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Meacher Calls for Enquiry into GM Safety

Michael Meacher joined the ISP to call for an extended enquiry into GM safety, transparency and independence in scientific research, and an end to the victimisation of scientists whose research findings are 'inconvenient' for industry. Lim Li Ching

The ISP had its day in Parliament. The 100-seater room was filled almost to capacity. The crowd had begun gathering outside the Grand Committee Room almost an hour before the two-hour special briefing was due to start. The event, which took place on 29 April 2004, was jointly organised by ISIS and MP Alan Simpson's office. It was oversubscribed weeks after the first announcement, and has had to be moved to a bigger room.

Alan Simpson made the opening speech, thanking ISIS for organising the event, and for our crucial contribution to turning the tide on GM by getting quality scientific information to the public and policy-makers.

Former environment minister Michael Meacher was the first speaker. Among other MPs attending were Peter Ainsworth (chair of the Environmental Audit Committee), Joan Ruddock, Jeremy Corbin, David Drew, Roger Williams and Dr. Evan Harris.

Despite the welcome fact that GM crops are unlikely to be grown in the UK in the near future following the withdrawal of Chardon LL by Bayer, the ISP still feels that there are broader issues at hand. Not least that the UK government, in approving the GM maize in principle, leaves the door open for future approvals. Approvals of GM crops, food and feed are pending in Europe, and could occur anytime. In any case, the GM train is still steaming ahead, particularly in developing countries.

The ISP is especially concerned that the push to get GM crops approved and commercialised has distorted and corrupted science, and resulted in many scientists being victimised for trying to tell the truth about their research findings or about what they know.

Michael Meacher spoke directly to those concerns, highlighting the lack of good research into the long-term effects of GM foods on human health. More worryingly, when research turns up evidence of potentially adverse impacts, the results have been rubbished by the scientific establishment, and have not been followed up with further tests to confirm or refute the original findings.

Meacher called for a new, full-scale expert GM enquiry in the UK. As the Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs) had been extremely narrow, a new enquiry is needed that would "systematically and rigorously test the impact of GM crops and food on the environment and on human health".

He also demanded a more open and transparent scientific process, and an end to the suppression and vilification of scientists whose work may produce results that are inconvenient for the government or the biotech industry. (Dr. Arpad Pusztai was mentioned more than once in that context in the course of the briefing.) He called on the UK's advisory committees and regulatory bodies not to deny or dismiss the evidence of GM hazards.

Finally, he said that decision-making in the UK should not be influenced by the biotech industry, stressing that "No scientist with industry links should be appointed to regulatory bodies". He called on the government to ensure the integrity of research by fully funding independent research, and to abandon the current practice of encouraging the private sector to contribute 25% of research funding.

Peter Saunders stressed that the ISP is in favour of good science. Unfortunately, the UK government's decision to give Chardon LL approval for commercialisation was reliant on poor science. Doubt had been cast on the maize FSEs because of the impending EU ban on triazine herbicides (atrazine had been used on the majority of plots planted to non-GM maize), but shortly after, a paper was published in Nature claiming that the ban would be likely to "reduce but not negate relative benefits of GMHT maize".

However, because only four fields had not been sprayed with triazines, the paper included in its analysis data from fields that had been sprayed post-emergence with triazines, to predict what would happen in fields where these chemicals would not be used at all (See "Bogus comparison in GM maize trial", this issue). Despite its obvious flaws, the paper passed the peer review process and was published online in an advanced version of Nature, right around the time that the government announced the go-ahead for the GM maize. Is this what they call 'sound' science?

Stanley Ewen, co-researcher with Arpad Pusztai, has also been on the receiving end of the treatment meted out to those who dare raise questions about GM safety. Their research, which found changes in the gastro-intestinal tract of young rats fed GM potatoes, has been further elaborated by new evidence published in 2003. When the villi - the finger-like projections in the gut involved in absorbing and secreting - of the small intestine were examined, there was clear elongation of the crypts in rats fed GM potatoes. The findings are similar to that found by Egyptian scientists, who described changes in the small intestine of mice fed Bt potatoes.

