Genetic scientist warns of risks of GM (31/3/2007)

EXTRACT: 'The only fact we can be sure of is that we simply don't know enough to risk the consequences.' - Dr Ricarda Steinbrecher

28 March 2007 - Seoul – 'Genetic engineering is far from precise', warns Dr Ricarda Steinbrecher, consultant genetic scientist of Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific and also director of EcoNexus, a public-interest research organization based in the UK. 'There are a number of steps in the genetic engineering process and most of them are subject to various uncertainties. A single gene mutation can have serious effects .…yet genetic engineering is all about creating mutations… the outcome can be tremendous, and totally unpredictable and unexpected.'

Speaking on 'Genetically Engineered Food and Crops: Issues and Concerns from a Scientific Perspective' at the WORA Seminar entitled 'How to Secure the Safety of Rice' in Seoul today, Dr Steinbrecher expressed her disbelief that agri-business corporations could guarantee that genetically engineered (GE) food or crops are stable and safe when there are so many indications to show they are not.

'Besides negative ecological, social and economic effects of the genetic engineering of crops, from a scientific perspective, there are health impacts, contamination effects and many scientific uncertainties associated with genetic engineering,' continued Dr Steinbrecher.

She cited a disturbing development about honey bees in the US. 'Millions of these insects have disappeared over the last half year, their hives are empty. Bees are used as pollinators for various crops and the value that they generate in the US is estimated at over USD14 billion per year'. The problem is so severe that it has been called the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). 'Nobody knows why the bees are dying. There is evidence though that GE crops contribute to this, in particular insect resistant crops producing the Bt-toxin. Though healthy bees do not seem to be affected by Bt pollen, a scientist called Hans-Hinrich Kaatz in Germany has found that bees infested with parasites and fed with Bt pollen were affected and died at a high rate. Beekeepers have for years reported that honeybees suffer from high rates of parasites and diseases. As reported last week in a German journal [Der Spiegel], this resembles new evidence that Bt pollen is a contributing factor in the death of the bees. The areas where the bees have disappeared have a lot of Bt crops being grown there. We don’t think this is a coincidence. No one would ever have thought that this could have been an outcome of Bt and yet here we are. Not only do we not know exactly how this interaction happened, we don't know how to deal with it or stop it or even if we can.'

Dr Steinbrecher also cited experiments with rats and mice fed with a particular GE tomato and GE potato. Results showed damage to the musocal cell lining of the gut in both cases and abnormal development of body organs in the latter case. Other experiments on rats fed with GE peas that contained a gene from beans showed heightened allergenicity and immunogenicity.

'Allergic reactions can be anything from rashes, sneezing and asthma to fatal shocks in some cases,' warns Dr Steinbrecher.

Other possible impacts are gene silencing ie the plant that is being genetically engineered may 'silence' (turn off) that particular gene permanently. Dr Steinbrecher explains, 'In 1992, a study was published about GE petunias in Germany. One summer, these GE petunias started to produce white and pink flowers instead of the characteristic red ones. Investigations revealed that the plant had somehow shut off the gene producing red flowers. Again, this was a totally unexpected effect. Gene silencing in GE plants has been repeatedly observed. We now know that environmental factors as well as homologies of the GE gene and the plant's own genes can trigger gene silencing.'

She goes on to cite another disturbing case in the US. 'In the US, a case reported in 1999, GE soya (resistant to the Roundup Ready herbicide) was found to have inexplicably produced 20% more lignin. This caused the stems to become harder than normal. During one exceptionally hot summer, the stems cracked because they were too brittle and tough to expand in the heat. Fungus penetrated the cracks and this greatly affected the yield that summer.'

The final word from Dr Steinbrecher is one of extreme caution: 'The moral of all these cases is that from the scientific angle, genetic engineering of crops is still a technology full of risks. Any number of totally unexpected things can happen. Worse, once grown, GE crops can contaminate the food supplies as just seen for two varieties of herbicide resistant rice (LL601 & LL). Worse still, GE plants can and will contaminate natural varieties and this contamination is irrevocable. The only fact we can be sure of is that we simply don't know enough to risk the consequences.'

The delegates at the seminar were relieved to finally get such evidence of the risks of GE food. Their feelings were well articulated by Jung Woo Sick from the Buddhist Environment Association, 'Before this, we were aware of a debate over the safety and stability of GE but we were never really sure. Now that we know the facts, we can have one clear message for our consumers here: that GE rice and GE food is a real risk, one that we should not take.'

The Week of Rice Action (WORA) 2007 brings together farmers, rural communities, and other sectors of society to celebrate and protect rice culture. To be officially launched on March 13 in Bangladesh, the main WORA events will take place in 13 countries across Asia from March 29 to April 4. Culminating in India and the Philippines, WORA will be an unprecedented mobilization of Asians 'Celebrating and Protecting Rice Culture'! A key feature of WORA will be its one-million signature campaign calling on policy-makers to take immediate steps to save the rice of Asia.

WORA is organised by Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP) and its partner organisations in thirteen countries in the region. Anyone interested in being a part of WORA 2007 can log on to the WORA page at www.panap.net

Contact at PAN AP:

Ms Anne Haslam, PAN AP at [email protected]

PESTICIDE ACTION NETWORK ASIA AND THE PACIFIC (PAN AP), P.O. Box 1170, 10850 Penang, Malaysia. Tel: 604-6570271 or 604-6560381 Fax: 604-6583960
E-mail: [email protected]
Home Page: www.panap.net

Pesticide Action Network (PAN) is a global network working to eliminate the human and environmental harm caused by pesticides and to promote biodiversity based ecological agriculture. PAN Asia and the Pacific is committed to the empowerment of people especially women, agricultural workers, peasant and indigenous farmers. We are dedicated to protect the safety and health of people, and the environment from pesticide use and genetic engineering. We believe in a people-centered, pro-women development through food sovereignty, ecological agriculture and sustainable lifestyles.

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