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THIRD WORLD NETWORK INFORMATION SERVICE ON BIOSAFETY

19 April 2002

           

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

We are pleased to share with you two updates on our Information Service on Biosafety, regarding the discovery at the end of 2001 of contamination of traditional maize landraces in Mexico with a genetically modified maize variety.

The first reports on legislative moves by the Mexican Government to deal with the matter. The second update is on the scientific debate and the implications for biosafety.

Mexican government moves to deal with maize crisis

Amidst the debate and controversy over the discovery of transgenic maize among Mexico's indigenous maize crops, the Mexican government has taken concrete steps to deal with the contamination. On 7 February 2002 a decree came into force that would heavily penalize any party who is responsible for impacting the ecosystems and the environment negatively through his/her involvement in transgenic organisms.

The modifications to the existing law were approved by the Mexican Congress on 27 December 2002 following calls to President Vicente Fox to ban the importation of genetically modified maize due to its threat to the country's biodiversity and food supply. The modifications were subsequently published in the country's 'Diario Oficial' on 6 February 2002, and came into effect the following day.

According to the decree, any violations to the amendments would be subjected to severe punishment which include imprisonment from one to nine years and fines for daily violations by anyone who introduces, trades in, transports, stores, or releases to the environment any genetically modified organisms that alter or could alter negatively the components, structure, or function of natural ecosystems.

However, the penalty can only be imposed if there is proof of breach of established applicable regulations, which, according to an unofficial translation the US Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service, include the following:              

General Health Law, chapter 12 BIS. Biotech Products, Articles 282 Bis 1 and 282 Bis 2.

Federal Plant Health Law, articles 5 and 43.

Law of the Production, Certification, and Trade of Seed: Article 3, part VII; Article 5; Article 16, Part IV.

Federal Law on Plant Varieties: Article 2, Parts IV and V; Article 4, parts I and II; Article 5, part I.

General Law of Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection, Articles 3, 28 and 82.

Regulation of Sanitary Control of Goods and Services (supports the General Health Law): Article 1, Part XVI; plus articles 164,165,166, 167 in their entirety.

Regulation of the General Law of Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection related to evaluation and environmental impact: Article 5.

Official Mexican Standard NOM-056-Fito-1995, "Phytosanitary Requirements for the Movement within Mexico, Importation, and Establishment of Field Trials of Organisms Manipulated Using Genetic Engineering."

Regulation of the Law of General Health regarding advertising and publicity: Articles 70 and 71.

Concern over the presence of genetically modified organisms in Mexico goes back earlier to1998 when the government banned the growing of GM plants as a means of preventing the incorporation of genetically engineered organisms into the local plant species. As a centre of origin and diversity of maize, protecting traditional landraces is a priority for the country. Nevertheless, the discovery by Berkeley scientists Ignacio Chapela and David Quist has raised doubts over the efficacy of the ruling and of the possibility that the contamination in Oaxaca could have taken place prior to the imposition of the ban. The GM maize is suspected to have originated from the USA which exports its maize to Mexico, about 30% of which is transgenic, under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). These exports are unsegregated and unlabelled.

Backgrounder:

The discovery of transgenic maize in native varieties of the produce in Mexico had been such a heated issue due to the fact that the country houses one of the world's indigenous maize gene banks whose preservation is regarded as crucial for reasons of food security not only to the people of Mexico but to the rest of the consuming world as well, and for protecting the country's biodiversity, a matter which warranted government concern that led to these latest  amendments to the legislation with regards to transgenic products.

The initial discovery was made by two scientists from the University of California in Berkeley, Drs Ignacio Chapela and David Quist in October 2000, who found traces of transgenic DNA in maize grown in the regions of Oaxaca. The findings were then brought to the attention of the Mexican government who followed up by conducting its own studies that confirmed what the US scientists had found.

The confidential discovery was then made public knowledge by the Director of Mexico's Commission for Genetically Modified Organisms and Biosecurity, Fernando Ortiz Monasterio, on September 4, 2001 at a Codex Alimentarius Committee meeting This caused a public outcry and calls for immediate action from farmers' groups to environmentalists and scientists, which led to the official acknowledgement by the Mexican government through the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources later in the month that transgenic materials were detected in 3-10% of native maize tested in Oaxaca.