Ewen also explained that they found an increase in the number of cells in the crypt and the mitotic rate (number of cells dividing) in the small bowel of young rats fed GM potatoes. He highlighted other research findings, such as gastric erosions in female rats fed GM Flavr Savr tomatoes, changes in the nuclei of liver cells in female mice fed GM soya, the persistence of GM maize grains in the rumen of sheep, and the transfer of transgenes to human gut bacteria. Ewen concluded by saying, "Much more scientific investigation is necessary before I can be satisfied that eating GM foods is not likely to provoke health problems in the long term".

Adding to the list, Mae- Wan Ho cited other evidence that casts doubt on the safety of GM food and feed, such as reported illnesses in villagers living near Bt maize fields in the Philippines and recent disclosure in the French newspaper Le Monde that there were kidney abnormalities and changes in blood sugar and blood cells in rats fed Bt maize resistant to corn rootworm. She stressed that there are reports in the scientific literature documenting problems with Bt toxins. The regulatory process not only ignores all that, but also allows toxicological tests to be done using the natural bacterial toxin instead of that produced by the GM crop. Consequently, most, if not all Bt toxins in crop plants are untested and unknown for toxicity.

She highlighted transgenic instability as a key safety issue. Recent event-specific molecular characterisation of commercial transgenic lines has shown that all the inserts analysed have changed from the original structure reported by the companies concerned, rendering the safety tests submitted earlier invalid. Many break-points involve the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) 35S promoter. The research also showed scrambling of the host genome at the insertion site, and a tendency for the inserts to land in retrotransposons.

Lim Li Ching exploded the myth that poor countries need GM crops and could benefit greatly from them. She described the socio-economic impacts of GM crops especially in Argentina, and also in Indonesia and India.

In Argentina, small farming families have been pushed off their land, unable to compete with large plantations growing herbicide tolerant Roundup Ready (RR) soya. Traditional food crops have been displaced by RR soya monoculture, leaving food insecurity in its wake. In addition, large-scale destruction of the environment has occurred with double the rate of deforestation. Glyphosate use on RR soya, double that on conventional soya, has led to tolerant and resistant weeds, necessitating ever more herbicide use, with farmers resorting to older and more toxic chemicals such as Paraquat and 2,4 D. These agrochemicals have been devastating on local communities, with serious health impacts, and loss of crops and livestock. The situation for some farmers in Indonesia and India has also been dire, with many who planted Bt cotton bearing the brunt of crop failure and pest attacks on the crop.

Brian John ended the briefing with an indictment of the scientific establishment for insisting that genetically modified organisms are safe. He stressed that there are still many questions about GM safety that need to be asked and that we need to "bring science with integrity to the fore". John reminded the government that 'the public' included many scientists who were concerned about GM safety. He urged for a holistic scientific approach to the issue and concluded by echoing the ISP call for "good and independent science, free of commercial interests".

ISP Making Waves

The Independent Science Panel (ISP) continues making an impact on the GM debate worldwide

ISP for academic freedom
Prof. Ignacio Chapela was denied tenure at the University of California, Berkeley, despite the overwhelming majority of scientists in his field who had recommended otherwise. His research on the introgression of transgenes into Mexican maize local varieties, which has contributed to opening up the debate on key safety issues surrounding GM crops, and his outspoken criticism of large-scale corporate funded research are well-known.

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, in a letter to the Berkeley alumni magazine California Monthly, expressed the concern that denying Chapela tenure is a reflection of the undue influence that industry and their supporters are exerting over academia. She stressed that disagreements in science must be debated openly and democratically, and can be resolved by good quality, unbiased research. What seems to be the suppression of research findings deemed unfavourable to the industry, and worse, action to deprive a scientist of the opportunity for further research that could resolve the disagreement, compromises all the traditional standards of good science.

