Science in Society Archive

Monsanto's GM cotton not safe

The following letter was sent to key government officials in India on June 19, 2001, to support the campaign spearheaded by Devinder Sharma, food and trade policy analyst, to stop commercial planting of Monsanto's GM cotton in India. The Indian Government subsequenly delayed commercial planting by a year.


Shri T. R. Baalu, Union Cabinet Minister (Environment & Forests)
Fax +91 11 3354590 / +91 11 4362222
P.V.Jayakrishnan, Secretary of State for Environment & Forests: Fax: +91 11
Dr. C. P. Thakur, Minister for Health and Family Welfare:
Fax: +91-11-3016648 ;
Shri Nitish Kumar, Agriculture Minister: Fax: +91 11 3386004 / +91 11
Shri Shripad Yesso Naik, Minister of State for Agriculture: Fax: +91 11

Dear Sirs,

Please allow me to advise you in the strongest terms against the commercial approval of Mahyco-Monsanto's Bt transgenic cotton.

I am a geneticist and biophysicist with more than 30 years experience in research and teaching. Since 1994, I have been scientific advisor to the Third World Network, and have engaged in debates and discussions in 30 countries around the world, including India. I am currently also Director of the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS), which I co-founded in 1999. I have more than two hundred and fifty publications including 10 books spanning several disciplines, among which is Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare, Turning the Tide on the Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business (1998, 1999).

I also represent 435 scientists from 53 countries who have signed an open letter to all governments calling for a moratorium on environmental releases of GMOs on grounds that they are inherently unsafe according to existing scientific evidence and for a ban on patents of life-forms and living processes on grounds that they are unethical and do not constitute inventions. This letter can be found at the Institute of Science in Society website

I fully support the detailed studies called for by the India Council of Agriculture Research. I note, however, that there is existing evidence of hazards that you may have missed. My colleagues and I have been actively monitoring the scientific literature and written many reports over the years. I draw your attention especially to the following items, reproduced below from our newslettter, ISIS News 7/8 February 2001: "Monsanto's GM cottons and gonorrhea" and "Bt is toxic", which contain evidence from scientific studies, and "GM cotton fails in Indonesia", which refers to evidence collected by top journalists in Indonesia. For more details on the hazards inherent to GMOs, please visit ISIS website.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
Institute of Science in Society
24 Old Gloucester St.,
London WC1N 3AL


Monsanto’s GM Cottons & Gonorrhea

Strongly worded advice against the approval of Monsanto’s GM cotton was given by UK Government scientists warning of antibiotic resistance genes that would make gonorrhea untreatable. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports.

The information is in the archives of the UK Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) which vats applications for commercial approval of novel foods and animal feed. The advice was given in February 1999 (but was only published last year by the UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food). At around the same time, the European Union rejected Monsanto’s application for the sale of the GM cottons in Europe. The reason? The gene aad, which confers resistance to the antibiotics streptomycin and spectinomycin, is present in both Bollgard (insect-protected) and Roundup Ready (herbicide tolerant) GM cottons.

The bacterium responsible for gonorrhoea, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, could acquire the aad gene from GM plant materials during infection of the mouth and small and large intestine as well as the respiratory tract. N. gonorrhoeae could also get the gene indirectly from other bacteria in the internal and external environments of animals and human beings, which have taken up the gene from GM plant materials. Those other bacteria can serve as a reservoir for antibiotic resistance genes.

Streptomycin is mainly used as a second-line drug for tuberculosis. But it is in the treatment of gonorrhea that spectinomycin is most important. It is the drug of choice for treating strains of N. gonorrhea already resistant to penicillin and third generation cephalosporins, especially during pregnancy.

About 60% of the cotton harvest consist of cotton seed. Cotton seed oil is extracted for human consumption, while the residue, cotton seed cake is fed to animals. Although the Government advice was aimed at cotton seed, there are other hazards arising from the use of the GM cotton itself, which may be why it was rejected by the EU.

"Cotton is used in women’s sanitary napkins and tampons, in babies’ nappies, in bandages and other wound dressings." Dr. Elizabeth Bravo, a biologist from Accion Ecologica, Ecuador, reminds us. No one has checked if such cotton contains DNA.

Both GM cottons are being grown in millions of hectares in the United States and China, and exported to other countries. They are also planted to a smaller extent in Argentina. And Monsanto is trying to introduce them into Bolivia and other Latin American countries as well as India and Thailand. Illegal plantings of at least 500 hectares have already been discovered in Indonesia.

Why is this important scientific advice from UK Government scientists kept in the archives for more than a year before it was published? It could have, and should have, prevented millions of hectares of transgenic cottons from being planted.

All cotton crops should be destroyed, and no more should be planted. Meanwhile, people should avoid using GM cotton products, especially in tampons, babies’ nappies and wound dressings. GM cotton seeds certainly should not be used in food or feed.

To see the MAFF document, go to

Bt is Toxic

Recently there has been considerable international concern about the contamination of the human food chain with StarLink corn containing Baciullus thuriniensis (Bt) toxin Cry 9. Bt Cry 9 toxin had evident allergenicity in test animals, and had been approved for use in animal feed alone, but was found to have contaminated corn and corn products destined for human consumption.

