ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

20 September 2002


"Genetic engineers inserting genes at a random, unknown location in the cell's DNA has been described as doing heart surgery with a shovel"


GM food crops up in court after 3-year battle

Cape Times  (South Africa)
September 18 2002 at 10:14PM
By Melanie Gosling
An environmental watchdog organisation, Biowatch, has taken legal action  against Minister of Agriculture Thoko Didiza for refusing to disclose  information about highly controversial genetically modified crops that  are being grown throughout South Africa.

This comes after a three-year battle by the non-governmental organisation to get access to secret information about locally grown genetically modified (GM) crops, including maize, wheat, soya, potatoes and tomatoes, which it says have been shown to be "disastrously harmful" in some cases in other parts of the world.

Biowatch said in papers that insurance companies in some countries  regarded contamination from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be  too risky to insure against, "like war or nuclear accidents". It said  genetic engineering could result in "super weeds", the development of new viruses and in antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the human and animal gut.

Biowatch has filed papers in the Pretoria High Court against the  minister, the registrar of genetic resources and the executive council  for withholding information about GMOs in South Africa. All three have  said they intend to oppose the court application.

'Doing heart surgery with a shovel'

Biowatch, a national NGO founded in 1997 in response to public concerns  about the widespread commercialisation of GMOs in South Africa without  public involvement, said in the court papers that it feared there was  inadequate regulation by the state of the use, control and release of  GMOs. As a result, the rights of South Africans to have an environment  not harmful to their health and an environment that was protected were  being infringed.

Since July 1999, the organisation had "consistently and regularly" asked  the department of agriculture for a list of GM crops grown in South  Africa, for the location of field trials and to see the risk assessments  the government had done concerning GM crops.

When the information was not supplied, Biowatch resorted to legal action.

The papers said genetic engineering differed from traditional plant  breeding, which used the same or closely related species to develop  specific characteristics in the offspring. In genetic engineering genes  of one organism were inserted into a completely unrelated organism. Genes from a bacteria or from an animal could be inserted into a plant, across the natural species barrier, creating a GMO.

"Genetic engineers inserting genes at a random, unknown location in the  cell's DNA has been described as doing heart surgery with a shovel," the  papers said. Because of the "extremely serious and potentially  irreparable health risks" of genetic engineering, many scientists  believed there should be a moratorium on the release of GMOs until there  had been adequate studies on the long-term effects of GMOs in the human  diet.

The papers said there was mounting evidence that GM crops could transfer  their altered genes to related plants in the wild through pollen. Once  the GMOs spread into the environment, it would be impossible to reverse  the process. Some GM crops, which had been genetically altered to be  toxic to pests by the insertion genes from certain bacteria, had been  shown to be toxic to non-target insects, like butterflies.

In the United States in 2000, a genetically modified maize product called Star Link, which had not been approved for human consumption, "escaped" from where the experiments were being conducted and found its way into the human food chain. The medical effects of the chemical in Star Link, a type of insecticidal protein, are not known.

In Mexico, where the government had banned the planting of GM crops, it  was found that such crops had nevertheless contaminated local maize.

Biowatch said it was in the public interest for details of the locations  of field trials to be made available.

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