Science in Society Archive

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.

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 MWH