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Date:

August 30, 2000

Subject:

GM CROPS: An Alternative View to Greenpeace

 

GenevaI enclose below an article
which I have just had published in the 'Feed Compounder' June/July
issue entitled "GM Crops: An Alternative View to Greenpeace" . The
Editor Andrew D. Mounsey can be contacted at andrew@hgmpubs.comit.


Kind Regards


Dr Richard H Phipps

-----

GM CROPS: An Alternative View to Greenpeace


FEED COMPOUNDER ; JUNE/JULY 2000 PAGE 1

By Dr Richard H Phipps

(Principal Research Fellow) The University of Reading, Centre for Dairy
Research.


CAN THIS REALLY BE TRUE?

An article in the April 2000 edition of this journal stated that:
"Greenpeace was campaigning for a world-wide ban on the development and
growing of GM crops". It is certainly true that many new technologies
attract controversy. The development of the smallpox vaccine resulted
in the formation of an anti-vaccination society and the introduction of
artificial insemination in farm animals led to sermons in the churches
of East Anglia against this unnatural practice. It is also true that
all new technologies should be critically assessed and carefully
evaluated by appropriate independent regulatory authorities.


BENEFITS.

The Developing World? Many people believe that GM crops will provide a
cheap, reliable and sustainable means of improving the basic nutrition
and health of millions of people, whose staple diet such as rice or
maize is deficient in vitamin A, protein and essential amino acids. Of
the 100 million children who suffer vitamin A deficiency, 3 million die
annually and 14 million suffer clinical eye problems.

If Greenpeace is against the development and use word-wide of GM crops
then they are against


The production of rice which has been genetically engineered to
contain beta carotene which is required for the production of vitamin
A.


* Offering millions of people, who use maize as their staple diet, the
chance to use new varieties in which biotechnology has increased the
protein and essential amino acid content in their staple diet.


* The use of maize varieties, which have been modified to tolerate
adverse soils conditions which can reduce yield by 50 per cent. * The
use of sweet potatoes in countries such as Kenya, which have been
modified against a viral disease which can decimate yields.


* The development and use of edible vaccines, which can reach more
people and provide a more practical and sustainable method of health
protection than the current programmes. Significant advances have
already been made in delivering hepatitis B and cholera vaccines in
maize and potatoes.


These are a few examples of the benefits that biotechnology can offer
people of the developing world. They are not flights of fancy, and in
some case are already a reality whilst in others they are close to
becoming a reality. It is not surprising that the Nuffield Council for
Bioethics stated that " The moral imperative for making GM crops
readily and economically available to developing countries who want
them is compelling." What is surprising is that Greenpeace wants to
impose a blanket ban on this technology and to deny millions of
underprivileged peoples access to this new technology. While some
people claim that big business has the developing world by the throat,
Cyrus Ndirutu (Director of the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute)
has stated that it is hunger, poverty and malnutrition that has Africa
by the throat and not multinational companies. In fact on April 4 th
2000 scientists at Monsanto completed a draft of the rice genome and
handed it over to the International Rice Research Institute.


BENEFITS.

The Developed World? While there is clear evidence that the use of GM
crops in the developed world has resulted in significant benefits in
terms of crop yield and quality, reduced costs and increased farm
profit, the benefits to the consumer are less obvious and rarely
attract press attention. Yet here, too, there are real advantages:


* Herbicide/insecticide use in GM soybean and cotton production has
decreased by 20 and 80 per cent, respectively. Since 1996 the use of GM
crops in North America has reduced the use of agrochemical by 4.5
million litres. This has to be a major benefit for the environment.


* In Europe there are 6 million ha of maize grown for silage and grain.
Weed control is generally achieved by the use of long lasting residual
herbicides which present an environmental risk as they can move down
through the soil profile into the water reserves. Maize has been
genetically modified to be tolerant of certain contact herbicides. As
these sprays are contact and not residual and are rapidly degraded
when they hit the soil the pollution of ground water reserves is
minimised.


* The use of insect protected (Bt) maize will increase crop yields by
reducing insect damage which also reduces mycotoxin contamination
arising from fungal attack on the damaged grain. One such mycotoxin is
Aflatoxin B1

which is a powerful carcinogen.


The result: more grain, safer grain for both livestock and humans.
There are many other biotech products in development which will provide
the consumer with healthier and more nutritious food. One example is
that soybeans are being modified to contain conjugated linoleic acid
which can help in the prevention of certain types of cancer.


IS GM TECHNOLOGY UNPREDICTABLE?

