Swiss soiled seed prompts tolerance question
by Ingeborg Furst
Nature Biotechnology, Volume 17 / July 1999 Page 629
On July 1, the Swiss government's tolerance standard for genetic purity
of food comes into effect. Switzerland is the first country in Europe to
set a limit for genetic contamination, but current controversy over
genetically contaminated corn seeds highlights the urgent EU-wide need
for such a standard for crops.
In May, it was discovered by the Swiss Department of Agriculture
(Budesamt fur Landwirtschaft; Bern) and the district president of
Baden-Wurtlemberg (Tubingen, Germany) that Pioneer Hi-Bred's (Des
Moines, IA) nongenetically modified corn seed varieties, Ulla and
Benicia, actually contained novel genes from a variety of corn
genetically modified to be resistant to the corn borer, Bacillus
Contamination of the seeds, which were harvested in the United States,
was "probably caused by stray pollen during the growing season," says
Ulrich Schmidt, managing director of Pioneer in Buxtehude, Germany,
which represents the grain manufacturer in Switzerland. It is likely
that incorporation of pollen from GM varieties into Ulla and Benicia
occurred this way because "Pioneer does not offer a commercial GM
variety of Ulla or Benicia."
Before the contamination was discovered, Pioneer had sold enough Ulla
and Benicia seeds to sow 400 hectares (roughly 0.5% of total corn
cultivation in Switzerland), about 200 hectares of which had already
Estimates of the amount of genetic contamination of non-GM DNA by GM DNA
vary between 0.1 and 0.5%-- respectively below the limit set in both
countries for contamination resulting from physical mixing of varieties.
Under German and Swiss seed market laws, this "technical" contamination
with seed from weed and other varieties can be as high as 3% and 5%,
But because there are no tolerance standards set for genetic purity, the
contaminated Pioneer seeds are not approved for release into the
environment, and planting therefore infringes the Swiss environment
conservation law (Umweltschutzgesetz), as well as violating the German
gene technology law (Gentechnikgesetz). As a result, the Swiss
Department of Agriculture (Bundesamt fur Landwirtschaft, Bern) has
prohibited the import and trade of contaminated Ulla and Benicia and has
ordered the destruction of any already sown.
However, Pioneer and the entire grain industry are not able to guarantee
the genetic purity of their conventional non-GM varieties, says Schmidt.
"Genetic inserts are in the nature of things," agrees Rainer Linneweber,
spokesperson for Novartis Seed (Bad Salzuflen, Germany). "Despite our
high-level quality management and our ISO certification, even a 100%
[technical] purity for conventional seed is utopian," he adds. But
although the Swiss government has now set a 1% tolerance standard for
genetic contamination of food, such a standard for crops remains absent.
In the meantime, both Switzerland and Germany have analyzed the
contaminated seed: The Swiss Department of Agriculture could detect by
PCR the presence but not the amount of DNA sequences from GM corn
varieties. But analysis ordered by the Baden-Wurttemberg district has
called two specific GM varieties into question &endash; one from Pioneer
and one from another unnamed grain manufacturer, according to Grit
Puchan, spokesperson for the Baden-Wurttemberg district.
"We still need to clarify whether or not these GM-corn seed varieties
have been granted marketing approval in the EU and subsequently in
Germany," says Puchan. If they have, the release of their contaminants
would already be approved under the existing EU 90/220 directive. In
this case, Pioneer must simply label the seeds accordingly to satisfy
German authorities, says Edgar Muschketat, spokesperson for the
Berlin-based Robert-Koch-Institut, which approves the release of GMOs
into the environment.
But this question is irrelevant, according to Hans-Georg Dederer, jurist
at the Institute for Public Law at the University of Bonn, who says a
loophole in the law means that genetically contaminated seeds need no
special approval under 90/220. "A crop genetically modified by stray
pollen is not a product within the meaning of 90/220, because 'product'
implies a willful preparation," he says.
Meanwhile, a "witch hunt-like atmosphere" reigns in Switzerland, says
Klaus Ammann, director of the Botanic Garden at the University of Bern
and member of the Commission for Biosafety (Kommission fur biologische
Sicherheit). But although some corn fields have been destroyed by fire
or herbicides, many farmers (mainly in western Switzerland) refuse to
destroy the corn until Pioneer and the Swiss government agree to
compensate them. In addition, the Swiss farmers' association
(Schweizerischer Bauernverband) is deciding whether to file a class
action lawsuit against Pioneer (via the Swiss seed importer), and
Pioneer is considering halting sales via the Swiss seed importer to
farmers in Switzerland.
As Nature Biotechnology was going to press, the Swiss seed importer Eric
Schweizer Samen AG agreed to pay farmers 700 Swiss Francs per hectare.
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