• Human error and GMO contamination

    Posted on May 31, 1999 by in Agriculture, News

    By Teresa DawsonEnvironment Hawai’i
    May 31, 1999

    A Quiet Revolution

    Genetically Engineered Crops Change The Face Of Hawai`i Agriculture

    On January 25, 1998, University of Hawai`i horticulturalist Richard Manshardt informed the U.S. Department of Agriculture of “a minor problem that has occurred in our papaya field.”

    At the time, Manshardt was conducting field tests of a new breed of papaya genetically engineered to resist the devastating papaya ringspot virus.

    Manshardt’s “minor problem” was the discovery of several male papaya plants in his Waimanalo test field. His USDA permit for field testing of the papaya, which is still being studied, specified that all plants tested would be either female or hermaphrodite plants. No males would be included, since the abundant pollen from male plants makes it difficult for scientists to prevent the release of transgenic material outside the boundaries of the test plot.

    Manshardt described the problem as minor, but in fact, it represents a violation of safety and precautionary measures that are supposed to accompany genetic-engineering experiments undertaken anywhere in the United States.

    In the months since Manshardt’s disclosure, the USDA completed its investigation of what went wrong in the papaya field trials. Manshardt said he was fined, but did not disclose the amount he had to pay.

    Food Fights

    Between 1994 and 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved 44 foods developed through recombinant DNA technology. A handful of them have been quietly tested and brought to market here in Hawai`i.

    But there’s been nothing quiet about the introduction of genetically engineered crops elsewhere in the world:

    In Ireland, the Gaelic Earth Liberation Front “ripped out, slashed, and beheaded” genetically engineered sugar beets being grown in a Monsanto test plot, according to a report by Bill Lambrecht in the December 27, 1998, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In other acts of rebellion cited by Lambrecht, 200 Indian farmers belonging to the 10-million member Karnataka Farmers Association uprooted and burned Monsanto test plots of genetically engineered cotton; and in France, protesters raided a storehouse full of transgenic seeds.

    Since Lambrecht’s article was printed, the list has grown. In Scotland, nighttime raiders uprooted thousands of transgenic canola plants; South Korean students occupied and blockaded a biotech greenhouse; in Giessen, Germany, activists destroyed a test plot of canola plants — the fourth time the field had been destroyed since 1997.

    These instances are just a handful of the many protests that are occurring globally, as biotech companies — America’s Monsanto, in particular — test and plant more and more engineered crops worldwide.

    In the United States, though, transgenic crops have been grown and sold nearly a decade with little scrutiny by the public or, according to some critics, by regulatory agencies. Those agencies include the USDA, the FDA, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Each has “ducked responsibility,” according to Against the Grain, a book authored by Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey of the Center for Ethics and Toxics.

    Lappe and Bailey describe, for example, the FDA’s fox-in-the henhouse method of inspecting biotech companies:

    “In recent years, the vulnerability of corporations to federal environmental audits has been greatly reduced by the promulgation of `environmental audit privilege laws.’ These laws provide for broad proprietary privileges as long as a company voluntarily divulges any alleged misconduct. In return, the company may demand the public be kept from seeing what errors or commissions put it out of compliance with the law in the first place,” according to Lappe and Bailey.

    Open Arms

    Hawai`i’s stance regarding genetically engineered crops differs little from that of the federal government. Regulatory oversight is weakened by the fact that oversight is based heavily on self-reporting of incidents. Meanwhile state agencies tout the promise of economic boon from genetic engineering.

    “Biotechnology will be the dominant science of the 21st century,” predicts an April 1998 report by Michael Markrich for the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism and Michael Harrington of the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. The report describes what might be if “you close your eyes and dream about the ‘what ifs,'” Harrington told Environment Hawai`i.

