Gentech company mixes up own seed varieties

Control mechanisms failed for years

Corn with resistance gene to the antibiotic ampicillin was planted and fed in high quantities – to animals and people.

"There has been a mix-up", admits Syngenta spokesman Markus Payer. For four years, the Swiss-based biotech company allegedly "accidentally" produced seed of the unapproved genetically modified corn variety Bt10 and then sold it as seed of the – approved – variety Bt11.

No one noticed this until the error was discovered last year during in-house investigations. "the difference can be determined only by DNA analysis", explains Payer. Because the gene-modified proteins, which are searched for in routine tests, are the same in both varieties.

Antibiotic rendered ineffective by gene experiments

The difference between Bt10 and Bt11: Bt10 has a marker gene that is resistant to the antibiotic ampicillin. Ampicillin, however, is a frequently used antibiotic in human medicine – which is why the EU’s expert commission, the European Food Safety Authority, has urgently recommended that varieties with this marker gene should no longer be used in food with immediate effect: The risks to human health that this marker gene could pose are not foreseeable at the current state of research.

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The Bt10 seed produced by Syngenta between 2001 and 2004 is enough to cover 15,000 hectares of land, according to the company’s spokesman. Given Syngenta’s more than three million hectares of genetically modified land in the United States, this is a very small area, says the company spokesman. "There was and is no danger to humans or nature from the incorrect delivery of Bt10 seeds", says Payer. This is also the view of the US authorities – which is why they did not consider it necessary to inform their counterparts in the EU about the misdeclaration until three months after Syngenta’s self-disclosure.

However, 150 square kilometers of corn cultivation generate enough output for the EU Commission to conclude that more than one thousand tons of Bt10 corn have entered the European market – and have been used here both as animal feed and in the food industry. "A regrettable incident", Brussel hastily rejects. Neither are stricter controls of grain imports from the USA necessary, nor are investigations needed to find out where the corn finally ended up – which also excludes possible recall actions.

Mix-ups will always happen

But even if the authorities decided to actually expand and refine the monitoring of grain imports, there would never be 100 percent certainty against false declarations or unauthorized admixtures:

Genetic engineering in agriculture cannot be controlled

Genetic expert Ulrike Brendel of Greenpeace in Hamburg.

Traps in which genetically modified material even appeared in the grain trade from conventional cultivation piled up – especially in grain imports from the USA, where more and more genetically modified grain varieties are being cultivated and the control mechanisms are being loosened rather than tightened. For example, contamination can occur simply because conventional seed is stored in the same silos or transported in the same trucks that previously contained genetically modified grain. Soon, "the so-called freedom of choice for consumers" will no longer exist, warns Brendel.

Development organizations are also concerned about the increasing spread of genetic engineering in agriculture worldwide. Especially in light of the fact that the USA is the world’s largest grain exporter and also the main donor country for the UN’s World Food Program (WFP), they fear for biological security on the globe. For example, studies by a research institute in Central America showed that 80 percent of the samples from WFP supplies and U.S. imports that were examined contained genetically modified material – without this being explicitly declared. And even worse: the institute also detected admixtures of the Star-Link corn variety, which has been banned for cultivation in the U.S. for years – because it is suspected of causing allergies.

Ulrike Brendel of Greenpeace gave several more examples of where banned or experimental varieties appeared in cereal crops – her summary: "Impurities" and "confusion" The best way to prevent this is to not allow the cultivation of genetically modified cereals in the first place.