Altered genes found in seeds

Study shows a broad invasion in canola, soybeans and corn.

By Edie Lau -- Bee Science Writer

Published Tuesday, February 24, 2004

The nation's supply of conventional canola, corn and soybean seeds, used to grow food for people and livestock, is invaded broadly by genes engineered through biotechnology, judging from an analysis by an independent environmental advocacy group.

The Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass., which released the pilot study Monday, said the contamination could spell trouble for trade with countries mistrustful of genetically engineered foods, might prove dangerous to American consumers and narrows the options available to farmers.

"I think consumers and the general public take for granted that farmers who want to grow non-genetically engineered crops are able to do so, that the U.S. has available a pure seed supply free of genetically engineered DNA," said Margaret Mellon, director of the group's food and environmental program. "This report shatters that assumption."

The findings don't imply a certain or immediate hazard - the engineered DNA is legal, and regarded by the U.S. government to be safe to eat - but underscores the extent to which biotech genes have spread to places where they're presumed not to be.

The group focused on canola, corn and soybeans because those three crops - plus cotton - constitute the vast majority of biotech commodities on the market.

About three-quarters of soybeans and canola and about one-third of corn grown in North America are biotech varieties engineered to kill certain insects or to withstand treatment by particular herbicides.

Two commercial laboratories hired by the Union of Concerned Scientists analyzed six samples each of canola, corn and soybeans. The seeds were purchased from retailers used by farmers and were sold as conventional seed.

The labs detected the presence of engineered DNA in at least 83 percent of the canola, half of the corn and half of the soybeans.

The proportion of engineered DNA was low, in the neighborhood of .05 percent to 1 percent.

Because of the low level involved, Dick Crowder, president of the American Seed Trade Association, reacted matter-of-factly to news of the findings.

"Given the widespread acceptance and adoption of biotech traits ... I think it's to be expected that there will be some low levels of biotech traits present in conventional seeds," he said.

Consumers may not be as forgiving, said Fred Kirschenmann, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

"Contaminated seed will make it impossible for organic farmers to meet the expectation of consumers in the organic market, who have insisted that organic foods be GMO (genetically modified organism) free," he said.

Kirschenmann said export markets are particularly vulnerable. The European Union, for example, is crafting a rule that food containing 1 percent or more engineered DNA be labeled genetically modified. Other countries sensitive to genetically engineered foods include Japan and South Korea.

Mellon, author of the study, also raised the specter of biotech genes that generate pharmaceuticals or industrial compounds slipping into the food supply.

While no such crops are grown commercially, the U.S. government has allowed wide experimental outdoor cultivation.

Mellon said the study did not attempt to search for drug or industrial crop genes because the laboratories don't have the DNA sequence information they need to detect those genes.

But she warned, "If the door to the seed supply is open to contamination, it is likely that drug genes will be able to pass through it, right to our breakfast tables."

Kent Bradford, director of the University of California, Davis, Seed Biotechnology Center and a strong advocate of agricultural biotechnology, said he believes the group overstates the risk of drugs getting into food, because regulations would require much more careful handling.

By contrast, genetically engineered crops destined for food or feed need not be separated from conventional crops. Presumably, some contamination occurred through grain handling, and some through drifting pollen.

About the Writer The Bee's Edie Lau can be reached at (916) 321-1098 or

Escape incidents

Each of the past five years has brought to light a fresh incident of biotech gene escape.

•  In 2000, StarLink, a variety of transgenic corn approved only for animal feed, was discovered widely in taco shells, corn chips and other food consumed by people, forcing a giant recall.

•  In 2001, researchers from UC Berkeley reported finding biotech genes in native corn in Mexico, where growing genetically engineered corn is illegal.

•  In 2002, the Texas biotech company ProdiGene was found to have contaminated 500,000 bushels of soybeans with corn engineered to make pig vaccine. The soybeans had to be destroyed.

•  And in 2003, UC Davis discovered that its tomato seed bank had for seven years accidentally distributed biotech seeds to researchers around the world. Officials said the seeds had been mislabeled.

Source: Bee research