Globe-trotting genes (7/6/2004)

EXCERPTS: "Public scientists can't get access to anything until it's already out in the environment. That's the Catch-22." - Prof Alison Snow

In January, a prestigious National Academy of Sciences panel on biotechnology sounded similar concerns, saying "the current lack of quality data and science" is a major threat to agriculture and the environment.

"We don't want it," a Mexican farmer said. "We don't know the consequences."

Seeds of Doubt: Globe-trotting genes
Welcome or not, modified strains pop up in crops near and far
By Tom Knudson and Edie Lau -- Bee Staff Writers
Published 2:15 am PDT Monday, June 7, 2004
Second of five parts

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."

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."

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."

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.

"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."

Ecological promise

So far, California remains less vulnerable to gene pollution because corn and soybeans, the two major biotech crops, aren't widely grown here. But biotechnology is not standing still. Today, about 110 new engineered crop varieties, from a new kind of seedless watermelon to insect-resistant tomatoes, are being tested in California fields. Such brave new crops offer ecological promise - farmers could spray fewer pesticides, for example - but they also pose special challenges.

A report prepared for the California Department of Food and Agriculture in 2002 said the consequences of biotechnology may take years to show up. "The benefits and risks ... have hardly been examined," the report said.

There's one quick way to see what biotechnology could bring to California: Visit the places it is booming.

Travel through the prairies of Saskatchewan and you find that runaway biotech genes are a top environmental problem for farmers. Along gravel roads, the yellow paintbrush-like flowers of genetically modified canola sprout where they're not wanted: in fields of organic flax, organic canola and other crops.

"Listen, it's all over the country here," said Arnold Taylor, a farmer south of Saskatoon. Taylor has given up growing organic canola because it is so easily tainted with biotech genes. "It's in the gardens. It's in the towns. It's on the roadsides. This whole countryside is contaminated."

Swing through western Illinois, where StarLink feed corn engineered to make its own pesticide - pulled off the market four years ago after it appeared in taco shells - still shows up at harvest time, taking money out of people's pockets.

Phil Thornton, an Illinois grain elevator manager, is among those shortchanged. Last fall, DNA tests detected StarLink on one of his company's barges, a mix-up that cost him $1,000 when the corn had to be sold as animal feed because StarLink is not approved for human consumption.

"We're still keeping an eye open for it," he said. "It could very well still be out in the country."

Or catch a flight to Mexico, where maize first was domesticated some 6,500 years ago, where villagers still line up each day outside neighborhood mills with maize to be ground into "masa" - dough for tortillas. Mexico is the motherland of maize, the cradle of corn. Here, the mysterious appearance of a foreign crop gene is more than just an inconvenience. It is a cultural insult.

"These genes are killing our heritage," said Olga Maldonado, the rural farmer.

Diversity as insurance

When the genes were found, Mexico's environmental ministry called it the "world's worst case" of genetic crop pollution. Today no one is certain how far the genes have spread; researchers at Mexico's national university, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, are still trying to figure it out.

Paul Gepts, a professor of agronomy and plant genetics at the University of California, Davis, also is on the trail.

"Because there is wild maize in Mexico, this brings to the fore a series of new ecological issues," Gepts said.

Is the genetic diversity of Mexican maize - a biological insurance policy against pests and disease - in danger? Is the grasslike ancestral parent of maize - teosinte - at risk?

Two years ago, Gepts received a $25,000 grant to look for answers. But when he asked three biotechnology companies for the seed samples he needed for his research, the trail went cold.

Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. in Des Moines, Iowa, said no. Syngenta, of Switzerland, and St. Louis' Monsanto Co. also turned him down. "I was not surprised," Gepts said. "If you want to study the effects of biotechnology, you come up against a wall."

Pioneer spokesman Doyle Karr said the seed sample "wasn't ours to give away. It was licensed from Monsanto."

Monsanto spokesman Bryan Hurley said the company is cooperating with an environmental commission, under the North American Free Trade Agreement, which also is examining gene-flow issues south of the border - with some assistance from Gepts.

