Science in Society Archive

OECD Still Promoting GM

Organization for Economic Development and Co-operation (OECD) is an organization of rich nations that calls itself "...a think tank, monitoring agency, rich man's club, an unacademic university". Prof. Joe Cummins represented I-SIS in a recent OECD meeting, and witnessed its machinations to promote GM and sideline critics.

The secretary general of OECD is Donald Johnston, formerly a member of the Canadian parliament, and he may have modeled OECD’s approach to promoting the global spread of GMOs along the lines used by the Canadian government in Canada. LMO (living modified organism) is the acronym used by OECD and other pro-GM organisations to refer to a genetically modified organism, or, GMO. It is intended to exclude GMOs that are not living from international regulation, such as processed and unprocessed food and food additives, for example.

The meeting was convened jointly with USDA (US Department of Agriculture) and USEPA (US Environment Protection Agency), 27-30 November 2001 in Durham, North Carolina, to discuss ‘LMOs’ and the environment.

As is customary for such meetings, it was conducted in an expensive hotel, and heavily biased towards promoters of GM, but did include token representation from critics. As is also customary, but unbeknownst to me, the promoters of GM were paid full expenses and per diems, but critics from non-government organisations had to find their own support.

When I enquired about the support for travel and accommodation described on the OECD website, assuming it applied to all those invited, I was told that no allowance was available to me through OECD, and I should speak to someone from USDA or EPA instead. The latter, when approached, were very cold, even rude. My behaviour had triggered suspicion, and thereafter I was followed and watched.

I was invited to do an interview with Public Broadcasting Service television in a small room near the meeting hall. During the interview, an official from the OECD repeatedly went into and out of the room and rattled cabinets, etc. I have given hundreds of interviews during my career, but never before experienced such behaviour from the conference organisers.

Dr. Rita Colwell, Director of the US National Science Foundation opened the meeting. She emphasised the benefits of GM, promoting the golden rice project as if it had solved the problem of Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries. She seemed unaware that the rice is neither wanted, nor needed, and failed to produce enough vitamin A for the purpose in any case. Other high level bureaucrats from the OECD, USDA, USEPA and the state of North Carolina echoed her views.

Many presenters said that GM food has been consumed by over 300 million people in the US with no evident injury to them, omitting to mention that as none of the food was labeled, there could not have been any science-based evaluation of their impact on the human diet. Nevertheless, US foodborne diseases may have gone up two to ten fold since 1994, when the first GM food was released (see p.xx).

When it came to risk assessment and risk management, the speakers, for the most part, ignored problems of gene flow to unmodified crops and weedy relatives. Thompson (South Africa) claimed that she has proved horizontal gene flow such as transfer of antibiotic resistance genes from modified crops to bacteria or animals had been ruled out. That was news to me. Never mind that horizontal gene transfer has been found to occur, but even scientists who failed to find it would not be foolish enough to rule it out.

MacDonald, chief of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency release assessment program, spoke on the philosophy of assessment. He failed to mention recent studies from Agriculture Canada showing that the ‘safe’ separation distance of modified canola from unmodified crops had been underestimated by nearly an order of magnitude. This means production of organic canola or canola marketed as unmodified is essentially impossible in western Canada. Most speakers did not seem to consider the spread of transgenes a serious problem, but more one that should be solved by changing regulations to accommodate gene transfer. In other words, just raise the acceptable threshold. Never mind that the organic certification requires zero percent GM contamination.

The next day, Mark Sears (Guelph University, Canada) reviewed the recent field investigations of the impact of Bt corn on Monarch butterfly. An effort was made to discount earlier laboratory and field studies that showed Bt was harmful to caterpillars, and to give the impression that the risks were ‘negligible’. For a more realistic assessment, see "Bt risk negligible?" (this issue)

In the session on additional current advancements, GM trees, fish, and insects were discussed, but the speakers gave the impression that these are still restricted to a safe laboratory environment. The status of the proposal to field test GM pink bollworms in Arizona was not clarified, nor was the progress of the programs to produce malaria-free mosquitoes (see p. ).

Heron (USDA) reviewed the progress in developing GM crops for pharmaceuticals. The development, including field trials, was overseen by agricultural agencies, while production is to be regulated by those regulating drugs. This has already led to questionable procedures in Canada. Not far from my home, tobacco modified to produce a human interleukin was developed by Agriculture Canada and approved for field tests by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Although the interleukin, even in minute traces, may affect the human immune system and metabolism, there was little or no effort to measure pollution of surface and groundwater. (See "GM Aids virus more deadly", ISIS News 11/12

The most important session was an impromptu meeting on the spread of transgenes to remote landraces of corn in Mexico. The advocates of GM all said that the results may have been ‘false positives’ due to "bacterial" contamination. I was not given the opportunity to point out that the 35S promoter is from the cauliflower mosaic virus, not found in wild bacteria. We also suspect that there may have been horizontal gene transfer involved, due to a fragmentation hotspot associated with the 35S promoter (see next article).

During this session, Mark Sears raised objection to the presentation by Dr. Doreen Stabinsky of Greenpeace. He emotionally declared that since her presentation was ‘opinion’ it should not have been allowed at the meeting. The same could have been said of his own presentation, and those of many other speakers.

In the final session, Andersen (USEPA) reviewed the refuge strategy for managing Bt resistance in GM corn, potato and cotton, and the need for constant vigilance to detect resistant alleles early. This is the closest any of them has come to admitting to a problem with these crops that have showed zero benefit so far.

There was a strong underlying bureaucratic view that only genes that produced products (trans-acting genes) need to be regulated, and genes that do not produce products (cis-acting genes) should not be regulated. This is fundamentally wrong. Cis-acting genes, such as promoters (including the 35S mentioned above) and other regulatory sequences, profoundly affect the organism into which they are inserted. For example, a salmon with a growth hormone from a separate salmon species grows rapidly. However, the rapid growth is due to the action of a promoter from an arctic fish, which drives the inserted growth hormone gene during the cold season.

The OECD conference was another excuse to promote GM, and another wasted opportunity as far as discussing real safety issues and policies was concerned.

I-SIS News 13 index

Article first published February 2002

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