Science in Society Archive

I-SIS' Questions to UK Food Standards Agency Open Meeting

The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) is holding an open meeting on Wednesday 13 November 2002. The ACNFP advises the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on any matters relating to novel foods (including GM foods) and novel processes.

Among the issues to be discussed at the meeting are the implications of the recently completed FSA research on horizontal gene transfer for the way in which the safety of GM foods is assessed. Whilst the research showed that GM DNA can transfer to bacteria in the human gut, the FSA said, "it is extremely unlikely that genes from genetically modified (GM) food can end up in bacteria in the gut of people who eat them", and that "the findings had been assessed by several Government experts who had ruled that humans were not at risk".

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Director of I-SIS, had critiqued the FSA research (see 'Stacking the Odds against Finding It', Science in Society 16, Autumn 2002), detailing how the experiment was designed to bias against positive findings. The implications are that the actual transfer of GM DNA could be much more extensive than indicated.

Some of the questions raised by the critique, which I-SIS has also submitted in advance of the ACNFP meeting are:

1. Why were the transgenic soya samples so poorly characterised in terms of GM content, structure of transgenic insert(s), states of degradation, etc.?
2. Why was only one meal administered and monitored?
3. Why was only one small fragment of the entire insert subject to PCR amplification, knowing that this would drastically underestimate the presence of transgenic DNA?
4. Why did the researchers make what they know to be unjustified assumption that transgenic DNA was absent in negative samples?
5. Why did the researchers not monitor for transgenic DNA in blood and blood cells, when they are fully aware of previous research in mice showing that transgenic DNA can indeed get into the blood, and from there to other cells of the body?
6. Why was such a bad piece of research accepted by the FSA, and worse, misinterpreted to indicate that GM foods are acceptable, when all the indications are that the extent of horizontal transfer of transgenic DNA is most likely to be much more extensive than the data indicate?

This latest finding is the last piece of damning evidence that horizontal transfer of GM DNA can indeed happen, has already been happening, and cannot be controlled if GM crops continue to be released to the environment.

Further questions on horizontal gene transfer that I-SIS has submitted to the ACNFP centre around Agrobacterium tumefaciens, the soil bacterium that causes crown gall disease, and which has been developed as a major gene transfer vector for making transgenic plants. I-SIS has challenged the ACNFP to consider the possibility that Agrobacterium tumefaciens could be a vector for gene escape.

This is because the process whereby Agrobacterium injects T-DNA into plant cells strongly resembles conjugation, ie, mating between bacterial cells. Transgenic plants created by the T-DNA vector system thus have a ready route for horizontal gene escape, via Agrobacterium, helped by the ordinary conjugative mechanisms of many other bacteria (see 'Averting Sense for Nonsense', Science in Society 16, Autumn 2002).

In fact, this possibility was raised in a 1997 report of a UK Government-sponsored study showing that it was extremely difficult to get rid of the Agrobacterium used in the vector system after transformation. I-SIS has also asked the ACNFP about what follow-up (if any) there has been to the MAFF report, McNicole et al. (1997) 'The Possibility of Agrobacterium as a Vehicle for Gene Escape', MAFF, R&D and Surveillance Report.

We hope that these questions will be discussed and debated at the ACNFP meeting.

ACNFP Open Meeting details: Crown Plaza Hotel, Downing Street, Cambridge, 13 November 2002, at 1:30pm.

The two I-SIS reports referred to in this press release are now available in Science in Society 16, Autumn 2002 issue.

Article first published 29/10/02

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