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U.S. trade rep forgetful of facts in his pitch for GMO acceptance

(Jan 22, 2002 – CropChoice opinion) -- Genetically engineered crops will feed the world. That’s what U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick told reporters at the World Trade Organization headquarters in Geneva yesterday in a speech that keyed renewed U.S. efforts at worldwide acceptance of biotech food.

Zoellick's deputy, Jon M. Huntsman, did his part by traveling to South Korea to "discuss" the upcoming launch there of a mandatory labeling system for transgenic crops and why it should be weakened. Already U.S. agricultural commodities exporters are whining that the program will cost them money because they’ll have to segregate the biotech stuff.

But in his speech at the WTO, Zoellick forgot to mention a few key items, including the poor agronomic track record thus far on genetically engineered crops.

Herbicide and insect resistant crops haven’t decreased the use of pesticides, as Monsanto and the other biotech biggies promised, nor have they increased yields. No one at Zoellick's office in Washington would return calls to CropChoice about this oversight in his speech.

So that the delegates from 120 countries who’ll be attending the Jan. 28 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) confab on world food security in Morocco don’t make the same mistake as Zoellick and walk around spouting the benefits of biotech, we’ve jotted down a couple of items they might want to check out:

While U.S. officials were pushing agricultural biotechnology, some bad news sprouted in the UK and the Netherlands.

Margaret Beckett, the UK Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, announced that the government likely will mandate larger buffers between genetically modified crops and their organic and conventional counterparts. This move could help to prevent cross-pollination and the ensuing genetic contamination that has rendered the non-biotech varieties non-saleable. Put simply, consumers don’t want them.

The threshold for genetic pollution of conventional and organic crops should be 10 times lower -- something along the lines of .1 percent cross-pollination -- than the current standard, Beckett told The Daily Telegraph.

The current separation distances for transgenic oil seed rape is 50 meters, or 164 feet, totally inadequate to prevent contamination of organic and conventional varieties. Maybe the UK government should take its cue from the European Commission, which suggests a 5,000-meter (about 3 miles) buffer between transgenic and non-transgenic crops. Even this, said plant reproduction expert Jean Emberlin of the National Pollen Research Unit at University College in Worcester, would not guarantee a maximum of .1 percent cross-pollination in rape seed.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, a representative of Advanta Seeds announced the imminent shutdown of its lab that tests genetically modified seed because there is no market for foods grown with this technology.

Perhaps all these biotech crops should go into greenhouses 100 miles from anywhere, everyone and everything.