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Royal Society study suggests GM seeds, not pollen, responsible for cross-breeding

(Saturday, July 19, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- International Environment Reporter, Vol 26 Number 14, 07/02/03, page 675:

LONDON--New evidence suggesting genetically modified seeds as opposed to pollen may be the main vehicle for cross breeding with natural crops sparked an angry exchange June 18 in the House of Commons between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his newly dismissed environment minister. Michael Meacher, whom Blair removed as environment minister in his June 12 Cabinet reshuffle, challenged the prime minister directly over a June 18 study from the Royal Society, Britain's national academy of science, that claims that GM crops are at least as likely to cross breed through seeds as pollen, with humans and farm machinery dispersing them widely.

A public debate is under way in Britain, with the government due to announce the results of three-year field-scale trials in September. But the study that sparked the exchange in the House of Commons is the first to seriously challenge conventional thinking that only pollen can spread GM strains to conventional crops. It used molecular biology techniques to see if genes from the commercial crop could spread though seeds. Meacher said the results of the study could have large implications for GM crop sitings.

Previous studies have focused on pollen dispersal as the main route. But the study for the Royal Society--conducted by scientists at the Université de Lille in France and to be published in Proceedings B, a Royal Society scientific journal--said seed dispersal could be inadvertently assisted by human activity.

Genes Turned Up 1.5 Kilometers Away

The study looked at sugar beet, a crop that can be cross bred easily with close natural relatives such as sea beet. It concluded that GM seeds can be carried long distances on farm machinery to cross with wild relatives. It found genes from commercial sugar beet turned up in wild plants growing more than 1.5 kilometers away. It concluded that GM crops were likely to escape the confines of any buffer zone established to protect wild crops from GM crops.

None of the beets was genetically modified, but the findings "highlighted the likelihood for transgene [GM] escape" and hybridization through seed dispersal, said Jean-Francois Arnaud, who carried out the research. "The location of such crops had to be done cautiously," he concluded. "Gene flow and interbreeding from cultivated to wild plant populations has important and ecological consequences. If GMO sugar beets are established in regions where populations of the wild form also occur, then gene flow between wild and cultivated relatives is almost inevitable."

Arnaud said the new evidence reinforces the agricultural economic issues caused by increased invasiveness of GM crops and implies that greater caution is needed in locating GM crops. "If GMO sugar beets are established in regions where populations of the wild form also occur, then gene flow between wild and cultivated relatives is almost inevitable," he said.

Friends of the Earth accused Blair of side-stepping the questions from Meacher. "The comments made by the Prime Minister on GM crops give every impression that he has already made up his mind on this issue," Friends of the Earth's Director Tony Juniper said. "He has refused to say if we will take a precautionary approach to GM crop commercialization. He makes no mention of the central importance of public opinion, even though we are in the midst of a government funded debate on the subject. He criticizes those urging legitimate caution and gives hearty praise to the companies behind this technology when for many people the power of these mighty corporations is a major part of their concern."

Just Learning Long-Term Effects of GMOs

Jupiter said, "The research shows once again that we are still only beginning to learn about the potential long-term impacts of GM crops on the environment. It also shows that human activity plays a significant role in spreading GM material over long distances. There must now be a major rethink on the impacts that GM crops may have on our food, farming, and environment," he said.

A spokesman for Britain's Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs said, "It has long been recognized that GM crop genes might be spread by various means, including via seeds lodged in farm machinery. Although gene transfer to wild plants or non-GM crops may occur, it does not mean that there will necessarily be an adverse safety impact."

DEFRA added that the code of practice for growing GM crops developed by the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops, a farming and industry group, already has provisions on cleaning farm machinery to minimize seed transfer.

For details on how to obtain a full copy of the paper, contact Tim Reynolds at the Royal Society at tim.reynolds@absw.org.uk.