Science in Society Archive

World Scientists’ Statement

Update of Concerns - July 1999

Mae-Wan Ho & Angela Ryan


The article on TRIPS is now under review at the WTO. It is an opportunity to exclude the new biotech patents from TRIPS. A scientific briefing was produced for the Third World Network and circulated at WTO, by two of our signatories, Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Dr. Terje Traavik. The full document can be found on our website: It provides a glossary and detailed analysis of the relevant article in TRIPS as well as corresponding articles in the EU Directive. The briefing concludes:

All classes of new biotech patents should be rejected from inclusion in TRIPs on the following grounds:


  1. Researchers at Cornell University published a study in Nature which found that pollen from GM Bt corn could have lethal effects on the larvae of monarch butterflies if it lands on milkweed, the plant upon which they feed. Forty-four percent of the larvae were killed after 4 days, whereas no mortality occurred in larvae fed nontransgenic pollen. The Cornell University researchers say their results "have potentially  profound implications for the conservation of monarch butterflies" and believe more research on the environmental risks of biotechnology in agriculture is essential.
    Reference: Losey, J.E. et al (1999). Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae. Nature 399, 214.
  2. A recent study on transgenic rice carried out at the John Innes Institute supports previous evidence that there is a recombination hotspot in the CaMV 35S promoter.  Furthermore, most of the recombination events analyzed were 'illegitimate' or nonhomologous and do not require substantial similarity in nucleic acid base sequence.  The recombination events were also found to occur independently, in the absence of other viral genes.
    Our comment: Transgenic lines containing the CaMV promoter, which includes practically all that have been released, are therefore prone to instability due to rearrangements, and also have the potential to create new viruses or other invasive genetic elements. The continued release of such transgenic lines is unwarranted in light of the new findings.
    Reference;  Kohli, A. et al 1999.  Molecular characterization of transforming plasmid rearrangement in transgenic rice reveals a recombination hotspot in the CaMV promoter and confirms the predominance of microhomology mediated recombination.  The Plant Journal 17(6), pp 591-601.
  3. A new study reviews 8,200 university based trials of transgenic soya varieties. It reveals that Roundup Ready Soybeans produce lower yields compared to their non GM counterparts.  The average yield drag in RR soybeans was 6.7% and in some areas of the midwest the yield average was 10% higher in conventional varieties compared to Roundup Ready varieties.  Furthermore the analysis shows that farmers use 2 to 5 times more herbicide measured in pounds applied per acre on RR soybeans compared with other weed management systems.  RR herbicide use exceeds the levels on many farms using multi-tactic weed management systems by a factor of 10 or more.
    Reference:  Evidence of the Magnitude and Consequences of the Roundup Ready Soybean Yield Drag from University-Based Varietal Trials in 1998.  by U.S. agronomist Dr. Charles Benbrook, author of Pest Management at the Crossroads and former Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture for the US National Academy of Sciences.  Ag Biotech Infonet Technical Paper Number 1 July 13 1999. website
  4. A recent population-based study conducted in Sweden between 1987-1990 and including follow-up interviews clearly links exposure to Roundup Ready herbicide (glyphosate) to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and strongly suggests glyphosate deserves further epidemiological studies.
    Reference: Hardell, H. & Eriksson, M. (1999).   A Case-Control Study of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and Exposure to Pesticides. Cancer85, No 6.
  5. A new paper reports chaotic gene silencing in GM plants and reveals that each transformed plant expressed a different and specific instability profile.  Both transcriptional and post-transcriptional gene silencing mechanisms were operating in a chaotic manner and demonstrates that epigenetic (position) effects are responsible for transgene instability in GM plants.  These results indicate that transgene silencing and instability will continue to hinder the economic exploitation of GM plants.
    Reference;  Dr Neve M et al. (1999)  Gene Silencing results in instability of antibody production in transgenic plants.  Molecular and General Genetics 260:580-592.
  6. Successful transfers of a kanamycin resistance marker gene to the soil bacterium Acinetobacter were obtained using DNA extracted from homogenized plant leaf from a range of transgenic plants: Solanum tuberosum (potato), Nicotiana tabacum (tobacco), Beta vulgaris (sugar beet), Brassica napus (oil-seed rape) and Lycopersicon esculentum (tomato). It is estimated that about 2500 copies of the kanamycin resistance genes (from the same number of plant cells) is sufficient to successfully transform one bacterium, despite the fact that there is six million-fold excess of plant DNA present. Our comment: A single plant with say, 2.5 trillion cells, would be sufficient to transform one billion bacteria. Reference: De Vries, J. and Wackernagel, W. (1998). Detection of nptII (kanamycin resistance) genes in genomes of transgenic plants by marker-rescue transformation. Mol. Gen. Genet. 257, 606-13.
  7. Horizontal gene transfer between bacteria can occur in the gut at high frequencies. This has been demonstrated in the gut of germ-free mice. The ‘germ-free’ gut-environment can result from taking antibiotics. In one experiment, tetracycline increases the frequency of horizontal gene transfer by 20-fold. And vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium is found to colonise the gut when the mice were treated with antibiotic. Our comments: Antibiotic resistance marker genes can spread from GMOs to bacteria and between bacteria, including those associated with infectious diseases. Furthermore, the use of antibiotics will make resistance spread more readily.
    References: Persson et al (1996). Enetrococcus faecium in ex-germfree mice. Microecology and Therapy, 24, 169-173. Doucet-Populaire, F. et al (1991). Inducible transfer of conjugative transposon Tn/545 from Enterocococcus faecalis to Listeria monocytogenes in the digestive tracts of gnotobiotic mice. Antimicrob. Agents Chemother., 35, 185-7. Whitman, M.S. et al (1996). Gastrointestional tract colonization with vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium in an animal model. Antimicrob. Agents Chemother. 40, 1526-30.
  8. Pathogenic bacteria capable of invading cells can act as vectors for transferring genes into mammalian cells. Our comment: Dangerous transgenic DNA can end up in the genome of our cells, with the potential of causing a lot of genetic disturbance including cancer.
    Reference: Grillot-Courvalin, et al. (1998). Functional gene transfer from intracellular bacteria to mammalian cells. Nature Biotechnology 16, 1-5.

Other relevant papers on our website, including:

  1. Special Safety Concerns of Transgenic Agriculture and Related Issues Briefing Paper for Minister of State for the Environment, The Rt Hon Michael Meacher (Prepared 7.4.99)
  2. Report on meeting of scientists in Michael Meacher’s Office (Prepared 10.4.99)
  3. One-bird ten thousand treasures - How ducklings in the paddy-field can feed the world.
  4. Principle of substantial equivalence - excerpt from a full critique of the FAO/WHO joint report on safety of GM foods.

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