Journal says biotech industry must address environmental issues dealing with genetic engineering

The June issue of Nature Biotechnology, the world's most prestigious biotechnology journal, devoted an editorial and three articles to the issue of gene flow with genetically modified crops and potential risks and liabilities resulting from it.

Gene containment strategies cannot work

The editorial stated, "Gene flow from GM crops to related plants thus remains a primary concern for regulators, and one that companies need to address. Current gene-containment strategies cannot work reliably in the field. Seed companies will continue to confuse batches, and mills will continue to mix varieties." With regard to buffer zones planted by farmers to isolate GM crops, the editorial states that they may "theoretically" control pollen dispersal but in practice farmers will be unable or unwilling to follow planting rules. "Most seriously, gene flow (like mixing) could result in GM material unintended for human consumption, ending up in the human food chain." The editorial ended by stating, "It is time that industry took decisive steps to address gene flow from their products. Environmental concerns surrounding GM crops are not going to go away."

Loss of organic canola market

In an article, "Liabilities and Economics of Transgenic Crops," the authors state that the problems of cross-pollination of GM crops with conventional varieties and the germination of volunteer GM seeds "must be rapidly addressed to ensure that the adoption rate of GM crops remains high and that the commercialization of future varieties is not jeopardized."The authors point out that introduction of GM herbicide-resistant canola in western Canada destroyed the growing market for organic canola. "Because of the likelihood of out-crossing and pollen flow, buyers have shown increased reluctance to buy organically produced western Canadian canola because it might contain transgenes." The authors estimate the lost market to between C$100,000 and C$200,000 per year, "but the calculation probably underestimates the opportunity cost of a market that many thought had significant potential for growth over this period." In addition, the EU recently banned Canadian honey because of the inability of Canadian honey producers to guarantee the absence of pollen from GM plants not yet approved in the EU. The authors say that institutional control, biological control, and a combination of the two is needed to manage risks of GM crops. The authors recommend the use of sterile seeds, the highly controversial "Terminator" technology.The authors predict that current political and societal pressures are likely to lead to more stringent regulation of GM crops. In addition, "the agbiotech industry must take its responsibility more seriously" by educating producers about the importance of containing the technology.

(July 2002)