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Study Warns of Lack of Information on GM Health Effects

Cordis News
June 25, 2004

A recently published survey by a team of scientists in Norway and Denmark has revealed a serious lack of public research into the health effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The study, by Professor Ian Pryme and Rolf Lembcke, published in the journal Nutrition and Health, found that only ten studies on the health effects of GM food or feed have been published. Furthermore, according to the professors, the quality of some of the research published was poor and inadequate.

'Although very many have voiced their opinions, both in the popular and scientific press, there is only very limited data published in peer reviewed journals concerning the safety of GM food. It would seem apparent that GM food regulation is currently based on a series of extremely insufficient guidelines,' states the report.

Over half of the published studies were carried out in collaboration with private companies, and none of those studies found any negative effects on humans. In the studies considered independent, namely studies carried out by institutions able to develop and cultivate GM plants themselves, 'adverse effects were reported (but not explained)' states the survey, adding that 'it is remarkable that these effects have all been observed after feeding for only 10 to14 days.'

Many studies remain unpublished, noted the report, while several others have been duplicated.

'In conclusion we feel that much more scientific effort and investigation is necessary before we can be satisfied that eating foods containing GM material in the long term is not likely to provoke any form of health problems. It will be essential to adequately test in a transparent manner each individual GM product before its introduction into the market,' ends the report.

corn grains


Biotechs Mine Bacteria for Industrial Use

New York Times
By The Associated Press
June 25, 2004

PALO ALTO, Calif. (AP) -- The creatures are known as "extremophiles", and they earn the name: They live in toxic Superfund cleanup sites, boiling deep-sea rift vents, volcanic craters and polar glaciers -- some of the planet's harshest environments.

These single-celled creatures owe their hardiness to genes, and that has drawn the attention of a few biotech companies. The companies train the genes to mass produce industrial-strength enzymes for such products as better detergents, cleaner chemicals and more effective DNA fingerprints.

Such "bio-prospecting" efforts have huge potential for good. They just might make hazardous waste cleanup more affordable, reduce pollution and make better medicines if the microbes' genetic durability can be exploited and controlled.

But tough questions are being raised as well -- about the morality of allowing private companies to patent and profit from Mother Nature.

The extremophile candidates are numerous. There's Deinoccus radiodurans, dubbed Conan the Bacterium by its legions of fans because it withstands 10,000 times the amount of radiation that would kill a human. Found on radiated food, it has a unique ability to repair broken DNA.

In Chile's moonlike Atacama desert -- one of Earth's driest spots -- lives another extremophile scientists say could give them clues to what life might look like on Mars.

And the Pentagon's research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is sponsoring experiments on genetically engineering extremophiles to extend the shelf life of blood-clotting platelets in extreme conditions. The idea is to help treat battlefield wounds.

Objections to such work often come from activists who complain that Third World countries aren't properly compensated for microbes extracted from their deserts, mountains and sea shores.

"The concern with bio-prospecting is that the people who consider themselves to be the stewards of the biodioversity in a region often aren't consulted or are ignored," said Beth Burrows of the Edmonds Institute, a environmental nonprofit based in Edmonds, Wash.

Native Hawaiians are angry over a deal between the University of Hawaii and a biotechnology company to share in potential profits gleaned from lava sludge. Now the Hawaiian Legislature is considering a moratorium on the transfer or sale of extremophiles found on public lands so environmental and profit-sharing issues can be worked out.

Antarctica is governed by an international treaty that vows to keep the continent open and free to scientists dedicated to peaceful pursuits. But some 92 patents have been filed in the United States and another 62 in Europe that claim ownership of biological property found there.

While such patent applications appear to be legal, "some scientists active in Antarctica worry about whether outright commercial exploitation and patents are within the spirit of the treaty," said Sam Johnston, who co-wrote a report on the subject for the United Nations this year.

The Edmonds Institute sued the National Park Service in 1997 after it gave San Diego-based Diversa Corp. commercial rights to prospect for extremophiles in the fabled hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. The prospecting, involving fees and royalties paid to the government, was ultimately approved by a judge on the condition that an extensive environmental review be completed.

The park service has defended the deal -- which remains on hold pending the review -- as a way for it to profit on scientific research without disrupting the park's environment. Four decades ago, the park service wasn't so financially savvy when a University of Wisconsin researcher discovered the extremophile Thermus aquaticus in a Yellowstone hotspring.

