2-Plants: Is GM maize responsible for deaths of cows in Hesse(Germany)?
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TITLE: Is GM maize responsible for deaths of cows in Hesse?
SOURCE: Greenpeace Germany, by Henning Strodthoff and Christoph Then
DATE: December 2003
------------------- archive: http://www.genet-info.org/ -------------------
Is GM maize responsible for deaths of cows in Hesse?
In the last few years cows have died without explanation at one of the
few farmers in Germany to grow and feed his animals genetically
manipulated plants. Five cows died in 2001, and seven in 2002, at a farm
in Woelfersheim in the German state of Hesse, while other animals there
have also had to be slaughtered. After common errors in feeding and
infections had by and large been ruled out as the cause of death, the
farmer now suspects Syngenta company GM maize as to blame for the sudden
death of his cows. How might the deaths of the animals be linked to this
genetically modified maize? What is known so far about the GM maize and
why have the authorities failed to make a full investigation?
Syngenta has in the meantime compensated the farmer for part of his
damages but at the moment refuses to make full compensation. The farmer
has called on the authorities and Syngenta to investigate the cases, so
far in vain, as a result of which he has now given the facts to Greenpeace.
GM maize on the way out
The maize, officially designated Bt 176, contains a plant which forms an
insecticide which is supposed to protect against particular insects that
feed on it (the corn borer caterpillar). To do this, poison was isolated
from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium and incorporated by
manipulation into maize plants using a "gene gun". Bt 176 maize was one
of the very first GM plants authorised to be marketed.
Syngenta obtained a Europe-wide licence to market this maize back in 1997
(1). The licence applied to seed production and the import and processing
of food and animal feed. Although this licensing has from been hotly
contested from the outset, it has stayed in place until today. But the
licence for it in the US expired as long ago as 2001 (2). In Europe
Austria, Luxembourg and Italy have moreover banned its cultivation (3).
Only for research purposes
Germany also restricted its use in March 2000 out of safety concerns. In
its notification of the change the Robert Koch Institute said on 31 March
2000 that it thereby "orders the suspension of the authorisation for
putting the maize line 00256-176 and its derivatives on the market,
unless it is cultivated for research or trial purposes..." This means
that since then Bt 176 maize is only allowed to be grown in Germany for
trial purposes. But harvests of it may subsequently be fed to animals.
Syngenta clearly doesn't take this too literally. In 2002 Greenpeace
discovered several Bt 176 fields in Hesse. The fields had been cultivated
without any controls and had to be destroyed. The GM maize is currently
grown on a large scale in Spain (4), where 20,000 hectares of it a year
are farmed. This maize had been grown and used as feed at the farm in
Woelfersheim since 1997. Bayer company GM maize made resistant to
insecticide sprays had also been grown (in smaller quantities).
Death of cows began with harvest of maize in 2000
Maize is fed to cows the year round at the dairy farm concerned. The cows
get maize silage and grain maize. To make maize silage, the whole maize
plant is shredded early in the autumn and fermented by adding lactic acid
bacteria. Grain maize has to ripen for longer and so is not harvested
until late autumn. The grain is then threshed from the cobs like with
other kinds of grain, as with wheat for example. The maize grains are
rich in starch and can be stored for a long time because they have a low
The farmer had been using GM maize increasingly on his farm since 1997.
In 2000 and 2001 only GM maize was grown. The farmer reports that his
cows had become sick more frequently after being fed the maize harvest
from the year 2000. According to him the situation then escalated. Five
cows died within four months, and others produced less milk or had to be
slaughtered. Only one of the five dead cows was examined at the pathology
institute at Giessen, and a clear cause of death could not be
established. Additional tissue samples were sent to the university of
Göttingen, where they vanished in unexplained circumstances.
A (still) convinced adherent of genetically modified plants for feed, the
farmer in February 2002 decided to stop using Bt 176 maize as feed on his
farm. Despite this, another seven cows died by October 2002, and in 2003
it could be seen, possibly as an eventual result of their being fed the
GM maize, that some cows were producing less milk.
Cause still not determined
Syngenta assumed the costs of five dead cows, reduced milk yields, the
vet and analyses (5). But the cause of the cows' deaths still hasn't been
determined. While samples of feedstuff have continued to be taken at the
farm, none of the analyses has yet provided any answer to the question
why the cows died. A communiqué by the Giessen district government board
on 21 August 2003 said that "the cause of the incidents referred to could
not be determined".
Analyses commissioned by the farmer himself produced indications that the
components of the grains of the GM differ more from those of normal maize
than had been assumed.
Toxin slow to decompose
The farmer now wants to have samples of his feed analysed for the toxic
protein that comes from Bt 176 maize. He fears that this toxin has also
been borne onto his pastures by the cow manure. In analyses made in Japan
in 2003, the Bt-toxin was indeed found for the first time in cows'
stomachs, intestines and dung (6). It appears to degrade more slowly than
had been assumed.
The Syngenta company had until now assumed it would decompose rapidly in
cows' stomachs. Clear traces of the toxin were however found in the cows'
stomachs five and eighteen hours after they had been fed. It may be
spread onto pastures and into stalls through the animals' dung. If Bt
toxins come into contact with the soil they can remain there for months,
bound to minerals in clay.