    Their report, titled “The Potential for Commercial Biotechnology and Advanced Technology Agriculture in Hawai`i,” continues: “In the United States alone, annual revenues will exceed $500 billion by 2020. Hawai`i is positioned to assume a world leadership role in the application of biotechnology to tropical plants and marine organisms. A survey of ongoing agricultural and biotechnology research projects in Hawai`i indicates that they possess the potential to exceed $7.3 billion annually by the year 2020. However, the rapid advances being made elsewhere dictate that this will not occur unless an integrated plan is developed that allows Hawai`i to exploit its geographical advantages in several key niche markets, including but not limited to agricultural and marine technology.”

    Among biotech companies in Hawai`i at the time of Markrich and Harrington’s report were Neugenesis (since moved to San Francisco), Hawai`i Biotech Group, Integrated Coffee Technologies Incorporated, American Tropical Plants, Aquasearch, Cyanotech, and Mauna Kea Nutraceuticals. In addition, write Markrich and Harrington, all the major seed companies in the United States — including the multi-national corporations of Monsanto, Cargill, Novartis (formerly Ciba-Geigy), Pioneer Hi-Bred, Dekalb Genetics Corporation, and Garst Seed Company — use Hawai`i for development and field trials of seed corn, much of it genetically modified. In the process, they spend millions of dollars annually in Hawai`i and employ some 120 full-time workers, Markrich and Harrington say.

    In 1998, they concluded that biotechnology firms in Hawai`i generated revenue of $34 million a year and employed 396 workers. Estimates for the year 2000 indicate potential revenues of $433 million and employment for more than 800, they projected. By 2020, the potential revenues could exceed $7.3 billion and provide employment for 9,000, they wrote.

    A Poster Child Runs Away

    Zeal alone, however, does not support an industry. Consider the recent loss of the poster child for Hawai`i’s biotech industry, Oskar Zaborsky.

    In 1998, Zaborsky aggressively pursued a $12.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish a Marine Bioproducts Engineering Center, a one-of-a-kind facility that would be a front-runner in marine biotechnology. Zaborsky, who was the director of the Marine Biotechnology and Biosystems Engineering Laboratory the UH Hawai`i Natural Energy Institute, was also expected to head the new biotech center.

    By December, Zaborsky had left the biotechnology center, citing “substandard” conditions, which included leaky, rusted drums of hazardous materials outside the dilapidated buildings that were to serve as his lab.

    “Industry people come here all the time and take a look around and say, `What the hell is going on?'” Zaborsky was quoted as saying in one report.

    The much-publicized departure of Zaborsky has caused at least some backers of his research — including the Army — to withhold promised funds from the center.

    Yet another near-disaster for Hawai`i’s developing biotech industry came in April. A startup biotech firm, ProBio Inc., which sought to market the cloning techniques of UH scientist Ryuzo Yanagimachi, threatened to leave Hawai`i because it lacked local financial support. At the last minute, the firm received a $225,000 loan from the state and an additional $25,000 from City Bank.

    Given these events, the recent appearance of Hawai`i-bred, genetically engineered papayas in local stores must certainly come as a welcome milestone to the state’s biotech promoters. Not only are the papayas the first patented variety to be developed by a public institution in the country, they could also give a boost to the state’s ailing papaya industry.

    Closed Markets

    The success story, however, is not without its blemishes. Genetically modified produce is not always welcomed by foreign markets, including Japan and Canada. European Union nations with partial or complete bans on the growing and importation of genetically engineered crops include Austria, Greece, and Luxembourg. Still more countries ban the planting of such crops.

    Among the reasons given for such bans are environmental concerns (transgenic crops can transmit their engineered traits to wild plants); possible effects on human health from the consumption of engineered foods; and, not least, concerns that biotechnology will lead to corporate control of the world’s food production.

    Major biotechnology companies argue that bioengineering is the answer to solving world hunger, and that genetic engineering is simply a faster, more efficient way to introduce desirable traits into plants than cross breeding is.

    “Clearly in Europe, there is concern about engineered foodstuffs,” Harrington says. “In some cases there may be cause for concern, but, by and large, not that we know of. Everybody is trying to be responsible here.”

    Despite the industry’s insistence that genetic engineering is safe and beneficial, the failure of genetic engineers — such as Manshardt — to abide by strict protocols for the development and cultivation of transgenic plants can result in damage a state’s environment, reputation and business relations.

