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Pandora's gene in a Trojan horse

By Dan Nagengast
The Prairie Writers Circle

(Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) --The genetic engineers of the plant world again breed doubt.

Corn genetically modified for pharmaceutical use has contaminated 500,000 bushels of soybeans stored in a Nebraska grain elevator. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently impounded the soybeans, which will be diverted to non-food use.

Cross-pollination was not involved. Instead, seed left over from a pharmaceutical corn crop germinated in a Nebraska field and grew after the field was later planted in soybeans, the Des Moines Register reports. The soybeans, mixed with some of the pharmcorn, were harvested and taken to the elevator, where they were mixed with other soybeans before the problem was discovered.

The biotech industry says the system worked: The pharmaceutical crop never made it into the food you and I eat.

This is less than assuring.

I think it quite possible that many of the genetically modified crops, animals and soil organisms undergoing field tests will prove harmless when they creep out of their creators' control. But the genetic engineers would have us believe that none will ever be harmful, because they assume we can control everything that happens in crop fields and after harvest, and that we can foresee all the potential effects of gene manipulation.

If only we could defy Murphy's Law. According to Jeremy Rifkin, head of the Foundation on Economic Trends, there are now more than 70,000 field tests of genetically modified organisms going on worldwide. That offers a lot of potential for something to go wrong.

The failure of many in the scientific community to acknowledge the risk of gene flow and contamination will prove, I think, to be one of the most shameful episodes in the history of scientific inquiry.

Equally shameful is the overselling of biotech crops. At best we can expect marginal improvements and slightly better performance. With these will come higher costs and increased dependence on the sellers of seed and chemicals.

Consider genetically engineered "golden rice." The London Guardian reports that the Rockefeller Foundation, which funded development of the vitamin A-enriched rice to help prevent childhood blindness in the Third World, acknowledges that the rice can supply only a fraction of human vitamin A needs. And in any case, we should not encourage abandonment of a diverse diet by overpromoting a few engineered, vitamin-enriched super foods.

There is a great gap between the scientific-technical developers' aims and commercial forces' interests, leaving lots of potential for scientists to be surprised. They have certainly been surprised before. Crop chemical scientists never envisioned how much synthetic pesticide would eventually be applied to the fields and pastures that make up our watersheds, and so pollute our water. Ironically, much of the new commercialized biotechnology intends to diminish agrochemical use: Instead of bottling the genie, we try to develop another one. And this time it is a living one that not only can be misapplied, but can blow around and grow.

Farm groups have embraced these technologies. But a recent study by Great Britain 's Soil Association notes that because of America 's inability to segregate genetically modified crops, there has been a drastic decrease in sales to Europe and Asia . The United States has lost almost its entire $300 million in annual European Union corn sales. Canada has lost $300 million in rapeseed exports to the EU. As crop prices fall because of this drop in export sales, U.S. farm subsidies have surged by billions of dollars. We taxpayers prop up prices because some of the world's best markets find our grain undesirable.

While farmers are being urged to segregate their grains by profit-boosting characteristics, such as good baking quality, biotechnology requires segregation because many buyers don't want it. Where is the premium to cover this cost?

Who is thinking about these things? Who is weighing the risks and benefits? A decision is coming on the introduction of genetically modified wheat. It is a shame, but there appears to be no critical consideration of these issues in our universities and industry, or among our regulators and policymakers.

### Dan Nagengast, who farms near Lawrence, Kan., is executive director of the Kansas Rural Center. He is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of the Land Institute, a Natural Systems Agriculture research organization in Salina, Kan. This essay is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Land Institute.