Plants normally contain between 20 and 50,000 genes. Greenpeace
suggests that genetic modification in agriculture is fundamentally
unpredictable. On the contrary it is conventional breeding techniques
which allow many thousands of genes, about which little is known to be
moved in a haphazard way into new varieties. In contrast genetic
engineering involves the highly specific movement of one or two genes,
about which a lot is known.


Sir Robert May (UK Government Science Advisor) writing on GM foods
stated that "The added genes are extremely well understood. In this
sense the production of new GM plants is a much more controlled and
understood process, with less unforeseen consequences than conventional
artificial breeding." The US House Committee on Basic Research supports
this view. It stated that "new methods are more precise and allow
better characterisation of the changes being made, plant breeders and
food producers are in a better position to assess safety than when
using classical breeding methods". (http://www. house.gov/science).


HUMAN SAFETY

The View of Regulatory Authorities. Dr J Henny, Commissioner at the
Food and Drugs Administration stated "we have seen no evidence that the
bioengineered foods now on the market pose any human health concerns or
that they are in anyway less safe than crops produced through
traditional breeding. All the proteins that have been placed into foods
through the tools of biotechnology that are on the market are
non-toxic, rapidly digestible and do not have the characteristics of
proteins known to cause allergies. We are not aware of any information
that foods developed through genetic engineering differ as a class in
quality, safety or any other attribute from foods developed through
conventional means" The process of regulation of the Biotech Industry
in the US is described at http://wwwicfcs.org/ biotechreg.htm for those
who wish to examine it in detail. It is entitled "Nine chances to say
No."

Circumstantial evidence. Between 1996 and 1999 the area of GM crops
grown world-wide increased from 2 to 40 million hectares. While the
majority of GM crops were grown in the USA, Argentina and Canada, GM
crops were also grown in China, Australia, South Africa, Mexico, Spain,
France, Portugal, Rumania and Ukraine. During the last 3-5 years many
hundreds of millions of people have consumed GM products. While this
fact alone is not proof positive, in the classical experimental format,
it is extremely strong circumstantial evidence as to their safety as
there has not been a single incident of GM food adversely affecting
human health.


THE ISSUE OF ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE MARKER GENES

In the development of some, but by no means all GM crops, antibiotic
resistance marker genes were introduced to allow efficient selection of
successfully modified plants following the procedure of transferring
the DNA containing the gene of interest, for example an insect
resistance gene from Bacillus thuringiensis. The use of these
antibiotic marker genes provides an easy target for environmental
groups to score many points against biotechnology in the eyes of the
general public. The concern raised was that these genes could transfer
to microbes and eventually increase antibiotic resistance in humans.
This is a very understandable concern and has been the subject of
numerous scientific assessments and the issue has been addressed by
regulatory bodies world-wide. They concluded that the potential for any
transfer or risk to public health was virtually zero. Indeed a recent
article in New Scientist (March 25 th 2000) reported that scientists
have so far failed to get bacteria to pickup this gene even though it
was, in their words, offered it on a plate. Even if it did happen Sir
Robert May considered: "It would be a drop in a bucket compared with
over prescription for humans and widespread use on farms. But, again,
we should be concerned to prevent such accidental releases from GM
crops." All this apart, it most certainly should have been brought to
the attention of the readers of this journal that antibiotic resistance
markers are, due to public perception, undesirable and are in the
process of being phased out with the development of new biotech
products.


THE ENVIRONMENT AND GM CROPS

Reduced use of herbicides and insecticides. The huge reduction in the
use of herbicides and insecticides should be welcomed as a major
environmental benefit. It is surprising that the article by Greenpeace
made no mention of this fact. Perhaps we should consider
differentiating between GM and conventional food and clothes by the
amount of herbicides/insecticides required for their production. It is
interesting to note that a recent Roper World-wide Poll found that 73
per cent of adult consumers surveyed would accept biotechnology as a
trade- off for not using chemicals. Biodiversity. In response to
concern expressed by a number of groups, the UK Government set up field
trials managed and run by independent scientists to determine the
effect of GM crops on the abundance and diversity of farmland wildlife.
These studies are designed to run for three years and to answer
questions posed by environmental groups. It is disappointing that some
of them now seem to condone and even participate in destroying the very
studies, which could provide them with the answers to the questions
they asked. We have been assured that commercial planting of GM crops
will not occur until these studies have been completed. Insect
protected crops (Bt). For over thirty years organic farmers have used a
Bt protein insecticide derived from a soil borne bacteria (Bacillus
thuringiensis). GM technology has introduced the gene producing this
insecticide into cotton and maize providing them with protection
against devastating attacks from a range of insect pests. Three areas
of concern over the use of insect protected crops are discussed.


