The 'some light on the horizon' referred to in the final paragraph would involve the adoption of Terminator technology.
GENETIC ENGINEERING: Seeds of dispute
BUNGLES and mix-ups throughout 2000 did little to allay public fears about genetically modified crops. Even in the US, a costly food scare has dented industry's enthusiasm for GM products, while the fact that such an incident can happen has raised serious concerns about food safety. ... In May, hundreds of farmers in Britain, France and Sweden found they'd inadvertently planted GM oilseed rape that had not been approved in Europe. Mixed in with their conventional seed, bought from Advanta of Canada, was a proportion of GM seed. Advanta says the unwanted seeds came from plants that were pollinated by a GM variety more than a kilometre away.
This event could be just the tip of an iceberg. In the same month, New Scientist revealed that tests carried out by Genetic ID of Iowa found that half of 20 randomly chosen samples of conventional seeds from American distributors contained traces of GM varieties. These problems are caused not only by "gene flow"--cross-pollination by GM varieties--but also by mixing seeds from different fields.
The most serious incident came in September in the US. Tests commissioned by Friends of the Earth revealed that a variety of GM maize meant only for animal feed had made its way into foods such as taco shells. Made by Aventis CropScience, the StarLink variety has not been approved for human consumption because it contains a protein that might be allergenic.
The discovery prompted a massive recall of all StarLink maize as well as hundreds of food products. But worse was to come. In November it emerged that the gene for the StarLink protein may have crossed into another strain of maize. While American consumers seem largely unconcerned, the cost of the fiasco has industry running scared. American corn exports are falling and at least one food company has urged farmers not to plant GM crops next year.
Fortunately, there's no evidence that the StarLink protein harms people--approval was withheld only as a precaution. But the fact that the only GM crop in the US not approved for human consumption found its way onto dining tables is deeply worrying. Why? Because this year, for the first time, a crop modified to make a drug was grown on a commercial scale. As such "pharming" becomes commonplace, the chances of a mix-up--and a dangerous one at that--will grow.
There is some light on the horizon. In a report released in October, British government advisers listed advances in biotechnology that could make GM crops safer. Gene flow could be stopped, the report says, by making plants that do not produce viable pollen, for example. But while such measures could help to protect people and the environment, they won't stop seed companies confusing batches or mills mixing different varieties.
Michael Le Page