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GM crop mishaps unite friends and foes

(Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

Philip Cohen, NewScientist.com: Friends and foes of the use of genetic engineering in US agriculture have united in criticising two accidents in which a food crop was contaminated by a crop from the previous year designed to yield pharmaceutical products.

Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC., said, "This is a failure at an elementary level. They couldn't distinguish corn from soybeans and remove them from a field. That's like failing nursery school."

In July, New Scientist reported warnings from Rissler and other GM watchdogs that the US government rules for growing "pharmed" crops were far too lax (Print edition, 6 July, p 4).

The genes in the ProdiGene corn are a company secret, and the company had not supplied a comment before publication. But ProdiGene's website says its plants produce a variety of vaccines and human therapeutic proteins and industrial enzymes.

Grocery Manufacturers of America, spokesperson Stephanie Childs said, "Incidents like these can have ripple effects. We don't want to lose international markets because we can't assure the safety and integrity of the food supply."

USDA spokesperson Ed Curlett said his agency will learn from the incident and decide whether current rules need to be tightened, adding, "But the system seems to have worked. We caught this crop before it entered the animal or human food chain."

CropGen, a pro-GM group based in the UK, agrees that the incident showed the effectiveness of monitoring, but called the failure of ProdiGene to ensure that no GM corn persisted in the field "inexcusable". Norman Ellstrand, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Riverside, said the US government was also lucky, adding, "What if the GM corn had come up inside a corn field, instead of a soybean field? It could have cross pollinated and you'd have no idea where it was."