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Genetic Pollution Debate Heats Up

GM Crops Pose Risk to Organic Farms, Scientists Say
March 15, 2002 07:32 AM ET
By Robin Pomeroy

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Some genetically modified (GM) crops are highly likely
to cross-breed with organic or wild plants, posing a risk to farms certified
as GM-free, according to a European Union report obtained by Reuters on
Friday.

The European Environment Agency (EEA), the EU environmental data body,
looked at six crop types to see how much cross-pollination occurs with
neighboring crops or wild relatives.

The study found that oilseed rape, sugar beet and maize -- three key GM
crops -- had a medium or high likelihood of transferring genetic material.
Potatoes, wheat and barley were unlikely to cross-breed, it said.

"Oilseed rape can be described as a high-risk crop for crop-to-crop gene
flow and from crop to wild relatives," the report said. "At the farm scale
low levels of gene flow will occur at long distances and thus complete
genetic isolation will be difficult to maintain."

The findings will increase environmentalists' concerns that GM crops could
introduce unwanted genetic changes to wild plants and could strengthen the
hand of organic farmers who want to ensure GM crops are kept well away from
their fields.

CONTAMINATION FEAR

Earlier this week a British organic farming group said 111 organic farms
were at risk of contamination by nearby GM crops despite government-imposed
separation distances to keep the GM crops away from other farms.

The EEA report said there was, as yet, no sure way of ensuring GM crops
could be completely isolated from conventional strains or organic farms.

"The use of isolation zones, crop barrier rows and other vegetation barriers
between pollen source and recipient crops can reduce pollen dispersal,
although changing weather and environmental conditions mean that some long
distance pollen dispersal will occur," the report said.

A spokesman for the EU biotech industry association Europabio said organic
farmers were being unreasonable to demand absolutely no cross-pollination.

"Cross-pollination is normal and natural, it happens," Europabio's Simon
Barber told Reuters. "(The organic lobby) has unilaterally declared 'our
standard is zero and if we find anything it causes us harm'."

Organic farmers set thresholds for the presence of small amounts of
pesticides from other farms, he said, and should do the same for
cross-pollination.

The European Union is struggling to create a coherent policy on GM foods,
caught between pressures from the biotech and farm lobbies and the U.S.
government to allow the new crops and fierce anti-GM lobbying by
environmental and consumer groups.

The 15-country bloc has had an informal ban on new GM strains since 1998
while it draws up tough new measures on testing crops to ensure their
safety, labeling them so consumers can, if they wish, choose GM-free food.

Because of the moratorium on new strains, at present only a handful of GM
crops may be imported or planted in the EU.

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