Scientists suspect health threat from GM maize

  1. Scientists suspect health threat from GM maize

    John Vidal, environment editor
    Friday February 27, 2004
    The Guardian

    Scientists investigating a spate of illnesses among people living close to GM maize fields in the Philippines believe that the crop may have triggered fevers, respiratory illnesses and skin reactions.
    If preliminary results are confirmed, it would be one of the first recorded cases of serious health problems associated with GM crops, and could damage the reputation of the biotech agriculture industry, which is rapidly expanding in developing countries.

    The scientists' findings were immediately challenged by Monsanto, the world's leading GM company, and by the Philippine government.

    The concern surrounds an unnamed village in northern Mindanao, where 39 people living near a field of Bt maize - which contains a pesticide in the gene - started suffering last autumn when the crop was producing pollen.

    Doctors thought they had an infectious disease, but when four families left the village and recovered, and then showed the same symptoms on return, an environmental cause was suspected.

    Terje Traavik, scientific director of the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology, was asked to investigate. Blood tests showed the villagers had developed antibodies to the maize's inbuilt pesticide.

    Professor Traavik, who issued a summary of his results yesterday, said more tests were needed, but felt his preliminary findings were reliable.

    His studies suggest that a virus promoter - which is like a motor driving the production of the genetic message - was unexpectedly found intact in human cells.

    His team also said it had found that genetically engineered viruses used in the GM process recombined with natural viruses to create new hybrid viruses with unpredictable characteristics. If confirmed, this could suggest that they could cause new diseases.

    Prof Traavik said tests so far showed evidence of an immune reaction. He will return to the Philippines this week to continue the research before publishing full results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

    But he rejected accusations that he was trying to scare people with data not yet reviewed by other scientists. "Publication of results typically requires a waiting period of up to one year or more," he said in Kuala Lumpur.

    "With such evidence of possible human health impacts of foods already on the market, we believed that waiting to report our findings through publication would not be in the public's interest."

    Monsanto said it was "extremely unlikely" that the limited production of the GM crop in the Philippines would have produced such results.

    "There have been no documented cases of allergic reactions to Bt maize after seven years of broad commercial use on millions of hectares in the US, Canada, Argentina, Spain and South Africa, starting in 1996," a spokesman said.

    The company was backed by the government in Manila, which approved GM cultivation last year.

    "It's absurd - no biology student will believe it," said Artemio Salazar, the director of the maize programme of the Philippine department of agriculture.

    "The implication of the study is that the resistant gene got inserted into the human gene, which is impossible."

    Greenpeace called for more research. "There is such a huge amount of uncertainty around these crops," a spokesman said.

    But Willy de Greef, a biotech law consultant formerly employed by the Swiss agrochemicals company Syngenta, expressed surprise at Prof Traavik's findings, saying research showed Bt maize pollen did not carry the toxin so no reaction should occur. "One would want a scientific panel to look at Traavik's results," he told Reuters .

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/gmdebate/S...157222,00.html
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  2. 22 Comments

  3. by   donmurray
    Lots of resistance to GM foods in the UK despite Monsanto's best pr efforts. most supermarkets label any foodstuffs with a GM content, so customers can choose to avoid it if they wish. The current worry is that beef fed with GM fodder is unlabelled and undetectable at present.
  4. by   gwenith
    Whenever I think of GM the terms "children with loaded shotguns" floats through my mind.
  5. by   nekhismom
    I am against Monsanto completely. They are low, and I personally don't think they have any regard for the health of humans, so long as said humans purchase their products. I mean, look at aspartame, a known toxin, and how QUICKLY it passed FDA approval, even with evidence that it was harmful.

    I will be glad if they DO find that GM foods can cause adverse reactions in humans. Maybe then I can purchase food without worry. Until then, my only chance is to buy organic if I can find it, or to pray that my food is not modified. We don't currently have labels on GM food around here, at least not that I'm aware of.
  6. by   donmurray
    'Safeguards before GM decision'

    Prime Minister Tony Blair has been urged to introduce strict rules to protect organic farmers in advance of any Government decision to give the go-ahead to GM crop commercialisation.

