THIRD WORLD NETWORK BIOSAFETY INFORMATION SERVICE
25 June 2003
Dear Friends and colleagues,
RE: FORMER UK MINISTER WARNS AGAINST GM
Former UK’s Minister of Environment Michael Meacher, in an article in the Independent on Sunday, raised concerns about GM technology and urged the government of Tony Blair not to rush into making decisions until they could be scientifically supported.
Citing studies and reports, Meacher, who was purported sacked from his position, said GM technology is an unstable and unpredictable, contrary to what its proponents was us to believe and riddled with many potential health risks whose safety on human is yet to be proven.
Meacher’s article is timely not only because of the current public debate on GMOs that is taking place in the UK that would determine if GM crops would be commercially grown, but also an indication of the growing number of people worldwide voicing their concern about the technology.
With best wishes,
Lim Li Lin and Chee Yoke Heong
Third World Network
121-S Jalan Utama
Michael Meacher: Are GM crops safe? Who can say? Not Blair
Independent on Sunday, 22 June 2003
At Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons last Wednesday Tony Blair stated that “it is important for the whole debate [on genetic modification] to be conducted on the basis of scientific evidence, not on the basis of prejudice”.
Exactly so. But what does the science actually indicate? Not, I think, what he appears to believe.
A public debate is now taking place before the Government decides later this year whether to allow food from GM crops to go on sale commercially. Tony Blair’s contribution has been to emphasise the importance of the biotech industry to the UK.
Contrary to the assurances of the biotech companies that genetic engineering is precise and simply extends traditional breeding techniques, it is actually quite different. When genetic crops are engineered, the gene is inserted randomly, out of a sequence that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years.
But genes don’t operate in isolation; they interact with each other. Genetic engineers have assumed that each gene has one function, but the recent discovery that human beings have only some 30,000 genes to produce the quarter of a million proteins in the human body shows that this premise was wrong. Most genes are multi-functional. It is not known how to determine artificially a single function of a gene without triggering other unpredicted and undesired effects.
The random position and lack of control of the gene’s functions could change any character of the plant and might not be evident immediately. One example is the increased lignin in GM soya which only became apparent in hot weather when the stems began to split. In the United States there are already many examples of undesired effects only being identified after approval had been given - again one example is GM cotton where the cotton boils became deformed.
Another problem is that genetic engineers usually introduce other material - viruses or bacteria - into the plant which have the role of inserting the gene, activating it, and identifying where transfers have been successful. Viruses in particular are good at inserting their genetic material into other organisms. But that opens up the risk of “horizontal gene transfer” whereby genes transfer out of the genetically modified organism (GMO) and into other organisms. But we don’t know how frequently or intensively this might occur, or what the safety implications might be.
GM technology also often involves producing novel substances which may cause allergic reactions. If such substances are used in food, consumers may quite often be exposed to this risk. It was recently found, for example, that a GM soya with a Brazil nut gene could cause allergic reactions.
A further health risk is that creating herbicide (weedkiller) resistant plants allows the application of much more toxic herbicides to the growing plants. People therefore become exposed to more toxic residues than previously. In the recent case of the GM forage maize, Chardon LL, the herbicide used was glufosinate, a neurotoxin and a teratogen (ie it damages embryos). What is particularly worrying is that there seems to be a 10 per cent reconversion rate of the degraded herbicide back to the original toxic form in the gut.
Given that there is so much uncertainty, it might be expected that there would be routine testing of GMOs for healthy effects as a legal requirement. This applies to new pharmaceutical drugs which are subjected to lengthy trials so that all side-effects can be uncovered. However, whilst it is often claimed that all GMOs have been “rigorously tested”, all that this testing amounts to is deciding whether a GM crop is similar in terms of its composition to the non-GM plant. This is justified under the rubric of “substantial equivalence”, which was originally a marketing term, and is scientifically vacuous. It wholly misses the point that health concerns are focused, not on known compounds, but on the effects of the GM technology which are unpredictable.
It is really extraordinary that there have so far been virtually no independent studies of the health effects of GM. What there is has mostly been done by the companies themselves. We are constantly told that there is no evidence of any greater health risk from a GM crop than from its non-GM counterpart. What is not added is that there have been no health checks to find out. Indeed, the only Government-sponsored work ever carried on the health impacts of GMOs was Dr Pusztai’s work on rats and GM potatoes, and then, when it found negative effects, it was widely rubbished in government circles, even though his paper had been peer-reviewed six times before publication.
These uncertainties have been acknowledged by some of the leading UK institutions. The Royal Society, in its reports last year, said that the potential health effects of GM foods should be rigorously investigated before allowing them into baby food or to be marketed to pregnant or breast-feeding women, elderly people, and those with chronic disease. This was because GM “could lead to unpredicted harmful changes in the nutritional state of foods”.
Any baby food containing GM products could lead to a dramatic rise in allergies, and unexpected shifts in oestrogen levels in GM soya-based infant feed might affect sexual development in children. Infants, the report said, are very vulnerable because they have such a narrow diet. If there were any nutritional deficiencies in their food, such as fewer fatty acids, their health would suffer, especially the infant bowel function since even small nutritional changes could cause bowel obstruction.
Similarly, the only human GM trial, commissioned ironically by the Food Standards Agency, found that GM DNA did in fact transfer to bacteria in the human gut. Previously many scientists had denied that this was possible. But instead of this finding being regarded as a serious discovery which should be checked and re-checked, the spin was that this was nothing new and did not involve any health risk - a Nelsonian putting the telescope to the blind eye if ever there was one.
