Rogue GM crops wreak havoc

Monsanto’s unauthorised GM wheat in the US has spooked the world, but contamination is widespread

By Latha Jishnu
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015 | 11:05:10 AM

Rogue GM crops wreak havoc


ALL HELL has broken loose over the discovery of genetically modified (GM) wheat growing on a farm in Oregon, the US. The strain of herbicide-tolerant GM wheat was developed by Monsanto, the world’s top agribiotech company, but not authorised by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Its sudden appearance in a farmer’s field nine years after it was field tested and the programme discontinued has shaken the world of agriculture and science as much as it has roiled the global wheat trade.

GM wheat has not been released commercially anywhere in the world. The reaction has been sharp. Major buyers such as Japan and South Korea have put their imports on hold, pushing down prices further in a market where a bountiful harvest in wheat-growing countries has created a surplus and already trimmed US exports by 10 percent. The European Union, meanwhile, has advised its member-states to test consignments of US soft white wheat.

The US development, coming on top of frequent reports of unauthorised GM crops surfacing in various parts of the world (see ‘Across nations, across crops’), has reignited a fierce debate on the near impossibility of containing GM contamination. India has been no exception with an unauthorised GM cottonseed, also with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready trait, being sold in three states, while the authorities turn a blind eye to it. In fact, its regulatory regime needs to be overhauled, according to some ICAR scientists Down To Earth (DTE) spoke to (see ‘GEAC is just a paper regulator’).

In the US, however, GM contamination quite often entails huge costs, although settlements do not compensate farmers adequately for the losses they suffer. The most significant case of this kind was the $750-million settlement that was reached in 2011 between Germany-based Bayer AG and its affiliate Bayer CropScience, and American rice farmers. This settlement was the upshot of lawsuits filed in 2006 by farmers whose crops were contaminated by Bayer’s experimental and unapproved GM Liberty Link rice. This was in addition to damages that Bayer had agreed to pay some other plaintiffs, including rice exporters and importers, rice mills, seed dealers and rice farmers.

The presence of Monsanto’s unapproved Roundup Ready wheat (used for weed management) on a 32-hectare farm in Oregon promises to follow a similar pattern. Several wheat growers from Washington State have sued Monsanto for damages caused by loss of exports. This lawsuit follows another filed by a Kansas farmer seeking class-action status on behalf of all growers of soft white wheat who may have been harmed by the rogue GM wheat. Soft white wheat is almost entirely exported.

Doug Gurian-Sherman
There are so many ways of GM contamination
The bigger concern is how and when the contamination or leak of GM material occurred. Monsanto has been underscoring the fact that its “process for closing out the original Roundup Ready wheat programme was rigorous, well-documented and audited”. It is also making much of the fact that the last approved field trial of Roundup Ready wheat in Oregon was in 2001 and ended in other states in 2004.

In a statement put out by the company, its vice-president for regulatory affairs Philip Miller says, “We are interested in getting to the bottom of this reported detection in a single field in Oregon...We’re prepared to provide any technical help that we can as this unusual and currently unexplained report raises important questions about the circumstance and source of the presence.”

A Monsanto spokesperson has subsequently implied that it was sabotage. In a conference call with reporters, Monsanto Chief Technology Officer Robb Farley is reported to have said that the presence of GM wheat could be the result of “purposeful mixing of seed”.

In all, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service authorised over 100 field tests with this specific glyphosate-resistant wheat trait between 1998 and 2005. These tests, which news agencies have put at 279, covered over 1,619 ha and were conducted in 16 states. Why then has the unauthorised GM wheat been found only in one location?

Testing for contamination from experimental field tests is minimal and possibly non-existent for experimental genes that do not have commercial counterpart
“This may be just the tip of the iceberg,” says plant pathologist Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Responding to questions from DTE, he cautions, “We simply do not know because testing for contamination from experimental field tests is minimal and, possibly, non-existent for experimental genes that do not have a commercial counterpart. We are in the dark about that, and I find that troubling.” Gurian-Sherman is a senior scientist with UCS, which undertakes rigorous, independent analysis to assess the impact of GM crops among other issues on a sustainable future. His contention is that this is possibly not an isolated incident for two reasons. First, the provisions for preventing contamination that USDA recommends, such as providing isolation distances from non-GM crops, cannot ensure that contamination will not happen. This assessment is based both on what we know about the biology of gene flow, the possibility of human error (accidental mixing of seed), and so on and also on the many incidents that have already occurred and have been documented.

Second, there is no routine testing for possible contamination from genes from experimental field tests. And the tools, such as DNA probes, are generally not available since companies maintain secrecy over what they consider confidential business information. This explains why Monsanto has rushed to provide a validated testing method for the Roundup Ready wheat trait to USDA, and, more recently, to regulators in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and the EU. The biotech giant says the method will “precisely and accurately test for the original Roundup Ready wheat trait and distinguish it from traits that are already approved and widely used in other crops”. It notes that existing testing technologies (PCR, strip tests or dip stick tests) “are likely to provide misleading results if applied to wheat”.

But as Gurian-Sherman points out, there are typically over a thousand field tests per year in the US for numerous experimental genes for many crops—although most by far are for a handful of large acreage crops like corn, and most genes are for herbicide tolerance or insect resistance. “That is a lot of opportunity for possible contamination. If you add all of this together, it suggests a real possibility that other experimental engineered genes could have contaminated crops in the past, but have never been detected,” says the scientist.

