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March 1999

GM FOOD TURNS POLITICAL HOT POTATO

GRAIN

The humble potato earned quite a place in the history books for its role in the Irish potato famine and the subsequent mass migration of Irish citizens to the US. And now it has done it again: this time catalysing one of the biggest public outcries against genetically-modified (GM) foods and shaking up the UK government. Some modest experiments undertaken in a laboratory in Scotland have led to all kinds of scandals in the world of GM food, with revelations about the suppression of scientists and scientific research, the serious inadequacy of safety testing for GM foods and the government's lack of interest in addressing this, and the ever-increasing power of the genetech industry in pulling the strings of governments. The article was written by Janet Bell.

 

The story began in October 1995 when Scotland’s Rowett Research Institute began a project looking into the effect of genetically modified (GM) crops on animal nutrition and the environment. This included, for the first time, feeding GM potatoes to rats to see if there were any harmful effects on their health. Dr Arpad Pusztai beat off 28 other tenders to co-ordinate the project. At the time he conditionally supported the release of GM crops so long as there were rigorous and independent trials to assess their safety.

In December 1996, Dr Pusztai was alerted to the inadequate standards for trials on GM crops when he was asked by the Government's Advisory Committee on Novel Food Production to assess the validity of a licensing application for GM maize. He faxed his assessment to the Ministry of Agriculture warning that tests into nutritional performance, toxicology and allergenicity were insufficient and inadequate. The Ministry ignored his warning and subsequently approved the company's application.

Meanwhile, Dr Pusztai's own research was producing unexpected and worrying results (see box), convincing him of the need for more research. But in June 1998, the UK government's Scottish Office and the Rowett Institute declined his funding request to continue the work. On August 10, Pusztai appeared on a TV documentary describing his work and warning about the inadequate testing of GM foods. This marked the beginning of a fiasco that raises serious questions about the stifling of truly independent research, and the manipulation of governments and scientific institutions by genetech corporations. Rowett director Professor Philip James initially praised Dr Pusztai for his contribution to the TV programme. Two days later he suspended Pusztai, announced that an emergency audit of his work would be undertaken and apologised for Pusztai’s release of "misleading information." James issued false information about the experiments that were undertaken, discrediting Pusztai's work. The world authority on lectin research was told that his contract with Rowett would not be renewed and his was issued with a "gagging order," preventing him from defending or discussing his work.

DR PUSZTAI'S PECULIAR POTATOES

Pusztai's team had been running an experiment looking at the effects of feeding rats a diet of potatoes engineered to express a snowdrop lectin gene. Pusztai is a world authority on lectins. In plants, these proteins act as natural poisons produced as a defence against predators. Their toxicity varies, and some lectins are touted as being harmless to humans while being toxic to insects, making them appealing as potential crop protection agents. Some lectins (such as the jackbean lectin gene) are extremely toxic to mammals, whereas others (like the snowdrop lectin gene) are thought to be harmless, though some scientists argue that this has not been established unequivocally, particularly amongst vulnerable subsectors of the population.

A number of different crops have been engineered to express high levels of lectins, the lectin genes being activated by cauliflower mosaic virus promoters which are also crafted into the crops. A number of these crops (including potato, maize, barley, rubber, walnut, grape and sunflower) have been field tested in the US and Europe, and more than 50 lectin genes have been patented.

Pusztai's team fed experimental rats potatoes engineered with the snowdrop lectin gene, while control groups were offered potatoes with snowdrop lectin added to them. After 10 days, there were small but significant differences between the two groups of animals. The group fed engineered potatoes showed impaired development of organs such as the liver, thymus, spleen and gut. Their brain size decreased and their immune systems were weakened.

It is not possible to tell from these preliminary experiments why the engineered potatoes should produce such effects, which is why Pusztai recommended that more studies be done. Since both potatoes contained the equivalent amount of lectins, the proteins seem unlikely culprits. One possibility is that the process of inserting the lectin genes disrupted the behaviour of the potatoes other genes. This could have altered the plant's biochemistry, causing them to produce high levels of toxic chemicals. Other possible candidates are the cauliflower mosaic virus promoter (which is used in most GM crops grown today) or the process of genetic transformation itself. Either of these last two, if proven to be the case, would shake the foundations of the genetic engineering industry and call a halt to most research and development in transgenic crops.

