GE - Independant on Sunday
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SUNDAY INDEPENDENT February 21, 1999
GM foods - Revealed: the secret report
By Marie Woolf
A damning scientific study, carried out for the Government two years ago
but not published until now, has concluded that genetically engineered
oilseed rape could breed with ordinary farmers' crops and make them
"inedible". It says that "contamination" of farmers' ordinary fields is
"inevitable" under current farming practices.
The report was carried out by the prestigious Scottish Crops Institute for
the Department of the Environment. Its most worrying conclusion is that GM
oilseed rape is much hardier than previously thought and can survive to
breed and pass on its traits to ordinary plants of the same species. It
found that the pollen from genetically altered oilseed rape could travel
far farther than the designated distance between trial-crops fields and
create hybrids which could ruin farmers' ordinary crops.
It also warns that unless fields full of engineered plants are completely
isolated - which under the current regulatory regime cannot be done -
there is no way of stopping hybrids from growing.
The report's existence has sparked protests by environmentalists who say
it proves that ministers have known of the risks to Britain's farms for
two years but have carried on supporting GM crops regardless.
"While the Government denies suppressing the report on the environmental
risks of GM crops, this shows that these concerns are very real," said
Tony Juniper, Friends of the Earth policy director.
"This disclosure renders the reassuring signals on the safety and
desirability of the crops very hard to swallow."
The report, titled Investigation of feral oilseed rape populations:
genetically modified organisms research report no 12, was published this
month after the furore over GM food blew up. It was recently circulated to
scientists on the Government's Advisory Committee on Releases into the
Environment which gives consents to grow and market GM seeds in Britain.
Members of the committee have privately expressed "surprise" and "worry"
that they had not seen the report before.
It includes a preface from the Department of the Environment, Transport
and the Regions dated 1997.
The research on pollination and inter-breeding of GM oilseed was carried
out on oilseed rape populations by the Scottish Crops Institute between
1992 and 1997.
The report says that the evidence "indicates the inevitable contamination
under current agricultural practice of non-modified oilseed rape fields by
pollen imported from GM fields of the crop. This has important
implications for growers."
A spokeswoman for the National Farmers' Union said it would be examining
the report and wanted "all the scientific evidence" and "appropriate
tests" to be examined before decisions were made about planting GM food.
The Family Farmers' Association, which represents small traditional farms,
said that it was "very concerned".
"Any farmer would be terrified to hear this," said Pippa Woods, its
"There still doesn't seem to be proper proof that GM crops are OK. We
don't know whether to believe the chemical companies or not."
The report also warns that oilseed rape grown for its oil, for use in
margarine, for example, could be ruined if GM oilseed pollen which has
been engineered to be inedible starts cross-breeding with it.
In the United States, inedible genetically modified oilseed rape is widely
grown for use in industrial processes such as paint production.
It is not yet grown commercially in Britain although around 100 fields of
GM oilseed rape are being grown as part of a national testing programme.
The report further warns that GM crops would have to be "isolated" from
normal fields to cut down on such cross-contamination. At present,
although rules vary, only six-metre breaks are required between the
planting of test GM oilseed rape fields and ordinary farmers' crops.
"The use of isolation distances around novel oilseed rape fields could
minimise this to an acceptable level," the report says. "However, thorough
elimination of the oilseed rape seed bank would be required before any
edible types were subsequently grown."
Last week the Government, in an attempt to assuage fears about GM crops,
issued a report to all MPs. This said it would stop commercial planting of
crops if farm-scale tests revealed "problems".
"If there is a risk that genetically modified genes will be transferred to
other species and cause an environmental problem, the crop would not be
given an approval," it said.
SUNDAY INDEPENDENT February 21, 1999
GM foods - Current tests are inadequate protection
We asked Michael Antoniou, molecular geneticist, to explain the dangers
Since its inception 20 years ago, genetic engineering or modification (GM)
has spurred major advances in our understanding of how genes are organised
in DNA. Genes are the inherited blueprints for the tens of thousands of
proteins that act as the building blocks of the body for all forms of life
from bacteria to humans. In the form of enzymes, proteins carry out all
the biochemical processes, such as digestion of food, that keep us alive.