    The call comes in a letter from a coalition of groups, including the Consumers' Association, the National Trust, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, Unison and Friends of the Earth.

    The move further fuels the escalating row over the new technology, which was further intensified by a hard-hitting report from the all party Commons Environmental Audit Committee published earlier today.

    [© Copyright 2004, Press Association]
  7. by   donmurray
    Revealed: Shocking new evidence of the dangers of GM crops

    Genetically modified strains have contaminated two-thirds of all crops in US
    By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
    07 March 2004


    More than two-thirds of conventional crops in the United States are now contaminated with genetically modified material - dooming organic agriculture and posing a severe future risk to health - a new report concludes.

    The report - which comes as ministers are on the verge of approving the planting of Britain's first GM crop, maize - concludes that traditional varieties of seed are "pervasively contaminated" by genetically engineered DNA. The US biotech industry says it is "not surprised" by the findings.

    http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/env...p?story=498693


    Because of the contamination, the report says, farmers unwittingly plant billions of GM seeds a year, spreading genetic modification throughout US agriculture. This would be likely to lead to danger to health with the next generation of GM crops, bred to produce pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals - delivering "drug-laced cornflakes" to the breakfast table.

    The report comes at the worst possible time for the Government, which is trying to overcome strong resistance from the Scottish and Welsh administrations to GM maize.

    The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee drew attention to the problem in North America in a report published on Friday, and said the Government had not paid enough attention to it. The MPs concluded: "No decision to proceed with the commercial growing of GM crops [in Britain] should be made until thorough research into the experience with GM crops in North America has been completed and published". It would be "irresponsible" for ministers to give the green light to the maize without further tests.

    Peter Ainsworth, the committee chairman, accuses the Cabinet of "great discourtesy" to Parliament by making its decision on the maize last Thursday, the day before the report came out, and plans to raise the issue with the Speaker of the House.

    This week's statement by Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for the Environment, is expected to fall short of authorising immediate planting of the maize, and provide only a muted endorsement for the technology. She will make it clear that the Government wants the GM industry to compensate farmers whose crops are contaminated. This could make cultivation uncommercial. The US study will increase the pressure on her to be tough.

    Under the auspices of the green-tinged Union of Concerned Scientists, two separate independent laboratories tested supposedly non-GM seeds "representing a substantial proportion of the traditional seed supply" for maize, soya and oilseed rape, the three crops whose modified equivalents are grown widely in the United States.

    The test found that at "the most conservative expression", half the maize and soyabeans and 83 per cent of the oilseed rape were contaminated with GM genes - just eight years after the modified varieties were first cultivated on a large scale in the US.

    The degree of contamination is thought to be at a relatively low level of about 0.5 to 1 per cent. The reports says that "contamination ... is endemic to the system". It adds: "Heedlessly allowing the contamination of traditional plant varieties with genetically engineered sequences amounts to a huge wager on our ability to understand a complicated technology that manipulates life at the most elemental level." There could be "serious risks to health" if drugs and industrial chemicals from the next generation of GM crops got into food.

    Lisa Dry, of the US Biotechnology Industry Association, said that the industry was "not surprised by this report, knowing that pollen travels and commodity grains might co-mingle at various places
  8. by   donmurray
    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    Starved of the truth
    Biotech firms are out to corner the market, so they have to persuade us something else is at stake

    George Monbiot
    Tuesday March 9, 2004
    The Guardian

    The question is as simple as this: do you want a few corporations to monopolise the global food supply? If the answer is yes, you should welcome the announcement that the government is expected to make today that the commercial planting of a genetically modified (GM) crop in Britain can go ahead. If the answer is no, you should regret it. The principal promotional effort of the genetic engineering industry is to distract us from this question.

    GM technology permits companies to ensure that everything we eat is owned by them. They can patent the seeds and the processes that give rise to them. They can make sure that crops can't be grown without their patented chemicals. They can prevent seeds from reproducing themselves. By buying up competing seed companies and closing them down, they can capture the food market, the biggest and most diverse market of all.

