Open Letter from World Scientists to All Governments
21 October, 1999
We, the undersigned scientists, call for the immediate suspension of all environmental releases of GM crops and products; for patents on life-forms and living processes to be revoked and banned; and for a comprehensive public enquiry into the future of agriculture and food security for all.
Patents on life-forms and processes threaten food security, sanction biopiracy of indigenous knowledge and genetic resources, violate basic human rights and dignity, compromise healthcare, impede medical and scientific research and are against the welfare of animals.
Life-forms such as organisms, seeds, cell lines and genes are discoveries and hence not patentable. Current GM techniques which exploit living processes are unreliable, uncontrollable and unpredictable, and do not qualify as inventions. Furthermore, those techniques are inherently hazardous, as are many GM organisms and products.
The latest largescale surveys of GM crops showed they offered no benefits. On the contrary, they yield significantly less and require the use of more herbicides. GM crops intensify corporate monopoly on food which is driving family farmers to destitution, and preventing the essential shift to sustainable agriculture that can guarantee food security and health around the world
The hazards of GM crops and products to biodiversity and human and animal health are now becoming apparent, and some even acknowledged by sources within the UK and US Governments. In particular, the horizontal spread of antibiotic resistance marker genes from GM crops will compromise the treatment of life-threatening infectious diseases which have come back worldwide. New findings show that the horizontal spread of marker genes and other transgenic DNA can occur, not only by ingestion but via breathing in pollen and dust. The cauliflower mosaic viral promoter, widely used in GM crops, may enhance horizontal gene transfer and has the potential to generate new viruses that cause diseases.
We urge all Governments to take serious account of the scientific evidence in accordance with the precautionary principle, to negotiate a strong and effective International Biosafety Protocol under the CBD, and to ensure that biosafety legislations at the national and international levels take precedence over trade and financial agreements at the WTO. Research into sustainable agricultural methods that do not require GM crops should be widely supported. Many sustainable agricultural systems have already resulted in increased yields and diminished environmental impacts around the world.
* * *
We, the undersigned scientists, call for the immediate suspension of all environmental releases of GM crops and products, both commercially and in open field trials, for at least 5 years; for patents on living processes, organisms, seeds, cell lines and genes to be revoked and banned; and for a comprehensive public enquiry into the future of agriculture and food security for all.1
1 Patents on life-forms and processes threaten food security, sanction biopiracy of indigenous knowledge and genetic resources, violate basic human rights and dignity, compromise healthcare, impede medical and scientific research and are against the welfare of animals. Life-forms such as organisms, seeds, cell lines and genes are discoveries and hence not patentable. Current GM techniques which exploit living processes are unreliable, uncontrollable and unpredictable, and do not qualify as inventions. Furthermore, those techniques are inherently hazardous, as are many GM organisms and products.2
2. It is becoming increasingly clear that current GM crops are neither needed nor beneficial. They are a dangerous diversion from the real task of providing food and health around the world.
3. The promises to genetic engineer crops to fix nitrogen, resist drought, improve yield and to 'feed the world' have been around for at least 30 years. Such promises have built up a multibillion-dollar industry now controlled by a mere handful of corporate giants.
