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US admits GM crop cock-up

Sold 'several hundred tonnes' of non-approved maize

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A US biotech company has admitted that several hundred tonnes of non-approved GM corn produced from its seed have been sold over the past four years. The Bt10 seed was planted accidently instead of the Bt11 variety. Although developer Syngenta says that its admission of the error to US regulators last year confirms that monitoring procedures are effective, critics claim the opposite.

Bt10 and Bt11 are physically identical and have been modified with a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which acts as a pesticide against "corn borer", Nature reports. Bt11 has already been approved as fit for human consumption, and is widely grown. The two GM varieties differ only in "a handful of nucleotides on a section of the gene that does not code for the protein toxin", and US government scientists have concluded since the revelation that Bt10 too is safe to eat.

It is not, however, approved for cultivation. The cock-up came to light when "one of [Syngenta's] seed manufacturers, which was attempting to use the corn seeds in plant-breeding experiments, informed it that the seed was not Bt11".

Since late 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture - the bodies jointly responsible for GM regulation - have been in talks with Syngenta as to how best to deal with the error, and "how and when information should be released to the public". Regarding said release, the US administration is reported to have taken a keen interest in the damage-limitation procedure.

That the White House is also involved comes as no surprise, given that the US and EU are enjoying an ongoing punch-up over GM crops. Bt11 was approved for importation into the EU in 1998, and the US hopes it will become one of the first GM crops for widespread cultivation across the Pond. Syngenta declined, however, to say whether Bt10 had inadvertantly landed on European shores, or indeed to list any countries to which it may have been exported.

The UK's Department for The Environment, Food And Rural Affairs said today in a statement: "There is no actual indication that this contamination could have affected supplies of maize [corn] exported to the UK. The amount of seed in question is very small. In addition, only 18% of US corn is exported - and the EU imports only a very small proportion of US exports of maize.

"In addition this form of maize is used predominantly in animal feed rather than in food production. We do however apply high standards of enforcement and as part of our firm commitment to consumer choice and information we are making this information public."

Such reassurances will do little to placate critics of the US's regulatory infrastructure. Michael Rodemeyer, director of the Washington DC-based Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, said: "This will raise questions in the minds of countries that import food from the United States about whether we have adequate controls in place. It will provide ammunition for critics of genetically modified food - and it may provide incentives for countries to look at non-genetically modified varieties."

In related news, a major UK government-sponsored study this week confirmed that some GM crops have a demonstrably detrimental effect on wildlife, the Scotsman notes.

Scientists looked at GM winter-sown oilseed rape and its non-GM equivalent. They found that "fewer broad leaved weeds and their seeds were present in fields where the GM herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape was grown". Accordingly, there could be less food for insects which eat such weeds, with a resultant effect on birds who rely on insects for their supper.

During the four-year, £6m study, a team of 150 collected one million weeds and two million insects before presenting the results to the government's advisory committee on releases to the environment. Environment minister Elliot Morely said: "The trials demonstrate the government’s precautionary approach on GM crops and our firm commitment to case-by-case decisions are underpinned by sound scientific evidence."

The research appears to have had an immediate effect. Friends of the Earth Scotland claim that biotech big-hitter Bayer has decided to withdraw an application to the EU to grow the variety of GM winter oilseed rape used in the tests. Dr Dan Barlow, the head of research for Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: "These results are yet another major blow to the biotech industry. Almost every EU country has raised serious concerns about the impact that this crop could have on our environment and health."

The results for previous tests on GM maize, spring-sown oilseed rape and beet - released last October - showed that the latter two also had a detrimental effect on wildlife. ®

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