The Guardian September 12, 2001


Planet earth: a corporate laboratory?

by Anna Pha

According to George Lawton, writing in "Acres USA" (April 2001) the US 
Environmental Protection Agency was about to approve the release of a 
genetic engineered variant of Klepbsiella Planticola (KP), one of the most 
common bacteria on the planet, when a PhD student discovered that the 
genetically modified bacteria could put other plant life at risk.

"The EPA had done a variety of tests on this organism, all of which 
indicated that it would not be toxic to humans or animals", said Mr Lawton. 
The EPA was not required to, and had not, tested the effects of the 
genetically engineered KP on plants.

Mr Lawton reports that this particular variety of KP "had the unique 
ability to convert dead plant matter into alcohol. It was hoped that this 
would provide a way for farmers to transform their unused stalks, leaves 
and other type of compost material into alcohol, which could be used for 
washing, running vehicles, etc.".

It was fortuitous that Michael Holmes, a student at the University of 
Oregon, had chosen to study the impact of KP on plants.

Mr Holmes in his research found that all the plants in the soil with the 
genetically engineered KP had died as a result of the alcohol produced by 
the bacteria. Holmes notes that if genetically engineered KP had been 
released then it could have "colonised the entire planet over the course of 
several years, turning all of the soil where it grew into barren dirt".

KP is found in the root systems of plants and in decomposing plant material 
around the world. If this particular variant of KP had been released then 
the question of recalling it would have been almost impossible. "Even 
plants pose a problem, despite the possibility of mechanical control. 
Imagine how hard it would be to selectively kill something that cannot be 
even seen with a naked eye", said Mr Lawton.

"We have never been good at recapturing any organisms we have released into 
the world."

The example of genetically engineered KP almost being released into the 
environment highlights the risks associated with genetic engineering of 
organisms and plants and the inadequacy of regulations and controls around 
the world to deal with them.

Who knows what genetically modified organisms and plants have been released 
or where they were released.

There have already been a number of serious accidents and escapes of 
genetically engineered agricultural products. The testing of these 
genetically modified (GM) plants is clearly inadequate.

Accidents

This is highlighted in a calendar of biotech calamities from just last year 
that was published by the Rural Advancement Foundation International 
(RAFI). RAFI's list of calamities includes a number of "accidents".

"GM seeds were routinely  though accidentally  shipped to Europe by US 
and Canadian seed companies who couldn't seem to keep their conventional 
seeds separate from their GM lines", said RAFI.

"In the following days, the sloppy inventory management problem spread 
throughout Western Europe as country after country found their fields 
contaminated with illegal and unwanted GM crops."

The situation appears to be rapidly getting out of control. In New Zealand, 
the government admitted that there were at least 100 illicit GM crop 
experiments underway in that country. After checking half the experiments, 
the government decided that everything was OK.

There was the StarLink debacle, where a GM maize variety banned in the US 
for human consumption because of fears of allergic reactions was permitted 
for use in feed for livestock. StarLink turned up in taco shells served at 
Taco Bell restaurants.

Kellogs, the giant cereal company, had to close down one plant fearing that 
the illicit GM StarLink maize had infected its breakfast cereals.

"In a panic, the White House sent emissaries to Japan and Europe to try to 
calm concerns that Aventis' StarLink had illegally entered their countries. 
Consumers joked that breakfast cereal makers would have to give away epi-
needles or epi-pens (injections to treat anaphylactic shock) in cereal 
boxes instead of Power Rangers or Star War toys, for fear of allergic 
reactions in children", said RAFI.

The StarLink maize also turned up in Japan and Korea.

Another study confirmed that that the Bt toxin in transgenic maize could, 
contrary to industry expectations, escape into the soil killing larvae up 
to 25 days after the break-out.

The impossible

Apart from the big corporations like Monsanto and Aventis being beyond the 
control of governments, these corporations themselves do not have complete 
control of what they are producing. The unexpected or the impossible occurs 
from time to time.

There is for example a case of the "jumping gene". This is where genetic 
changes cross species.

One researcher found that a gene had transferred from genetically 
engineered rapeseed to bacteria and fungi discovered in the gut of 
honeybees. The industry had previously claimed such a transfer was highly 
unlikely or impossible.

One large-scale study in Britain found that crosses can occur between GM 
herbicide-tolerant crops and weeds.

In Germany researchers reported that sugarbeet designed to resist one 
herbicide accidentally acquired resistance to a second herbicide raising 
fears of the possibility of gene diffusion into weeds and the creation of 
superweeds.

These examples are just a few of the calamities that occurred in the bio-
tech industry. It is not surprising that the public is becoming more and 
more wary and concerned about GM products and are demanding stricter 
controls and labelling of food.

The industry is feeling the heat in some areas as the public resist, where 
they are aware, GM products. In the US maize growers are now shunning GM 
seeds because their 1998/99 exports to Europe dropped from two million 
tonnes a year earlier to only 137,000 tonnes.