ISP challenges GM maize approval
Dr. Brian John of GM-Free Cymru and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS Director, both members of the ISP, wrote a strongly worded letter to Margaret Beckett in February to challenge the approval of Chardon LL GM maize for Britain. The letter summarised crucial scientific evidence on Chardon LL, which might involve a likelihood of harm arising from its use, and called for DEFRA to bring this to the attention of the European Commission and other EU countries. They pointed to the instability of Chardon LL's transgenic insert, possibly related to the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) 35S promoter.

Commenting on the Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs), they reminded Beckett that the FSE maize trials did not replicate the likely commercial growing conditions that would apply if Chardon LL is grown in the future, and that Chardon LL should only be grown in the UK if the herbicide regime is exactly as it was in the FSEs. They pointed out that there are now major concerns about the toxicity of glufosinate ammonium, the herbicide used in conjunction with Chardon LL. In addition, experience from the US shows that glufosinate ammonium is ineffective when used on its own with GM maize after 2-3 years.

Finally, they raised the issue of contamination, pointing to research that suggests cross-pollination and hybridization of conventional maize at a distance of c. 5 km from the source crop.

Pharmaceutical rice stalled
Recent reports that a GM pharmaceutical rice, modified to produce two human proteins, had been approved by the California Rice Commission for commercial planting prompted ISP members Prof. Joe Cummins and Dr. Mae- Wan Ho to write to California's Secretary of Food and Agriculture, A.G. Kawamura and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, urging them to reject the GM pharm rice (see "Pharm crop stalled for now," this issue).

They highlighted some of the apparent irregularities in the approval process of the transgenic rice, which meant that federal approval had yet to be sought for growing the GM pharm rice. A report on the potential hazards of the GM pharm rice was also enclosed.

Many people had likewise written letters urging the California Department of Food and Agriculture to reject the GM rice. It eventually did, on the basis that the GM rice had yet to obtain the necessary approvals from the United States Department of Agriculture.

ISP questions risk assessment of hybrid GM maize
Public comment was invited on the assessment report of the UK competent authority, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), on a GM maize hybrid seeking approval in the EU. The GM maize is a hybrid of the NK603 line that expresses glyphosate tolerance and MON 810 that produces Bt insecticide. ACRE's assessment was that this hybrid GM maize "does not pose a risk to human health or the environment". It recommended allowing its import and use for food/feed but not for cultivation.

ISP members Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Joe Cummins were scathing in their response. They pointed out that there was no credible evidence that the GM maize hybrid was safe for animal and human health, as no independent molecular data were provided to ascertain that the transgene inserts are stable as claimed by the company, including in the seed sets that will be used for animal feed and human food. In addition, no toxicological studies or tests for allergenicity were conducted, no feeding trials were done on cows or pigs while no data accompanied Monsanto's own feeding trial on chickens, and not a single reference was made to peer-reviewed scientific literature.

They highlighted existing scientific evidence suggesting that the GM maize hybrid may not be safe, including evidence that the transgene inserts in the parental lines are unstable and evidence questioning the safety of GM maize containing Bt toxins.

Independent Science Panel for Biosafety
ISP members Dr. Susan Bardocz, Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Lim Li Ching and Dr. Arpad Pusztai attended the First Meeting of the Parties (MOP 1) to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Between them, they actively followed the negotiations and carried out many activities around the meeting. These included speaking at major side events, giving numerous interviews to journalists and independent film-makers, taking part in an hour-long programme for Malaysian national television, and providing informal advice to NGOs and government delegates.

It was time well spent, as they lent much needed support to the overwhelming majority of countries wanting a strong Biosafety Protocol.

To view press cuttings, and to find out more about the ISP, please visit the Independent Science Panel webpage

Article first published 07/05/04

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