    Hawai`i can afford none of these.

    The Ringspot Virus

    The papaya ringspot virus made its first appearance in Hawai`i in the 1940s. Back then, papaya production was based on O`ahu. The virus (PRSV), transmitted by aphids, decreases fruit production, lowers the fruit’s sugar content, and causes blemishes.

    In the 1960s, after a serious breakout of PRSV on O`ahu, the industry was relocated to the Puna District on the Big Island. An article in the Winter 1997 edition of Malamalama, the publication of the University of Hawai`i, describes the progress of the infestation. Papaya growers in the isolated Puna region were initially “untroubled by PRSV, but horticulturists who had previous experience with the virus feared that a major epidemic in Puna was inevitable,” the article says. “Consequently, CTAHR initiated research to combat PRSV in the late 1970s.”

    Today, all major production areas, including Brazil, the Caribbean, Mexico, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and China are affected by the virus. And once a region has been hit, PRSV is there to stay: no eradication effort yet has been successful.

    One early approach taken by O`ahu farmers was cross protection, a technique that allowed papaya production in high virus pressure areas. This technique involved the use of a mild strain of PRSV as an innoculum to produce resistance against the severe strain of the virus.

    “This technique was at best a stopgap measure and not a permanent solution,” according to Ken Kamiya, papaya grower and vice chairman for the Papaya Administrative Committee. (The PAC was established by a federal marketing order in 1971 to control the quality of Hawai`i papayas.) Kamiya made the statement in written testimony at a meeting last October of the state’s Agribusiness Development Corporation, which was considering providing a $100,000 grant — eventually approved — for acquisition of the technology to develop the transgenic papayas.

    Gene Therapy

    The first steps toward genetically altering papayas to resist the virus began in the early 1980s, when Cornell University professor, UH alumnus and Kohala native Dennis Gonsalves first isolated and purified the virus and created a weakened form that produced only minor disease symptoms on papaya. Gonsalves also managed to extract from the virus a single gene that controls the production of the virus’ protein envelope. Gonsalves theorized that the gene, if added to the papaya’s genetic code, would disrupt the virus’ ability to reproduce inside the papaya.

    In 1987, Gonsalves and CTAHR’s Manshardt recruited then UH doctoral student Maureen Fitch to experiment with ways to regenerate complete papaya plants from single cells using a process known as tissue culture. Enlisted in the effort to develop a papaya resistent to the ringspot virus, Fitch used a “gene gun” to shoot the virus coat protein gene into the papaya cells.

    This technology is not without its drawbacks. As described in Against the Grain, the gene gun shoots microparticles of DNA-coated gold, tungsten or other inert materials directly into plant cells. Authors Lappe and Bailey warn, “No one knows where the novel DNA has been spliced into the plant’s own array of genes. Only by blind luck will a few plants survive… Predictably, some of this new DNA may unbalance or disrupt the normal functioning of the resident genes, much as an unwanted guest can disturb a stable household. Should this happen, it may be several generations before the resulting disruption is fully realized. In the interim, the affected plants may show reduced vigor or other debility resulting from an imbalanced genome.”

    But concerns over possible risks of genetic engineering did not derail the work of Fitch and Manshardt, who, in 1988 and 1989, “packed vials of papaya tissue in an ice chest and flew to New York for the experiments. Once exposed, the tissues were cultured at UH and then sent back to New York for field experiments. In April 1991, Fitch… received news that one of her plants, later named SunUp, had successfully resisted exposure to the virus,” the Malamalama article says.

    With the good news in hand, the scientists began field tests of SunUp in 1991, under the authorization of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

    The Regulatory Net

    With its multiple growing seasons, Hawai`i is an attractive place for companies to field test their genetically engineered products. Given that, John Harrison of the University of Hawai`i Environmental Center, as well as Bob Grossmann of the state Department of Health were concerned that Hawai`i would become “kind of a wild west, with Monsanto coming in” and indiscriminately introducing foreign plants and organisms, Harrison told Environment Hawai`i.