Major potato processors and fast-food chains are also now warning growers 
to avoid GM potatoes.

RAFI reports that the first meeting of the UN Food and Agriculture 
Organisation's Ethics Panel, a group of world renowned agronomists and 
ethicists, concluded that GM crops are risky, terminator technology is 
immoral, and patenting genes and other genetic material leads to crop 
genetic erosion and unacceptable monopoly.

"In essence, the $2.5 billion GM seed market involves four major industrial 
crops (soybean, maize, cotton and canola) grown in three countries (the US, 
Argentina and Canada accounted for 98 per cent of the total GM area in 
2000)", said RAFI.

"In 1999, Monsanto GM seed traits accounted for over four-fifth of the 
total world area devoted to GM crops."

These corporations see bio-safety in terms of safeguarding their monopoly 
rights over plants, seeds and food and safeguarding their profits.

The risks that these corporations are prepared to take in pursuit of 
profits can be seen in their preparedness to release the inadequately 
tested genetically engineered variant of the KP bacteria.

The lack of control and unpredictability of outcomes is illustrated by 
recent research findings by scientists at Australia's Co-Operative Research 
Centre for Biological Control of Pest Animals Canberra (CRC).

The CRC uses biotechnology to develop means for controlling the fertility 
of pest animals such as mice, rats, rabbits and foxes. Rats and mice 
destroy billions of dollars worth of grain harvests around the world each 
year.

This particular research involves the modification of a mousepox virus to 
include a gene which affects the immune system. The aim was to cause an 
immune response to its own reproductive cells  making the animal 
infertile.

The results were unexpected. The new virus turned out to be a killer  all 
the mice involved died.

Doctor Annabelle Duncan at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and 
Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) asks: "Could a similar experiment 
be conducted on a human disease-causing organism with similar results? If 
so, could this be exploited by an unscrupulous nation or a bioterrorist to 
develop biological weapons?

"The answer to the first question is that we simply do not know. There is 
no way of extrapolating from these results to another virus and another 
host animal. All we can say is that it is theoretically possible."

The genetic modifications not only turned a mild virus into a deadly one it 
also proved resistant to attempts to vaccinate the mice. Up to now it has 
generally been believed that changes in the genetic make up of viruses made 
them less virulent, not more as in this case.

There are equally unpredictable and uncontrollable outcomes when plants are 
genetically modified. No one knows what the nutritional value will be with 
the new products and whether they'll be harmful to people or the 
environment.

And who knows what future generations of these plants will bring: the 
transgenic DNA is proving to be structurally unstable leading to random 
effects in subsequent generations.

Gene transfer between species is also an unknown element.

For example, pollen from a genetically modified rapeseed that was tolerant 
to a particular herbicide was fed to immature bee larvae. When various 
microorganisms were taken from the gut of the larvae and examined it was 
found that some of the bacteria as well as yeast cells had become resistant 
to that particular herbicide as well.

"There are fundamental deficiencies in the science and technology of 
genetic manipulation, and, accordingly, basic flaws in existing regulatory 
systems.

"This is especially the case with the major exporting producers, such as 
the US and Canada. These two factors, combined with the commercial self-
interest of the biotechnology industry, are making us the largest 
laboratory in history  both in human and in biodiversity terms", warns 
Third World Resurgence.

"Commercial pressure is so dominant that sound science is being subverted 
and government oversight eroded. Cases of suppression of scientific dissent 
are now reported. Entire arms of public universities are being taken over 
by corporations and it is alarming that the obvious conflict of interests 
has largely gone unquestioned."

The attempt in Seattle (at the third Ministerial Conference of the World 
Trade Organisation) by the US, Canada and Japan to convert the safety issue 
of GE agricultural products into a predominantly trade issue in the WTO is 
a grim reminder of the power of industry.

"Enough Southern governments realised the danger of that move, and 
successfully defeated it, supported by some European environment 
ministers", said Third World Resurgence.

The Cartagena protocol on biosafety, which, was concluded in February 2000 
despite considerable opposition from the US, Canada and Australia, is an 
important step forward in biosafety regulation.

It is important that countries sign the protocol and take steps to 
legislate for minimum standards. Time is running out as supermarkets are 
being flooded by genetically engineered products, in the main without 
public or government knowledge.

The resistance to these products and public consciousness of the issues is 
on the rise worldwide. There are many calls from scientists and NGOs around 
the world for a strengthening of the international protocol and for a 
moratorium on research and production of genetically modified products.

Third World Resurgence warns:"Until effective international 
biosafety regulation and national biosafety regulation and capacity are 
established, there should be: a global moratorium on trans-boundary 
movements of GE seeds and other GE material; compulsory labelling of 
products without thresholds on the engineered DNA or protein present; and 
liability legally conferred on corporate producers and not on small or 
family farmers bearing the burden of crop failures or environmental/health 
damage."

It is far easier to prevent mistakes than to withdraw mistakes from nature.

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