Activists protest on a barge containing contaminated illegal GM rice shipped from the US in Rotterdam.
Genetic contamination occurs when experimental or unapproved GM
crops are mixed with staple food crops. The '
GM Contamination Register Report 2007', details 39 new
instances of GM contamination in 23 countries over the past year.
Most of the contamination involved such staple crops as rice and
maize, but also included soya, cotton, canola, papaya and fish.
Since 2005, the GM Contamination
Register has recorded 216 contamination events in 57 countries
since GM crops were first grown commercially on a large scale in
While companies claim they can control the use of GM crops, the
reality is very different. In the port of Rotterdam, Dutch
authorities have detected illegal GM rice strains in shipments of
US rice supposedly declared GM-free when leaving the US. Right now
a GM scandal is breaking in Kenya as environmental and farmers'
organisations confront the government and US seed giant Pioneer
Hi-Bred with evidence of GM-contaminated maize seed in their
Cost of contamination
Contamination cases are often complicated but each one has big
There are numerous examples where GM crops not approved for
human consumption have contaminated food. Last year, Bayer was
taken to court by US rice farmers for contamination of rice by an
unapproved variety that was only tested experimentally between
1999-2001. Bayer claims it was an "Act of God" that caused
conventional rice varieties to become contaminated with
experimental strains. Far from almighty interference, biotech
companies are risking human health by not preventing
With such widespread and common GM contamination, the choice for
consumers to avoid GM foods is being eroded. If GM genes are
escaping control there's no way to know if it's in the food you buy
Each case of contamination has huge related costs - cost for
product recalls, testing and regular checks and lost markets and
exports. In August 2006, traces of the uncertified GM crop LL601,
known as "Liberty Link" and owned by biotech giant Bayer, were
found in US rice supplies. With 63 percent of US rice exports
affected, the contamination spread to at least 30 countries, from
Austria to Ghana to the United Arab Emirates. Major importers such
as the EU and the Philippines closed their markets to US rice. Up
to US$253 million was lost from food product recalls, and future
export losses could reach US$445 million. But here's the rub -
costs that are caused by GM contamination are either paid by the
taxpayer or, as in this case of Bayer's rice, by farmers and
exporters. The biotech companies often avoid any cost due to
contamination from their GM crops.
Because the big biotech companies responsible for these crops
are not held liable for the costs of contamination they have little
incentive to prevent incidents. If they were held responsible for
all the costs of contamination many GM crops would probably not be
Why does it happen?
Every contamination scandal that breaks further damages the
reputation of GM crops and costs farmers (potential GM crop
customers), markets and exports. Why do the companies allow
contamination to happen? Clearly the biotech companies must have
some powerful reasons not to take effective measures to prevent
contamination. Certainly contamination allows the biotech companies
to argue that their crops should not be regulated as they are
already in the food chain. It could be seen as the thin end of the
wedge to gain access to markets via the back door.
While biotech companies will probably never admit their true
motives behind genetic contamination, occasionally an industry
representative hints at the industry strategy:
"The total acreage devoted to genetically modified crops around the world is expanding. That may be what eventually brings the debate to an end. It is a hell of a thing to say that the way we win is don't give the consumer a choice, but that might be it."
Dale Adolphe, ex-president of the Canola Council of Canada and
advocate of GM crops.
As the biotech companies seem intent on risking farmers'
livelihoods and ignoring health concerns to help spread GM crop
acceptance by default it is vital that politicians stand firm.
Rigorous testing and holding companies wholly financially
responsible is the only way to ensure an end to genetic
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