Identity protection is the name given to novel techniques to keep crops properly segregated, and to compile detailed information on them for the benefit of a variety of agribusiness corporations, grain traders, retailers and restaurants.
Imagine a Star Trekkish hand-held device that could identify genetically modified (GM) crops and products in real time, at an affordable price? Some major corporations and startup firms are after just such a technological holy grail, including Dupont Quaulicon, Genetic ID, Envirologix and Strategic Diagnostics. Meanwhile, GeneScan Europe AG and Motorola are working together to develop a portable DNA detection tool called the eSensor.
Identity protection includes elaborate systems to track the crops' every move, from field to supermarket. One of these systems , is Crop Tracer, a joint venture of John Deere, VantagePoint Network and Crop Verifeye.com LLC. Canadian software firm Linnet has developed Croplands-The Systemwhich uses a geographical information system.
These identity protection systems permit agricultural commodity purchasers to know everything they might want to know about what they're buying - the conditions the crops grown under, including weather and which chemicals were applied, among other details. No more government regulators, environmentalists or consumer groups unearthing unpleasant surprises. In short, no more Starlinks. At least that's what biotech industry hopes.
There are several reasons why industry is beginning to favor segregation and labeling of agricultural commodities:
- The Starlink Fiasco: Between 2000 and 2001, traces of Aventis' Starlink, a GM corn that was never approved for human consumption, appeared in hundreds of consumer products and contaminated over 140 million tons of American grain, by the company's own admission. Seed companies, food processors and grain distributors spent over one billion dollars in a six-month period trying to get rid of this unwanted corn.
- Tightening Regulation: Contrary to biotech industry public relations, the regulatory outlook for GM products is not improving. The best example is the European Union, which has a de facto moratorium on the production and importation of anything GM since 1998. Grain exporters, especially in GM-crop producing countries like the United States and Canada, need to know which of their crops are genetically engineered in order to avoid costly lawsuits and prevent diplomatic rows.
- Generation Three GM Crops: The biotech industry wants to label third generation GM crops, known as biopharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals or functional foods. These include such consumer-friendly items as vitamin A-enriched rice, antiviral tomatoes and cavity-fighting fruits. The companies plan to label them as GM, and tout their benefits to the buying public. (The corporations will cleverly argue: "Well, activists wanted them labeled. Didn't they?")
Generation Three also includes products that are not at all meant to be used as food, such as plants that produce useful pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals in their tissues. These must be properly segregated and kept away from supermarket shelves if an unprecedented public health tragedy -- and ensuing class action suits -- are to be avoided.
- Crop Segregation: Conventional non-biotech crops are increasingly being segregated into various sub-categories, instead of being sold as generic commodities. For example, some corn strains high in starch are more appropriate for ethanol production, and some soybean varieties might be better suited for industrial uses, like ink, glue or soap production, than for human consumption.
- Organics:The fast-growing organic food industry is also a player, since it needs to assure its customers that its produce is not only pesticide-free but also GM-free.
Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist. He is a Fellow at the Society of Environmental Journalists and a Research Associate at the Institute for Social1310Ecology.