Science in Society Archive

I-SIS Letter to Indonesian Government re GM Cotton

The Minister of Agriculture
Jl. Harsono RM. No. 3, Pasar Minggu,
Jakarta Selatan-Indonesia
Fax: 62-21-7883-3066

cc:

Dear Minister of Agriculture,

Please allow me to advise you in the strongest terms against the commercial production of Monsanto’s NuCOTN 35B cotton.

As a geneticist and biophysicist with more than 30 years experience in research and teaching in universities, I was drawn into the genetic engineering debate in 1994 as scientific advisor to the Third World Network. I have since debated and lectured in 30 countries around the world, including Indonesia. I am also Director of the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS), which I co-founded in 1999 to promote socially accountable and ecologically sustainable science, and the critical public understanding of science. I have close to 300 publications, including 10 books spanning several disciplines, among which is Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare? (1998, 1999), already translated into several languages.

I-SIS has initiated an Open Letter in 1999, calling for a global moratorium on environmental releases of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), on grounds that they are inherently unsafe, and for a ban on patents on living organisms and processes, on grounds that they are unethical and do not constitute inventions. The letter has been signed by more than so far, and is on the ISIS website (http://www.i-sis.org.uk). You will recognize many eminent scientists of international repute among the list of signatories.

A major part of our work is in monitoring the scientific literature to provide accessible information to policy makers and the general public, especially with regard to GMO biosafety. There is currently no independent scientific body, apart from ISIS, that is performing this important task.

Monsanto’s GM cotton is ‘Bt-cotton’, so named because it is genetically modified with a toxin gene from Bacillus thuringiensis, a species of bacteria that live in the soil, to kill the cotton bollworm and other insect pests. There are many different Bt toxins from different strains of Bacillus thuringiensis, that are toxic for organisms from bacteria to butterflies and beetles. Several Bt toxins have been incorporated into a range of crop plants including besides cotton, maize, rice, and potato. There has been no long-term environmental and health impact studies anywhere in the world before Bt-cotton, as indeed any other GM crop, was approved for commercial release. Many environmental and health problems have emerged since. Let me review briefly the problems specific to Monsanto’s Bt-cotton before I address the more general hazards of GMOs.

Almost as soon as it was released, Monsanto’s Bt-cotton ran into difficulties. The Bt-gene went unstable, and failed to perform in the field in both the United States and Australia [1]. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready cotton, engineered to be tolerant to its own brand Roundup herbicide, suffered the same fate the following year. The cotton balls became deformed and dropped off when the plants were sprayed with Roundup herbicide [2]. I understand that the Bt cotton crop in Balleanging village, Ujungloe district in Bulukumba (South Sulawesi) has become infested with the brown leaf hopper Spodoptera as well as the bollworm Helicoverpa armigera, as reported by the local newspaper Fajar, 17 June 2001. This is most probably due to the same transgene instability, now known to affect all GM crops [3].

That’s not all. Target insect pests became resistant to the Bt toxins and drastic ‘resistance management’ strategies had to be adopted [4]. Bt toxins are themselves a problem, as reviewed by ISIS last year [5]. Active Bt toxin leaks from plant roots into the soil where it is not biodegradable and accumulates over time, with knock-on effects on all trophic levels in the ecosystem. Bt toxins harm non-target beneficial and endangered insect species, such as the monarch butterly [6], swallowtails [7] and lacewings up the food chain [8]. Bt toxins are known to be allergens for human beings [9], and to have harmful effects on rats in feeding trials [10]. Allergens and toxins can be transferred via GM pollen and dust to farm workers and the general public.

Another hazard in Monsanto’s Bt cotton is the antibiotic resistance marker gene that UK Government scientists have warned against, on account of its serious implications for the treatment of gonorrhea [11]. European regulators are agreed that antibiotic resistance marker genes should be phased out, because they can spread to pathogenic bacteria, making life-threatening diseases potentially untreatable.