    No one in her right mind would welcome this, so the corporations must persuade us to focus on something else. At first they talked of enhancing consumer choice, but when the carrot failed, they switched to the stick. Now we are told that unless we support the deployment of GM crops in Britain, our science base will collapse. And that, by refusing to eat GM products in Europe, we are threatening the developing world with starvation. Both arguments are, shall we say, imaginative; but in public relations, cogency counts for little. All that matters is that you spin the discussion out for long enough to achieve the necessary result. And that means recruiting eminent figures to make the case on your behalf.

    Last October, 114 scientists, many of whom receive funding from the biotech industry, sent an open letter to the prime minister claiming that Britain's lack of enthusiasm for GM crops "will inhibit our ability to contribute to scientific knowledge internationally". Scientists specialising in this field, they claimed, were being forced to leave the country to find work elsewhere.

    Now forgive me if you've heard this before, but it seems to need repeating. GM crops are not science. They are technological products of science. To claim, as Tony Blair and several senior scientists have done, that those who oppose GM are "anti-science" is like claiming that those who oppose chemical weapons are anti-chemistry. Scientists are under no greater obligation to defend GM food than they are to defend the manufacture of Barbie dolls.

    This is not to say that the signatories were wrong to claim that some researchers who have specialised in the development of engineered crops are now leaving Britain to find work elsewhere. As the public has rejected their products, the biotech companies have begun withdrawing from this country, and they are taking their funding with them. But if scientists attach their livelihoods to the market, they can expect their livelihoods to be affected by market forces. The people who wrote to Blair seem to want it both ways: commercial funding, insulated from commercial decisions.

    In truth, the biotech companies' contribution to research in Britain has been small. Far more money has come from the government. Its Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, for example, funds 26 projects on GM crops and just one on organic farming. If scientists want a source of funding that's unlikely to be jeopardised by public concern, they should lobby for this ratio to be reversed.

    But the plight of the men in white coats isn't much of a tearjerker. A far more effective form of emotional blackmail is the one deployed in the Guardian last week by Lord Taverne, the founder of the Prima PR consultancy. "The strongest argument in favour of developing GM crops," he wrote, "is the contribution they can make to reducing world poverty, hunger and disease."

    There's little doubt that some GM crops produce higher yields than some conventional crops, or that they can be modified to contain more nutrients, though both these developments have been overhyped. Two projects have been cited everywhere: a sweet potato being engineered in Kenya to resist viruses, and vitamin A-enhanced rice. The first scheme has just collapsed. Despite $6m of funding from Monsanto, the World Bank and the US government, and endless hype in the press, it turns out to have produced no improvement in virus resistance, and a decrease in yield. Just over the border in Uganda, a far cheaper conventional breeding programme has almost doubled sweet potato yields. The other project, never more than a concept, now turns out not to work even in theory - malnourished people appear not to be able to absorb vitamin A in this form. However, none of this stops Lord Taverne, or George Bush, or the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, from citing them as miracle cures for global hunger.

    But some trials of this kind are succeeding, improving both yield and nutritional content. Despite the best efforts of the industry's boosters to confuse the two ideas, however, this does not equate to feeding the world.

    The world has a surplus of food, but still people go hungry. They go hungry because they cannot afford to buy it. They cannot afford to buy it because the sources of wealth and the means of production have been captured and in some cases monopolised by landowners and corporations. The purpose of the biotech industry is to capture and monopolise the sources of wealth and the means of production.

    Now in some places governments or unselfish private researchers are producing GM crops that are free from patents and not dependent on the application of proprietary pesticides, and these could well be of benefit to small farmers in the developing world. But Taverne and the other propagandists are seeking to persuade us to approve a corporate model of GM development in the rich world, in the hope that this will somehow encourage the opposite model to develop in the poor world.