The Monarch Butterfly.

In 1999 Nature reported a laboratory study from Cornell University
which found that Monarch butterfly larvae fed on milkweed leaves coated
with high levels of pollen from Bt corn ate less, grew slower and had a
higher mortality rate. These findings were widely publicised, but
little note was taken of the researcher's comment that "it would be
inappropriate to draw any conclusions about the risk to Monarch
populations in the field based solely on these initial results." As a
consequence of this study a major programme of field trials were
conducted. The conclusion by Professor M Sears (University of Guelph)
was that the Monarch is alive and well, despite exaggerated and
misleading reports that biotechnology is threatening it. This finding
has not been widely publicised and was certainly noted included in the
article by Greenpeace.


Soil contamination.

The article by Greenpeace drew the attention of the readers to a study
which suggested that Bt toxin would be exuded from plant roots and
might have a serious effect on soil microoganisms and insects. It
failed, however, to tell them that it was conducted in a laboratory
using plants grown in a liquid medium, and also failed to make any
reference to the significant body of peer reviewed scientific papers
which have shown no significant impact on either soil microrganisms or
insects. Insect resistance. The article stated, correctly, that insects
developing resistance to regularly used insecticides is a known
problem. This was recognised by the biotech industry and for 7 years
prior to the introduction of the first commercial insect protected
crops they actively supported research to address this issue. From the
start it recommended that areas of non-GM crops should be grown to
delay the onset of insect resistance. It is not the case, as the
earlier article implies, that these non-GM refuges were introduced as
an after thought. Indeed the recent US House of Representatives
Committee on Science stated that "widespread use of pest resistant
crops developed using biotechnology is unlikely to accelerate the
emergence of pesticide resistant insect strains and may actually be
more effective in preventing their emergence when compared with to
spray applications of similar pesticides" (http://www.house.gov/
science).


It is perhaps worth noting that the organic movement has been happy to
apply this natural insecticide at dose rates far in excess of that
found in modified plants with little or no thought of how their actions
might lead to insect resistance. Perhaps they should consider insect
refuges.


THE INCLUSION OF GM CROPS IN ANIMAL FEED.

As the stated aim of Greenpeace is to campaign for a world-wide ban on
the development and growing of GM crops it is very understandable why,
as the UK main user of GM crops, the feed industry is being urged to
ban GM crops from their feed. Currently the livestock industry in the
UK uses 1.2 million tonnes of soybean meal, 552,000 tonnes of rapeseed
meal, 507,000 tonnes of maize gluten and maize grain and 306,000 tonnes
of sugar beet feed. These crops have been genetically modified for
herbicide tolerance and/or insect protection. A number of varieties
have passed the regulatory process and are considered safe for human
and animal consumption. It must be emphasised that the regulatory
agencies in Europe, USA, Canada, Japan and other countries require all
GM crops to be subjected to extensive safety trials and field trial
evaluation before being released for agricultural use. Such procedures
can take up to 10 years before final commercialisation of a new GM
crop. Yet Greenpeace claim that exposure to foreign DNA (genes) and
novel proteins derived from GM crops is dangerous if consumed directly
by humans and they imply that meat and milk from animals fed GM crops
is also unsafe.


IS THIS A JUSTIFIABLE POSITION?

The World Health Organisation (1993) and the US Food and Drug
Administration (1992) have both concluded that there is no inherent
risk in consuming DNA. In fact we consume DNA every time we eat
anything, as it is present in all plant and animal material. Indeed
both organisations also stated that there is no inherent risk in
consuming DNA derived from GM crops.


Lets consider first how much DNA an average milking cow consumes in a
day and then what is likely to happen to it as it moves through the
digestive tract. In a recent review, Beever and Kemp (2000) noted that
food crops contained approximately 0.02 per cent DNA on a DM basis.
They went on to calculate that the total dietary DNA intake for a 600
kg cow was 608 mg/day of which GM DNA constituted 0.00042 per cent (2.5
g/day) of total dietary DNA. We are talking really small quantities
here and these calculations are based on the assumption that there is
no breakdown of DNA in the gut following ingestion. We know that this
is not true because as soon as the food gets into the cows mouth, what
little DNA there is, starts to be fragmented and degraded by chewing,
enzymatic activity and subsequently acid hydrolysis in the small
intestine. This fragmentation and degradation destroys the genetic
information stored in long strands of DNA. While it is theoretically
possible that a small proportion of the remaining DNA, and this could
be microbial as well as plant DNA, could be absorbed through the
intestinal wall, it is suggested that most of the remaining DNA
fragments are utilised as energy and protein sources by scavenger
cells. Beever and Kemp went on to state that no plant gene has ever
been detected in the human genome or that of any other animal and since
this is the result of millions of years of evolution with constant
exposure to plant DNA, the unaided integration of a GM plant gene is
highly unlikely. As early as 1997 Faust and Miller reported that when
cows were fed insect-protected maize they could find no trace of the Bt
protein in milk. More recent work published in Germany could not detect
either native DNA or GM DNA in cows' milk (Klotz and Einspanier, 1998).
Based on the safety analyses required for crops currently approved,
consumption of milk, meat and eggs produced from animals fed GM crops
should be considered to be as safe as traditional practices.


