Bayer in GM Crop Contamination Scandal

On 15th August it emerged that Bayer's new agricultural wing, Bayer CropScience (1), was responsible for the illegal planting of genetically modified (GM) oil seed rape (OSR) contaminated with an unauthorised GM crop line in field trials across the UK.

GM seed, planted at more than 20 farm scale trial sites in the UK since 1999, was contaminated with substantial quantities (up to 2.8%) of an unauthorised variety of GM OSR. The contaminating variety (also owned by Bayer), contains genes giving resistance to the antibiotics neomycin and kanamycin. The implications of this are potentially serious. Scientists have expressed concern that use of antibiotic resistance genes as marker genes in food crops may lead to the proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Recent studies suggest that it is possible for modified DNA from GM crops to be taken up by bacteria in the human gut. Both neomycin and kanamycin are still used in the treatment of a number of potentially fatal diseases.

The whole contamination incident has once again illustrated that it is impossible to contain GM crops once they are released into the environment. The problem is particularly acute with GM OSR as it spreads its pollen over a wide area contaminating other OSR crops (2). This problem is especially serious in areas like northwestern Europe where OSR has many wild relatives, and the risks of GM crop traits escaping into the eco-system are therefore increased.

The case also shows the lack of regulatory controls surrounding the UK GM farm scale trials. Effectively it was left up to Bayer/Aventis to ensure the purity of the seed that they were using in trials. The contamination went unnoticed for 3 years by both Bayer and the UK regulatory authorities. The seed contamination was eventually discovered by the Scottish Agricultural College, in a trial they were conducting on behalf of Bayer CropScience.

It is interesting to note that although the contamination was initially reported to Bayer/Aventis on June 21st, it took almost two months for the story to be made public. It was then made public at the height of the holiday period, traditionally the best time to make a potentially disclosure. All of this adds to the feeling that these trials are a sham and that the UK government is colluding with the powerful biotech lobby.

Varieties of GM OSR similar to those found to be contaminated in the UK have also been grown in field trials in Belgium, France and Germany in recent years. However, the extent of the use of contaminated seed in Bayer crop trials in the rest of Europe remains unclear.

News of the contamination has caused an outcry in the UK. There have been widespread calls for the suspension of the last round of the winter OSR farm scale trials. These trials are due to be planted within the next few weeks. At present it seems unlikely that any 'suspension' resulting in the cancellation of these trials will occur. Any delays would set back the Farm Scale Trial process by a year and throw government and industry plans for GM crop commercialisation in the UK into turmoil.

It is possible that Bayer CropScience may even face criminal proceedings for failing to prevent the contamination. Unconvinced that any legal action taken against Bayer would result in the corporation being held accountable for its illegal activities, around 50 people partially decontaminated a Bayer OSR test site near Hilton in Dorset on August 18th. However, pulling up illegal GM crops was deemed to be more illegal than growing them in the first place and 14 people were arrested for criminal damage to the crop.

Meanwhile Bayer CropScience, the company who are now responsible for the mess, is doing a good job of hiding behind its old identity Aventis CropScience. Thus far Bayer's public image has remained fairly unscathed, ensuring that all negative publicity is directed towards Aventis, a company that no longer has any involvement in GM crops. Despite having become part of the new Bayer CropScience in early June, Aventis CropScience Ltd is not due to change its name until the autumn. Signs and flags at old Aventis CropScience factories and offices, as well as official letters all still bear the Aventis name, and when you ring them, the voice on the end of the phone still answers "Hello, Aventis".

(1) Bayer CropScience was launched on 4th June 2002 following Bayer AG's 7.25 billion euro purchase of Aventis CropScience.

(2) For example in Canada where GM oil seed rape/Canola has been grown for several years there have been several well publicised cases of organic/non-GM farmers having their contaminated with pollen from GM crops on neighbouring farms. Both Bayer (Aventis CropScience) and Monsanto are currently being sued for damages by Canadian organic farmers (see below)

Organic farmers gain key piece of evidence in class action

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada publicly released a study today on the Isolation Effectiveness in Canola Seed Production. The study discloses that growers producing Certified canola seed for the conventional canola market cannot prevent genetic contamination of their seed by Monsanto's Roundup Ready Canola and Aventis's Liberty Link genetically modified (GM) canolas. The contamination was so severe that the research scientists who did the study recomended that four varieties of canola seed sold in the conventional canola market be withdrawn or Breeder and Foundation seed sources for the varieties be cleaned up.

In 2000-2001 Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) undertook a study for the Canadian Seed Growers Association (CSGA) to look at whether the isolation distances used by certified seed growers were effective in preventing genetic contamination by Round Up Ready and Liberty Link GM canola varieties. It took months of pressure on behalf of the Saskatchewan certified organic farmers engaged in a class action lawsuit against Monsanto and Aventis to obtain a copy of this important publicly-funded study.

Results show that even with the strict isolation distance and inspection standards required by certified seed growers, contamination occurs. In the case of one very experienced grower mentioned in the study, the contamination level was as high as 7.20%. This unusually high level of contamination led the researchers to conclude that the foundation seed itself was highly contaminated.

Seventeen of the 70 samples tested showed contamination that exceedee the purity required for Certified seed (99.75%) and 30 of the 70 samples exceeded the purity required for Foundation seed (99.95%). Only two of the 70 samples would be considered acceptable seed for organic production. The study concluded that "... the present isolation distance of 100m provides adequate but not complete protection from foreign pollen." And further, that the "... large number of canola seeds normally planted per acre plus the high probability that a small percentage of herbicide tolerant seeds will be present in most Certified seed lots has and will continue to result in significant herbicide tolerant plant populations in most commercial canola fields."

It follows that certified organic farmers, whose standards strictly prohibit contamination by GM varieties, are highly unlikely to be able to produce a crop free of RoundUp Ready or Liberty Link contamination, thus losing the opportunity to serve the lucrative certified organic canola market.

The CSGA maintains that the study was merely preliminary and not statistically significant. However, the research scientists who did the study do not say this. Furthermore, they state that the sample size was large enough to give a 99% confidence level that buyers would find the same level of contamination in the seed stocks.

AAFC and the CSGA initially refused to release the study when asked. After persistent pressure, AAFC finally agreed to release a copy of what it was already planning to release to the CBC pursuant to an existing Access to Information request. However when the document finally arrived, large tracts were missing and relevant portions were concealed as "confidential business information". It was only after the lawyer representing the organic farmers in the class action launched a court application to compel the disclosure of the full report that the AAFC and CSGA offered to publicly disclose the full report.

This study will be a key piece of evidence in the organic farmer's action because it provides scientific documentation of the widespread GM contamination that has all but wiped out their organic canola market. It further provides evidence that the contamination is from both the Roundup Ready and Liberty Link genes.