Sources: Dr Pusztai's alternative report (see end); Dr. Joe Cummins, Questions and answers on lectins, http://www.natural-law.ca/genetic/NewsSept-Oct98/GENews9-19LectinQA.html

 

"SUBSTANTIAL EQUIVALENCE" AND SAFETY TESTING

One of the key findings of Pusztai's study was that the genetically-engineered potatoes used in his experiments were not "substantially equivalent" to the parent lines. This finding is particularly important because substantial equivalence is the key to safety testing for GM crops in the US and Europe. The genetech industry has long argued that the actual process of genetic engineering doesn't affect safety - only the traits that are spliced are of significance. Before field testing, genetech companies are required to demonstrate that their products are substantially equivalent to non-GM varieties in terms of their composition, ie that they contain the same amounts of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and so on.

But evidence is accumulating that many GM crops are not substantially equivalent to non-GM crops. In addition, it is becoming blindingly obvious that substantial equivalence is only part of the equation that needs to be examined when considering biosafety. GM plants can have wide-ranging and unpredictable effects on the environment, upsetting the ecological balance. Last year, the Scottish Crop Research Institute reported that ladybirds fed aphids reared on transgenic potatoes experienced reproductive problems and failed to live as long as ladybirds fed aphids from ordinary potatoes. The potatoes were engineered with the snowdrop lectin gene - just like Pusztai's potatoes.

Scientists from the University of Chicago recently reported work in wild mustard plants that demonstrated that the process of genetic engineering can cause dramatic changes in the transgenic plants. They made the stunning observation that genetically-engineered herbicide-resistant plants were 20 times more likely to outcross (interbreed with relatives) than herbicide-resistant plants produced by traditional breeding. Standard tests for substantial equivalence only require testing for compositional differences, whereas the real indicators should be much wider-reaching, including ecological effects such as these.

Recent research from New York University provides an example of the kinds of impacts that "substantial equivalence" testing does not highlight and field testing is unlikely to demonstrate. Typically, toxins in naturally-occurring Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria, and sprays made from them, exist in an inactive form, which becomes activated once ingested by the target insect. By contrast, the toxins in many Bt crops are already in the active form. The researchers found that unlike natural Bt, these active toxins do not disappear when added to soil, but become rapidly bound to the soil particles, and are not broken down by soil microbes. The researchers contend that engineered Bt toxins could build up in the soil, killing Bt-sensitive soil organisms and increasing selection pressure for resistance to develop. In addition, a broader range of organisms is likely to be susceptible to the active, engineered toxins, since some organisms lack the enzymes to activate the inactive form when they ingest it, but are still sensitive to the active form.

Another example of how GMO releases might cause widespread ecological damage is illustrated by work on the Klebsiella planticola bacterium. The addition of a genetically-engineered bacterium to a small microcosm consisting of wheat plants and sandy soils killed the plants, while the addition of the non-engineered parent did not.

These, and an increasing number of other examples, make a mockery of the mantra of "substantial equivalence" that regulators love to repeat over and over. A myriad of different kinds of tests on GM crops, examining whole range of their primary and secondary impacts on the environment, are also needed to establish their safety.

Sources: J Bergelson et al, "Promiscuity in transgenic plants", Nature 395:25, September 3, 1998; "Research News: promiscuous pollination," Nature Biotechnology 16:805, September 1998; C Crecchio and G Stotzky, "Insecticidal activity and biodegradation of the toxin from Bt subsp kurstaki bound to humic acids from soil," Soil Biology and Biochemistry 30: 463-70; MT Holmes et al, "Effects of Klebsiella planticola on soil biota and wheat growth in sandy soil." Applied Soil Ecology 326: 1-12, 1998; A Birch et al, "Interactions between plant resistance genes, pest aphid populations and beneficial aphid predators," 1996/97 Scottish Crop Res. Inst. Annual Report.