Chapela's studies were subsequently published in the Nature journal of November 2001 which announced the presence of a promoter from the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV 35S) that is widely used in transgenic crops, in native maize varieties in some of the remotest regions in Mexico, thus raising alarm bells that contamination could be even more severe especially in those areas where maize is commercially grown.

The Mexican case had also resulted in a mounting call for rigorous international regulation of trade in GMOs. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety that was concluded in 2000 needs at least 50 countries to formally ratify it before it becomes operational. Resistance by industry and a small number of exporting countries led by the USA has produced a weaker agreement than hoped for by biosafety proponents. Increasing evidence of transgenic contamination such as the Mexican maize case reaffirms the urgency for strong biosafety regulation nationally and globally.

With best wishes,

Lim Li Lin and Chee Yoke Heong

Third World Network

228 Macalister Road

10400 Penang

Malaysia

Email: twnet@po.jaring.my

Website: www.twnside.org.sg

            

THIRD WORLD NETWORK INFORMATION SERVICE ON BIOSAFETY

19 April 2002

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

In this second part of our update on Mexico, the saga of the contamination of indigenous maize by transgenic materials in Mexico continues with the latest being a retraction by Nature journal which published the findings made by Ignacio Chapela and David Quist last year, following severe pressure from the pro-biotech community.

The action seems inappropriate since the article has gone through the journal's peer-review process prior to its publication and that despite the controversy raging over the method and science of the experiments employed by the two Berkeley scientists, there was no denying even by their critics the presence of transgenic material in the landraces tested. A healthy debate should be encouraged for further research to be conducted either by the scientists or others who are concerned and wish to better understand the phenomenon of  transgenic pollution via horizontal gene transfer as well as by cross-pollination. At the insistence of the authors to stand by their findings Nature has published both sides of the debate on its online editorial dated 4 April. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that the journal felt compelled to formally retract the first article.

However, not to be too distracted by the criticisms against the two scientists, the scientific findings by Chapela and Quist have important significance for biosafety, Dr. Mae-Wan Ho of the Institute of Science in Society points out in the following article.

In addition, we have also attached the online editorial note (4 April 2002) in Nature retracting the Chapela and Quist paper published earlier in November 2001, in which the journal wants readers to "judge the science for themselves" when the authors stood firm by their findings.

With best wishes,

Lim Li Lin and Chee Yoke Heong

Third World Network

228 Macalister Road

10400 Penang

Malaysia

Email: twnet@po.jaring.my

Website: www.twnside.org.sg

             

Doc. TWN/Biosafety/2002/C

Astonishing Denial of Transgenic Pollution

By Dr. Mae-Wan Ho (Institute of Science in Society)

A paper published in Nature last November provoked a furore of responses from the pro-biotech community. The journal succumbed to pressure by issuing a retraction: "In light of ... discussions and the diverse advice received, Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper." But, as the authors wish to stand by the evidence and conclusions, Nature thought it best to publish the criticisms, the authors' response and new data, and to let readers "judge the science for themselves."

The criticisms appear to hinge on the experimental techniques used by Berkeley scientists David Quist and Ignacio Chapela to support their claim that transgenic DNA has polluted the Mexican landraces. First, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) enabled them to identify the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) 35S promoter in the landraces. This piece of DNA is incorporated in virtually every commercial transgenic crop. Then, inverse PCR (iPCR) was used to look for unknown DNA sequences joined to the CaMV promoter, which would give information on the structure of the transgenic DNA and its precise location in the genome. PCR is a standard technique, widely employed for amplifying and identifying specific sequences present in trace amounts. Inverse PCR, on the other hand, is a much newer technique, and not yet widely used.

The critics do not take issue with the identification of the CaMV 35S promoter, thereby implicitly acknowledging the presence of transgenic DNA in the landraces. In other words, they are not disputing that transgenic pollution has occurred.           

Rather, their criticisms centre on the iPCR technique for identifying unknown DNA sequences linked to the CaMV promoter, which they regard as "suspect" and "artifactual".

Quist and Chapela have found a diversity of sequences linked to the promoter, thus giving the impression that the transgenic constructs were "fragmenting and promiscuously scattering throughout genomes", which "would be unprecedented", according to the first critique. It also denies that transgene fragments can move around the genome after integration, and does not bother to tell us that there have been no experiments done previously to address the issue.