    The federal regulatory scheme involves three major agencies:

    USDA/APHIS must approve all applications for field testing of organisms or products made through genetic engineering that are “plant pests or that there is reason to believe are plant pests.” The USDA oversees how the plant is grown and where it is planted.

    The EPA regulates the sale, distribution, use, and testing of plants and microbes that produce pesticidal substances and establishes tolerances for residues of herbicides used on novel herbicide-tolerant crops.

    The FDA enforces the tolerances set by the EPA and oversees the proper labeling of food or feed derived from genetically engineered plants. According to an FDA website, however, “Many of the food crops currently being developed using biotechnology do not contain substances that are significantly different from those already in the diet and thus do not requre pre-market approval.” In addition, the FDA does not require genetically engineered food crops to be labeled.

    Limited Authority

    In Hawai`i, the state plays a minor role in the development of strict regulations on genetically engineered crops. In effect, the state DOA’s Plant Quarantine Branch either concurs with or adds to safety measures that the USDA plans to require of an applicant. On occasion, state DOA or local USDA officials will inspect a project site for conformance to the USDA’s conditions.

    Efforts to develop a more powerful system of state oversight were made in the early 1990s. Then, field testing of genetically engineered crops in Hawai`i was far from commonplace, and there was some concern among state officials about the effects of introducing foreign organisms into Hawai`i’s unique environment. Federal law at the time provided only for the state to review applications sent to the USDA/APHIS and to make recommendations to the applicant.

    From their concern sprouted an ad hoc committee to review genetic engineering projects and to plan a strategy for monitoring biotechnology research. Bob Grossmann, who worked as the special assistant to the director of the DOH, was one of the driving forces behind the committee’s formation.

    Grossmann also pushed the 1990 Legislature to pass a bill, introduced by then-Rep. Jim Shon, that would have required all applicants wishing to field test genetically engineered crops in Hawai`i to prepare an environmental assessment. The bill was debated in a climate of some urgency, in light of a proposal by Calgene, Inc. (now owned by Monsanto) to plant genetically engineered cotton on Kaua`i, which is home to a Hawaiian strain of cotton.

    Opponents of Shon’s bill argued that the USDA’s permitting process already allowed public input and the number of proposed releases of genetically modified organisms or plants was so small at the time that an environmental assessment would be unnecessary and burdensome on a developing industry.

    Shon’s bill died in the Senate Health Committee. Calgene went on to plant its genetically modified cotton in Hawai`i. Years later, in 1995, the EPA announced that, “In response to concerns about gene transfer in Hawai`i, Monsanto has submitted revised labeling incorporating the following restrictions: ‘Not for sale or use in Hawai`i. Test plots or breeding nurseries established in Hawai`i must be surrounded by either 12 border rows of non-transgenic cotton of the plot size is less than 10 acres or 24 border rows if the plot is over 10 acres and must not be planted within a quarter mile of Gossypium tomentosum [the Hawaiian cotton].”

    After the legislative setback, the DOH ad hoc committee struggled for a few more years to exercise some oversight over the development of biotechnology in Hawai`i. It was dissolved finally in 1994, when Grossmann left the DOH.

    Thereafter, the state’s involvement in overseeing genetic engineering projects in Hawai`i has been limited to the DOA’s review of applications to USDA/APHIS and the participation of state employees in the deliberations of the University of Hawai`i’s Institutional Biosafety Committee. (The National Institute of Health requires all institutions doing NIH-supported genetic experiments to establish an IBC, which includes at least two outside members from regulatory agencies or environmental groups. In the particular case of the UH biosafety committee, the non-university members have come from the state Department of Agriculture and Department of Health.) In addition to the university, the Hawai`i Sugar Planters Association also has its own IBC.

    UH’s IBC reviews and makes recommendations for those experiments in which UH scientists are involved. “For each application, the substance is considered, and specific mitigations, restrictions, are stipulated before the IBC will sign off,” says Harrison, director of the university’s Environmental Center and an IBC member.

