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Globe-trotting genes

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

Stray canola

On the wind-whipped plains of Saskatchewan, Arnold Taylor - the canola farmer - said it's impossible to contain anything. A few springs back, a storm front swept across the region, tugging and tearing at whatever lay in its path. “It rained GM canola all over the country,” Taylor said. “We think we've got a science-based world - and it's not. Nature bats last.”

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Biotech landmarks

Last summer, Saskatchewan organic farmer Pat Neville was eating dinner when two of his sons, Cale and Andrew, burst through the door. “We've got canola, dad!” the teens shouted.

Neville winced and headed for the door. Since he bought the farm in 1997, he had never planted canola. His specialty was organic seeds, including flax and oats. He prided himself on their purity.

After learning the stray canola was genetically modified and had probably blown in from a neighbor's field, Neville took action: He asked Monsanto - which makes the modified canola seed - to remove it.

“They asked if I was growing without a permit,” Neville said. “I said 'You bet I am growing without a permit; and I don't want it.'”

In all, 57 acres were contaminated. Monsanto sent out a crew with garbage bags, which pulled out the genetically modified canola by hand. It took three trips.

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Lilia Pérez, a homegrown scientist in Capulálpam, has run out ... Lilia Pérez, a homegrown scientist in Capulálpam, has run out of supplies to continue her DNA analysis of genes in Mexican maize. Renée C. Byer

A dramatic find, then a dead end

Even before the scandal, Lilia Pérez got grief for her choice of professions.

Her four siblings all moved to the city to become teachers. Pérez studied agronomy in college, then returned to her farming village in the mountains for a job paying less than $7,000 a year.

Pérez works for a cooperative, the Union of Zapotec and Chinantec Communities, whose mission is to conserve forests, promote farming and develop markets for local products. An ecologist named Ignacio Chapela from the University of California, Berkeley, helped the cooperative set up a small laboratory and taught its members how to analyze DNA.

The skill was useful for jobs such as proving the authenticity of local shiitake mushrooms to Japanese buyers. Earnest and eager, Perez traveled to Berkeley at one point to perfect her lab technique.

Later, after one of Chapela's graduate students stumbled on the biotech genes in the native strains of corn, Perez assisted with tests that confirmed the discovery.

“It was the worst thing that happened to me.” Pérez's normally sunny expression clouded with frustration at the recollection. “There was contamination, but I had no way to get rid of it.”

Worse, once word spread of the discovery, the heated politics of the issue made it difficult for the Berkeley scientists to return to Capulálpam. Pérez wanted to continue testing the corn to see whether the foreign DNA is diminishing or persisting. She couldn't.

“No reactivos,” she said, speaking of the biochemicals needed to do DNA analysis.

The supplies needed to test enough corn samples to produce a valid scientific analysis would cost roughly $2,000. The cooperative doesn't have that kind of money. So to the continued waves of visitors from abroad who want to know what's happening in Capulálpam, Pérez offers as many questions as answers.

 


Canola farmer Taylor took a different course. He rallied farmers into a class-action lawsuit, claiming biotech contamination is making organic farming impossible. The case, still pending, says that in Saskatchewan: “As a result of widespread contamination by GM canola, few, if any, certified organic grain farmers are now growing canola. The crop has been lost.”

Such courthouse action is becoming more common across the heartland, raising a tantalizing legal question - one that is pitting giant companies against small farmers and farmer against farmer, too.

“Who's responsible if somebody's nontransgenic crop gets inadvertently contaminated with transgenes?” said Robert Goodman, a professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin. “The law will have its day with that decision.”

Goodman, a former director of research at Calgene Inc., the Davis biotechnology firm now owned by Monsanto, added his opinion. “As a scientist,” he said, “it seems to me the person responsible is the one who's growing the transgenes, because they should be controlling them.”

Seeds from government

Tracking truant genes to their origin can be difficult, though. Scientists still scratch their heads about the discovery of engineered corn four years ago in Mexico - a country where the planting of genetically modified corn is banned.

A trip to the rustic town in Oaxaca, where the genes first turned up, helps unravel the mystery. Visit with Alberto Cortes, the Capulálpam farmer, and he will tell you who planted the mysterious seed: He and his neighbors did.

And he will tell you where they bought it: at the government food store. That store, known as Diconsa, is one of about 22,000 across Mexico that sell food to the rural poor.

The genetically engineered corn that sprouted like steel in Cortes' 2-acre plot was most likely American - bought by the Mexican government and shipped south to feed hungry people through the Diconsa outlets. In 2001, Mexico's National Institute of Ecology found a third of Diconsa's corn was genetically engineered.

As Mexican government food aid, the corn was meant to be sold at a discount and eaten. Because most corn kernels look alike, Cortes and his wife had no way of knowing they were buying biotech corn.

Olga remembers someone telling them the corn wouldn't grow well in Oaxaca's cool climate and mountainous terrain. They took it as a challenge. “Let's buy it,” Alberto urged Olga. “Let's farm it.”

Today, in the void of definitive scientific information, some organizations claim the foreign genes have spread to eight Mexican states. In maize-growing rural communities, fear and frustration about genetic pollution are commonplace.

“I tell people: 'Watch out for the transgenics,'” said Pedro Aarón Ramírez, manager of the government food store in Capulálpam. “'Don't even think about growing it.'”

Most scientists, though, say the biodiversity of Mexican maize is not in danger.

“The local varieties are going to be fine,” said Snow, the Ohio State professor, who attended a gene-flow conference last fall in Mexico City. “What I worry about is the future. There's nothing out there now that is very dangerous or scary. It just has a lot of potential to go that way.”

“Is the technology moving faster than our ability to evaluate it? That's what I worry about.”


 

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