As you will realize, there is no way to prevent dangerous GM genes from spreading, both by ordinary cross-pollination and by horizontal gene transfer to unrelated species. The most immediate dangers of horizontal gene transfer is the creation of new bacterial and viral pathogens and the spread of drug and antibiotic resistance genes to the pathogens.

Scientific evidence already indicates that horizontal gene transfer can occur, as detailed in the Open Letter from World Scientists. It can happen to fungi and bacteria in the soil, to viruses that infect plant cells. GM genes can transfer via pollen to bacteria and yeast inhabiting the gut of pollinators such as bees. GM pollen and dust can also transfer GM genes to bacteria and viruses in the mouth, respiratory and digestive tracts of farm-workers and the general public. It can transfer via honey, which is found to contain substantial amounts of pollen. Finally, there have been many recent reports, especially from ‘gene therapy’ research, indicating that animal cells, including those of human beings, can readily take up foreign DNA, and that such foreign DNA can become incorporated into the cell’s genome, with potentially harmful effects, including cancer [12].

It is becoming increasingly evident that GM technology is inherently hazardous both in agriculture and in medicine. I have summarized the most recent findings in a letter written recently to the New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Engineering [13}, which I am enclosing together with two recent reports from ISIS News. Should you require other items listed in the references to this letter, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Yours sincerely,
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Director Institute of Science in Society,
UK

Article first published 12/08/01



References

  1. "BT cotton fiascos in the US and Australia". Biotechnology Working Group: Briefing Paper Number 2, BSWG, Montreal, Canada, May 1997.
  2. "Seeds of discontent: cotton growers say strain cuts yields" New York Times 19 Nov. 1997.
  3. Transgenic instability was highlighted in my book, Genetic Engineering, Dream or Nightmare? (1998,1999), Third World Network, Penang, Gateway, Gill and Macmillan, Reading & Dublin, Continuum, New York. This has been amply confirmed in the recent scientific literature, reviewed in successive issues of ISIS News, the latest, "GM Crops may all be unstable" by Joe Cummins, ISIS News 9/10, July 2001, ISSN: 1474-1547 (print) ISSN: 1474-1814 (online)
  4. Mellon M and Rissler J. Now or Never, Serious New Plans to Save a Natural Pest Control. Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge, Mass, 1998.
  5. "To Bt or not to Bt" by Angela Ryan, ISIS News 5, July 2000, ISSN: 1474-1547 (print) ISSN: 1474-1814 (online)
  6. Losey J, Raynor L, & Carter M E. Transgenic pollen harms monarch larrvae. Nature 1999, 399, 214.
  7. See "Swallowing the tale of the swallowtail, no ‘Absence of toxicity’ of Bt-pollen" by Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS News 5, July 2000, ISSN: 1474-1547 (print) ISSN: 1474-1814 (online)
  8. Hilbeck A, Baumgartner M, Fried PM and Bigler F. Effects of transgenic Bacillus thuringiensis-corn-fed prey on mortality and development time of immature Chrysoperla carnew (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae) Enivronmental Entomology 1997, 27, 480-487
  9. Bernstein I, Bernstein J, Miller M, Tiewzieva S, Bernstein D, Lummus Z, Selgrade M, Doerfler D and Seligy V. Immune responses in farm workers after exposure to Bacillus thuringiensis pesticides Environ Health Perspect 1999,107, 575-82.
  10. See "Bt is toxic" by Joe Cummins and Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS News 7/8 ISSN: 1474-1547 (print) ISSN: 1474-1814 (online)
  11. See "Monsanto’s GM cotton & gonorrhea" by Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS News 7/8 ISSN: 1474-1547 (print) ISSN: 1474-1814 (online)
  12. Ho MW, Ryan A, Cummins J & Traavik T. Slipping Through the Regulatory Net: ‘Naked’ and ‘Free’ Nucleic Acids, Third World Network Biotechnology Series, Penang, 2001.
  13. Open Letter to New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Engineering, from Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Director, ISIS, 10 August, 2001

Enclosures:

  1. Open Letter to New Zealand Royal commission on Genetic Engineering from Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
  2. Monsanto’s GM cotton & gonnorrhea
  3. Bt is toxic

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