- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 30, 2002

If Mexican politicians are concerned about the threat genetic engineering poses to their country's native corn, Michael Hansen has an even more alarming scenario for them to contemplate.

Mr. Hansen, a research associate with Consumers Union, says a California company wants to splice into corn the gene for an enzyme that kills human sperm. The enzyme was found in certain women who were unable to conceive because their immune systems attacked sperm and killed it.

The goal would be to use modified corn to turn out huge, pharmaceutically pure quantities of the enzyme for use in producing a male birth-control drug, Mr. Hansen said.

Yet, he says, indications that foreign genetic material from the United States has migrated into native Mexican corn through cross-pollination despite efforts by the Mexican government to prevent it are evidence that what can go wrong often does.

"All of these companies that are talking about using plants to produce human drugs say they'll keep them separate from the environment and make certain none of the pollen escapes into other plants," said Mr. Hansen. "But look what happened in Mexico."

Mr. Hansen is a leader of the campaign to force U.S. food manufacturers to apply disclosure labels to products that contain genetically modified material.

The Food and Drug Administration says that because it has certified the inherent safety of bioengineered food, it has no reason to require manufacturers to apply disclosure labels that might stigmatize the food.

The agency has suggested voluntary labels on which companies may declare something like, "This product is not grown using biotechnology."

However, some surveys have shown that up to half of products with that sort of label do contain food with genetic modifications. The Grocery Manufacturers of America estimates that 70 percent of grocery store food in America may have been made with biotechnology crops.

Slightly less than half of all the corn, cotton and soybeans grown in the United States contain some type of foreign gene primarily a bacterial transplant that makes them resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. This allows farmers to use more of the herbicide to control weeds without harming their crops.

American farmers planted about 35 million acres of bioengineered soybeans last year and 25 million acres of bioengineered corn.

International markets for the genetically modified crops have been hindered by labeling requirements and other restrictions overseas, Mr. Hansen said.

Yet the acreage devoted to transgenic crops has grown dramatically. According to figures provided by Monsanto, genetically modified crops were grown on approximately 4 million acres worldwide in 1996 and on more than 100 million acres four years later.

Monsanto said farmers planting "corn, cotton and soybeans improved through biotechnology" will be able to reduce annual pesticide use by 57 million pounds between 2000 and 2009.

Other defenders of the emerging technology say it will translate into increased yield and reduced cost for many Third World farmers.

Still others see little evidence that the appearance of foreign genes in Mexico's native corn varieties or American fast-food taco shells, or in the milkweed plants on which monarch butterflies feed, mean human health or the environment is in any danger.

This wouldn't do anything to help Percy Schmeizer, 71, a Saskatchewan canola farmer whose legal problems were caused by migrating engineered genes.

Several years ago, Mr. Schmeizer's neighbor planted a variety of canola or rapeseed that contained Monsanto's Roundup-resistant gene.

Mr. Schmeizer said some of the seed blew over to his 700-acre rapeseed field and spread, contaminating with foreign genes the seed he had been developing since he started producing rapeseed in 1947.

Monsanto sued him, claiming he was violating its intellectual property rights by growing a kind of rapeseed that contained its patented gene for Roundup resistance.

Mr. Schmeizer said a provincial court had ruled for the company, declaring that regardless of how the gene found its way onto his land, Canadian patent law provided that he was violating patent rights by growing it.

"My case has become a focal point for the whole world," he said. "We're appealing it, and I'm also suing them for ruining the canola seed that I've spent a half a century developing."

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