UM Researcher Cites GE Contamination (18/1/2006)

v. important article - worth reading in full.

UM Researcher Cites GE Contamination; Genetic Herbicide Resistance Found in [non-GM] Seeds
Bangor Daily News, January 13, 2006

AUGUSTA - Maine farmers cannot be 100 percent sure that the canola seeds they purchase to grow on their farms do not contain genetically engineered traits, a University of Maine agriculture research professor said this week.

Tests conducted last fall on research crops in northern Maine and Vermont indicated that the conventional crops and seeds contained genetically engineered DNA - DNA altered to allow crops not to be affected by herbicide applications - even though separated from GE plots.

"The genie is out of the bottle," professor John Jemison declared Wednesday during a presentation of his findings.

The issue of contaminated seeds goes straight to the heart of the organic industry, which prides itself on the purity of its natural products. Maine potato farmers were hoping that Jemison's research would indicate that canola was a profitable and soil-benefiting rotational crop.

Jemison's findings mirror those released in a study in 2004 by the Union of Concerned Scientists that found GE DNA is contaminating traditional seeds in three major U.S. crops - corn, soybeans and canola. The UCS, headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., is an independent nonprofit alliance of more than 100,000 concerned citizens and scientists.

The UCS policy is that seed contamination, left unchecked, could disrupt agricultural trade, unfairly burden the organic industry and allow hazardous materials into the food supply.

Jemison was part of a three-plot research project last summer that grew conventional and genetically engineered canola on a total of 50 acres in Presque Isle, Orono and Vermont. Canola seed is grown in Maine for its oil and to be plowed under to enrich the soil.

The GE and non-GE seeds for last fall's project were seeds left over from previous field trials at Orono and donated seeds from several seed companies.

Speaking Wednesday at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta, Jemison said that after harvest, tests were conducted on 4,500 conventionally grown canola plants.

"We found contamination, or genetic resistance to herbicides, in five out of the six [genetic] lines," Jemison said, a condition that could not have been caused by current-season drift from GE crops.

This means that conventional canola seeds already are contaminated with GE-resistance traits, he said, and farmers cannot be 100 percent sure they are getting purely organic seeds.

According to the UCS, seed becomes contaminated when a conventional crop being grown for seed production is located downwind from a field growing GE crops. GE pollen, blown by the wind, pollinates the conventional crops, and some of those seeds contain the DNA from the GE crop.

The UCS says the seed producer, unaware of the contamination, harvests the seed and sends it to a seed production facility to be processed and bagged. Farmers then purchase the seed, marketed as pure, traditional seed, and the crops they grow produce crops with the genetically engineered DNA.

Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said Maine's 301 certified organic farmers are extremely concerned about adulterated seeds and GE crop drift.

"So far, we've been fortunate not to have severe issues in Maine, but the organic consumer is looking for non-GE food, and it is our job to provide that," Libby said. "There are some real questions about whether crops with even a minuscule amount of GE DNA can be marketed as organic."

Maine's organic industry represents more than $10 million annually and is the state's fastest-growing agriculture segment, according to Libby.

"I continue to think Maine has an opportunity to carve out a different kind of agriculture, and that will be organic," he said.

Libby said many countries have a zero tolerance, and "we're trying in Maine to hold to that zero percent. The U.S. Department of Agriculture so far hasn't tackled this issue. It's been food buyers and consumers that are setting the standards."

Doug Johnson of the Maine Biotechnology Information Bureau said this week that he has not seen Jemison's study, but he added that "foreign genes in seed lines are nothing unusual. The Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies tolerates 0.5 percent of seed of other varieties or off-types in a 'pure' seed."

Jemison said his research percentage fell within those parameters. Many countries importing U.S. crops and organic producers, however, will accept no level of foreign genes.

Jemison said he is visiting potato and canola farmers, presenting his research and letting them make up their own minds.

"But I'm telling them that we aren't seeing any benefits to GE canola," he said.

Jemison said the level of genetic alteration discovered was "certainly greater than the percent found to naturally occur in plants. In nature, there is about one in a trillion plants that will mutate and produce a natural resistance [to herbicides]."

As far as the yield of the conventional versus GE canola, Jemison said the results indicated that in some fields the GE yield was 100 pounds more an acre. Yield, however, is not the only consideration.

"But once you add in the cost of the herbicide and the technology fees [for the GE seeds], it is a completely different picture," Jemison said. "In the Orono trial, it turned out we could save $3 an acre not using the GE seeds.

"We concluded the GE strains provide no significant benefit, no positive response," he said.

Jemison said the GE crops originally were touted as a way to feed the world's hungry, but only Canada, the United States and Argentina have embraced them.

"In Europe, the opposition to GE foods is mostly cultural," he explained.

Jemison said the United States, however, takes the attitude of "innocent until proven guilty" and takes the approach of trying the new technologies without regard to culture.

"We take a fairly short-term view of our farming economies, and we need to rethink our policies," he said. "We need to look at eating as an agricultural event, not just to fill our stomachs."


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