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Thursday, July 4, 2002

NATURAL SELECTIONS

GM crops' gene flow is a trickle not a flood


In Italy and France, genetically modified foods are the subject of intense public debate -- and the feelings of most of the public are negative. Speaking last month in Tokyo, Italian sociologist of science Massimiano Bucchi attributed public resistance to GM foods in these countries to the central role that food plays in their cultures. GM foods are also fiercely resisted in Britain, maybe because there are more pressure groups there (surely, said Bucchi, it can't be because the British love their food).

In other words, the French and the Italians love their food, but the British love to kick up a stink.

There is less of a stink over GM foods in Japan, although there is arguably more of a reason to make one. Akira Iritani, at Kinki University in Osaka, announced at the beginning of the year that he had made pigs carrying a gene from spinach. If confirmed (the work is unpublished), it would be the first time that an animal has been made containing a gene from a plant. Iritani claims that the FAD2 gene from spinach converts saturated fat into unsaturated fat (linoleic acid). Bacon from such pigs would, according to Iritani, contain 20 percent less saturated fat than bacon from normal pigs.

Animal-rights groups in Britain were quick to condemn the work. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said the research was "totally disgraceful."

Why is there less fuss about GM foods in Japan? Is it because the Japanese are less well-informed than their Western counterparts? Is the public less worried about the potential dangers of GM foods? Or, as claimed by an "Introduction to Japan" pamphlet I was given at Saitama Stadium during the World Cup, is it because "the Japanese are essentially a shy people"?

It may be any or all of those things. An opinion poll commissioned in Britain by the biotech industry in February found that two-thirds of the people surveyed felt they didn't know enough about GM foods, and that they might be favorable to them if environmental and health benefits could be demonstrated.

One of the major fears about GM crops is over the spread of their genes to other plants through pollination -- contaminating organic crops or creating "superweeds" resistant to herbicides. When this has happened, farmers have been forced to revert to using stronger herbicides on their crops. The possibility of gene flow between plants is clearly a serious problem -- and it has now been addressed in a comprehensive Australian study published in Science last week.

Unlike previous studies of gene flow in crops, this study was on a far larger scale. The pollen sources were 25- to 100-hectare fields, located all over Australia, covering a range of environmental conditions.

Mary Rieger, from the Cooperative Research Center for Australian Weed Management at the University of Adelaide, and colleagues studied a new breed of canola (oilseed rape) that was put on the Australian market for the first time in the growing season 2000-2001. The canola contained genes conferring resistance to certain weedkillers, but it wasn't "genetically modified" -- the strain had been bred by conventional techniques. To all intents and purposes, its pollen -- carrying the genes for resistance -- would be spread the same as if it were a newly introduced GM crop.

"These are real-world data that can be used for real-world decisions," Paul Raymer, an agronomist at the University of Georgia, told Science.

Rieger and colleagues looked at more than 700,000 seedlings from "conventional" fields around the canola fields. They found that herbicide-resistance had crossed to 63 percent of the normal fields, but it had been picked up by only 0.03 percent of individual plants in those fields. Some herbicide-resistant pollen had spread 3 km from the source field.

This means that gene flow is far lower than previous, small-scale studies had suggested and well below 1 percent, the maximum that Australian regulators consider acceptable.

"This research indicates that pollen movement on a large scale cannot necessarily be predicted from small-scale studies," Rieger said.

Evidence of low gene flow should allay the fears of consumers that transgenes can "jump" to non-GM crops. But it can't completely remove that possibility.

So GM food might not be so dangerous to grow, and according to a recent report on GM food safety, it might not be so dangerous to eat. The Royal Society report concluded that there is no reason to doubt the safety of GM foods currently available, nor to believe that genetic modification makes foods inherently less safe than their conventional counterparts.

But even if independent research shows that GM foods are as safe as conventional foods and pose little threat to the environment, a sticking point will remain for many people. The manufacture of GM foods is dominated by a few U.S. companies, who sold biotechnology to the World Food Summit in Rome last month as the solution to world hunger. It also just happens to be the solution to the directors' desires for a fatter paycheck . . .

A fact sheet on GM animals can be found on the Royal Society Web site at www.royalsociety.ac.uk Massimiano Bucchi's book "Science and the Media" is published by Routledge. You can e-mail Rowan Hooper at rowan@japantimes.co.jp


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