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November 28, 2001
By Anita Manning, USA TODAY
DNA from genetically modified corn has mysteriously turned up inside
native varieties grown in a remote mountain area of Mexico, prompting
concerns of "genetic pollution" of indigenous crops.
Researchers Ignacio Chapela and David Quist of the University of
California-Berkeley, in a letter published in today's issue of the journal
Nature, report that they found traces of transgenic material in samples of
native corn from four fields in the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca in southern Mexico.
The finding is "particularly striking" because Mexico has had a
moratorium on genetically modified corn since 1998, the researchers write.
It's not clear if cross-pollination occurred before 1998 or more recently
as a result of "loose implementation" of the moratorium, they say.
Plants that are genetically engineered to resist herbicides or to produce
their own insecticides threaten to reduce the variety of plant life within
the region, says Chapela, just by being better able to survive than more
fragile native plants. "The probability is high that diversity is going to
be crowded out by these genetic bullies," he says.
Also of concern is the chance that herbicide resistance could jump into
weedy relatives, creating superweeds that can't be controlled, he says.
Plants genetically engineered to produce a natural insecticide have "been
shown to have potentially very bad effects on insects and the microbes in
the soil," he says.
The researchers compared the Oaxaca seeds with non-genetically modified
seeds of the same varieties grown in Peru, and with seeds gathered in the
same part of Oaxaca in 1971, before the advent of biotechnology. None of
these showed evidence of transgenic DNA, but in the modern Oaxaca samples,
four out of six had traces of a cauliflower mosaic virus that is commonly
used in genetically engineered crops.
The study highlights the core of the controversy surrounding the use of
biotechnology in agriculture, says Michael Khoo of the Union of Concerned
Scientists. "Examples like this show it's an uncontrolled experiment, and
then you get uncontrolled results. It's one of the fundamental risks of
He says "genetic pollution poses new problems" that should be monitored
by regulatory agencies. "This is the point where we should take a pause and
assess what kind of contamination has been done and what should be done to
stop it. We should not be going forward on an experiment when we have no
idea of the parameters."
Val Giddings of the Biotechnology Industry Organization says the real
question is what effect, if any, would result from mixing biotech corn with
native varieties. "If there's any impact at all, it's likely to be
positive. There are zero human health implications, zero environmental
impact implications," he says.
Corn breeder Major Goodman of North Carolina State University in Raleigh
believes the mixing of biotech and native varieties occurred when migrant
farm workers carried seeds from the USA back to Mexican fields. Biotech
corn won't endanger Mexican varieties, he says.
"The disservice that is happening here is that U.S. corn is being taken
to Mexico and it will not grow well there," he says. "This is good
Midwestern corn. It is good in the Midwest. It is terrible elsewhere."