'Designer gene' fails farmers

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The Independent Online
New "designer gene" crops, which many scientists fear will cause an extra dimension of health and environmental dangers and are about to be introduced to Britain, are claiming their first economic casualties.

Farmers in the southern United States are claiming compensation, which may run to millions of dollars, after a genetically modified strain of cotton - billed as the most successful product introduction in the history of agriculture - failed on their land.

Their experience reinforces warnings by environmentalists that laboratory genetically engineered plants and foods behave unpredictably in the real world. Scientists have long warned that transferring genes in this way could spread allergies, cause new diseases, and bring about environmental disasters.

The first genetically modified crop, rape, is likely to be introduced on a large scale to Britain next year. Some genetically modified goods are already on sale here, including tomato puree and thousands of products such as biscuits and ready-prepared meals, which include genetically modified soya.

This month Greenpeace blockaded a ship delivering genetically modified soya beans to Amsterdam. The last government tried unsuccessfully to stop the European Union importing genetically engineered maize. And last week food manufacturers agreed to label foods containing genetically modified material when they go on sale in British shops next year.

The new technology is spreading rapidly. Almost one quarter of the US cotton crop has been genetically modified, as has 14 per cent of its soya and 10 per cent of its maize. One expert, Norman Ellstrand of the University of California, has warned: "Within 10 years we will have a moderate to large-scale ecological or economic catastrophe."

Environmentalists are certain to seize on the misfortune of the cotton farmers in the Mississippi Delta, as evidence that disasters are already beginning to happen. They will relish the fact that the crop affected was developed by Monsanto, perhaps the leading company in the field. So far 46 of 200 Mississippi farmers who planted the cotton are demanding compensation.

Farmers in other states have also been affected. Mississippi officials say there have been complaints from seven other states; Monsanto admits to three.

The company has described the cases as "a very small, localised issue" outweighed by the benefits to other farmers, and it blames bad weather conditions and mistakes by the farmers themselves.