James has never attempted to defend this extraordinary behaviour, but it is likely to have had something to do with Rowett’s business and political connections. Genetech giant Monsanto, which has big plans for GM potatoes and is known for its strong arm tactics in the face of barriers to its progress, funds the Rowett to the tune of US$ 230,000. Rowett collaborators also have links to the GM business (see box). There are strong indications that his dramatic turnaround was prompted by two telephone calls from the British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office.

THE SAINSBURY SAGA

Lord Sainsbury of Turville, a junior science minister in the UK government, has a long-standing interest in GM foods. He once said: "if someone waved a wand and said I could be a Nobel Prize winner in plant genetics or a successful chairman of Sainsbury, I would find it a very difficult choice." Strong words from the richest man in England, who has reputedly earned US $5.3 billion in personal assets from his multibillion dollar supermarket chain.

Blair's choice of Sainsbury to be a science minister has proved highly controversial, given his bias towards GM foods and his disproportionate influence because of who he is. In his supermarket days before joining the government in July 1997, his company was busy developing GM tomatoes for tomato paste, which until recently sat unlabelled on the shelves. Today, almost one sixth of the company's own-brand products contain GM ingredients or derivatives, and the company has dragged its feet on the labelling issue. Sainsbury has also invested in a number of other companies developing GM foods: Diatech, which conducts R&D in natural science; Innotech Investments, which owns companies involved in GM crops; Floranova, a UK-based seed and plant distributor; and Four Oaks Nursery. He also owns the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, which pours millions of dollars into GM research, including two of the leading plant genetics labs in the UK. Since 1990, the Gatsby Foundation has donated more than US $3 million to plant science.

Sainsbury retorts that there is no conflict of interest in his position. All his business interests were transferred to a "blind" trust when he joined the Government, which means that a third party manages the shares and he supposedly has no idea of what shares are held there. This is something of a joke, of course, since the interests are unlikely to change. Through Diatech, Sainsbury owns a "technology promoter" gene, and Sainsbury made a personal loan to the company several million US$ to buy a building right at the time that he joined the government. In another twist, the inventor of Sainsbury's gene patent is listed as Michael Wilson, who is now Deputy Director of the Scottish Crop Research Institute. According to The Guardian newspaper, the Institute, which collaborated on aspects of the Pusztai research programme, was said to be uncomfortable with Dr Pusztai's preliminary findings.

The UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has backed Sainsbury all the way - the least he could do for a man who has donated almost US$ 5 million to his party.

Sources: Various articles from The Guardian; G Jones "Political science snares Sainsbury," The Daily Telegraph, February 17, 1999.

The audit report, which was released on October 28, admitted that the Rowett was wrong in its earlier statements about the nature of Pusztai's experiments, but still argued that the differences he observed in the rats were not statistically significant. He was cleared of fraud, but hardly "exonerated" as James described it. His reputation was in ruins and he was still under the gagging order. The furor died down for a couple of months until February 1999, when twenty-one scientists from 14 countries issued a statement supporting the validity of Pusztai's work and accusing the Rowett of bowing to political pressure. One of them, Dr Stanley Ewen, had undertaken his own studies and reported that the rats which were feed the genetically-engineered potatoes had enlarged stomachs in addition to the other abnormalities described by Pusztai. The scientists said that the audit report was hastily put together and mysteriously lacking in data. As Ewen put it, "The missing data on organ weights does raise the possibility of deliberate cover-up by the persons collating the Audit report."

The flood gates open

At this point all hell broke loose in the UK. GM food issues were the leading news items in the media for two weeks. The public was outraged. The British Prime Minister was renamed the "Prime Monster" by the tabloid press, owing to his partiality for genetically-modified "Frankenstein" foods. Greenpeace dumped 4 tonnes of GM soybeans outside his London home, saying, "We are taking these GM soya beans to one of the few homes in the UK where they want to eat it." There were calls for the science minister Lord Sainsbury - who also happens to be a billionaire and former chairman of the Sainsbury food chain - to resign on account of his biotech interests (see box). English Nature, the government's advisory body on transgenic releases, called for a three-year on the commercial growth of herbicide-resistant crops. Another government report on genetically-engineered oilseed rape, which had been sat upon for two years, was also released, concluding that the contamination of neighbouring fields is "inevitable" under current farming practices. In addition, the government's advisory committee on novel foods predicted that antibiotic-resistant genes in the crops could escape to the environment.