"Given that the (commission's) work is still outstanding, we believed it was premature to support related work," Hurley said.

Gepts sighed. "That's ridiculous," he said. "The commission is not involved in experimental work. It is a purely bibliographic review. Monsanto is using the commission as an excuse not to provide seeds. I don't think that's right."

"This was a major hindrance," he added. "But I worked around it. I bought a bag of transgenic corn, a 50-pound bag - way more than I needed."

Study stymied

Today, Gepts' research continues. But other scientists have been stifled by industry resistance. It killed Allison Snow's work on sunflowers. For five years at a test plot in Nebraska, Ohio State professor Snow had painstakingly monitored the flow of genes from genetically engineered sunflowers to wild relatives - and found the wild kin were capitalizing on the exchange. They were producing more seeds, perhaps evolving into "super-weeds."

But as she prepared to begin a new phase of research in 2002, Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Dow Chemical Co., which had funded her work, put a stop to it, saying they owned the genes.

"We had to destroy all of our seeds," Snow said. "We were so disappointed. No one had ever studied these questions before. We thought, just for the sake of science and openness, it would be good to explore this further."

Pioneer had other priorities. "We were not going to bring (the modified sunflower) to market," said company spokesman Karr. "There was no reason to take the fitness study further."

Snow sees the issue differently. "This makes it really hard to get research done when regulatory agencies need it," she said. "Public scientists can't get access to anything until it's already out in the environment. That's the Catch-22."

In January, a prestigious National Academy of Sciences panel on biotechnology sounded similar concerns, saying "the current lack of quality data and science" is a major threat to agriculture and the environment.

Calling for more "non-market-driven, publicly funded research," the panel ticked off a scientific wish list. "More data are needed on the nature of potential ecological effects," it stated, adding that legal, ethical and social matters should be examined, too, including studies on the behavioral patterns of farmers and ways to reduce human error.

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.

"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.

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."

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.

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."

Biotech terms

Biotechnology: Any technology involving living cells or organisms. In general use, and in this series, it refers to gene-splicing technology. Synonyms: bioengineering, genetic engineering (GE) and genetic modification (GM).

Bt: Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that produces toxins lethal to certain insects but is considered safe for humans and other mammals. When the bacterial gene responsible for the toxin is put into crops, the plants make their own pesticide.

Clone: Genetically engineered replica of a DNA sequence. "Cloning a gene" means isolating and making copies of a gene, typically using engineered bacteria. (The more common use of "clone" means an organism derived from the DNA of a single "parent.")

Gene: A DNA segment that is the basic unit of heredity, containing instructions that cells need to make proteins, the workhorse of cell activity.

Genetically modified organism (GMO): An inexact term that refers to a life form changed through genetic engineering.

Genome: All the genetic information in an organism.

Organic foods: As defined by the U.S. government, organic animal products come from livestock that are not given antibiotics or growth hormones, while organic crops are grown without genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge or most conventional pesticides.

Processed foods: Foods altered from their raw state, typically resulting in changes in appearance, culinary characteristics, nutritional value, shelf life and structure. Examples: canned goods, cereals or crackers.

Roundup: Trade name for herbicide glyphosate made by Monsanto. Kills plants by inhibiting an enzyme made in plants but not in mammals, fish, birds or reptiles. Crops are "Roundup Ready" if they are genetically engineered to survive exposure to Roundup.

Transgene: Genetic material transferred from one organism to another through genetic engineering.


In this series: Sunday Wild rice from Mali holds biotech promise, but the African nation has seen no reward.


Biotech genes are showing up where they're not wanted, thanks to nature and human mistakes.


As UC Davis grows into a biotech powerhouse, its new mission and industry links raise questions.


California relies on a federal biotech regulatory system marked by overlaps and yawning gaps.


U.S. food shoppers lack information to make choices about genetically modified products.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------- About the Writer --------------------------- The Bee's Tom Knudson can be reached at (530) 582-5336 or [email protected]


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