The Genetic Crop Dust-Up

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The idea of genetically altered humans may scare many Americans, but genetically altered soybeans may be a more immediate problem. As U.N.-sponsored negotiations on a treaty covering international trade in genetically altered materials are drawing to a close, U.S. agricultural exports may be under threat. "Much of America's soy and corn crops are genetically altered and that's raising a lot of concerns," says TIME correspondent Dick Thompson. "Besides environmentalists' objections, negotiators are grappling with the problems of risk assessment and liability."

Genetic engineering is used in the U.S. to make crops mimic characteristics of chemical insecticides and pesticides. Critics fear the environmental consequences of making anti-pest characteristics a permanent feature of a plant rather than using the occasional option of a pesticide spray that can be washed off. They are also leery of the danger of "jumping genes" -- the transfer of artificially engineered characteristics into the wider ecosystem. "Toxicology allows risk assessment and regulation of the chemical industry, but there's no equivalent science for genetic engineering," says Thompson. "And then there's the liability issue: An engineered gene carries an unmistakable 'fingerprint,' so who would be legally liable if it causes an environmental catastrophe?" Welcome to trade wars in the biotech era.