- WASHINGTON - The rapid adoption of genetically-modified corn, potatoes and
soybeans by mainstream American farmers may contaminate organic crops growing
in nearby fields, a leading U.S. organic group said Monday.
- The threat to organic crops is one of
several environmental issues now before a National Academy of Sciences
panel that is investigating plants genetically modified to fight off pests.
- Green groups and agribusiness are eagerly
awaiting the committee's findings this autumn on the risks and benefits
of transgenic crops, and how they should be regulated by the federal government.
- The panel's work has attracted even more
attention since Cornell University researchers last week revealed evidence
that pollen from genetically modified Bt corn harmed monarch butterflies.
- Bt corn is shorthand for Bacillus thuringiensis,
a bacteria found in the soil that is toxic to the European corn borer.
U.S. farmers routinely sprayed corn and cotton crops with Bt for three
decades to kill the pest until three years ago when scientists added the
Bt gene to seeds as a built-in pesticide.
- While farm groups contend there is no
real difference between traditional plant breeding and genetic manipulation
of plants, environmental groups insist that not enough is known about long-term
- The Organic Trade Association said drifting
pollen from genetically-altered plants may not be a health risk, but it
does compromise the quality of premium-priced products that consumers expect
to be grown without chemicals or additives.
- "Organic agriculture and genetically-modified
farming have both been growing rapidly. The collision of the two is inevitable,"
Katherine DiMatteo, head of the association, told a National Academy of
- "We will probably as an industry
begin lobbying for more regulations because this problem is developing
so rapidly," she added.
- In one instance, corn chips produced
by an organic farmer were rejected by a European customer because a trace
amount of genetically-modified corn was detected in the chips, DiMatteo
said. Scientists later determined that transgenic pollen had drifted from
a neighbour's corn fields some six miles away.
- "We are struggling right now with
what, if any, tolerance level should be accepted," DiMatteo said.
The corn chips rejected by the customer were found to have less than 0.1
percent of genetically-modified corn, she said.
- Most transgenic crops require farmers
to plant buffer zones of conventional crops to prevent accidental drift
- The organic group represents about 10,000
U.S. organic farmers, most with relatively small operations. More than
one-third of the nation's 80 million acres of corn fields are expected
to be planted with transgenic crops this year.
- The National Corn Growers Association
said U.S. growers would lose about $1 billion annually in crops without
Bt corn and cotton.
- "With corn prices at extremely low
levels, every increased dollar of income helps," said Bob Martell,
vice president of the corn group. "Growers and farmers are 100 percent
behind crops that benefit mankind and the environment. If good science
proves that a product does not do that, then they are not interested in
- U.S. farm groups are keenly aware that
genetically-modified crops must gain widespread support from consumers
to be successful. Biotechnology is expected to be one of the stickiest
issues in the upcoming round of world agricultural trade talks, with European
Union green groups adamantly opposed to most transgenic crops.
- The National Academy of Sciences panel
is made up of researchers from six universities, as well as scientists
from the California state environmental protection agency and the Environmental
Defense Fund. The committee said it would not address philosophical, social
or trade issues surrounding genetic engineering.