ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

19 August 2002


'If uncertainty, ignorance and complexity are downplayed in the risk assessment, GM crops look "safe." ' - Dr Sue Mayer (item 2)

"there should be a ban on the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM food, as the risk to human health from antibiotic resistance developing in micro-organisms is one of the major public health threats that will be faced in the 21st century" - British Medical Association (quoted in item 1)

"There is a protocol for GM growing which says you should keep your crop 1,000 metres (yards) away from your neighbour's but it is not really being applied. " - Bully Botma, chairman of Grain South Africa (item 4)

2. Sue Mayer on not leaving everything to the 'experts'
4. SA harvest first GM crop


1. Crop gene ‘could weaken medicines’

Vik Iyer, PA News
Press Association August 16, 2002, Friday

Some scientists fear the unauthorised antibiotic genes found to have contaminated trials of genetically modified crops could reduce the effectiveness of certain medicines.

 The fear is that the genes could be transferred to bacteria in the guts of humans or animals, thus making diseases such as meningitis, TB and gonorrhoea resistant to important antibiotic drugs. In 1999, 13 out of 23 applications to the European Union for approval of GM foods contained the genes, according to a Friends of the Earth report. Both politically and medically, the genes have sparked debate and concern. The House of Lords select committee on the European Communities recommended the genes "should be phased out as quickly as possible."

 In addition, the British Medical Association recommended that "there should be a ban on the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM food, as the risk to human health from antibiotic resistance developing in micro-organisms is one of the major public health threats that will be faced in the 21st century". The genes are put into GM plants as tags or markers so that genetic engineers can tell when they successfully inserted new traits into a plant. It is possible to remove the marker genes before the plant is released but critics claim these precautions are rarely taken.

Marker genes used in GM foods include lactam antibiotics, from which ampicillin and amoxycillin medicines are used as a first defence against chest infections.

A research report on the Government's environmental affairs department, Defra's, website states that all the categories of genes that have been used in GM technology "the greatest concern attaches to antibiotic resistance". The British Advisory Committee on Novel Food Processes (ACNFP) refused permission for transgenic corn containing an ampicillin resistance gene because of the potential risk that would result if the gene transferred to human gut bacteria. But the European Scientific Committee for Animal Nutrition approved the use of an antibiotic substance as a growth supplement in animal feeds.


2. THE GREAT DEBATE: Don't leave the genes to the geniuses

The Scotsman August 15, 2002, Thursday

YESTERDAY Carl Djerassi, inventor of the Pill, argued that we should trust science's experts. Here, continuing the Scotsman's Book Festival debate series, Sue Mayer says he's wrong.

Public concerns about GM crops and foods are frequently dismissed as based on ignorance and fear. Great efforts are made to promote regulatory risk assessments as based on "sound science" - implying those on the other side of the debate are irrational. But the public response to GM crops recognises the subjective nature of risk assessment. Their scepticism is neither anti-science nor irrational but asks, quite sensibly, whether our institutions will act fairly and impartially in weighing up the risks and benefits. Genetic engineering can change organisms in far-reaching and unpredictable ways. The economic and political fortunes of many companies and individuals hang on their rapid commercialisation. Yet there may be long-term, irreversible effects on ecosystems and health and the science is uncertain, so whether the systems in place will be effective and act in the public interest is a key question. If uncertainty, ignorance and complexity are downplayed in the risk assessment, GM crops look "safe." Supporters of biotech crops insist "sound science" says genetic modification is more precise than conventional breeding because it is known exactly what genes are added and, therefore, their effects can be predicted. But many copies of a gene may be integrated or gene sequences rearranged and deleted, sometimes resulting in lack of operation, instability or interference with other genes. Layered on a still unknowable genetic complexity is that of the environment, social, economic and political systems. How well do we understand ecosystems? Will people follow the rules? Are companies with billions invested likely to present all their findings, negative as well as positive? Will links between the political system and biotech companies influence how the risk-benefit equation is viewed? Do we need GM crops? Under this wider questioning, GM crops and foods look much less safe. Opening up the evaluation of technologies to wider public involvement and scrutiny will lead to better decision making than if left to experts alone.

Dr Sue Mayer is director of GeneWatch UK.
The debate, Can We Trust the Experts? is at Charlotte Square Gardens, 18 August, 7: 30pm, in association with Hodder & Stoughton and the Institute of Ideas.