    Indeed, it is hard to see what on earth the production of crops for local people in poor nations has to do with consumer preferences in Britain. Like the scientists who wrote to the prime minister, the emotional blackmailers want to have it both ways: these crops are being grown to feed starving people, but the starving people won't be able to eat them unless er ... they can export this food to Britain.

    And here we encounter the perpetually neglected truth about GM crops. The great majority are not being grown to feed local people. In fact, they are not being grown to feed people at all, but to feed livestock, whose meat, milk and eggs are then sold to the world's richer consumers. The GM maize the government is expected to approve today is no exception. If in the next 30 years there is a global food crisis, it will be because the arable land that should be producing food for humans is instead producing feed for animals.

    The biotech companies are not interested in whether science is flourishing or whether people are starving. They simply want to make money. The best way to make money is to control the market. But before you can control the market, you must first convince the people that there's something else at stake.

    - www.monbiot.com


    Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
  9. by   fergus51
    Maybe I'm the only person in the world, but I could care less if I am eating gm foods or cows that ate gm foods. It can't be any worse for me than the food I already eat, and with everything they inject into livestock, maize is not my main concern. I think a lot of the GM freakouts are just the result of hysteria. It has been used for almost a decade here and I haven't heard of any people having the type of reactions described in the Phillipines. "organic" food is just code word for "ripoff" as far as I am concerned.

    The sad fact is if independent farmers are going to survive, they'll eventually need to go with the seed that produces the best yield (especially in countries like Canada where farming is so expensive). And that is genetically engineered seed.
    Last edit by fergus51 on Mar 8, '04
  10. by   Spidey's mom
    Quote from fergus51
    Maybe I'm the only person in the world, but I could care less if I am eating gm foods or cows that ate gm foods. It can't be any worse for me than the food I already eat, and with everything they inject into livestock, maize is not my main concern. I think a lot of the GM freakouts are just the result of hysteria. It has been used for almost a decade here and I haven't heard of any people having the type of reactions described in the Phillipines. "organic" food is just code word for "ripoff" as far as I am concerned.

    The sad fact is if independent farmers are going to survive, they'll eventually need to go with the seed that produces the best yield (especially in countries like Canada where farming is so expensive). And that is genetically engineered seed.
    No, you aren't the only person in the world and my husband (the farmer) loved your response (he was reading over my shoulder). He had mentioned the word "hysteria" while reading the articles above. And organic food IS just a code word for "poor quality, poor taste and ripoff".

    The articles talk about the biotech firms "spinning" the argument but the writers for the Guardian are doing some spinning of their own.

    Our food supply is safe, abundant, and cheap.

    The "science" used to explain GM foods was faulty . . . I liked the statement that no biology student would believe it.

    This is all much ado about nothing.

    steph
  11. by   fergus51
    LOL! See, now you know for sure I'm not a crazy left-winger Steph We have a lot of farmers in the family from the prairies, so that has probably clouded my views a bit, but so have the ignorant protestors with signs like "Butterflies die on a diet of GM corn" (like do butterflies survive on normal corn?).

    I do think there are a lot of problems with the patenting of GM crops though. There was a case with one organic farmer whose crop was contaminated by a GM crop, so the GM company sued him for using their product without paying for it! Can you imagine?
  12. by   Spidey's mom
    Quote from fergus51
    LOL! See, now you know for sure I'm not a crazy left-winger Steph We have a lot of farmers in the family from the prairies, so that has probably clouded my views a bit, but so have the ignorant protestors with signs like "Butterflies die on a diet of GM corn" (like do butterflies survive on normal corn?).

    I do think there are a lot of problems with the patenting of GM crops though. There was a case with one organic farmer whose crop was contaminated by a GM crop, so the GM company sued him for using their product without paying for it! Can you imagine?
    That is hilarious . . . and I've never thought you were crazy.

    steph
  13. by   fergus51
    The really funny part is they were completely serious!!!
  14. by   pickledpepperRN
    Monsanto AKA "Better Living Through Chemistry" actually developed many GM plants that cannot be killed by their product, 'Roundup'.

    WHY?
    Create a weed killer then create grass and other plants that survive it?

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