A recent BMA report noted that “any conclusion upon the safety of introducing GM materials into the UK is premature as there is insufficient evidence to inform the decision-making process at the moment”. In their report to the Scottish Parliament six months ago, the BMA stated that “there has not yet been a robust and thorough search into the potentially harmful effects of GM foodstuffs on human health... In the UK not enough is known to enable us to give an accurate risk of assessment of the health impact of GM crops on the health of local communities”.
Equally, a recent report from the General Medical Council stated that GM could switch on “silent” genes whose effects we know little about or know to be toxic. They also noted that GM elements in food might be taken up by bacteria in the gut, and this could alter the balance of bacteria in the gut, leading to possible instability or further modification of GM food in later generations. Their conclusion was that more knowledge was needed of the effects of GM on metabolism, organ development, immune and endocrine systems, and gut flora.
Finally, it is often claimed by the biotech companies that there have been millions of people consuming GM foods over several years in the US, but without any ill-effects. However, there have actually been no epidemiological studies to support this claim. What is known is that
coinciding with the introduction of GMOs in food in the US, food-derived illnesses are believed by the official US Centres for Disease Control to have doubled over the past seven years. And there are many reports of a rise in allergies - indeed a 50 per cent increase in soya allergies has been reported in the UK since imports of GM soya began. None of this of course proves the connection with GM, but it certainly suggests an urgent need for further investigation of this possible link. Typically, however, this has not been forthcoming.
As the Prime Minister said, we should act on the basis of science, not prejudice. Quite so. But since the science is still clouded with such deep uncertainty, that means deferring decisions till the science is clear and reliable, not rushing to desired conclusions which cannot be scientifically supported.
Michael Meacher MP was, until the recent government reshuffle, Minister for the Environment
Critical friend urges caution on new crops
The Guardian Monday June 23, 2003
Michael Meacher may have just been sacked as environment minister after six years of high-profile office, but he shows no bitterness or rancour about handing over to Elliot Morley. And he clearly has no intention of committing politicide by denouncing his leaders in a flurry of recriminations.
However, his new role is already giving the government a headache. He told the Guardian: “It will be Michael Meacher released to be himself, a sympathetic critical friend of the government. We all need critical friends.”
The first public step of the liberated Mr Meacher saw the backbencher in the Commons last week asking Tony Blair the sort of questions about GM food that the opposition has failed to ask in four years: “Is the prime minister aware that there have been no human feeding trials in either the US or the UK to establish the health or biochemical effects of consuming GM foods? Does he agree that until such tests are carried out, an important option for the government when they are reaching a decision later this year is the exercise of the precautionary principle? Does he agree with that, and will he ensure it is taken on board very seriously?”
Mr Meacher, regarded as a good middle-ranking minister, but as a pre-Blairite, was early in urging caution on GM crops four years ago. He remains sceptical about the way the government has handled the issue, and his voice will be important in the frenzied debate that will follow later this year when the government has to make up its mind.
“Caution is sensible,” he said. “GM is not necessary. The human race has fed itself without GM for 250,000 years. When there is a respectable intellectual case for caution you’d expect the response to be ‘ooh, that’s worrying. Let’s check it thoroughly’. That’s what ought to happen. We should test it to exhaustion, and we are not doing that.”
His scepticism extends to the make-up of the key committees that advise the government. “Acre [the advisory committee on releases into the environment] is a body dominated by GM scientists. It should have scientists with a variety of views. It is not balanced at the moment.” And the very senior cabinet subcommittee known as Sci Bio which includes
Sir David King, the government’s chief scientist; Margaret Beckett, his boss at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra); Sir John Krebs, the head of the food standards agency; and Patricia Hewitt of the Department for Trade and Industry, is, he says, “almost wholly supportive of GM. In my experience there was no one [on that committee] expressing a cautious line, except myself. It’s very biased”.
But he does not think that it is a foregone conclusion that the government will commercialise the crops. “The political atmosphere suggests yes, but when you start a public debate it can assume an intensity that cannot be ignored. Governments cannot presume these things.” Opinion polls show up to 80% opposed to GM.
Mr Meacher is highly critical of the food standards agency and its director for their attitudes towards organic food.
“I think he [Krebs] is not willing to recognise the benefits of organic food. I think they are pretty transparent and should be acknowledged... in terms of environmental gains, welfare of animals, avoiding farm pollution and the whole question of the confidence they give. It is the safest, best food you can get.”
Aside from GM, Mr Meacher says he will speak out on issues the Labour party has left behind - such as workers’ rights and how power between the unions, government and business is exercised - and on the influence of corporations on government and how to tackle the overwhelming US political power and the greed of business fat cats.
“The influence of big business on this government is very great,” he says. “I want to get my teeth into the corporate debate. We must have regulation on corporate greed”.
In the meantime, he is not going to disappear. “Being a minister was rather boring. Mostly it was just answering letters. I think these are going to be the best years of all.”
Methods on trial
What happens next?
· The government’s independent public debate on GM food will end on July 18. A steering group will report to government by the end of September.
· The first of the three-year long farm-scale field trials are complete and the scientific findings into the environmental effects of some GM crops will be published by the Royal Society in September.
· The government’s advisory group, the agriculture and environment biotech committee (AEBC) will recommend to government shortly on how conventional and GM crops might be grown side by side.
What issues are still to be resolved?
· Legal liability. Industry wants no liability for any genetic pollution or possible health and environmental impacts of the crops.
· “Co-existence”. The government must decide how wide the buffer zones between conventional and GM crops should be.
· Labelling. The European parliament will vote on how strong the labelling of GM foods should be. The foods standards agency and the Department of the Environment (DEFRA) have been accused of lobbying to dilute future legislation.