GM pollution in the gene bank? Time for 'Plan B'

Correct citation: ETC (2002), GM pollution in the gene bank? Time for 'Plan B' .
Biotechnology and Development Monitor
, No. 49, p. 24.

The world's centres of crop genetic diversity are the part of biodiversity that feeds people. The gene banks within those centres are critical for global food security. Now, the Mesoamerican centre is contaminated with genetically modified (GM) material and its most important gene bank may be contaminated as well.

10 years ago at the Rio Earth Summit, heads of state adopted the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and wrestled with climate change strategies. World leaders recognized that the frontline for future food security lies in those regions of the tropics and sub-tropics that are centres of crop genetic diversity. Also that internationally held collections of farmers' seeds in gene banks are the final defence against global warming. That was the plan.
GM DNA poses a special risk to centres of crop diversity if genes from GM crops escape to related crops and their wild relatives. How long before GM wheat is introduced in the Horn of Africa, the genetic homeland of wheat? What risk will GM rice pose in Southeast Asia? GM potatoes in the Andes? On the 10th anniversary of the CBD, governments must meet this threat head on. It's time for Plan B! In January 2002, the Mexican Ministry of the Environment stated that new tests confirmed that in some extremely remote regions of Oaxaca and Puebla, up to 60 per cent of the farmers' varieties tested contained evidence of transgenic material. If these two states are contaminated, it stands to reason that the pollution has already spread throughout Mesoamerica. Then it is a matter of time before some of the world's most essential seed banks - the cold storage facilities that guard millions of crop seed samples that are either rare or extinct in the field - also become infected.
The most internationally accessible maize gene bank is at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) just outside Mexico City. It has been gathering and safeguarding threatened maize and wheat seed for half a century. The diversity of traditional maize varieties, and that of its wild relatives, is the toolbox for future varieties and our best defence against the erratic changes in crop pests and diseases that will come with climate change.
In February 2002, the CIMMYT reported that its surveys carried out since October 2001 revealed no transgenic DNA. However, many are convinced that it is only a matter of time before scientists find GM material in the gene bank. The Centre has an, 'in-trust' agreement with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which obliges it to ensure the integrity of the maize and wheat collections.
All the alarms have been tripped for the Precautionary Principle. The biotechnology industry has demonstrated repeatedly that current national regulatory programmes are inadequate and industry cannot manage the movement of transgenic materials. Now that the pollution has spread to at least one centre of crop genetic diversity, the only appropriate political and scientific solution is to call for a moratorium on the sowing of transgenic crops unless and until governments have the real capacity to regulate biotechnology. Pending a moratorium the following proposals are interim, minimalist measures that can be adopted quickly.

Plan B - six initiatives
1. The biotechnology industry should announce an immediate moratorium on the shipment of transgenic seed that is destined for that crop's centre of genetic diversity and/or where wild relatives of the crop are known to exist.
2. Commodity exporting and importing companies should take whatever steps necessary to ensure that they do not inadvertently send GM material in an unprocessed form to any country in a centre of crop diversity, and/or where wild relatives of the crop are known to exist.
3. Governments within centres of diversity should immediately undertake their own evaluation of GM contamination and adopt procedures to ensure that contamination does not take place through seed or commodity imports.
4. Governments should undertake studies of their national gene banks to ensure that contamination is not already present and adopt measures to ensure that new acquisitions and regeneration activities do not lead to contamination.
5. As an urgent priority, the Director-General of FAO and the Chair of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) should call upon industry and governments to implement a moratorium on GM seed and commodity shipments, as well as field trials, in centres of diversity for GM species. They should also ask governments to evaluate national gene banks for GM material.
6. FAO and CGIAR should together launch an evaluation of international gene banks whose materials are held in trust with FAO and adopt the necessary measures and codes to ensure their continued genetic integrity.

Contamination presents a major long-term threat to world food security. The pressure is heavily on CGIAR and its 16 international agricultural research centres - of which CIMMYT is one. Eleven research centres have major gene banks. FAO, with its new International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources and the Trust Agreement with CGIAR gene banks, is ultimately responsible for the integrity of these collections and must be prepared to act decisively.

Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration
The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC), formerly RAFI, is dedicated to the advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights.


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