Plants are made up from between 20,000 and 80,000 genes depending on their
complexity. Estimates for animals, including humans, range from 80,000 to
Despite advances in our scientific knowledge, the gene "maps" for "higher"
plants, animals and humans are still very incomplete, with only a few per
cent of all genes known. More importantly, we know even less about how
genes are switched on as an integrated whole to produce the correct
combinations of proteins in the right place, time and quantity. What is
clear is that genes and the proteins they make do not work in isolation
but have evolved to exist and function in groups, the complexity of which
we are only just beginning to appreciate. Nature has established
boundaries so that reproduction can normally take place only between
closely related forms. Tomatoes can cross-pollinate with tomatoes but not
soya beans; cows can mate only with cows and not sheep. These same genes
in their natural groupings have been finely tuned to work harmoniously
together by millions of years of evolution.
It is claimed that GM in agriculture is a natural extension of traditional
breeding methods, only more precise and safer. However, technically
speaking, GM bears no resemblance to natural reproduction. The
Government's Genetic Modification (Contained Use) Regulations define GM as
"the altering of the genetic material in that organism in a way that does
not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination or both".
GM allows the isolation and transfer of only one or a few genes (eg,
herbicide or pest resistance) between totally unrelated organisms. This is
contrary to the understanding that genes work in groups within a given
form of life and not in isolation.
GM plants and animals start life in a laboratory where artificial units of
foreign genetic material are randomly inserted into the host in a way
which, to a lesser or greater degree, always disrupts natural genetic
order and function. Furthermore, GM brings about combinations of genes
that would never occur naturally. A gene from a common soil bacterium has
been transferred to soya beans to make them resistant to a herbicide;
anti-freeze protein genes from an arctic fish have been introduced into
tomatoes and potatoes in an effort to confer resistance to frost.
The artificial nature of GM does not automatically make it dangerous. It
is the imprecise way in which genes are combined and the unpredictability
in how the foreign gene will behave in its new host that results in
uncertainty. From a basic genetics perspective, GM possesses an
unpredictable component that is far greater than the intended change.
There would still appear to be so many unknowns that the risks to health
and the environment are simply unquantifiable. A potential problem arising
from herbicide-resistance GM crops that is largely being ignored is what
is the fate of these chemicals within the plant? Are they stable? If they
are degraded, what are the products that are produced? And what health
risks do they pose?
Disruption in genetic function can lead to biochemical changes which in
turn may give rise to novel toxins and allergies. In 1989 in the USA,
consumption of the supplement L-tryptophan derived from GM bacteria killed
37 and rendered 1,500 permanently disabled. Many argue that this was due
to sloppy manufacture.The scientists at the Japanese company concerned
think otherwise and blame the GM process for producing traces of a potent
Does our regulatory system protect us from these potential hazards?
Health-risk assessment of GM foods compares only known components (eg,
nutrients, known toxins and allergens) between GM and non-GM equivalent
varieties. If things match up then all is assumed well. Short-term animal
feeding trials are conducted in some cases. The fact that the L-tryptophan
tragedy would repeat itself by these criteria highlights the inadequacy of
this system. No tests with human volunteers are required for either
toxicity or allergic reactions prior to marketing. Clearly the current
regulatory process does not fully take into account the unpredictable side
of GM. At the very least, long-term animal feeding trials followed by
tests with human volunteers of the type required for GM drugs should be
SUNDAY INDEPENDENT February 21, 1999
GM foods - Blair's touch abandons him
FOR a man who has always seemed to understand the issues that really
matter to the public, Tony Blair's touch appears to have abandoned him on
genetically modified food. Hundreds of letters we received last week had a
common theme: anger and disappointment at the Government.
"Government has the ultimate responsibility for protecting us from
potential hazards in the food chain," writes Stella Baylis from Leicester.
"I have been sickened by the way this Government (for which I voted.) has
not listened to its voters and those scientific advisers that advise more
stringent caution and testing."
The Rev Canon Michael Austin of Southwell, Notts, says: "I write to
associate myself wholeheartedly with this campaign. I do so as a member of
the Labour Party who objects strongly to the Government's support of the
Eve Ohman of Silverdale, Lancs, writes: "I have been a great supporter of
Tony Blair, but his view on this subject makes me really sad. What I
cannot understand is this Government's attitude after the BSE debacle".
Vivien Heilbron of London SW6 writes: "As a Labour voter, and party
member, I hope the Government realises what keen attention this debate is
attracting with all its implications ... governments should represent the
Farmers and scientists are among our correspondents, with R N H Sackur of
Woolham Farm, Lincolnshire, pointing out: "We are not short of food .
inadequately researched new technology should not be allowed to threaten
Professor Desmond Hammerton of Callander, Scotland, writes: "There is
enormous scope for unregulated development and use of GMOs (genetically
modified organisms in developing countries", while Dr P H White, of
Reading, Berks, a retired physicist, complains: "There has been an absence
of independent scientific evaluation or any study of the long-term effect"
of GM crops. "It is still not too late for many of these studies, and
permission to use genetically modified crops should be delayed."
