Strict segregation would keep crops free of genetically modified seed. But is it possible?
CONCERN over the accidental planting of genetically modified seed on several farms in Europe reached fever pitch last week. And now a company in the US has warned that the problem is probably commonplace.
"My guess is that it happens all the time," says Jeffrey Smith, vice president of marketing and communications at Genetic ID of Fairfield, Iowa. The company, which screens agricultural produce for GM material, found that more than half of 20 random samples of conventional seed taken from American distributors contained some GM seed.
The latest European furore began with the news that farmers throughout the continent have planted conventional oilseed rape containing traces of a sterile GM variety known as RT 73, which has not been approved for commercial planting in Europe. In Britain alone, 9000 hectares were sown with the adulterated seed in 1999, followed by 4700 hectares this spring.
In other European countries, including France and Sweden, ministers have considered ordering the destruction of affected crops. Opponents of GM crops accused governments of allowing the release of such crops before their environmental impact had been properly evaluated.
But this week, Genetic ID told New Scientist that such contamination might be just the tip of the iceberg. It says that in tests done last year, but not widely publicised, 12 out of 20 random American consignments of conventional maize seed contained detectable traces of GM maize. Two of these contained almost 1 per cent GM maize. Pioneer Hi-Bred, the largest supplier of both conventional and GM seeds in the US, acknowledged that low levels of mingling are inevitable. "Absolute zero purity is not achieved in any agricultural produce anywhere in the food chain," says Doyle Karr, a spokesman for the company.