According to a new report from the Center for Food Safety, U.S. Department of Agriculture standards are not sufficient to keep experimental genes from field trials of genetically modified crops from mixing with wild relatives of the trial plants.
The report, Contaminating the Wild?, evaluated the USDA's regulation of GM crop field trials, which are outdoor plantings of experimental GM crops. Because the experimental genes have gone through little or no risk assessment for either environmental or human health risks, gene flow from the trial plants to their relatives in the wild could be cause for concern, according to the report by CFS senior scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman.
Gene flow has become a more urgent issue since the discovery that an herbicide resistance gene from a field trial in Oregon had traveled by pollination up to 13 miles beyond the trial's USDA-approved 900-foot isolation boundaries. The genes had spread to wild creeping bentgrass plants.
Gurian-Sherman said gene flow from field trials could be a problem because the transgenes, or engineered genes, involved in the trials are experimental, and effects of gene flow are unknown.
"The main thing is that if these genes escape from a field trial, they have lots of unknown characteristics," said Gurian-Sherman.
Gurian-Sherman said that if a drought resistance gene from a field trial were to find its way into a wild plant, the resulting plants would possibly become stronger and more drought resistant. A similar event could happen with an herbicide resistance gene. This concept has fueled fears about so-called superweeds, which are more aggressive than their non-GM relatives because they are genetically superior in some way, like being resistant to typical insect pests.
The CFS report concludes that confinement requirements for GM field trials need to be improved dramatically and outside field trials should not be occurring without prior safety evaluations on the genes involved.
The USDA is now preparing an environmental impact statement on the environmental consequences of release of GM organisms. And though the USDA is considering strengthening requirements for field testing of GM plants with pharmaceutical and industrial components, Gurian-Sherman said he sees no major movement toward stricter standards where other GM test crops are concerned.