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Globe-trotting genes

Welcome or not, modified strains pop up in crops near and far

By Tom Knudson, Edie Lau and Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writers
Published Monday, June 7, 2004 -- Second of five parts

Michelle Alejandra Cortes Toro Michelle Alejandra Cortes Toro, 5, carries flowers through a field of corn planted by her parents in the village of Capulálpam, Mexico. Alongside the smaller, traditional Mexican maize, strong, thick corn plants first sprang up in 1997. UC Berkeley scientists determined that it was a genetically engineered strain. Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer

CAPULÁLPAM, MEXICO - Working the rutted rows of their hillside garden in 1997, Alberto Cortes and his wife, Olga Toro Maldonado, noticed something unusual.

The maize was like steel. It shot up strong and thick. Bugs didn't hurt it. Drought didn't wilt it. Growing alongside scrawny stalks of traditional Mexican maize, the new variety was a bulked-up, botanical stranger - maize on steroids.

But the biggest surprise came three years later, when a scientist from the University of California showed up in the small Oaxacan village and analyzed their maize in a makeshift laboratory.

The new variety, it turned out, was an outsider - a kind common on big mechanized farms in “El Norte.” And inside its big yellow kernels and muscular stalks was the latest signature of industrial agriculture: genes shaped not by nature but by technology.

Their maize was genetically engineered - altered to kill insects by producing its own pesticide. And through the miracle of pollination, its genes had leaped into their own centuries-old varieties.

“We don't want it,” Maldonado said. “We don't know the consequences.”

View the photo gallery In the early morning light of her kitchen, Antonia Gijón pounds masa and cooks tortillas, as she says she has “all my life, since I was 9 years old.” Corn is the staple food for people in Capulálpam. Renée C. Byer

A decade after genetically modified crops first were planted broadly across the United States - starting with some tomatoes developed in Davis - the technology is working its magic even where it's not welcome.

Defying state, national and cultural boundaries, biotech crop genes are showing up, uninvited, all over - from rural gardens in Mexico to organic farms in Canada, even on barges of corn that's “GM-free” - not genetically modified - floating down Midwestern rivers.

What this genetic mixing means for the environment and food supply is uncertain. So far, no one is known to have fallen ill from eating a modified crop. Nor have biotech genes caused ecological calamity, as conservation groups predicted.

But biotechnology is young. Today, as companies race to develop new forms of wizardry - from lawns resistant to weedkiller to rice that produces medicine - the globetrotting nature of biotech genes is sowing widespread unease.

“This is Pandora's Box,” said Marion Nestle, former chair of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University. “It's out of the box. Now everybody has to deal with it.”

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A good takes time capsule back to the future

Buried at the entrance of the rural Esparto library is a bit of Yolo County's past that the University of California, Davis, would rather forget.

The library's time capsule, sealed in April 2000, contains the usual assortment of items: a new quarter, county maps, children's essays - and, most likely, genetically engineered tomato seeds.

Tomato seeds are an appropriate symbol of Yolo's agricultural bounty, but library patrons who sponsored the time capsule didn't aim to highlight another feature of the modern age, the unintended spread of biotech genes.

Will Baker, a retired UC Davis professor of English who helped collect time capsule items, said he went out of his way to gather local seeds that hadn't been adulterated by genetic engineering. He figured that in 50 years they could be the only ones left.

As it turns out, the tomato seeds donated by UC Davis were part of a long-running mistake acknowledged by the university in December.

For the previous seven years the university's highly regarded seed bank unwittingly had been shipping genetically engineered seeds around the world to researchers who asked for conventional seeds.

Baker doesn't remember for sure if the tomato seeds made it into the time capsule, but the mixup reminded him of a science fiction storyline worthy of the author of The Minority Report and Total Recall.

Said Baker: “You imagine what Philip K. Dick would do with that - you open the time capsule and release the beast.”

 


Biological hobos

Moving wherever chance takes them, engineered crop genes are biological hobos. Bound up in pollen, they ride the wind, catch rides from insects. Bundled inside seeds, their horizons expand. Trucks haul them down dusty gravel roads. Ships filled with U.S. food aid carry them to hungry nations.

But nothing sets them free like human error. No matter the kind of mishap - a spilled bag of grain, a mislabeled packet of seed - an accident is an opportunity. From 1996 to 2003, scientists at the University of California, Davis, sent shipments of biotech tomato seeds, by mistake, through the mail. Those seeds landed in Europe, Asia and Africa.

“The bottom line is: Most crops mate with wild relatives somewhere in the world,” said Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics at the University of California, Riverside.

“This means crop genes are getting into wild populations. Would we expect (biotech) genes to be any different? No.”

Will the next generation of engineered genes leapfrog into the wild? If the industry succeeds in its plan to grow drugs in edible crops, could it accidentally contaminate ingredients headed for grocery store shelves?

Scientists simply don't know, because more money is spent developing new products than studying their environmental impacts - a process known as risk assessment.

“It's sad we don't have more data,” said Allison Snow, a professor of ecology at Ohio State University. “There isn't a lot of money, and there isn't a big community working on it. Companies don't really pay for research that's not in their own interest.”

“You don't make money on risk assessment," Snow said. "And you do make money on biotechnology.”

State of Oaxaca

For its part, the biotechnology industry says genetic engineering poses little or no threat to nature or nonbiotech crops. “Nobody has yet identified any risk or substantial harm that is specific to crops or foods derived from biotechnology,” said Val Giddings, vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington, D.C., lobbying and trade group.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investing more money in biotech research, but many scientists say it's still not enough.

Last year, it spent nearly $180 million on biotechnology research and development. But less than 2 percent - $3.4 million - was routed to the agency's Biotechnology Risk Assessment Grants Program to study environmental and food-safety impacts.

Much of the data the government does have comes from corporations seeking approval to market their genetically engineered crops. Michelle Marvier, an assistant professor of biology at Santa Clara University, has evaluated some of that data and calls it superficial and scientifically unsound.

For one thing, she found, studies don't last long enough. Studies involving earthworms typically lasted two weeks, but earthworms can live about a year in nature, and more than four in the laboratory.

For another, industry tests to prove safety typically included just three or four samples per test.

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Click image to see Michelle Marvier's study, "Improving Risk Assessment for Nontarget Safety of Transgenic Crops."

“What if a new drug were tested on only four people and compared to another four people given a placebo?” Marvier asked. “No one would believe the claim of 'no significant side effects' if it were based on such a flimsy drug trial.”

“I would not let my undergraduate students turn in this kind of work,” she added. “They know better.”

Lisa Dry, communications director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, disagrees. She said it's in a company's self-interest to minimize all possible risks.

“Anybody who's marketing a new product of course wants to make sure it's safe and effective,” Dry said. “Nobody wants to market a product that has a negative impact on the environment.”


 

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