Biotech firm in accidental double modification

Experimental GM beet seed withdrawn after double herbicide resistance discovered

Franco-German biotechnology firm Aventis has stopped a series of experimental trials of a genetically modified (GM) beet after it was discovered that some plants engineered to tolerate glufosinate herbicide had also incorporated a gene conferring tolerance to glyphosate, another herbicide. It is thought to be the first instance in Europe in which a gene inserted into one GM crop has been unintentionally transferred through cross-pollination to another.

The glufosinate tolerant beet seed was produced for Aventis by KWS, one of Europe's leading plant breeding firms, and has been tested in small trial plots in about ten countries over the last two or three years. An Aventis spokesperson told ENDS Daily, that this year it had been found that a few of the plants were resistant to glyphosate as well. The firm informed competent authorities in all countries where trials had been carried out at the end of September, Gerhard Waitz said.

The revelation has sparked new fears after the scandal earlier this year when non-GM crops grown commercially in the EU were found to be contaminated at low levels with genes engineered into other varieties (ENDS Daily 20 June). In the UK, one of the countries where the trials were undertaken, the official English nature protection agency yesterday reiterated calls for the biotechnology industry to take further measures to prevent gene transfer.

This "shows that genetic isolation of some GM crops is urgently needed," said Brian Johnson of English Nature. "If the biotechnology industry can't control the spread of transgenes under experimental conditions, there is little chance of containment if commercial releases take place." If transfer happened in this case, he added, then farmers might have to use more environmentally damaging herbicides to control super-tolerant beet plants.

Follow Up:
Aventis Crop Science, e-mail: info@aventis.com ; English Nature, tel: +44 1733 45 51 90, and press release.

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