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Contamination From Gene-Altered Crop Trials Pose Unappreciated Threats To Wildlife

June 13th, 2006

Current field trials of experimental, untested genetically engineered (GE) crops pose unassessed risks to wildlife, yet government regulators have inadequate safeguards to protect the environment from genetic contamination. That’s the conclusion of “Contaminating the Wild,” a new report released today by the Center for Food Safety (CFS). The report examines the history of field trials of GE crops that have posed contamination threats, and warns that potential hazards from such genetic contamination will increase with the increasingly powerful and unpredictable engineered genes that industry is artificially inserting into many common crops.

Agricultural crops and related wild plants can exchange genes through a process called “gene flow” when pollen from the crops fertilizes the related plants. Although gene flow to related plants can occur from natural crops, with engineered plants for the first time genes never before found in crops can contaminate wild plants, and may reduce biodiversity or disrupt natural processes.

“Genetic engineering ups the ante when it comes to the potential for harm to wildlife from gene flow, because organisms in natural ecosystems have not adapted to many of the genes used in field trials,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman of CFS, the author of today’s report. “The USDA is not doing enough to assess or prevent the problems we may see with new genetic transformations released into the natural environment. Ultimately, our wild lands could suffer from industry’s genetic experiments.”

“Contaminating the Wild” was spurred in part by a 2004 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study that found contamination of wild plants 13 miles away from a large (400 acre) experimental field of gene altered bentgrass, yet alarmingly the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s accepted separation distance to avoid such contamination was merely 900 feet. Despite this EPA finding, and warnings from the Forest Service that this GE grass could “adversely impact all 175 national forests and grasslands,” USDA continues to allow field trials of the GE grass. A follow-up to the first EPA study is expected to be out this summer.  Because of the startling results of the EPA study, and the virtual lack of similar studies for the many other GE crops with wild relatives, “Contaminating the Wild” looks closely at whether experimental genes may be escaping from other field trials.

The USDA’s Inspector General (IG) also warned in December that the agency “lacks basic information” about GE field trials and noted that confinement measures to prevent gene flow are rarely reviewed by USDA before field trials are planted. The IG noted that “as the number of approved applications to field test new GE plants continues to rise, we are concerned that the [USDA's] efforts to regulate those crops have not kept pace… [W]eaknesses in [USDA] regulations and internal management controls increase the risk that regulated genetically engineered organisms will inadvertently persist in the environment before they are deemed safe to grow without regulation.”  That report looked primarily at enforcement and compliance with existing USDA regulations, while the science reviewed in “Contaminating the Wild” reveals that gene flow may occur even if existing regulations are followed.

Unlike chemical threats that can sometimes be cleaned up or contained, genetic contamination may be uncontrollable. “We know from EPA’s study, and many studies from conventional crops, that gene-altered crops can transfer engineered genes to other plants,” said Gurian-Sherman. “Even more troubling is that if these genes persist and cause harm, it may be impossible to contain the damage.”

Findings in “Contaminating the Wild” include:

  • Over 1700 field trials of twenty different GE crops have been conducted in states where the GE crop has one or more wild relatives;
  • Many field trials are large, increasing the quantity of pollen and thus the likelihood of genetic contamination;
  • Many GE field trials test experimental traits that are likely to confer an advantage to wild plants, increasing the likelihood that the traits will persist and cause harm;
  • USDA very rarely requires Environmental Assessments of field trials, leaving environmental hazards largely unassessed.

View the full report – Contaminating the Wild

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