Contrary what Syngenta always maintains, there are indications that the
toxin can also be biologically active in the intestines of mammals. At
the outset it was assumed the toxin could only affect certain insect
larvae. But a scientific investigation made in 2000 describes the Bt
toxin as becoming attached to the stomach wall in mice, where it can
cause biological changes (7). This binding to the mucous membrane in the
stomach is also a precondition for the toxin being able to have its
effect on insects.
Passivity of authorities
Although the maize is only allowed to be grown within a framework of
scientific research, the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin (RKI), the
authority responsible for assessing the risks from it, did not learn of
the deaths until November 2001. And even then it reacted rather
passively. Neither all the feed on the farm nor the dead cows were
impounded. Nor have comprehensive analyses been instigated to look at
residues of the toxin in the soil and animals' dung. It may now be too
late to be able to actually determine the causes. Syngenta and the
authorities have not even yet made the funds for years of feed trials
available. Instead, the RKI's investigations ended on 12 December 2002 by
pointing to other possible causes of death. In Greenpeace's view the
authorities are to be charged with having categorically failed here.
After the documents submitted had been inspected the GM maize should
never have been authorised or been revoked long ago, for the following
1. Unexpected biological effects have been evident on several occasions
in feed trials with GM maize. Animals have gained weight in some cases
more quickly, and in others more slowly, in comparison with those in
control groups (8). Biological effects which may be due to genetic
changes are significant if they do not cause direct harm to an animal. It
is known that toxic substances, depending on their concentration and how
long they have an effect for, can have a stimulating effect on the
metabolism. The assumptions originally made whereby the GM maize would
produce better yields because it would be more seldom prone to attack by
harmful mildews have however not been proven to be generally correct. In
the light of these facts further investigations into the incidents at
Woelfersheim have to be made.
2. The maize was altered by a gene gun. In this process the genes are
packed onto metal particles and fired into the plant cells. It appears
that several copies of the gene construct, some of them only fragmented,
became unintentionally incorporated (9). Depending on the location at
which they have been incorporated into the plants' genetic make-up, they
can trigger off additional undesired effects in the plants' metabolism.
To some extent, differences in the protein and lignine content of the
plants show up accordingly.
3. The maize contains a whole hotchpotch of foreign genetic material. The
genes incorporated into it are genes for resistance to antibiotics,
insecticide resistance, and several genes for the insect toxin and
various genes intended to reinforce the effect of the toxin gene (10).
The gene for the insect toxin, isolated from bacteria, has been greatly
modified in the construct, and a another, new protein is created. The
spectrum of the effect of the toxin (originally only combating specific
pest larvae) appears to have broadened as a result. It now endangers
useful insects (11).
4. The pollen of the GM maize plants contains unnecessarily high
concentrations of the Bt toxin. The caterpillars of protected butterflies
in the area around the corn fields can also be endangered by dispersal of
the pollen (12; 13).
5. In registering the maize Syngenta expressly made no investigations
into the long term effect of the toxins and potential allergic effect of
the plants (14).
Many of the studies made have been financed by corporations. It is
noticeable that in most of the publications involved all references to
undesired characteristics are systematically played down. The
corporations also work on false assumptions at another point. The plants
don't bestow on farmers the advantages that had been anticipated.
According to statements by the farmers' federation , farmers in Germany
can as a rule control infestation by corn borers by applying simple
agricultural methods and without using all the insecticides (and GM seeds).
An immediate ban on Bt 176 GM maize
A full scientific investigation into the deaths of cows at Woelfersheim
Investigation into the failures of the authorities to act as called for
No release of genetically modified forms of life
No cultivation of GM plants
No use of genetic engineering in food
1) Decision in accordance with EU Directive 90/220, 23 Jan 1997.
2) The Impact of GM corn in Spain, a report by Greenpeace and Friends of the
Earth, August 2003, page 6
3) The current state of affairs concerning GMO licensing in accordance with
EU law. EU Commission memo, 7 November 2003, see Annex 4
4) The Impact of GM corn in Spain, a report by Greenpeace and Friends of the
Earth, August 2003
5) Syngenta communiqué, April 2002
6) Chowdhury, E.H., 2003, Vet. Human Toxicol 45 (2), pages 72-75
7) Vazquez-Padron, R. et al, 2000, Biochemical and Biophysical Research
Communications 271, ps. 54-58 (Cry1Ac Protoxin)
8) Brake J and Vlachos, 1998, Poultry Science 77: 648-653 ("Although it is
not clear whether this enhanced perfomance was attributable to the
transgenic corn per se, or due to possible slight differences in overall
composition of the formulated diets, it was clear that the transgenic
had no deleterios effects in the study.")
Barrière, Y. et al, 2001, J. Dairy Sci. 84: 1863-1871 ("However the
dietary intake was unexpectedly higher for animals fed the GM hybrid")
Folmer, J.D. et al, 2002, J.Anim.Sci.80: 1352-1361 ("The interaction of
corn hybrid and incorporation of the Bt-gene is difficult to explain.")
Hendrix, K.S. et al, 2000 J. Anim.Sci.Vol 78, Suppl.1, p. 273
9) Moens, 16 June 2003, Report on the molecular characterisation of the
genetic map of event 176
10) Syngenta (/ Novartis) registration documents, and Moens, ebenda.
11) The Impact of GM corn in Spain, a report by Greenpeace and Friends of the
Earth, August 2003, page 21
12) ebenda, page 22
13) Felke et al. 2002, J. Appl. Ent. 126, 320-325
Felke et al. 2003, Gesunde Pflanzen, Heft 1, 2003
14) Syngenta (/Novartis) registration documents
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