Representatives of one of the world?s largest biotechnology firms, Swiss-based Syngenta AG, told U.S. authorities in late 2004 the company had mistakenly sold hundreds of tons of a genetically engineered corn seed that wasn?t approved by U.S. regulators.
Syngenta sold the GE seed, known as Bt10, in the United States and abroad between 2001 and 2004. The seed sprouted on a total of 37,000 acres in four undisclosed U.S. states, Syngenta told the Associated Press.
The journal Nature reported March 22 that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the White House and Syngenta discussed for months what should be done about the error and when the news should be released.
Because the protein in Bt10 is identical to that in Bt11—the Syngenta GE corn seed approved by the United States, the European Union and Japan—the EPA said there is no health or environmental risk associated with Bt10. But the unauthorized sale may be in violation of U.S. laws such as the Plant Protection Act.
However, said Craig Winters, president of U.S. anti-GE activism group The Campaign, ?the government agencies seem to be ignoring the fact that [the protein in Bt10] is in a different insertion site [than Bt11] and would have a different ?scrambling? of genomic DNA.?
Others, including members of the biotech industry, are concerned that the Syngenta mistake will increase doubts that the United States and biotech companies have adequate control over the import and export of GE seed.
Meanwhile, Syngenta continues to produce GE crops. In a study published March 27 on the Nature Biotechnology Web site, Syngenta scientists in the United Kingdom reported the development of a ?golden rice? that has up to 23 times more beta-carotene than previous varieties. Beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A in the human body, and a lack of vitamin A contributes to childhood blindness in developing countries.
A previous version of the rice was never introduced because of concerns about GE agriculture and about the quantities of rice that would have to be consumed to combat vitamin A deficiencies.
BBC News reported that Syngenta is providing the rice free of charge to research centers across Asia, which could begin field trials if its governments approve.
GE in China
Despite a new survey reporting that 57 percent of Chinese don?t want GE food, Kraft Foods and Campbell Soup Co. are selling products made from GE soybeans in China, Greenpeace International claims.
Greenpeace accused Kraft of selling GE versions of Ritz crackers and Campbell of selling Golden Corn Soup made with GE ingredients in China but not in Europe, where opposition to GE foods is stronger. Testing of the Chinese products was done by GeneScan, a laboratory in Germany.
The Campbell corn soup is manufactured in North America and uses ?well below a fraction of 1 percent? of highly refined, GE soy protein, Campbell?s spokesman John Faulkner said. ?Products made in North America are going to have some genetically modified ingredients if they?re made with corn,? he added.
The soup complies with all of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture?s food and labeling regulations, Faulkner said.
Kraft representatives didn?t respond to phone calls asking for comment.
At the Reuters Food Summit in Chicago in March, Kraft Chief Executive Roger Deromedi said his company doesn?t use GE ingredients in foods sold in Western Europe. ?Our criteria is to use genetically modified ingredients driven by both safety and by consumers themselves,? he told Reuters. ?We have a different consumer group in Europe.?
Reuters reported that Deromedi said GE ingredients will play a ?very important role? nutritionally and environmentally in reducing pesticide use around the world. He also said that because U.S. consumers rely on their government to ensure the safety of GE foods, it?s not necessary to pay for further measures such as traceability.
Groups such as the Biotechnology Industry Organization have noted the opposition to GE foods in Europe, but a lack of resistance in China. The Chinese government is reportedly prepared to approve GE rice. But Greenpeace reported that in a 2005 study of 600 residents of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, China, 57 percent would choose non-GE food over GE food, up from 40 percent in 2004. The study, conducted by Ipsos, an international market research firm, also found that 73 percent of respondents were not in favor of GE rice.
Birds and bees don?t do it
The world?s largest study on the impact of GE crops on wildlife has found that the technology reduces the number of birds, bees and butterflies.
The $11.3 million, 5-year study, known as The Farm Scale Evaluation trials, was conducted by an independent consortium of U.K. researchers. It analyzed the impacts of genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant corn, beets and canola.
?The trials demonstrate the government?s precautionary approach on GE crops and our commitment to case-by-case decisions underpinned by sound scientific evidence,? said British Environmental Minister Elliot Morley in a statement.
In 266 field trials throughout the United Kingdom, researchers found that the types of herbicides applied to GE herbicide-tolerant beets and canola reduced the number of weeds that provide food and shelter for birds, bees, butterflies and other flying insects. However, the fields sown with GE corn produced more weeds that were beneficial to those species.
Genetic modification didn?t affect the overall number of other insects, slugs and spiders found in the fields, the study concluded.
Vicky Uhland is a Denver-based free-lance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 5/p. 10, 12