    At present, state law with respect to the review of genetically engineered organisms is limited to Section 321-11.6, Hawai`i Revised Statutes. The law requires anyone seeking federal approval to field test genetically modified organisms to submit a copy of the federal application to the state Department of Health at the same time. According to sources at the Department of Health, no copies of applications have been received in the five years since Bob Grossmann left.

    Local supporters of biotechnology would like to see the state DOA’s plant and animal quarantine rules loosened even further to ease the importation of micro-organisms needed in biotech research.

    “There are a lot of things that do not make sense in the law,” Harrington says. All kinds of fungi, spores, bacteria, algae, and other microbes come to Hawai`i on the shoes or other items of travelers coming from the mainland or in bilgewater from foreign ships, he says. Yet if scientists want to import one of those micro-organisms that are restricted or prohibited by quarantine guidelines, the red tape they’d have to wade through is formidable, he says.

    Designer Genes

    Around the same time Calgene sought to field test genetically engineered cotton, Manshardt was jumping through hoops to field test the SunUp papayas in Hawai`i.

    Given the concern about possible gene outcrossing that arose during discussion of the cotton trials, Manshardt amended his permit application to the USDA to include a number of control measures, following recommendations from the state Department of Agriculture. The measures included covering fruits with cloth bags to prevent seed dispersal by birds; killing all plants with herbicide at the end of the trials; and fencing the field to keep out animals.

    On December 11, 1991, the state DOA informed Manshardt that the amendments “adequately meet our concerns for the containment of genetically engineered papaya plants,” but made still more recommendations. Among other things, the DOA urged Manshardt to determine the sex of the transformed papaya plants in the greenhouse before they were planted in the field, and then to plant only female plants, because they do not produce pollen.

    In 1993, Manshardt proposed planting the transgenic papayas at a Dole Company site near Poamoho. This time, the UH IBC voiced concerned that transgenes might be carried in wind-borne pollen to a germplasm collection at Poamoho, which provides papaya seed for international export.

    In an October 31, 1993 memo to Hubert Olipares, the IBC’s Biological Safety Officer, Manshardt assured that no transgenes would escape:

    “The pollen grains of papaya are small and dry, and seem adapted for wind dispersal. Papaya plants are of three distinct sex types: pistillate, hermaphrodite, and staminate. Of these, only staminate plants pose a likelihood of long distance transmission of transgenes through wind-borne pollen,” he wrote. “Pistillate plants never produce pollen…, the hermaphrodites frequently do not even adequately pollinate plants in the same field, much less at greater distance. Staminate papaya plants, on the other hand, may have dozens of open flowers on any given say and produce large amounts of pollen, but our test plot will not contain staminate plants.”

    Under these conditions, Manshardt conducted field tests until 1996. After five years, in September 1996, the USDA prepared an environmental assessment for transgenic papayas and determined that they have no significant impact. With that, the SunUp papaya was removed from the federal regulatory process.

    By this time, however, the papaya ringspot virus had been laying waste to Big Island papaya fields for four years. Since 1992, more than 100 papaya farmers were forced to destroy their fields to prevent the virus’ spread. As a result of the virus, Big Island papaya production fell from 58 million pounds in 1993 to 36 million pounds in 1997, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

    The deregulation of SunUp alone could not save Hawai`i’s industry. SunUp, a red-fleshed fruit type, is planted throughout the tropics. However, the yellow-fleshed Kapoho is Hawai`i’s major export. So Manshardt and his associates developed another transgenic papaya that would satisfy the market — the Rainbow, a hybrid between the SunUp and the Kapoho.

    The conditions of Manshardt’s permit for field trials of Rainbow papayas mirrored those of the SunUp tests. Once more, Manshardt agreed not to use staminate, or male, papaya plants in the field trials. Field tests of this variety, which also proved to be resistant to PRSV, were wrapped up by December 1996, according to Manshardt.

    Loose Genes

    Dennis Gonsalves and Manshardt sought to broaden resistance among all papaya lines and began work on a third Hawaiian papaya — the Sunrise. (Sunrise is similar to the SunUp, but has a shorter shelf life.) Work on this variety began in late 1996, according to Manshardt.