Finally, the Government was forced to drag its ostrich-like head out of the sand. The Environment Minister gave an open-ended assurance that commercial growing would not be allowed in the UK until the Government is convinced that there are no threats to the environment and wildlife. The Agriculture Ministry, meanwhile, retorted that the government is powerless to do so. "There is no legal basis for such a move under European Union (EU) single market legislation," it said. However, it is likely that the EU would allow a temporary ban while safety tests are undertaken.

Who pays the ferryman?

In his pleas to the UK public to listen to the voice of reason (ie his), Blair assured them that “There is nothing in it for us, other than a desire to get it right.” Why then did he sound more like an industry spokesperson than an impartial judge? While accusing NGOs of scaremongering, he never attempted to address any of the evidence they offered pointing for caution with respect to GM crops. An important clue to his positioning came in his letter to one of the national newspapers. “Britain has been at the leading edge of this new science …. If we were to ban (GM) products, we would stop British expertise in farming and science leading the way.” Blair’s support for the biotech industry has been generous, to say the least. Just before the recent furore erupted, the Government announced that it was giving US$ 21 million to the biotechnology industry, to help it improve its profile and win public confidence. His pro-business stance allows the Government's Invest in Britain Bureau to boast that "the UK leads the way in Europe in ensuring that regulations and other measures affecting the development of biotechnology take full account of the concerns of business."

Prior to the recent eruption of public outrage, Monsanto and the rest of the biotech industry were probably feeling quite pleased with the way things were going in the UK, particularly given the already significant level of public opposition there. The biotech industry has done a good job of cultivating friends in high places. Dave Hill, one of the Labour party’s most influential advisors, resigned to work for Monsanto’s PR firm, Bell Pottinger, where he now lobbies ministers on the company’s behalf. There he was joined by Cathy McGlyn, who advised Jack Cunningham when he was Agriculture Secretary. Cunningham, by strange coincidence, is now in charge of the government committee monitoring genetic foods. Stranger still is that Monsanto is also a client of the consultancy run by Philip Gould, the Prime Minister’s confidant. Zeneca and Novartis have similar stories to tell. Zeneca’s chief executive sits on the Biotechnology Research Council and Novartis sponsored the Labour party’s annual conference and paid for a training session to teach new parliamentarians how to behave. Courting the government is paying off. According to Friends of the Earth, Monsanto executives secured 17 audiences with ministers in their first year.

This cozy situation is remarkably reminiscent of the US scene. As The Observer newspaper points out, “Monsanto has become a retirement home for members of the Bill Clinton’s biddable administration.” It is practically a division of the government, with a revolving door in constant spin between the company and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Whitehouse. Monsanto board member Mickey Kantor is a former US trade representative and chairman of Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. Linda Fisher, Monsanto's Vice-President for Government and Public Affairs, mapped pesticide policy at the EPA. The list goes on … and on ... and on. “When you’ve got friends like this,” says Michael Colby of the US NGO Food and Water, “you don’t have to concern yourself with your enemies.”

When the Irish Prime Minister visited Washington last year, the burning issue for discussion with the director of the US National Security Council wasn't the Irish peace talks. Instead, the issue was Ireland's pivotal vote on a pending European decision on Monsanto's Bt corn. In December 1998, when US Commerce Secretary William Daley trumpeted biotech on his four-nation trade mission to Africa, a Monsanto executive was also on the plane. It is no wonder that, as St Louis Post and Despatch writer Bill Lambrecht observed, "Wherever Monsanto seeks to sow, the US government clears the ground." Having successfully smoothed the entry of GM crops into the US, Europe is the next big challenge for the genetech giant. Little wonder, then, that when Blair visited the US last year, one of Clinton’s requests was that Blair clear the way for the entry of GM crops into the UK. This gentle word in Blair's ear may well be one of the reasons that Blair, who usually seems to understand the issues that really matter to the public, has messed up so badly over the scandal.