Today, that bacterium provides a key enzyme -- polymerase -- used for polymerase chain reaction, better known as PCR, a Noble Prize-winning DNA fingerprinting technique used widely by crime labs, hospitals and university researchers.

Yellowstone doesn't receive any income from sales of the PCR enzyme, now a key tool in the $300 million-a-year DNA fingerprinting business.

The companies involved say that without the ability to patent extremophiles, they can't make good on the many promises of this area of biotechnology.

David Estell, a researcher at Genencor International Inc., said bio-prospecting requires the collecting of just a few samples, which hardly disturbs the environment.

Genencor is one of the few profitable biotechnology companies in existence, earning $13 million in the first quarter of 2004 on $94 million in revenue.

Genencor has the genetic material of 15,000 strains of microbes stored in deep-freeze in Palo Alto and the Netherlands. It already has 11 industrial products on the market, and is using living material -- enzymes and proteins, rather than fossil fuels -- to develop cleaner and cheaper ways of making industrial chemicals.

For instance, Genencor takes a gene that gives a microbe alkaline resistance and uses it to create enzymes for laundry detergent. One enzyme is used in Tide detergent, another is used to give jeans a faded look.

Both are produced by extremophiles found thriving in highly alkaline lakes in East Africa and Kenya. The extremophile genes responsible for making these enzymes are genetically engineered into commonplace bacteria, which are then coaxed to grow by the trillions in giant brewers' vats at Genencor's nine factories around the world.

"The goal," Estell said, "is make proteins do something they've never done before."


Statement of the South African Council of Churches (SACC)

May 2004

As participants in the first SACC consultation on GMOs held at the ESCOM Convention Centre, Midrand, South Africa from 26-28 May 2004:

We welcome the initiative taken by the SACC in convening this consultation on a topic which needs in-depth and more urgent and focussed attention by Christians and the churches.

We thank the organisers for providing us the opportunity to enhance our understanding of GMOs by means of a well-balanced program, thus enabling us to broaden and deepen our contribution to the debate. We were given the opportunity to listen to presentations from different sides of the debate, and to reflect on and affirm our own Christian and indigenous spiritual heritage and traditions.

We are concerned about:

  1. The manner in which complex issues on GMOs are treated by proponents of GMOs and South African legislation in a 'purely technical' manner, delinking science from ethics, values, economic and political ideology, and our African communal spirituality about life and food.

  2. The link between the promotion of GMOs and neo-liberal economic globalization with its inherent unequal power relations;

  3. The scientific uncertainties related to the long term economic, nutritional, health, ecological risks of gene transfer technologies in view of the irreversibility in the release and use of GE products;

  4. The elevating of natural scientists and civil servants to be experts and adjudicators in regard to issues of GMOs even as they pertain to human life, the environment and the spirituality related to life;

  5. The insufficient representation of relevant sciences (including ethics) to advise government, and the apparent non-independence of advisors to government and government institutions in the development and implementation of GMO policy;

  6. The lack of public awareness and debate on GMOs, including our own lack of participation in GMO policy developments;

  7. The overriding profit motive and supremacy of the market over issues such as human and environmental safety and health, and food supply;

  8. The erosion of the sovereignty of national states, democracy and transparency in policy processes of international agreements and conventions related to food standards and agriculture which make domestic issues subject to trade concerns;

  9. The commodification of life and monopolisation of knowledge through the patenting of genes and living organisms as well as indigenous science, products and practices.

We appreciate the role played by people and organisations outside the church who have committed themselves and their organizations to fight for socio-economic justice by resisting the unbridled introduction and use of GMOs and products.

We affirm:

  1. Our conviction that there is sufficient food for all our people, but the problem remains inequitable access to and maldistribution of food.

  2. Our commitment to the option for the poor, marginalized and disempowered. And as far as GMOs are concerned we are further driven by our vision of the dignity of the human person; the common good; solidarity; subsidiarity; integrity of creation; socio-economic and environmental justice.

  3. That food and life is a gift from God and we are co-workers and custodians with God to sustain creation and life and the abundance thereof.

  4. The power and sustainability of indigenous knowledge, practices and resources.

We commit ourselves to broaden and deepen:

  1. our understanding of GMOs and the mechanisms dealing with these matters on local, national, regional and international levels;

  2. our theological reflection and action in addressing the introduction, use and impact of GMOs and this biotechnology on food security;

  3. our networks of solidarity and cooperation in South Africa, in the region, the continent and beyond;

  4. our awareness of the organic link between food, HIV and AIDS, poverty and GMOs.