It is worrying that obsolete or never-commercialised kinds of GM organisms are popping up many years after they were officially abandoned
Bayer CropScience is not the only big name biotech company found guilty of contamination. But in all other cases, the offending companies have been let off lightly. In December 2006, Syngenta was fined $1.5 million for allowing its unapproved pest-resistant Bt10 corn to be mixed with seed distributed for food. In 1997, Limagrain Seed of France and Monsanto had to withdraw 60,000 bags of Canadian canola after it was found contaminated with unapproved herbicide-resistant seed. Four years later, unapproved insect-resistant corn produced by Monsanto escaped its field trial site and released pollen on to a commercial crop, states a report in Nature. The commercial corn was destroyed.

As Jack A Heinemann, one of the top biosafety experts, told DTE: “It is especially worrying that obsolete or never-commercialised kinds of GM organisms (GMOs) are popping up many years after they were officially abandoned. Even in 2002, scientists had observed that in the Saskatchewan region of Canada alone, more than 300,000 acres (121,405 ha) of wheat were planted with unregistered or obsolete plant varieties.”

Heinemann, professor of molecular biology and genetics at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, has also been director of the university’s Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety since 2001. He warns that what are perhaps the potentially most harmful varieties are not the ones that public officials are equipped to detect. “They may not have obvious traits such as herbicide tolerance. The practicality of that trait is what alerted the Oregon farmer to the wheat in the first place. But a variety that produced a pharmaceutical or industrial compound, or had an alteration to its nutritional qualities that were of concern to some people, would likely never be detected prior to causing harm.”

Worse, if they were to cause harm, the diagnoses of the cause would likely remain a mystery because of the difficulty of detecting the GMO and then linking it with the effect. Sleep on that if it is possible.

(see ‘The many ways of GM contamination’ on

GEAC is just a paper regulator

imageSINCE 2000, scientists have been warning of two growing patterns that threaten intensive agriculture. One, the cross-pollination of GM crop varieties with conventional crops and the other, germination of volunteer GM seeds (seeds dropped, blown by the wind or inadvertently planted).

So even if countries have effective regulations, there is no way contamination can be effectively contained because of gene flow. But what of countries that do not have an effective regulatory system? Does India have the capacity to detect and control contamination? No, say scientists familiar with the system. They point out detection of contamination is technically very demanding since globally, an estimated 1,045 approvals have been granted for 196 GM events in 25 crops. Any laboratory that needs to test for any suspected contamination in any of these 25 crop commodities or products prepared from these, needs to have all the methods in place to be able to detect all the 196 events using the standard limits of detection (LOD) protocols.

“There is not a single laboratory in the country that is geared to tackle a complaint or to conduct a blind-fold analysis,” says a senior ICAR scientist. “We do not have systems or mechanisms that can address contamination issues in India.” The general perception is that the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), which is the apex regulator, is a paper body. It does not have any organised set-up for physical verification of GM applications or contamination reports let alone a system for fire-fighting, which should be the case ideally, points out a crop developer who has worked in the US. “They go through paper applications and grant approvals on paper.”

That GEAC is ineffectual has been proved by the instances of GM cotton events unauthorised in the country being used widely (see The biggest drawback, point out experts, is the lack of a well-equipped laboratory for detection of GMOs that will do physical (molecular, performance and biosafety) verification of all the claims made by GM developers.

Importantly, it should have fire fighting capabilities with a network of accredited labs to examine complaints related to biosafety, reports of contamination and carry out random checks.


Across products, across nations

In 2005, GeneWatch UK and environmental group Greenpeace International set up GM Contamination Register (GCR) to record all incidents of contamination resulting in the intentional or accidental release of genetically modified (GM) organisms because of the failure of national and international organisations to monitor such occurrences. Their concern was that there was no international agency to monitor these GMOs, although the dangers were huge: once released, these cannot be contained or controlled. GeneWatch is a non-profit that works to ensure that genetic technologies are developed in such a manner that they protect human health and the environment. GCR records illegal planting of GM crops and the negative agricultural side-effects that have come to light. It emphasises that only those incidents which have been publicly documented are listed, although there could be others that have gone undetected. Here is a list of some of its recordings in 2012:


December 17 : China quarantines unapproved GM maize from Argentina

November 8 : Portugal finds unauthorised GM rice from China

November 7 : The Netherlands reports unauthorised GM rice in products from China

November 6 : Belgium finds unauthorised GM rice from China

October 29 : Italy finds illegal GM cherry, kiwi and olive trees

October 19 : GM rice from China in Italy

October 16, 2012 : Australian survey reveals feral oilseed rape

September 11 : GM rapeseed spreading in GM-free Switzerland

August 22 : Illegal GM rice from the Philippines

June 27 : France finds GM in rice noodles from China

June 26 : France reports unauthorised GM papaya from Thailand

June 22 : Czech Republic finds GM in popcorn from corn grown in Hungary

June 9 : Turkey reports GM contamination in several brands of hazelnut spread

May 16 : Thailand finds cotton contaminated with GM

March 15 : South Africa finds GM in products such as Nestle’s baby food

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