Bt toxins are the products of a number of genes and genes that differ between Bt varieties. The United States and Canada judge that each toxin gene product must be considered safe for human consumption until it is proven otherwise. A study that recently came to light [1] shows that a widely used Bt toxin actually damages the mammalian ileum (the final part of the small intestine, where food stays the longest). Damages to the ileum can produce chronic illness such as fecal incontinence and/or flu like upsets of the digestive system.

The researchers studied the effects of both GM potatoes carrying the CryI gene of Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki strain HD1, as well as non-GM potatoes spiked with the toxin from the same strain of bacterium. Groups of five one-month old male mice were fed daily for 2 weeks on a diet of either the GM potatoes or the non-GM spiked by soaking the diced potatoes for 30 minutes in a suspension of the toxin (1 g per litre). The control group was fed non-GM potatoes for the same duration. Light and electron microscopic structures of the ileum in the three groups were compared.

Both the groups of mice fed GM potatoes or spiked potatoes revealed certain common features such as the abnormal appearance of mitochondria, with signs of degeneration and disrupted short microvilli (microscopic projections on the cell surface) at the surface lining the gut. However, in the group of mice fed on the spiked potatoes, several villi (projections of the intestinal lining, each made up of many cells, not to be confused with microvilli above) appeared with an abnormally large number of cells (151.8 in control group compared to197 and 155.8 in the spiked and GM-fed groups, respectively). Fifty percent of these cells were overgrown with multiple nuclei. The mean area of the cells was significantly increased (105.3 micro-m2 in control group compared to 165.4 and 116.5 in the spiked and GM-fed groups, respectively).

Several forms of secondary digestive vacuoles were recognised in these cells. These changes were confirmed with the scanning electron microscope which revealed a
remarkable increase in the perimeter of the cells (23 micro-m in control group compared to 44 and 28 in spiked and GM-fed groups, respectively). The basal lamina along the base of the cells was damaged at several foci. Several disrupted microvilli appeared in association with variable-shaped fragments of broken cells. In addition, the Paneth cells (secretory cells) in the spiked-fed group were highly activated and contained a large number of secretory granules. These changes may suggest that spiked potatoes resulted in the development of hyperplastic (overgrown) cells in the mice ileum.

Although milder changes are reported in the structural configuration of the ileum of mice fed on GM potatoes, the authors recommend that "thorough tests of these new types of genetically engineered crops must be made to avoid the risks before marketing".

It seems clear that the damages to the mice ileum are due to the bt toxin. What is not clear from this paper is the amount of toxin expressed in the GM potatoes compared to the amount in the spiked potatoes.

It is also of interest that the results here are similar to those obtained by Ewen and Pusztai in experiments with GM potatoes expressing the snowdrop lectin. As Pusztai points out, bt is also a lectin. It suggests that all lectins may have detrimental effects on the gut and should never have been used in GM crops.
1. Fares NH and El-Sayed AK. Fine structural changes in the ileum of mice fed on dendotoxin-treated potatotes and transgenic potatoes. Natural Toxins:1998: 6: 219-33.

JC & MWH (Prof. Joe Cummins and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho)

GM Cotton Fails in Indonesia

Contrary to Monsanto’s claim, its GM cotton succumbed to drought and insect attack while indigenous variety thrived, Dr. Mae-Wan Ho discovered while on visit to Jakarta.

Monsanto planted 500 hectares of GM cotton within 9 districts of Sulawesi, Indonesia in open ‘field trials’. This came to light when the company invited journalists to one of the sites where it claimed the GM cotton out-performed the indigenous variety planted side-by-side. Konphalindo, a public interest organ-isation dedicated to environmental protection, demanded information from the Department of Agriculture, especially the risk assessment required for approval of the field trials. That was six months ago. The Department of Agriculture provided no information on risk assessment, despite repeated requests. Konphalindo wrote a letter to the top national newspaper Kompas, which triggered investigations by its journalist.

It transpires that the GM cotton failed to out-perform the indigenous variety in all but one of the 9 districts. Worse yet, the GM cotton succumbed to drought and the brown hopper. Vivid photographs showed the browned-out GM cotton field next to the lush green field of indigenous cotton, which is resistant to both drought and the brown hopper. One of the photos appeared in Kompas (8 Feb.) under the headline, "GM cotton in Sulawesi Suspected Illegal". Hira Jhamtani, founder of Konphalindo, said, "If Monsanto hadn’t boasted of their ‘success’, we would never have found this out. We suspect that no safety assessment had been carried out at all."

Konphalindo had halted the commercialisation of Monsanto’s GM cotton last October with the help of information provided by ISIS, which drew attention to strongly worded advice against the approval of Monsanto’s GM cotton given by UK Government scientists. They warned of antibiotic resistance genes that would make gonorrhoea untreatable (see "Monsanto’s GM Cottons & Gonorrhoea", this issue).

News has come that the Indonesian Government Department of Agri-culture has just granted commercial approval for the GM cotton, but the Department of Environment is opposed. So a fierce fight is expected in the Indonesian Cabinet, and a lot will now depend on civil protest action.

Article first published 02/07/01

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