Vic Robertson
The Scotsman August 16, 2002, Friday

A COLD war legacy could lead to Britain declaring its independence from the United States on a vital food and animal feed ingredient - protein - and provide a potential income boost to arable farmers. The demand for more home-grown protein crops has escalated with the rise of genetically modified crop production in the US and post-BSE bans on meat and bone meal and fish meal in animal feed. But scientists at Kiev University in Russia have been working on plant - breeding techniques for years to produce soya bean varieties - a major protein source - that will thrive at greater latitudes than the conventional 48 degrees north. This has put production within the grasp of growers as far north as Yorkshire. David McNaughton, head of Soya UK, which through its parent company owns the rights to the varieties, said: " I suspect it may be four or five years before we have varieties suitable for the east of Scotland - but only two years ago the northern limit was the Wash."

 He added: "The Russians wanted to be as self-sufficient in protein as possible and certainly did not want to import from the US, so they threw money at the problem. Conventional plant breeding is relatively low technology but labour intensive, which is why they were able to come up with these varieties that can be grown up to 54 degrees north."

The company has also developed arable lupins that can be grown to far north of Scotland.


4. SA harvests first GM crop

By Emsie Ferreira
South  African SUNDAY TIMES

South African farmers this winter harvested the country's first crop of genetically modified (GM) maize aimed at human consumption, but grain growers say it has been slipping into the food chain for a while and fear the public will resist it if green consciousness grows.

"The first crops were harvested in June, July, and it should be about to hit the shelves," said Willem Engelbrecht, the marketing manager for Pioneer Seeds, one of three companies in South Africa that sell GM grain.

The white maize yield, coming from about 100,000 hectares of farmland scattered around the country, is expected to make up only one percent of the local market, according to the agriculture ministry's GM registrar Shadrack Moepheli.

But it will reach both livestock and people, mainly the country's impoverished black population for whom maize is a staple food, seed breeder Arthur Schroeder from Pannar said.

Genetically modified yellow maize has been around since 1998 and while that has been grown mostly as cattle feed, it has entered the human food chain in the form of cornflakes.

"Yellow maize has been around for four years and it is being grown all over the country. It is used mostly for livestock but it also goes to humans, it is being used in cereal," said Bully Botma, chairman of Grain South Africa, which represents 95% of South African maize farmers.

It accounts for about 15% of the local maize crop, but Engelbrecht said the market was "exploding."

"We were sold out of seeds before we had produced them and we will be putting more on the market. The farmers want it because the seeds give a better yield and they are resistent to stalk bora, a worm that eats the seeds, so it means they do not have to spray their crops with toxic insecticides."

The seed technology comes from the United States and so far South African producers have put only one modified maize gene on the market, but the seed producers say more variations are expected to be brought in from the United States in coming years.

Botma said that for Grain South Africa the problem with the GM maize was that as in the United States it had largely been mixed with non-GM grain and consumers and cattle farmers now had little way of telling whether it was in their food or animal feed.

"There are regulations but practice has shown us that where we have genetically modified yellow maize there is no control at intake points. The silos just take it in, food manufacturers don't complain and the millers mix it."

Farmer Hannes Haasbroek, who grows GM maize at Bothaville some 270 kilometres south of Johannesburg, said: "I do not keep my GM maize separately from the rest of the maize I grow because they do not test for it so there is no point."

South Africa's main export market for maize, Japan, and sales of corn syrup to the European Union have not been affected as what is sold to them is grown separately, but Botma said Grain South Africa feared that the domestic market would suffer as consumers became aware of the debate around GM foods, possibly in the wake of the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development being held in Johannesburg from August 26 to September 4.

"South Africa is not rolling out the red but the green carpet for this summit. Our farmers are worried that the green lobby could affect the market and make consumers change their minds," Botma said.

"There is a protocol for GM growing which says you should keep your crop 1,000 metres (yards) away from your neighbour's but it is not really being applied.

"If a niche market develops for GM-free food, we want to be able to service it, and with cross pollination we would not be able to do it. Countries like Namibia have said they will not buy our maize because they export meat to Europe and that market might complain."

A spokesman for the Safe Food Coalition, Andrew Taynton, said the body was pushing for GM maize to be banned from shelves: "We are horrified because the long-term health effects are not known. For US consumers it will be only a small part of their diet, but in Africa maize is a staple food."

The South African Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering said it would use the Earth Summit to demand a five-year moratorium on GM maize growing.

"We are trying to arrange awareness and we are going to band together with international groups and lobby the government," alliance co-ordinator Gill Kerchhoff said.


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