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Friday, April 27, 2007

Genetically modified crops don't stay put

Oral arguments will be heard in federal court next week on whether food and safety regulations sufficiently separate genetically modified (GM) alfalfa from the non-GM stuff. As it has done with several other crops, Monsanto has developed a GM-strain of alfalfa that's resistant to its herbicide, allowing farmers to kill all plant life except the crop they're planting.

The court case addresses the issue of "genetic drift." Once planted, there's nothing to stop the genes from this alfalfa from being spread to nearby unmodified alfalfa, since the process of pollination is part and parcel of plant evolution. The spread of GM crops raises several concerns:
  1. Do the GM crops introduce any novel harm to human health? There have been few tests done on the long-term effects of human consumption of GM crops, because the FDA considers them to be "substantially equivalent" to existing foods products.
  2. Do farmers with their own strains of alfalfa have a right to grow crops without human-modified genes?
  3. Can Monsanto claim ownership over alfalfa pollinated with their patented genes? In Canada, one farmer lost his entire store of canola seed after the high court ruled that Monsanto owns its genes wherever they spread.
  4. What is the impact of these novel genes being spread in the wild? One article from Wired looks at the rise of Roundup Ready coca plants in Central America. If the GM-coca plant spreads, it turns U.S. anti-drug efforts into a public service for drug lords. A "super grass" in Oregon has spread beyond its test plot.
Learn more about the issues involved, from regulation to health and safety, here. And take a little time to think about what's on your plate.

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