Soekirman, however, insists that Monagro Kimia has immediate plans to introduce other genetically modified crops to the region. The continuing controversy shows that in an age of biotechnology Indonesia is ill-prepared to face challenges in the field of genetically modified food products.

Scientists, activists, farmers and businesspeople continue the debate while the government remains ambiguous in its position. A lack of legal guidelines on genetically modified organisms (GMO), inadequate verification mechanisms and an uninformed public due to a meager information campaign continue to shroud GMO products in ambiguity. If such products are safe, then they should be exploited to help farmers and consumers produce the best yield. But if they are considered hazardous then they should not be allowed to furtively enter the market as they have done. There have been calls from the Indonesian Consumers Foundation for the labeling of such products. However, the government has yet to effectively implement the 1999 regulation on food labeling and advertising.

Ministry of Health, along with the ministries of agriculture and forestry, has yet to decide on the level of GMOs that must be declared on product labeling. Antonius Suwanto, a researcher at the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Tropical Biology in Bogor, however, maintains that labeling is unnecessary. "Transgenic products cannot be generalized as it needs studious case analysis," he said, underlining that transgenic products have thus far been proven harmless and adding that many genetically engineered products have been passed by the United States' Food and Drugs Administration (FDA).

Nevertheless the researcher failed to account for possible implications of transgenic crops to the ecosystem.

"We need about five to six years to evaluate all possible risks," Antonius conceded.