    Manshardt sent Gonsalves material from what he thought was female and hemaphrodite papaya plants. Gonslaves bombarded the papaya cells with tiny metal particles coated with the virus, then he returned the embryos to Manshart, who would grow them out and transplant them into the field.

    The field tests began in the spring and summer of 1997 and were carried out at the Waimanalo Research Station on O`ahu. The site, Manshardt says, is “as isolated as we could get. There is no commercial production of papaya nearby,” and a about a third of a mile separates his test site from others in the area.

    Late in July 1997, Manshardt noticed 15 male plants among 179 papayas in one of his test fields — Field G. He immediately had the males cleared out.

    As he was later to explain to the USDA, Manshardt surmised at the time that the males resulted from natural outcrossing between the non-transgenic Sunrise papaya, a hermaphrodite, and an unknown male parent. The Sunrise papayas had not been bagged to prevent outcrossing, which is typically low among hermaphrodites. Manshardt has a large collection of papaya germplasm at his station in Poamoho, which was where the samples he sent Gonsalves came from. The male pollen “could have come from anywhere,” he says.

    He did not report the presence of the male plants right away, Manshardt wrote to the USDA in his January 25, 1998, letter, because, he said, it did not occur to him that it was a permit violation until December 1997.


    On February 3, 1998, Susan Koehler of the USDA acknowledged Manshardt’s letter and thanked him for reporting the problem.

    On March 16, 1998, Ralph Stoaks, regional program manager for the USDA-APHIS western region, notified Manshardt that his experiment was in violation of his permit.

    “Susan Koehler, Biotechnology Permits… has advised me that you have allowed a transgene to escape during the experiment and cannot predict how far it has gone beyond the quarter-mile area of surveillance,” Stoaks wrote.

    “Staminate plants were present up to three months, but you do not know how much pollination occurred. You should have used the length of the inflorescence [the flowering part of a plant] to distinguish the staminate from the pistillate/hermaphrodite prior to anthesis [full bloom]. The next step should have been to remove and devitalize these plants to prevent pollination. Therefore, I am recommending investigation by Enforcement Services. They will review and take appropriate action,” he wrote.

    In his correspondence with Manshardt, Stoaks had referred to the coat protein used in the genetic engineering of the papayas as “a highly virulent virus sequence.”

    This charactertization worried Manshardt, since his nutrient tests of the transgenic papaya show that the PRSV coat protein used in the transgenic papayas is no more dangerous to human health that eating non-transgenic papayas infected by PRSV.

    In a March 16, 1998, email message to David Christopher, a plant physiologist with CTAHR and member of the IBC, Manshardt said Stoaks’ description of the coat protein was simply not true. And if the general public and growers were to learn that Manshardt let a “highly virulent virus sequence” escape from his test site, there could be “serious repercussions for CTAHR and me.”

    That same day, Christopher wrote Hubert Olipares of the IBC, “We need to state that there is no threat to the environment.” Two weeks later, on March 30, 1998, the UH Environmental Health and Safety Office sent a letter to Stoaks, saying that Manshardt “made a sincere effort to comply and that there was no intentional wrongdoing on his part.”

    Stoaks eventually agreed to change his description of the coat protein from “highly virulent virus sequence” to the less dramatic “transgene.”

    An Oversight

    When Manshardt began testing the Sunrise papaya, he had about five years of field testing genetically engineered papaya under his belt. When he presented his experiment to the federal and local governing agencies, he expressed certainty that no males would be present.

    “I based this projection on the fact that all of our plants derive from hermaphrodite papaya lines,” Manshardt explained in his January 1998 letter to Diane Hatmaker of the USDA. “At the time Field G was planted, few of the plants had flowered, and consequently, the sex of most was unknown.”

