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CHILE: Maize Contaminated with Transgenics

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Oct 30 2008 (IPS) - The Institute of Nutrition and Food Technology (INTA) at the University of Chile has detected genetically modified organisms in four samples of conventional maize grown near fields where transgenic maize seeds are being produced for export.

“These results are extremely serious. The question is, who will take responsibility? Who will pay for this contamination?” María Isabel Manzur of the non-governmental Sustainable Societies Foundation (FSS), which along with the Sustainable Chile Programme contracted INTA to analyse 30 maize samples, told IPS.

The maize contaminated with genetically modified (GM) organisms is sold in Chile as corn on the cob, seeds and animal feed.

GM crops are created in laboratories by inserting genes from other species of plants or animals, in order to improve certain qualities or increase their resistance to environmental factors.

FSS and the Sustainable Chile Programme handed the results to Agriculture Minister Marigen Hornkohl on Oct. 23, calling for independent studies to determine the extent of the contamination, as well as laws prohibiting growing GM crops in the country, on the grounds that they are harmful to the environment and public health.

The next step will be to meet with the farmers whose crops were affected, to inform them about the situation and decide whether to press legal charges.

In Chile, transgenic crops may only be grown for producing transgenic seeds for export, but importing GM products and ingredients for human and animal consumption is allowed.

In 2007, the Agriculture Ministry’s Agriculture and Livestock Service (SAG) authorised the sowing of transgenic seeds on 24,921 hectares of land. GM maize was planted on 94 percent of the area.

At the request of FSS and Sustainable Chile, the non-governmental Colchagua Rural Development (DRC) organisation collected maize grains and leaves early this year from 30 farms spread over nine municipalities in the central O’Higgins region. INTA detected GM organisms in four of the samples, from the municipalities of Placilla, Santa Cruz and Chimbarongo.

“O’Higgins is one of the regions in the country where most transgenics are released. Now they are spreading further south, to the Maule region,” Manzur said.

The DRC had a difficult task, because there is no information available about the exact location of the areas where GM seed production takes place.

“We were surprised by the results, because although I was certain that there was contamination, our samples were taken practically at random. We really didn’t know how close the transgenic seed plots were to the fields we chose for sampling,” said Manzur. “Under these conditions, the fact that contamination was found shows that it must be quite widespread in the region,” she said.

The head of the Sustainable Chile Programme, Sara Larraín, called on the authorities to “review the policy on transgenics, since it is clearly difficult to control contamination and segregate the crops,” a problem that principally affects organic products and native species.

Romilio Espejo, the head of INTA’s biotechnology laboratory, confirmed to IPS that both FSS and the Sustainable Chile Programme contracted INTA’s services to determine whether the 30 samples they provided were contaminated with transgenics, and if so, to what degree.

The qualitative analysis for the presence of bacteria found in most transgenic crops currently on the market was carried out by INTA under the ISO 21569 quality standard, and the quantitative tests were based on ISO 21570.

“A small quantity of transgenics” was found in four samples, Espejo said. Three of them had 0.03 percent of GM organisms, and the fourth had 0.13 percent.

In the samples where INTA did not find traces of transgenics, it reported that they contained less than 0.01 percent, “the method’s detection limit.” According to Espejo, “they cannot be stated to be transgenic-free, but only that they contain less than 0.01 percent.”

Although he clarified that INTA cannot vouch for the origin of the maize samples analysed, the head of the biotechnology laboratory acknowledged he was “concerned” about the results, if the samples were from Chilean farms.

“If the source of the contamination is transgenic maize sold worldwide for food, it would not be a major problem, but if the source is transgenic maize produced for other purposes, or that has not yet been approved as risk-free for the population, then it is worrying, even though the contamination is at a very low level,” he said.

FSS and the Sustainable Chile Programme affirm that the areas where transgenic maize is grown for seed were responsible for the contamination of nearby fields where samples were taken. But they do not know whether the contamination was caused by transgenic seeds or by wind-blown pollen.

The analysis by INTA did not include identification of the type of GM organisms found, but according to Espejo, “the best explanation” for the results is that “contamination” had occurred.

“I don’t think (the results) should cause alarm about maize consumption in Chile, but they are a warning that more control is needed over what is happening with maize grown in this country,” he said.

“The contamination is at a very low level. For example, one can export maize to Europe containing less than 0.9 percent contamination, because it is not regarded as transgenic. But the GM crop in question has to have been approved for human consumption,” he stressed.

“It would be of the utmost importance to analyse the samples again, to identify the transgenic maize involved. This is technically possible, but it takes time and resources,” Espejo said.

“It would be a good thing for the government to investigate this and, if possible, rule out any chance that the source of contamination is a type of maize not authorised for human consumption. That would be a great relief for the population,” he said.

But Manzur disagreed with Espejo. The FSS representative said that all the transgenic products sold in this country are only just going through an approval process, decreed by the Health Ministry in 2007, which includes technical standards on biotechnological modification of foods.

So far there have only been two applications, which have not yet been approved, she said.

Manzur also called on parliament not to approve a draft law, introduced by lawmakers belonging to the centre-left governing coalition and the rightwing opposition, to promote cultivation of GM crops for domestic consumption, without specifying any kind of labelling.

The transgenic analysis initiative is backed by the Sustainable Southern Cone Programme, a network of non-governmental organisations from several South American countries.

In fact, the INTA services, which cost some 3,700 dollars, were financed by Sustainable Uruguay, an organisation that carried out a similar study in its own country, where contamination was also detected. The detailed results will be made known soon, said Manzur.

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