The battle’s aftermath

All this explains the government's extreme resistance to calling for a moratorium, and Blair's inability to do anything more than mechanically spout off the biotech industry's rhetoric about proceeding on the basis of scientific evidence and encouraging public "debate" rather than taking action. By so obviously siding with industry when the public were up in arms, he has seriously damaged his credibility and his standing.

Monsanto also took a heavy beating as the controversy raged and public doubts about the adequacy of safety testing grew stronger. It didn't help that right in the middle of the furore, the company was found guilty of failing to properly contain a trial of GM oilseed rape in England's heartland. Monsanto's assurances that it undertakes rigorous and exhaustive research before releasing any of its products fell totally flat when it was revealed that the company's marketing application for RoundUp Ready maize to the UK government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment had to be sent back because the information submitted was inaccurate. The committee described Monsanto's scientists as "incompetent" and accused them of submitting sloppy research, "poor interpretation" and work far below the required standards. Monsanto had to do its homework again to redefine part of the gene sequence in the product.

One of the most positive aspects of the UK scandal is that increased credibility of NGOs, scientists and politicians who have been opposing the introduction of GM crops into Europe. The issue was discussed in every pub, workplace and supermarket around the country, and the overwhelming response was for caution. In one countrywide poll, 68% of respondents expressed fears about eating GM foods, 96% felt that they should be clearly labelled and 77% called for a temporary ban on commercialising GM foods until more research is done. But even if Blair stops sweeping aside the increasingly compelling evidence that GM can and do have serious impacts on the environment and health and moves towards a more precautionary principle with respect to GM foods, he will rapidly find that he has tied his own hands. His government, like all Western governments, has been progressively giving away its power to the dark shadow of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

If governments seek to prevent corporations from forcing farmers to grow their GM crops, the corporations will appeal, first to the European Union, and then to the WTO. And they may well win, because the WTO rules are quite simple: nothing can stand in the way of free trade. In cases like this, private profit outweighs public protection. The first test of this will come all too soon. In 1993, the EU banned milk and beef from cattle treated with Monsanto's genetically-engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH). The WTO has given Europe until May 13 to start importing rBGH products, and Monsanto is rubbing its hands in eager anticipation. Maybe the reality of governmental impotence in the face of the global "enforcer" will be the catalyst needed to wake up the public and politicians to the absurdity of the WTO and the need to dismantle its power and reinstate democratic control.

 

Main sources:

* SOAEFD flexible fund project RO 818. Audit of data produced at the Rowett Research Institute. Audit date: August 21, 1998. http://www.rri.sari.ac.uk/press/summary.html

* Pusztai's response to the audit committee report: SOAEFD flexible Fund Project RO 818, Report of Project Coordinator on data produced at the Rowett Research Institute, October 22, 1998. http://www.rri.sari.ac.uk/gmo/aj.htm

* The Audit Committee's response to Dr Arpad Pusztai's Alternative Report of 22 October 1998. http://rri.sari.ac.uk/gmo/gmoaudit7.htm

* Memorandum related to SOAEFD flexible fund project RO 818 signed by Professor E van Driessche and Prof TC Bøg-Hansen.

* Various articles from the Guardian Newspaper's GM food documentary topic: http://www.newsunlimited.co.uk/food/0,2759,20256,00.html

* Website devoted to the Pusztai case: http://plab.ku.dk/tcbh/Pusztaitcbh.htm#Recent Links

* B Lambrecht (1998), World recoils at Monsanto's brave new crops, St Louis Post-Dispatch, Sunday December 27, 1998.

* Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions Advisory Committee to the Environment (1999), The commercial use of genetically-modified crops in the UK: the potential wider impact on farmland wildlife. http://www.environment.detr.gov.uk/acre/wildlife/index.htm#summ

* Friends of the Earth press releases: http://www.foe.co.uk/cgi-bin/pressrel/

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