GM food safe?
Recent incidents and scientific findings cast grave doubts over the
safety of GM food and feed. We shall be circulating a selection of the
- Cows Ate GM Maize &
- Transgenic DNA and Bt Toxin Survive Digestion
- Bt Toxin Binds to Mouse Intestine
- Syngentas Spanish
GM Trojan Horse
- Liver of Mice Fed GM Soya Works Overtime
- Animals Avoid GM, for Good Reasons
To see all the reports, subscribe to our house-magazine Science in
ISIS Report 13/01/04
Cows Ate GM Maize & Died
This latest incident in a German farm raises tough questions for our
governments scientific advisors who have persisted in ignoring scientific
evidence that GM food is far from safe. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and
Sam Burcher call for a public
for this report are available in the ISIS members site.
Full details here
GM maize and dead cows
Twelve diary cows died after being fed GM maize and silage. This
happened on a farm in Woelfersheim in the state of Hesse, Germany.
According to the report by Greenpeace Germany, "common errors in feeding
and infections had by and large been ruled out as the cause of death", and the
farmer involved, Gottfried Glöckner, a supporter of GM crops, now suspects
that Syngentas GM maize Bt 176 is to be blamed.
Bt 176 contains multiple complex traits, including insect resistance
conferred by a toxin from the soil bacterium Bacillus
thuringiensis and tolerance to the herbicide glufosinate. It was
produced initially by the company Ciba-Giegy in 1994, and acquired subsequently
by biotech giant Syngenta.
Glöckner has been growing Bt 176 increasingly in his fields since
1997, and in 2000 and 2001, switched over entirely to GM maize. Shortly
thereafter, five of his cows died within four months in 2001, and another seven
in 2002. The rate of milk production decreased in some of the remaining cows
and others had to be slaughtered because of unknown illnesses.
Syngenta obtained a European license to market GM maize Bt 176 in 1997
and is currently growing 20 000 hectares commercially in Spain. The US license
for the crop expired in 2001 and was not renewed. Austria, Luxembourg and Italy
have banned its cultivation.
In Germany, safety concerns were raised in early 2000, causing the
German Robert Koch Institute to announce " the suspension of the authorisation
for putting the maize line 00256-176 and its derivatives on the market, unless
it is cultivation for research or trial purposes."
In November 2001, Glöckner reported the demise of his herd to
Robert Koch Institute in Hesse, who were regulating the GM trials on behalf of
Syngenta Corporation. In 2002, he was awarded compensation of 40 000 euros by
Syngenta for five dead cows, decreased milk yields and vets bills. In February
2002 he decided to stop feeding his cattle GM maize altogether, but by October
2002 a further seven cows had died. The distraught farmer, who by this time was
over 100 000 euros out of pocket called upon Syngenta and the Robert Koch
Institute to conduct a proper investigation.
Cause of death unknown
The Robert Koch Institute impounded neither the dead cows nor the GM
feed from the farm and carried out no comprehensive tests on the soil from the
farm or any dung samples from the cows in question. What investigations they
made on the GM maize feed from the farm ended in December 2002 with
inconclusive evidence as to what caused the death of the cows. This was backed
up by the local district council in Giessen who issued a statement in August
2003 that "the cause of the incidents referred to could not be determined."
But only one of the five dead cows in 2001 was examined at the pathology
institute at Giessen. Additional tissue samples were sent to the University of
Göttingen, "where they vanished in unexplained circumstances", according
to Greenpeaces report.
The regulatory maze surrounding another Syngenta Bt maize
Further concerns are being raised over another Syngenta GM maize, Bt 11,
destined for human consumption in 2004, if approved by the European Council of
Ministers, because it contains the same protein that according to Syngenta, was
in the Bt176 maize fed to the German cows.
Despite the UK Food Standards Agencys recommendations to the
Standing Committee of the Foodchain and Animal Health in December 2003 that GM
maize Bt 11 is safe for human consumption, the five-year old de-facto
moratorium remains in place in Europe, thanks to other member-countries who
voted against approving Bt 11.
However, the approval process for Bt 11 as food is being processed under
the Novel Food Regulation, which is not as strict as the new GM Food and Feed
Regulation. The new legislation provides for approval under the old rules, if
the application received a final scientific assessment before the new rules
apply, as in the case of Bt 11. Nevertheless, Bt 11, if approved, will be
subject to the new labelling and traceability legislation. Indeed Bt 11 sweet
corn will fail to meet new EU food safety criteria, which clearly state that
short term and long term effects of food safety on future generations must be
taken into account, according to Article 14 (4) of EC Regulation 178/2002 (the
general legislation on food law and food safety, not the Novel Food
"Poison protein" in Bt maize?
A chief suspect for the death of the cows in Hesse is the Bt protein
contained in Bt 176, which Syngenta says is Cry1Ab, the same as in Bt 11.
Studies conducted in Japan in 2003 clearly showed that undigested Bt
toxin Cry1Ab is present in calf stomach, intestine and dung after being fed Bt
11 maize; and these results have been replicated in further experiments in
pigs. Both transgenic DNA and toxin protein fragments were detected in pigs fed
Bt 11 maize (see "Transgenic DNA and Bt toxin survive digestion", this series).
