drift affects more than biology-US farmers stand to lose
By Anthony Shadid, Globe Staff, 4/8/2001
WASHINGTON - Susan and Mark Fitzgerald have farmed for 17 years on the
black soil of the Minnesota prairie, a place ''where the wind likes to
The husband-and-wife team set up barriers of bushes, shrubs, and trees, planted the right crops in the right places, and bought corn seed guaranteed to be free of genetic engineering.
No matter. The Fitzgeralds found themselves victims of ''genetic drift,'' a relatively new and disturbing phenomenon.
When the harvest came, they tested their corn. To their surprise and
dismay, genetically engineered kernels showed up in the hopper: a
''Everyone's wondering what you do,'' Susan Fitzgerald said. ''One can't speak alone; you're barking in the wind. It's you against Goliath.''
The Fitzgeralds' story highlights a problem most recently brought to light by the lingering trouble caused by contamination from StarLink corn. Across the nation, the planting of genetically engineered seeds has surged since their introduction in 1996, and now accounts for as much as a quarter of all corn grown in the United States, including Massachusetts.
One effect - whose scope was unanticipated by regulators, companies, or farmers as recently as just a few years ago - is that insects, birds, and the wind are spreading biotech pollen to fields planted with conventional or organic crops miles away.
As losses mount, the question is being asked: Who pays?
Some farmers say it's the problem of their neighbors, while others accuse the seed companies. The seed companies look for help from the government in setting more flexible standards. And the government points back at the farmers as well as state courts hearing a growing number of lawsuits.
''We never really thought all this through,'' said Charles Hurburgh,
The most common recourse for such losses - insurance - is one that's not yet available to the nation's nearly 2 million farms.
Insurance companies say their policies won't cover genetic drift, the
term used to describe cross-pollination between biotech and nonbiotech
On one level, those losses are already substantial. Since 1997, the European Union has effectively barred US corn imports over the possibility that genetically engineered varieties unapproved in the EU have mixed with sanctioned crops. That has cost American farmers access to a $200 million-a-year market. More losses are likely as other countries restrict new biotech crops approved in the United States.
On another level, questions remain over the biological implications of
Federal regulations require buffer zones around genetically modified crops - usually 660 feet - but that has already proved too limited. Some contend pollen can drift miles before settling on another crop. Plus, there's the possibility that seed gets mixed in storage bins and even combines.
''How do you trace where it came from? How do you determine the liability?
While no figures exist, anecdotal evidence suggests that cases such as that of the Fitzgeralds are becoming far more common.
A judge last month ruled in favor of Monsanto Co., the St. Louis-based