    But in May 1998, when Manshardt submitted a field test report to Hatmaker, he disclosed that he had disregarded control measures that he initially said would be included in his experiment. While he had proposed planting a buffer, or border rows, of SunUp papayas around the field of test plans, “ultimately, I decided not to employ border rows.” He gave several reasons for the decision, including what he described as the marginal effectiveness of border rows as a barrier to pollen movement and the scarcity of land, which, he said, “must be reserved for more important research objectives.”

    In a June 11 affidavit to the USDA, Manshardt said: “I have no explanation other than I just failed to connect the presence of male plants as violating the USDA permit.” It was not intentional, but clearly an oversight, he wrote.

    A day earlier, the UH Institutional Biosafety Committee, which reviews all biotechnology research at UH, wrote Mark Westritch, senior investigator for the USDA, that the university had “initiated policies and procedures to prevent future environmental releases of genetically modified commodities in recombinant fields.” These included quarterly monitoring of fields, greenhouses, screen houses and growth chambers and written notification of all major events (including initial plantings, pesticide applications, outbreaks of disease or infection, theft, or vandalism).

    CTAHR and the UH IBC developed a system whereby, if a field permit requires certain things, “our IBC, when it approves a field trial, has in place a check-off sheet [for male plants, theft of material, etc.] that is filled out and dated [by the scientist] and goes into a permanent notebook,” Harrington says.

    Today, Manshardt and his team has a checksheet every time they go into the field. Checking for male plants is just one of the items on the sheet. “Papayas don’t change sex,” Manshardt says, “Nonetheless, we have a form. Before, it was more informal.”

    Catching the Genetic Drift

    Manshardt insists that, although his experiment with PRSV posed no toxic threat, he treated it with as much care as “one as hazardous as changing nutrient content.” While the wayward males in Manshardt’s papaya fields seem so far to have had no impact — environmental or otherwise — they illustrate how easily mistakes can be made. And not all of them are as apparently harmless as Manshardt’s.

    For example, in 1997, Monsanto recalled 60,000 bag units of two types of canola seeds because one or both types contained the wrong gene, according to the June 5, 1997 edition of Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly.

    “Under Canadian law, there are three levels of approval for genetically engineered crops: environmental (meaning the crop can be planted), livestock (the resulting crop can be fed to livestock), and human (the resulting crop can be fed to humans).” Rachel’s states. Somehow, Monsanto allowed an unapproved gene to end up in the seed that had to be recalled.

    “The presence of the unapproved canola gene in a commercial product reveals, at a minimum, that Monsanto’s quality assurance programs failed in this instance and that the biotechnology regulatory system in Canada is ineffective. The regulatory system in the U.S. is more lax than Canada’s,” Rachel’s writes.

    Rachel’s takes note of another incident that occurred in 1987, when a Japanese firm marketed an amino acid that had been produced from a genetically engineered bacteria. “Unexpected trace contaminants — not all of which were ever identified chemically — appeared in the final product and an estimated 5 to 10 thousands people in the U.S. fell ill with a new and exceedingly painful disease called eosinophillia-myalgia syndrome (EMS). At least 37 people died and thousands more were disabled.”

    A case that illustrates the possible consequences of accidental gene outcrossing — such as might have occurred in Manshardt’s papaya field trials — is reported in the Campaign for Food Safety News of April 16. Prima Terra, a Wisconsin-based organic food manufacturer, saw 80,000 bags of its organic corn chips destroyed in Holland earlier this year, after testing positive for traces of genetically engineered corn. Eventually, CFS reports, Prima Terra was able to trace the source of the corn back to an organic farmer in Texas, whose crop was contaminated by “genetic drift” from a neighboring farm.

    The Prima Terra case points out some of the concerns of many organic farmers and organic food processors. Crops that contain DNA from genetically engineered plants cannot qualify to be certified organic. Should “genetic pollution” become commonplace, organic produce could become even scarcer than it already is.

    In Hawai`i, the USDA, the state DOA, and the IBC periodically inspect the site during field trials, Manshardt says.

    “In spite of that,” he adds, “a lot of what goes on is based on trust. Without it, the system is difficult to operate…. The point needs to be made that it is possible to tighten up regulations to the point where nobody can do research.”

    Read the original story

Comments are closed.