Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson
Transgene escape has again become a major biosafety and financial issue. On 18 August the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed that non-transgenic long grain rice in the US was contaminated with Bayer transgene event LL601. This transgene encodes resistance to the herbicide phosphinothricin and LL601 has not been approved (deregulated) for cultivation or use in food supplies in the US or elsewhere. Contamination with LL601 was first detected in January and reported to Bayer in May, Bayer informed the USDA in late July. Contamination however is likely to have predated detection in January since the last permit for growing LL601 rice expired in 2001.
Following the USDA announcement, rice contaminated with LL601 rice has been reported from the Netherlands, New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, France and Switzerland. The European union is testing every cargo of US rice and as of 11 Sept had found that 33 of 162 shipments were contaminated. These shipments are illegal in the EU and according to a spokesperson for the Commission “will be returned or destroyed” . Japan has suspended import of US long grain rice and prices of US rice have fallen while prices of Asian rice have risen since the announcement. This is the second transgene escape revelation in a month since researchers from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that genes from an experimental field trial of herbicide-tolerant creeping bentgrass had established in the wild up to a distance of 3.8 kilometres from an outdoor field trial.
Contamination of the food supply by LL601 rice and contamination of wild bentgrass by a herbicide tolerance transgene both occurred following experimental field trials which were officially overseen by USDA. USDA laxity in oversight of transgenic field trials has been severely criticised in the last few months. These criticisms are found in a report from the USDA’s own inspector, the office of the Inspector General which urged the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service “to strengthen its accountability for field tests of [genetically enhanced] crops.” The Inspector General pointed out that APHIS lacked “basic information about the field test sites it approves and is responsible for monitoring, including where and how the crops are being grown, and what becomes of them at the end of the field test.” This criticism is backed up by a report from the Washington D.C. based Center for Food Safety which found that gene flow would likely result from many field trials, even where regulations were followed. This is in turn echoed the verdict of a federal judge who ruled that APHIS was conducting field tests of pharmaceutical-containing plants with “utter disregard” for the endangered species act (ESA), and in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), by failing to conduct even preliminary investigations prior to its approval of the plantings. These recently documented cases of gene escape suggest that criticism of field trial procedures was well-founded. Nevertheless, it is still an open question whether the trial LL601 trials was conducted correctly or whether the guidelines were themselves at fault.
USDA ill-equipped to monitor contamination
The extent of contamination by LL601 of US rice seed and food supplies remains entirely unclear (although only long grain rice samples have so far tested positive) and the USDA shows little sign of being about to resolve this issue-in part because up to now they have not had a testing method specific for LL601. According to USDA spokeswoman Terri Teuber “We simply didn’t have any way to gauge the extent to which this genetically engineered rice might be in the marketplace”. This situation has not changed much since Aug 18. “In terms of where it might be and where it might not be I don’t think USDA is equipped in any way to assess or predict where that might be.” Said Teuber on Sept 12.
The strategy of the USDA therefore seems to be to leave it to the market to resolve, since in their view there is no issue of public safety. The USDA has however authorised a test for LL601, but is not providing that test-as it considers this a job for Bayer to supervise. The test authorised by USDA is a strip test-which, according to USDA, is simple, quick, and easy to use but is sensitive only down to 2% contamination. Testing in Europe has used a separate, PCR-based, method that is expected to be more sensitive than the USDA-approved tests.
Bayer requests approval for LL601
In a new development the USDA announced that Bayer has applied for deregulation of LL601 and USDA has in turn asked for public comment. To some, the motivation for this strategy is clear, “USDA plans to rush through ‘market approval’ of a genetically engineered rice that Bayer itself decided was unfit for commerce. Why? To free Bayer from liability.” Said Joseph Mendelson, Legal Director of the Center for Food Safety. In this view fast-tracking market approval is designed to prevent the necessity for recall of affected rice supplies.