Both normal and transgenic DNA break down much more slowly in vivo than
Syngenta previously assumed.
The Austrian Government is putting up a valiant fight to resist the
introduction of GM products into the food chain, and has issued a report
questioning the validity of Syngentas evaluation of GM maize Bt 11 for
human consumption. Their report concludes that Syngenta has based the safety of
Bt 11 on assumptions rather than scientific evidence.
To date there are no scientific studies on the long-term effects of
eating Bt 11 and no toxicological testing on the whole GM maize plant. Tests
for allergic reactions to Bt 11 were insufficient and relied on theoretical
argument rather than scientific evidence.
Farmer Glöckner now fears that his pastures are contaminated with
the Bt 176 toxin by decomposing dung from his cows leaching into the soil where
it can bind with the minerals in the clay, and remain harmful to many
organisms. He has called upon Greenpeace to lobby Robert Koch Institute and
Syngenta to re-open the investigation into the death of his cows.
Bt 176 worse than it appears
But worse is in store. Molecular analysis recently carried out suggests
that the toxin in Bt 176 may not be Cry1Ab, but Cry1Ac, and that Bt 11, which
is engineered with Cry1Ab, may be contaminated with Bt 176, so it will have
Cry1Ac and well as CrylAb (see "Unstable transgenic lines illegal", this
Molecular analysis has recently been carried out both by French and
Belgian government scientists.
Their results revealed that the Bt gene in Bt 176 showed 94% similarity
with a synthetic construct of crylAc gene, but only 65% homology with
the native cry1Ab gene of Bacillus thuringiensis subsp.
kurstaki strain HD1, from which it was supposed to have been derived.
This suggests that the company has misreported or misidentified the
transgene present. This is extremely serious.
Syngenta is maintaining that Bt toxin can only deleteriously affect
certain insect larvae, thus bestowing insect resistance to their GM maize. But
many Bt toxinx are potential allergens and immunogens. A study in 2000 found
that the Cry1Ac protein is a potent immunogen and does bind to the intestinal
wall of mice, causing significant changes in the gut cells. Bt 176 expresses
very high levels of the toxin (see "Bt toxin binds to mouse intestine", this
Many Bt transgenes are synthetic, including the one in Bt 176. They are
hybrids of multiple toxins. That means Bt transgenes not only risk killing more
species of insects than intended, but may also contain previously unknown
toxicities for other animals and human beings (see "Regulatory sham on Bt
crops", this issue).
Bt 176 is also the worst GM crop in terms of stability and uniformity.
There are multiple transgenic inserts, the number of inserts depending on
the source. This makes it very difficult to pin down the precise problems
with the GM crop. There may be more than one problem with Bt 176 from different
sources, or due to continuing instabilities in one seed lot, depending on where
the unstable inserts have landed in the plant genome.
The transgenic inserts of Bt 176 have undergone rampant rearrangements
since characterised by the company - many involving the
well-known recombination (fragmentation) hotspot, the cauliflower mosaic virus
(CaMV) 35S promoter.
The CaMV 35S promoter, as ISIS has repeatedly warned, is a very
powerful promoter active in all species including humans. It leads to
over-expression of genes downstream from it. Over-expressing of certain
oncogenes are involved in cancer.
Transgenic DNA containing the CaMV 35S promoter is an invasive DNA,
capable of inserting into all genomes, including those of animal cells, and
hence carries the risk of triggering cancer.
The molecular analysis of Bt 11 reveals that it may be contaminated with
Bt 176, and we have warned various European governments as well as the European
Food Safety Authoritys Scientific Panel on GMOs against its market
Public enquiry needed
Greenpeace is demanding an immediate ban on Bt 176 and a full scientific
investigation into the death of the cows at Woelfersheim in Hesse.
It is clear that farmers who support GM run the risk of being
under-compensated for their livestock and harvests should anything go wrong. It
appears that environmental risks and hazards on the farm even during field
trials are not something that GM companies accept full liability for.
Syngenta has been growing Bt 176 in Spain at low levels since 1997, and
is relying on that as a showcase of how GM and non-GM crops can co-exist in
Europe (see "Syngentas Spanish GM trojan horse", this series). It has
been kept at 4-5% of the total maize acreage, and all of it has been mixed with
conventional maize thats not specifically labelled GM-free, which is
mostly fed to cattle. The Woelfersheim experience shows that increasing the
level of GM feed may end in disaster. Furthermore, contamination of
Spains organic maize has already been found, which can destroy the
growing market for this commodity.
The cows at Woelfersheim are by no means an isolated case indicating
that GM feed is far from safe. It must be seen in the light of already existing
evidence in the scientific literature that GM feed had adverse effects on
laboratory rats and mice (see "Liver of mice fed GM soya works overtime", this
series), largely corroborating the findings of the much maligned senior UK
scientist Arpad Pusztai and his collaborators. To that must be added a host of
anecdotal reports by farmers and others that animals avoid GM feed, if given
the choice, and if force-fed GM, fail to thrive (see "Animals avoid GM food,
for good reasons", this series).
Apart from a full scientific investigation into the safety of GM food
and feed, we demand a public enquiry into the serious abuse of scientific
evidence by our governments scientific advisors, which have allowed GM
crops to be grown commercially (in some countries) and GM food to go on sale in