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Globe-trotting genes

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

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Biotech crops can reduce use of toxic pesticides

Ask biotech farmers why they switched to genetically engineered crops and they are likely to offer two reasons: easier pest control and reduced reliance on older chemicals that tend to be more toxic and expensive.

Pesticide reduction long has been a primary promise of the biotechnology industry, eager to score points with consumers and farmers who are under constant pressure to slash chemical use.

Do they? The answer is yes and no, depending on the crop, the location, the vagaries of weather and the years analyzed.

A November 2003 pesticide study - funded by groups critical of biotechnology - showed that overall pesticide use on biotech crops did shrink between 1996 and 1998, but that it rose again over the next three years.

The increase was linked to the rise of weeds that, just like some biotech crops, withstand blasts of the popular herbicide Roundup. That forces farmers to mix more chemicals into their spray tanks, adding both time and cost.

The open question is whether weed resistance to a few widely used chemicals eventually will force large numbers of farmers back to the pesticides they swore off.

In some cases, industry claims do bear out. Even persistent critics such as noted scientist Charles Benbrook, author of the November report, acknowledge that bug-killing corn and cotton continue to yield “significant” decreases in the amount of insecticides farmers need to apply to those crops.


Harvest mistakes

There's no better laboratory for such inquiry than the American Midwest. This huge region - reaching from Ohio to Nebraska, North Dakota to Missouri - is both a pantry for the planet and a biotechnology profit center. The two biggest genetically engineered crops - Bt corn, which makes its own pesticide, and herbicide-resistant soybeans - are grown here in abundance.

And there's no better time to see how that pans out than the fall. Harvest in the heartland is a time of hope and hurry, a haze of 18-hour days, a struggle with unkind weather and unreliable equipment. Harvest is when genes break free.

Few people are more familiar with the problem than Thornton, the grain elevator manager. One crisp morning last fall, he waited near a rumbling conveyor belt for the crush of trucks to arrive from the fields. A stream of soybeans whooshed into a red-roofed barge on the Illinois River, ready for a trip to New Orleans and beyond.

The 400 or so farmers who haul corn and soybeans to Thornton's elevator grow both conventional and biotech varieties. Thornton's job is to keep them separate. The process begins with a simple question.

As trucks heaped high with grain rumble onto a scale, Thornton asks: “What are you growing?”

When the answer is conventional grain, drivers are directed to a shiny new silo along the river. The genetically modified stuff is held in a traditional concrete silo a few yards away. “It really comes down to a lot of trust, to tell you the truth,” Thornton said.

But trust has its limits, especially at harvest. Farmers get tired and cranky. Mistakes happen. “This time of year, it's pretty easy to forget details,” said Illinois farmer Ron Fitchhorn, who finds himself hustling every fall when his 2,000 acres of soybeans and corn - biotech and conventional - are ready for harvest.

Fearing a mix-up, Thornton also tests his grain for traces of genetic modification. But even that is not enough. A state inspector double-checks, taking samples, by machine, every 75 seconds as the streams of grain cascade onto the awaiting barges.

How genetic contamination occurs

“Life was a lot easier before,” Thornton said. “Corn was corn.”

For Thornton, the mysterious fingerprint of StarLink corn on one of his grain shipments headed to Japan last fall was a reminder of biotechnology's bleakest hour.

Mysterious spread

Approved for livestock but not people, StarLink caused an uproar when it was found in taco shells and dozens of other products in 2000. Its manufacturer, Aventis, pulled it out of the market, but a wave of product recalls eventually cost food companies up to $1 billion.

How it spread remains a mystery. “There are all kinds of ways StarLink could have moved into other corn supplies,” said Ellstrand, the UC Riverside geneticist. “It could have been by cross-pollination, by seed mixing in farm machinery.”

Across the Midwest, elaborate systems now are in place to prevent contamination incidents. They include a dramatic upswing in testing and redesigned grain-storage facilities, along with education. The Illinois Corn Growers Association distributes a booklet on proper grain handling called, “Know Before You Grow - Know Where To Go.”

But could a StarLink-style disaster happen again?

Count on it, said lawyer Ronald Osman, who represented farmers whose grain was tainted by StarLink corn. “It's just a matter of time. There is no way anyone can keep it all separate,” Osman said. The case brought a judgment of $110 million total for about 75,000 U.S. farmers.

Even when farmers and grain handlers are meticulous, engineered genes still escape. They have a key accomplice, one that laughs at even elaborate containment schemes: nature.


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