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Scientists call for bio-patent ban, GMO moratorium

by Chakravarthi Raghavan


Geneva, 19 July -- A group of leading scientists including some leading molecular biologists and related disciplines have issued a statement calling on governments to impose a moratorium on release of transgenic crops, food and animal feed products.

The current review of the provisions of the TRIPS agreement in the WTO should be used as an opportunity to exclude new biotech patents on living organisms, cell lines and genes, the scientists say in their joint statement.

They also call on the governments of the world to support a comprehensive, independent public enquiry into the future of agriculture and food security for all.

The statement with an initial signature of some 85 leading figures, posted for further sign-ups on a web-site, and widely circulated on internet by other list-servers, was drawn up by Dr.Mae-Wan Ho and Angela Ryan of the Open University, UK.

Dr.Mae-wan Ho and another signatory, Dr.Terje Traavik of Norway, had prepared a Third World Network scientific briefing paper for WTO delegations on the TRIPS/Bio-tech issues, analysing the TRIPS and the EU Commission directive on such patents.

In calling for all classes of new biotech patents being rejected from inclusion in the TRIPS, the scientists say that these "biotech patents":

* involve biological processes not under the direct control of the scientist and cannot be regarded as inventions but as expropriations from life,

* the hit or miss technologies associated with many of the inventions are inherently hazardous to health and biodiversity, and

* there is no scientific basis to support the patenting of genes and genomes, which are at best discoveries (and not inventions which alone are patentable under patent regimes and TRIPS).

Many bio-patents, the statement says, "are unethical, destroy livelihoods, contravene basic human rights, create unnecessary suffering in animals or are otherwise contrary to public order and morality."

They also involve "acts of plagiarism of indigenous knowledge and biopiracy of plants (and animals) bred and used by local communities for millennia."

On the various hazards relating to genetically modified (GM) crops and products, the statement refers to the Cornell University study published in the 'Nature' that pollen from Bt Corn could have lethal effects on larvae of monarch butterflies if it lands on milkweed.

The statement also cites a study at John Innes Institute which supports previous evidence that there is a 'recombination hotspot' in the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV 35S) promoter, which is widely used in genetic engineering, and that most of the 'recombination events' analyzed were 'illegitimate' or non- homologous and did not require substantial similarity in nucleic acid base sequence. The recombination events were also found to occur independently, in the absence of other viral genes.

This, the scientists say in the statement, shows that transgenic lines containing the CaMV promoter, which includes practically all the transgenics released, "are prone to instability due to rearrangements, and also have the potential to create new viruses or other invasive genetic elements."

"The continued release of such transgenic lines is unwarranted in light of the new findings."

[At a meeting of leading UK scientists, which included Mae-wan Ho, with the UK Environment Minister Michael Meacher, at his invitation, the CaMV promoter issue came up for discussion. Dr. Phil Dale, protagonist of genetic engineering, argued that CaMV posed no danger. 'We eat CaMV all the time and it is present in many of the vegetables that make up our staple diet. It does not have any harmful effects.' Refuting this view, Dr. Mae-wan Ho said there was a great deal of difference between the CaMV eaten in vegetables every day, and the promoter CaMV. Viruses, she said, are protected in the environment by a protein coat that also confers species specificity. The Ca V cannot enter mammalian cells because its protein coat is specific to plant cells. But the CaMV promoter used in GMOs comes in the form of naked viral DNA and naked DNA of any sort is highly infectious. The wide use of CaMV alone carries enough risk to impose an immediate moratorium on GMOs.]

The scientists also point out that according to a new study (by agronomist Dr.Charles Benbrook), reviewing 8,200 university based trials of transgenic soya varieties, (Monsanto's) Roundup Ready Soybeans produce lower yields compared to their non-GM counterparts. The analysis shows that farmers use 2 to 5 times more herbicide measured in pounds applied per acre on RR soybeans compared with other weed management systems. RR herbicide use exceeded the levels on many farms using multi-tactic weed management systems by a factor of 10 or more.

A recent, population-based study conducted in Sweden between 1987-1990 and including follow-up interviews clearly links exposure to Roundup Ready herbicide (glyphosate) to non-Hodgkins lymphoma and strongly suggests glyphosate deserves further epidemiological studies.

A new paper reports chaotic gene silencing in GM plants and reveals that each transformed plant expressed a different and specific instability profile. Both transcriptional and post- transcriptional gene silencing mechanisms were operating in a chaotic manner and demonstrates that epigenetic (position) effects (of the transposed gene) are responsible for transgene instability in GM plants.

"These results," the statement says, "indicate that transgene silencing and instability will continue to hinder the economic exploitation of GM plants."

(In another experiment), successful transfers of a kanamycin resistance marker gene to the soil bacterium Acinetobacter were obtained using DNA extracted from homogenized plant leaf from a range of transgenic plants: Solanum tuberosum (potato), Nicotiana tabacum (tobacco), Beta vulgaris (sugar beet), Brassica napus (oil-seed rape) and Lycopersicon esculentum (tomato). It is estimated that about 2500 copies of the kanamycin resistance genes (from the same number of plant cells) is sufficient to successfully transform one bacterium, despite the fact that there is six million-fold excess of plant DNA present.

The scientists comment on this: "A single plant with say, 2.5 trillion cells, would be sufficient to transform one billion bacteria."

Horizontal gene transfer between bacteria can occur in the gut at high frequencies. This has been demonstrated in the gut of germ- free mice. The "germ-free" gut-environment can result from taking antibiotics. In one experiment, tetracycline increases the frequency of horizontal gene transfer by 20-fold. And vancomycin- resistant Enterococcus faecium is found to colonise the gut when the mice were treated with antibiotic.

This shows, say the scientists in their comment: "Antibiotic resistance marker genes can spread from GMOs to bacteria and between bacteria, including those associated with infectious diseases. Furthermore, the use of antibiotics will make resistance spread more readily."

Studies show that pathogenic bacteria capable of invading cells can act as vectors for transferring genes into mammalian cells.

This means "Dangerous transgenic DNA can end up in the genome of our cells, with the potential of causing a lot of genetic disturbance including cancer."

The signatories include: Dr. Ted Steele (molecular immunologist, Australia), Prof David Suzuki (Geneticist, Canada), Prof.Joe Cummins (Geneticist, Canada), Dr.Ruth goseth (Dermatologist, China), Dr. Tewolde Egziabher (Agronomist, Min. of Environment, Ethiopia), Dr.Christine von Weisaeker (Germany), Prof. Ervin Lazlo (Hungary), Dr.Vandana Shiva (ecologist, India), Dr. Atuhiro Sibatani (Molecular Biologist, Osaka, Japan), Dr.Shiron Sugita and Dr.Noeoru Tagshita (Plant geneticists, Japan), Dr.Robert Mann (Physician, New Zealand), Prof terje Traavik (Virologist, Norway), Prof.Oscar Zamora (Agronomist, the Philippines), Dr.Gregario Alvar (Biotechnologist, Spain), Prof.Arpad Pusztai (Biochemist, formerly from Rowett Institute, UK), Dr.Michael Antoniou (Molecualr Geneticist, Guy's Hospital, UK), Dr.Mae-Wan Ho (Geneticist, Open Univ. UK), Dr.Robert Poller (Organic Chemist, UK), Dr. Philip Kilner (Cardiologist, UK), Angela Ryan (Molecular biologist, Open Univ. UK), Prof. Martha Crouch (Biologist, Indiana, USA), Prof Ruth Hubbard (Biologist, Harvard, USA), Prof. Martha Herbert (Pediatric Neurologist, Mass, USA).

(SUNS4480)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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