Genetically-Modified Crops
May Harm US Organic Food
By Julie Vorman
WASHINGTON - The rapid adoption of genetically-modified corn, potatoes and soybeans by mainstream American farmers may contaminate organic crops growing in nearby fields, a leading U.S. organic group said Monday.
The threat to organic crops is one of several environmental issues now before a National Academy of Sciences panel that is investigating plants genetically modified to fight off pests.
Green groups and agribusiness are eagerly awaiting the committee's findings this autumn on the risks and benefits of transgenic crops, and how they should be regulated by the federal government.
The panel's work has attracted even more attention since Cornell University researchers last week revealed evidence that pollen from genetically modified Bt corn harmed monarch butterflies.
Bt corn is shorthand for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria found in the soil that is toxic to the European corn borer. U.S. farmers routinely sprayed corn and cotton crops with Bt for three decades to kill the pest until three years ago when scientists added the Bt gene to seeds as a built-in pesticide.
While farm groups contend there is no real difference between traditional plant breeding and genetic manipulation of plants, environmental groups insist that not enough is known about long-term effects.
The Organic Trade Association said drifting pollen from genetically-altered plants may not be a health risk, but it does compromise the quality of premium-priced products that consumers expect to be grown without chemicals or additives.
"Organic agriculture and genetically-modified farming have both been growing rapidly. The collision of the two is inevitable," Katherine DiMatteo, head of the association, told a National Academy of Sciences panel.
"We will probably as an industry begin lobbying for more regulations because this problem is developing so rapidly," she added.
In one instance, corn chips produced by an organic farmer were rejected by a European customer because a trace amount of genetically-modified corn was detected in the chips, DiMatteo said. Scientists later determined that transgenic pollen had drifted from a neighbour's corn fields some six miles away.
"We are struggling right now with what, if any, tolerance level should be accepted," DiMatteo said. The corn chips rejected by the customer were found to have less than 0.1 percent of genetically-modified corn, she said.
Most transgenic crops require farmers to plant buffer zones of conventional crops to prevent accidental drift of pollen.
The organic group represents about 10,000 U.S. organic farmers, most with relatively small operations. More than one-third of the nation's 80 million acres of corn fields are expected to be planted with transgenic crops this year.
The National Corn Growers Association said U.S. growers would lose about $1 billion annually in crops without Bt corn and cotton.
"With corn prices at extremely low levels, every increased dollar of income helps," said Bob Martell, vice president of the corn group. "Growers and farmers are 100 percent behind crops that benefit mankind and the environment. If good science proves that a product does not do that, then they are not interested in growing it."
U.S. farm groups are keenly aware that genetically-modified crops must gain widespread support from consumers to be successful. Biotechnology is expected to be one of the stickiest issues in the upcoming round of world agricultural trade talks, with European Union green groups adamantly opposed to most transgenic crops.
The National Academy of Sciences panel is made up of researchers from six universities, as well as scientists from the California state environmental protection agency and the Environmental Defense Fund. The committee said it would not address philosophical, social or trade issues surrounding genetic engineering.