A Backgrounder on Dr. Traavik's Study (6/6/2004)

A Backgrounder on Dr. Traavik's Study
by Masipag Wednesday May 26, 2004 at 08:08 PM
[email protected] Los Banos, Laguna, Philippines

"The presence of the antibodies in the human blood show that these people have been exposed to the Bt-toxin during the last few months," said Dr. Traavik.

Profit vs. Caution

On July 2003, the small, quiet village of Landan in Polomolok, South Cotabato was disrupted by an unusual outbreak of illnesses. About 51 individuals residing within the 100-meter radius of a Bt-corn field experienced bouts of respiratory and intestinal pains.

"The problems started during the start of the flowering period of the nearby Bt-corn plantation," recounted Pablo Senon, a barangay leader in Landan. "The children as young as 5 months old got sick first. They complained of headaches, tummy aches, coughs, colds, dizzy spells and difficulty in breathing."

The residents then decided to report the unusual incidence to church workers who immediately conducted a medical mission among the villagers. Then in September 2003, a scientist working on an independent research on Bt-corn volunteered to analyze the blood samples of the affected individuals.

Early warnings

On February 22, 2004, Norwegian scientist Dr. Terje Traavik disclosed in a conference in Kuala Lumpur the results of their ongoing research in the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology. Among three projects cited, the antibody analyses of blood sera from Philippine farmers generated the most reaction and interest among the audience. According to Dr. Traavik, they detected the presence of antibodies in the blood samples of 38 persons residing near a Bt-corn plantation in Polomolok, South Cotabato. These IgA, IgG and IgM antibodies are "specifically binding to Bt-toxin Cry1Ab" which means that these antibodies are released as a natural mechanism by the body when it is infiltrated by the said toxin or antigens.

"The presence of the antibodies in the human blood show that these people have been exposed to the Bt-toxin during the last few months," said Dr. Traavik.

Dr. Traavik said that this result "might indicate a coincidence in time between the three observed events" -- the first flowering season for Bt-corn, the outbreak of respiratory / intestinal disease among the residents near the Bt-corn field and the production of the antibodies. While the study cannot establish yet a relationship between the Bt-corn and the outbreak of illnesses, it does not also rule out the possibility that the exposure of the local residents to the Bt-corn caused their health problems. The production of antibodies specific to the Bt-toxin Cry1Ab simply indicate that the toxin has entered the farmers' and residents' body, hence the production of antibodies.

For Dr. Traavik, such development, while not yet conclusive, poses an "ethical dilemma for scientists."

"What do you do when you find something that can be interpreted as early warnings? Do you wait first before your study has been peer-reviewed and published in scientific journals, which may take a year, or do you inform a competent scientific community first that such warnings exist?"

For the NGOs and farmers groups, this is enough evidence to stop the commercialization of Bt-corn in the country.

"For years, we have been warning the government that such incident could happen," said Dr. Chito Medina, an ecologist / environmental scientist and technical adviser of MASIPAG. "The lack of scientific studies that could prove the safety of genetically modified organisms poses a great threat to both humans and the environment."

"Yet the government stubbornly refused to acknowledge this fact and even had the nerve to approve the commercialization of the Bt-corn."

Ganging up on Traavik

Ironically, Monsanto Corporation, the agrochemical corporation which produced and distributed the Bt-corn Yieldgard, kept mum on the whole issue. On the other hand, the Department of Agriculture has issued several statements as response to Dr. Traavik's presentation.

Dr. Art Salazar, director of the DA corn program has regarded the presentation as the "height of absurdity." In an interview with the Manila Bulletin, he said that "it is impossible for human to develop immunity from certain antibodies by simple exposure to GM corn plants."

"The statement made by Norwegian scientist Terje Traavik needs to be evaluated based on the basic principles of immunology and immunobiology," said Dr. Nina Gloriani Barzaga, professor of Medical Microbiology and Microbial Immunology in a statement. "Traavik needs to show pertinent scientific data that established his claims, before making press releases and unduly causing panic to the public."

DA Secretary Cito Lorenzo has also appealed to Dr. Traavik to "coordinate with the government to make the necessary and appropriate action."

"In the first place, it is the DA's responsibility to establish an effective monitoring system on the Bt-corn commercialization," said Dr. Medina. "But they failed to do this. Now they are placing the burden to Dr. Traavik without doing any studies of their own."

Similarly, more GM proponents from other countries reproached Dr. Traavik, for "bypassing the peer review process." In an open letter to Dr. Traavik, a number of scientists and professor criticized him for fostering "public misinformation and miscommunication in the complete absence of data."

"I believe that peer-review is an integrated and necessary part of 'sound science'," said Dr. Traavik. "I believe in it so strongly I have always and intend to always place my work, including early warnings, before the entire world, not just before the competent regulatory authorities with restrictions on discussing the content of my findings."

But in this day and age when most of the resource person or scientists are working directly or indirectly with the industry, the tradition of informing the scientific community of potential hazards, or in this case, 'early warnings' has become difficult muddled with the science-for-sale stance of the transnational corporations (TNCs) they are working with. Most research is "filtered for information" that must be kept under wraps for commercial or other reasons.

Precautionary Principle

The whole point of Dr. Traavik's presentation is to emphasize the need for identifying and recognizing uncertainties that could compromise the human health and the environment. His presentation of the preliminary research findings at the Biosafety Symposium seeks to illustrate the important role of precautionary principle in the transboundary movement of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Dr. Traavik believes that many species and cultures could be at risk from the international movement of the GMOs, with its "yet-to-be determined impacts on biodiversity and human health."

"I favor the employment of precautionary principle because it emphasizes the importance of scientists taking responsibility for anticipation, acknowledgement and communication of uncertainty," said Dr. Traavik. "It also gives the environment legal standing and places the burden-of-proof of safety for those who might damage her."

"There is a need to identify and acknowledge scientific uncertainties of technologies which involves human and environment welfare. The future of mankind and the environment is inter-dependent. Damage to ecosystems and other species will also hurt mankind in the long run," concluded Dr. Traavik. #


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