Monsanto’s unauthorised GM wheat in the US has spooked the world, but contamination is widespread
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.
|GEAC is just a paper regulator
SINCE 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 https://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/illegal-gm-cotton-spreads-across-india). 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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