ECONOMIC IMPLICATIONS OF FEEDING NON-GM FEED INGREDIENTS.

A recent report from the Department of Agricultural and Food Economics
at The University of Reading (Bennett and Kitching 2000) considered the
economic implications in the UK of demand for livestock feed that
contains no GM ingredients. This detailed and comprehensive report
finds that the cost of feeding non-GM maize and soya ingredients to UK
livestock would be around 61 million/ annum. This figure may rise as
other GM ingredients become readily available as maize and soya
represent just 15 per cent of livestock concentrate feed rations. The
report states that the UK livestock industry is already suffering
financial problems and a further element that increases costs and
reduces profitability could prove disastrous for many producers.


This fact also seems to have been recognised by the food retailers. For
example, a release entitled "Tesco Position on GMOs in Animal Feed "(31
March 2000), states: "there are sectors where to move too fast could in
fact disadvantage customers and more especially, Britain's hard pressed
farmers." While Sainsbury's, who announced in January 2000 a link with
the NFU to examine implications of non-GM animal feed for the British
Farming Community, stated: "the company is acutely conscious of the
potential impact that sourcing identity preserved non-GM Feed could
have on farmers and growers." A non-GM position in Europe could well
make its animal production industry less competitive globally resulting
in an increased importation of meat milk and eggs. CONCLUSIONS


The current article has attempted to fill in some of the gaps that
existed in the Greenpeace article on GM crops. Perhaps the most
worrying fact of all was the author clearly refused to even consider
the possibility that some of the new products of biotechnology may just
provide some benefit to some people in some areas of the world. This
total rejection of a new technology is frightening, and I believe that
each product of biotechnology should be considered on a case by case
basis. I hope this article has provided some examples of the present
and future benefits that we may expect for the developing and developed
world. This article has also drawn attention to the fact that GM crops
may well have positive advantages for the environment, through the
hugely reduced use of residual chemical sprays, a fact that few of the
general public appear to be aware of. Perhaps retailers should consider
developing a ranking system based on environmental impact for food and
clothes in their stores and then give consumers the choice whether or
not to buy food and wear clothes derived from GM crops.


If there was any sound scientific reason why meat and milk derived from
animals fed GM crops was less safe than that from traditional practises
then I would support Greenpeace in their request that the UK Feed
Industry bans GM crops from their feed. As there is no such evidence, I
cannot. To move down the route proposed by Greenpeace without any
scientific proof would be wrong and could be financially disastrous for
a significant number of farmers.


SOURCES

Beaver, D. E. and Kemp, C.F. (2000). Safety issues associated with the
DNA in animal feed derived from genetically modified crops. A review of
scientific and regulatory procedures. Nutrition Abstracts volume 70.
Bennett, R. and Kitching, A. (2000). Economic implications of imported
genetically modified soybean and maize livestock feed ingredients in
the UK. Department of Agricultural and Food Economics The University of
Reading. Donegan et al. (1995) Changes in levels, species and DNA
fingerprints of soil microorganisms associated with cotton expressing
B. thuringiensis var. kurstaki endotoxin. Applied Soil Ecology 2:
111-124. Faust, M. and Miller, L. (1997). Study finds no Bt in milk.
Iowa State University Integrated Crop management Newsletter. Special
Livestock Edition. James, C. (1999). Preview of the global review of
commercialised transgenic crops 1999. ISAAA Briefs No.12. The
international Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications
(ISAAA), Ithaca, New York. Klotz, A. and Einspanier, R. (1998).
Nachweis von "Novel-feed" im Tier? Beeintrachtigung des Verbrauchersvon
Fleisch oder Milch ist nicht zu erwarten. Mais. 3:109-111. May, Sir
Robert. (1999) Genetically Modified Foods: Facts, worries, policies and
public confidence. http://www.vitalsource.org/gm/stash/may1.htm