We call on the SACC and its members to:

  1. Take the issue of the right to food seriously and co-own the issue of GMOs as an issue of justice in line with our longstanding commitment to solidarity with the poor and marginalised.

  2. Redouble its efforts and programmes aimed at the eradication of poverty.

  3. Learn from and be in solidarity with the struggles of the poor related to food sovereignty and the impact of GMOs as promoted by the dominant and fundamentally unjust economic ideology, systems and mechanisms of neo-liberal economic globalisation. We cannot but denounce and resist with the poor this ungodly ideology, since it affects the core of our common faith and vision for the world.

  4. Undertake and facilitate the generation of prophetic/contextual theologies and resource material for education, liturgies, bible studies, as well as theological reflection and research at academic institutions which will empower the church to pursue its stand on GMOs.

  5. Establish a pool of resources in terms of persons and institutions inside and outside the church to assist the SACC in a variety of engagements /interventions such as: dialogues with scientists; private sector companies; government; civil society; public awareness and education; and, policy interventions in national, regional and international forums.

  6. Call on government, while it is still allowing GM technology to operate and have an impact on our environment to:

    • -- affirm that GM is a high risk technology;
    • -- impose a moratorium on any further permits granted for GMOs in South Africa;
    • -- take all measures necessary to make South Africa compliant with the Cartegena protocol.
  7. Develop regional and continental solidarity and cooperation related to the churches' interventions on GMOs.

  8. Develop localised campaigns and advocacy initiatives.

  9. Agree on a clear strategic planning process and eventual reporting on progress made towards achieving its commitments.

  10. Make this document public, and bring it to the attention of the member churches and other stakeholders including small-holder farmers, government, scientists, private sector, and civil society organisations.


African Hunger and GE Food Crops

Dulcie Krige
June 2004

Vast public relations efforts are being made to convince the world that genetically engineered (GE) food crops can prevent starvation in Africa but the mechanics of how this would happen are never explained. GE crops do not necessarily increase yield, in fact extensive research shows GE soy yields 5 - 10 % less than non-GE high-yielding varieties. The purpose of most GE is to reduce the need for labour by permitting the use of herbicides to kill weeds rather than by using manual weeding.

I have been fortunate enough to have visited numerous subsistence and small commercial farms in South Africa and it is clear that the labour to hoe and cultivate is abundant but the capital to obtain expensive inputs such as herbicides and patented seed is non-existent. Even the cost of pipes and pumps to get water from the river to the field, of fencing a field to stop goats eating the crop and of providing secure storage to prevent rain and rodent and insect damage makes farming difficult for the small farmers who produce over seventy percent of Africa's food crops.

In Africa the cause of hunger is not an absolute shortage of food but:

  • poverty is a cause of hunger. It is not that there is no food but that the poor cannot afford to buy it.
  • poor road infrastructure and the lack of a transport network results in major difficulties in transporting food.
  • war and political instability results in food shortages.

Many African governments are afraid of the health risks of GE food crops. This is because where people are poor they depend on a major cheap staple such as corn for most of their food requirements. If this is the only food they eat and there are health risks associated with it then people will be affected much more dramatically than in a country such as the US where people eat a range of food and where the major GE crops such as corn and soy are used predominantly as livestock feed rather than human food. There is concern regarding the use of antibiotic resistant genes in GE and of possible allergic and toxic effects of GE food crops. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), an insecticide gene incorporated into GE corn, would be consumed in far greater quantities than in countries where there is not reliance on a single staple food.

Is there a cost-effective alternative to expensive biotech solutions for the very real problem of insect damage to crops? Farmers have developed indigenous solutions which have been shown to be highly effective. There are many studies which show better profit for farmers who practice organic methods than those who use pesticides and fertilizers.

An interesting commentary on whether GE does reduce malnutrition is that in the world's third largest producer of GE crops, Argentina, according to the social services agency of the Catholic Church, forty percent of children are undernourished.

If the financial resources that are poured into the development of biotechnology - and into wars and arms deals - were instead used to remove constraints on small farmers through the development of irrigation, fencing, seed-fairs for the exchange of seeds, transport, storage, agricultural extension officers, and most important of all the attainment of political stability, Africa would be able to feed itself in a truly sustainable fashion once more.

Krige is a social scientist with a particular interest in poverty issues. She is a co-author of 'The Education Atlas of South Africa' and 'Towards a Poverty Monitoring System in Lesotho'. She can be contacted at 556 Essenwood Rd, Durban, 4001 South Africa or phoned at + 27 31 2093448 or emailed on

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