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Critics fear biotechnology ‘gene flow’

Genetically grown grass, shown above, has cross-pollinated with regular grass. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Genetically grown grass, shown above, has cross-pollinated with regular grass. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

SAN FRANCISCO — California rice farmers are worried Japanese customers will boycott their products if genetically engineered rice is allowed into the state.

And in Hawaii, organic papaya farmers are outraged because traces of genetically engineered papaya are showing up in their harvest.

Biologists call it “gene flow.” It’s how plants have swapped genetic material through cross pollination since life first appeared.

But for people who choose to grow crops without genetically altering them, this natural biological exchange is a threat when bioengineered organisms are involved.

This week, already heightened tensions between the biotech industry and its foes peaked when the U.S. government published a study showing that genetically engineered grass found its way into conventionally grown grass some 12 miles away in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The study led to renewed calls for tighter gene flow regulations, especially from farmers who promise customers that their products are free of genetically modified material.

More farmers are reporting finding trace amounts of genetically modified organisms cross-pollinated or otherwise mingled with their organically grown crops. Those are potentially devastating discoveries because organic consumers generally demand that the higher-priced food they buy be free of biotechnological adulteration.

The problem, like the weather, respects no boundaries.

A NAFTA watchdog group said in March it had found genetically engineered corn in Mexico despite that country’s six-year-old biotechnology ban.

Meanwhile, consumers in Japan, Europe and elsewhere demand all their crops are grown conventionally. Farmers who can’t make those biotech guarantees risk losing those markets.

U.S. labeling rules allow for trace amounts of genetically engineered material in organic products. Still, organic growers and other growers fear market perception will turn against them if customers perceive that gene flow isn’t being controlled.

That’s why many rice farmers in California opposed a biotechnology company’s plan this summer to increase the acreage it devotes to rice spliced with human genes to produce medicines. The state government refused to let the company expand.

It’s also why organic growers in Hawaii earlier this month symbolically dumped 20 genetically engineered papayas into a trash bin labeled with a “biohazard” sign. Papaya genetically engineered to resist a virus were commercially grown for the first time in 1998 and are widely credited with turning around a moribund industry devastated by disease.