Biotech companies fuel GM contamination spread

Feature story - 29 February, 2008
Global incidents of genetic contamination from genetically modified (GM) crops are on the rise, while the companies responsible ignore the consequences. Our activists have highlighted this growing problem by protesting shipments of illegal GM-rice varieties entering Europe from the US.

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 1996.

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 country.

Cost of contamination

Contamination cases are often complicated but each one has big implications.

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 contamination.

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 or not.

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 profitable.

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 contamination.

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