* 600 readers have already written to Cabinet "enforcer" Jack Cunningham
stating their views on GM crops and foods. If you want us to pass on your
letter as well, write to GM Campaign, Independent on Sunday, 1 Canada
Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL.
Date: Sat, 20 Feb 1999 23:21:24 +0000
From: Jonathan Matthews <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Professor Mike Gale, director of the John Innes Centre (JIC), is quoted
extensively in this article on the financial implications of a
moratorium or ban for the JIC, which always claims to jealously guard
its independence from industry, and for the Institute of Food which is
to be a key advisor to the new Food Standards Agency.
Warning on GM food ban - Eastern Daily Press
Norfolk's hi-tech research industries and farming community would suffer
a massive blow if GM foodswere banned a top scientist warned last night.
Professor Mike Gale, director of the John Innes Centre, said a
Government-imposed halt or long-term moratorium on the so-called
"Frankenstein" foods and their commercial growth would also penalise
The professor admitted that supporters of GM foods in the scientific
community had lost control of the debate as the media continues to focus
on the controversial research of sacked Rowett Research Institute
scientist Dr Arpad Pusztai.
But Jonathan Matthews, spokesman for GM opponents the Norfolk Genetic
Information Network, said big corporations and their scientists had long
stifled debate. Only now was the public being given a balanced view so
they could decide for themselves.
Dr Jack Cunningham, the Government's cabinet "enforcer", last night
restated the belief that GM foods were safe, despite a high-profile
panel of scientists backing Dr Pusztai's findings that rats fed
genetically mod)fied potatoes suffered damaged immune systems.
Prof Gale said he was "very pleased" at the support Tony Blair and Dr
Cunningham were giving to GM food but "very worried indeed" that they
would be unable to sustain their stance in the face of intense media
A change of heart and a government-imposed ban or long-term moratorium
on growing GM crops or introducing any more GM foods would be a huge
blow for the John Innes Centre.
"It would be very, very serious for us. There's no doubt the Norwich
Research Park and Norwich would suffer," said Prof Gale.
The research centre has an annual turnover of more than £25 million,
and, combined with the Sainsbury Laboratory, employs about 900 people. A
GM ban would also hit researchers at the nearby Food Research Institute,
where 350 scientists are employed and at the University of East Anglia.
A ban would choke off many grants which the John Innes Centre receives
from industry to research genetic modification techniques. Last year
biotechnology giants Zeneca and Du Pont agreed to invest £65 million in
the institute to support work on wheat and wheat products.
"All the commercial production of GM crops is going on within companies
Nobody on the Norwich Research Park is producing these varieties.
However, we are making discoveries which we hope wll be applied in these
crops and benefit developed and developing world countries," said Prof
"I think we have lost control of the debate. We have been slow in
educating the consumer and public and it's got to the point where the
interest groups such as Greenpeace and others really are leading," he
"We're trying to get more rational arguments into the Press," he said.
Prof Gale quoted the furore surrounding Dr Pusztai's research. The
lecithin [lectin] genetically inserted into potatoes and fed by the
researcher to rats, is a natural insecticide found in many plants. There
should be no surprise that the rodents seemed adversely affected having
eaten the potatoes raw.
Lecithin occurs naturally in tropical beans, but people cook them,
destroying the lecithin and making the beans edible.
If Britain on its own, or with the rest of the EU, turned its back on GM
food it would cost us dear, said the professor.
"If the UK farmer were banned from growing GM crops he would very soon
find it very difficult to compete with the US farmer on the world
The British consumer would miss out on very real price gains
The new wonder foods could deliver while the poorest people in
developing countries would go without new crops such as a
drought-tolerant wheat and rice modified to provide protein.
Prof Gale said: "I look at the world food situation and think going into
the 21st century without GM food would be like a boxer going into a ring
with one hand tied behind his back - it's unthinkable."
"I cannot see how we can produce the food we need in the world in the
next 25 years without it."
Only three GM food products are currently sold in the UK, a tomato
paste, a form of soya and a form of maize, plus some cheeses made using
rennet produced from GM material but not themselves containing GM
products. However GM soya oil is believed to be present in up to 60 per
cent of processed foods.