The first critique comes from microbiologist Mathew Metz, former colleague of Quist and Chapela, now in University of Washington, Seattle, and Johannes Futterer, from Institute of Plant Science, ETH, Switzerland. The second critique comes from six colleagues of the authors in Berkeley. In a controversial bid to take over Berkeley's bioscience department a few years ago, Ignacio Chapela  attracted attention as a major opponent of the take-over. There is no doubt that the attack on Chapela is at least partly motivated by politics, a charge levelled against Chapela's work by his critics from Berkeley. But fortunately, politics is irrelevant in considering what the experimental results are telling us.

PCR and iPCR both depend on short stretches of DNA, called primers, which pair up (or hybridise) with parts of the longer sequence to be amplified. This then enables the DNA copying enzyme to make the rest of the sequence. Unfortunately, the primers often have sequence similarity to other DNA, and so they could hybridise to the wrong places, leading to wrong sequences in the plant genome being amplified. The primers used do have similarities (homologies) to  known plant gene sequences, and hence false priming and misidentification of sequences could have given the impression that the CaMV 35S promoter is scattered throughout the genome.

In their reply, Quist and Chapela acknowledge that some, though not all of the iPCR results could represent false priming and misidentified sequences, and point out that such problems are inherent to the technique. However, that does not alter their main conclusions.

They provide new data based on a dot-blot technique. A measured amount of DNA is transferred to a filter (in a dot), dried, and then probed with transgenic DNA; in this case, the CaMV 35S promoter.

The new data clearly show the presence of CaMV 35S promoter in four landrace samples at levels less than 5% and greater than 1%, while a historic maize sample and a maize sample from Peru both stained negative. In other words, transgenic pollution had indeed occurred as reported in their previous paper.

The real disagreement is to what extent the transgenic constructs had fragmented on entering the genome of the landraces or thereafter. The existing evidence on transgenic instability, documented in some papers cited by Quist and Chapela, does not rule out the possibility of "fragmenting and promiscuous scattering" of            

transgenic constructs, which could have introgressed into landraces via horizontal gene transfer as well as by cross-pollination. The significance of Quist and Chapela's work is that it is the first of its kind in attempting to address this possibility.

Once again, the scientific establishment serving the corporate agenda has been caught out taking the absence of evidence as evidence of absence. The agenda is to keep the public confused while transgenic pollution continues unabated.

Above all, corporate scientists want to avoid having to prove transgenic lines are stable by the appropriate 'event-specific' molecular data that the new European Directive requires (See "Europe's new rules could sink all GMOs", ISIS News 11/12, October 2001 http://www.i-sis.org.uk/isisnews/i-sisnews11-3.php). This involves documenting that the transgenic insert has maintained the same structure and location in the plant genome in successive generations. No such 'event-specific' molecular analysis has ever been done for any transgenic line. Significantly, Monsanto's Roundup Ready GM soya failed the test when recently analysed. Regulators should insist on this molecular data, and the data should not be hidden away from the public under "commercial confidentiality". Otherwise, regulators should be held liable for any damages caused as a result.

The only decent thing for the scientific establishment to do now is to give plenty of support to Quist and Chapela and others to extend their research. The aim is to rule out the possibility that transgenic constructs could be fragmenting and scattering, throughout the genome as well as throughout the ecosystem, by horizontal gene transfer and recombination. Meanwhile, no more transgenic crops should be released, especially those with the CaMV 35S promoter, until they could be proved stable by event-specific analyses (see "Who's afraid of horizontal gene transfer?" ISIS report, 4 March, 2002 http://www.i-sis.org.uk/hgt.php).

Nature Editorial note, page 1 (4 April 2002):

In our 29 November issue, we published the paper "Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico" by David Quist and Ignacio Chapela. Subsequently, we received several criticisms of the paper, to which we obtained responses from the authors and consulted referees over the exchanges. In the meantime, the authors agreed to obtain further data, on a timetable agreed with us, that might prove beyond reasonable doubt that transgenes  have indeed become integrated into the maize genome. The authors have now obtained some additional data, but there is disagreement between them and a referee as to whether these results significantly bolster their argument.

In light of these discussions and the diverse advice received, Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper. As the authors nevertheless wish to stand by the available evidence for their conclusions, we feel it best simply to make these circumstances clear, to publish the criticisms, the authors' response and new data, and to allow our readers to judge the science for themselves.

Editor, Nature

            

            

 


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