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EU set to approve GMO maize, battle looms on seeds; GM maize growing needs review

(Wednesday, May 12, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Two stories here, one on the EU decision about seed purity. The other concerns gene movement.

1. EU set to approve GMO maize, battle looms on seeds
Jeremy Smith, Reuters, 05/11/04: KILLARNEY, Ireland - The European Union, poised to lift its five-year ban on gene-spliced foods, will now open the next battle in its biotech saga and try to agree purity levels in seeds, the European Commission said on Tuesday. Rules for how much GMO material may occur in non-modified seeds before they must be labelled has been a thorn in the side of EU governments, and the Commission, for months if not years. It will be the last major piece of biotech legislation to put in place before the bloc can discuss authorising new applications for GMOs where the requested use is cultivation. The EU's moratorium on authorising new GMO products and crops is now effectively over, and the Commission is set to rubberstamp an approval for a biotech maize type known as Bt-11, a canned product for human consumption, at a meeting on May 19. The next battleground for EU biotech policy - and the fight is certain to be heated, diplomats say - is for "live" GMOs, or those destined for planting in Europe's fields. But before that can happen, the bloc's 25 member states have to sort out seeds. While a draft Commission proposal on seed thresholds has surfaced in Brussels, with a range of 0.3 to 0.5 percent for permitted GMO presence in conventional and organic seeds, it is far from clear that the EU executive itself is totally agreed. "On seeds, there will certainly be a discussion within the next couple of weeks. There are different views on this," said EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne. "Those who are looking at the farming interest and those on the more green side of the argument want lower thresholds, which I think might be difficult to achieve," he told Reuters on the margins of an informal meeting of EU farm ministers in Ireland. Byrne's department, looking at the seeds dossier along with the Commission's agriculture, environment and research units, is said to favour higher thresholds closer to the 0.9 percent labelling level already in force for GMO food and feed. Higher levels are also favoured by the seed industry, while green groups want nothing higher than 0.1 percent, a view backed by several EU states such as Austria, Luxembourg and Denmark. Byrne said such low levels were not technically practical. "Some of us take the view that if you go too low, it creates further problems," he said. "Maybe those who are interested in the production of organic foods need to look very carefully at reducing thresholds so low that it's very difficult to achieve." This week's announcement by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto to suspend plans for introducing the world's first biotech wheat would have no effect on EU policy, Byrne said. "This is a decision taken by Monsanto...in response to market forces. It's a matter for them," he told reporters. "It won't affect what we're doing (in Europe)," he said. However, rival GMO producer Syngenta , makers of the Bt-11 maize that is due to be the EU's first new GMO authorisation since 1998, said earlier on Tuesday it will continue with plans to develop genetically modified wheat. Apart from seeds, the other area that needs to be addressed is how European farmers should separate organic, conventional and gene-spliced crops to minimise cross-contamination -- an issue known as coexistence -- and the responsibility of each EU state. So far, only five states have set out draft coexistence laws providing for financial liability in cases of contamination.

2. GM maize growing 'needs review'
Richard Black, BBC, 05/11/04: A US study reveals new evidence to show how genes from biotech crops can spread to nearby non-GM plant relatives. The data comes from research on maize engineered to produce powerful toxins in its leaves and stems.

These substances, normally produced by bacteria, and are lethal to insect pests that try to eat the maize plant.

But an Arizona-Texas team says the way the crop is grown in some countries may lead to insects becoming resistant to the GM plant and pesticides.

This is the first time that gene flow has been documented in the context of a refuge, says Professor Bruce Tabashnik, University of Arizona. The research is reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the study paper, the scientists say guidelines on how to cultivate some GM crops should now be revised.

Mating success

The work concerns Bt maize (corn). This crop has been modified to incorporate genetic material from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).

This makes the plant tissues toxic to insects such as the European corn borer, a significant pest that hides in the stalks of the plant, making it difficult to control with chemical sprays.

In the US and some other nations, Bt maize has to be grown alongside so-called "refuges" of conventional varieties - a strategy aimed at preventing the insects from becoming resistant to Bt.

The logic is simple: if rare, resistant insects do emerge from the GM fields, their success will be restricted if they are breeding with non-resistant pests on nearby fields. Their progeny are likely to die if they attack the modified maize.

But the new work shows that the Bt gene is finding its way into those refuge plants through pollen that is spreading tens of metres.

"[The refuge] is supposed to be toxin-free but in fact the seeds, that is the next generation - some produce the Bt toxin," Professor Bruce Tabashnik, from the University of Arizona Department of Entomology, told BBC News Online.

"This may increase the potential for some insects to become resistant." And this tolerance could also extend to Bt sprays as well.

Professor Tabashnik was involved in drawing up the current US guidelines on GM-free refuges, and his latest research is likely to lead to a major review within the US.

A number of other countries have similar regulations; and the finding could be relevant to other crops such as cotton in which the Bt modification has also been introduced.

Impact assessment

"[Contamination of non-GM plants] occurs at high levels near the Bt maize and it declines as you move away from the Bt maize.

"And that allows us to infer that what's happening is there's pollen moving from the Bt plants into the nearby refuge, and this is producing Bt toxin in the kernels of the plants in the refuge.

"This is the first time that gene flow has been documented in the context of a refuge," Professor Tabashnik said.

"The guidelines need to be re-examined in the face of this new insight.

"The current thinking is that the refuges should be as close as possible to the Bt maize; and the reason for that is to encourage gene flow in the insects; in other words, mating between the non-resistant insects that come out of the refuge and the ones in the Bt fields which may have become resistant."

Commenting on the research, the UK campaign group GeneWatch said it demonstrated how little was still known about the environmental impact of GM crops.

"Bruce Tabashnik's work in this area is seminal, and so this study will I think be highly regarded and influential," said GeneWatch's Sue Mayer.

"It exposes how little we do know about the environmental impact of GM crops, and how much monitoring needs to be done. We keep hearing these statements about how it's all completely safe but really we need proper monitoring to find out."

Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/sci/tech/3703567.stm