4. The miracle crops have not materialised. Instead, two simple characteristics account for all the GM crops in the world.3 More than 70% are tolerant to broad-spectrum herbicides, with companies engineering plants to be tolerant to their own brand of herbicide, while the rest are engineered with bt-toxins to kill insect pests. A total of 65 million acres were planted in 1998 within the US, Argentina and Canada. The latest surveys on GM crops in the US, the largest grower by far, showed no significant benefit. On the contrary, the most widely grown GM crops - herbicide-tolerant soya beans - yielded on average 6.7% less and required two to five times more herbicides than non-GM varieties.4
5. According to the UN food programme, there is enough food to feed the world one and a half times over. World cereal yields have consistently outstripped population growth since 1980, but one billion are hungry.5 It is on account of corporate monopoly operating under the globalised economy that the poor are getting poorer and hungrier. Family farmers all over the world have been driven to destitution and suicide, and for the same reasons. Between 1993 and 1997 the number of mid-sized farms in the US dropped by 74,440,6 and farmers are now receiving below the average cost of production for their produce.7 Four corporations currently control 85% of the world trade in cereals.8
6. The new patents on seeds will intensify corporate monopoly by preventing farmers from saving and replanting seeds, which is what most farmers still do in the Third World. Christian Aid, a major charity working with the Third World, concludes that GM crops will cause unemployment, exacerbate Third World debt, threaten sustainable farming systems and damage the environment. It predicts famine for the poorest countries.9
7. A coalition of family farming groups in the US have issued a comprehensive list of demands, including a ban on ownership of all life-forms; a suspension of sales, environmental releases and further approvals of all GM crops and products pending an independent, comprehensive assessment of the social, environmental, health and economic impacts; and for corporations to be made liable for all damages arising from GM crops and products to livestock, human beings and the environment.10 They are also demanding a moratorium on all corporate mergers and acquisitions, a moratorium on farm closures, and an end to policies that serve big agribusiness interests at the expense of family farmers, taxpayers and the environment.11
8. The hazards of GM crops are now becoming apparent, and some of them are even acknowledged by sources within the UK and US Governments. For example, the UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has admitted that the transfer of GM crops and pollen beyond the planted fields is unavoidable,12 and this has already resulted in herbicide-tolerant weeds.13 Bt-resistant insect pests have evolved in response to the continuous presence of the toxins in GM plants throughout the growing season, and the US Environment Protection Agency is recommending farmers to plant up to 40% non-GM crops in order to create refugia for non-resistant insect pests.14 The broad-spectrum herbicides used with herbicide-tolerant GM crops not only decimate wild species indiscriminately, but are toxic to animals. One of them, glufosinate, causes birth defects in mammals,15 A Swedish study now links the top-selling herbicide, glyphosate, to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.16 GM crops with bt-toxins kill beneficial insects such as bees17 and lacewings,18 and pollen from bt-maize is lethal to monarch butterflies.19 GM potatoes with snowdrop lectin, previously found to harm ladybirds,20 are now confirmed to be toxic to young rats.21
9. Products resulting from genetically modified organisms have also been found to be hazardous. For example, a batch of tryptophan produced by GM microorganisms was associated with at least 37 deaths and 1500 serious illnesses.22 Genetically modified Bovine Growth Hormone, injected into cows in order to increase milk yield, not only causes excessive suffering and illnesses for the cows but increases IGF-1 in the milk, which is linked to breast and prostate cancers in humans.23 It is vital for the public to be protected from all GM products and not only those containing transgenic DNA or protein.
10. A potential source of health hazards from GM crops is from the secondary horizontal transfer of transgenic DNA to unrelated species; in principle, to all species interacting with the transgenic plants.24 The spread of antibiotic resistance marker genes to pathogens is the most immediate danger as this will further compromise treatment of life-threatening drug and antibiotic resistance diseases which have come back worldwide. However, the random insertion of foreign DNA into genomes associated with horizontal transfer of transgenic DNA can also result in many harmful effects, including cancer in mammalian cells.25 The potential for horizontal gene transfer is now also acknowledged by sources within the US and UK Governments.
11. The possibility for naked or free DNA to be taken up by mammalian cells is explicitly mentioned in the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) draft guidance to industry on antibiotic resistance marker genes.26 In commenting on the FDA's document, the UK MAFF pointed out that transgenic DNA may be transferred not just by ingestion, but by contact with plant dust and air-borne pollen during farm work and food processing,27 and cited several significant new findings bearing on the issue.
12. Thus, plant DNA is not readily degraded during most commercial food processing.28 Procedures such as grinding and milling left grain DNA largely intact, as did heat-treatment at 90oC. Plants placed in silage showed little degradation of DNA, and the special UK MAFF report advises against using ensilaged GM plants in animal feed.
13. The letter from UK MAFF to US FDA also mentions new findings that the human mouth contains bacteria capable of taking up and expressing naked DNA containing antibiotic resistance marker genes, and similar transformable bacteria are also present in the respiratory tracts.29
14. What both regulatory authorities have failed to consider is that transgenic pollens, which may have increased allergenicity and toxicity besides, will almost certainly spread far afield to the general public. Similarly, the current unregulated practice of feeding farm animals transgenic grain and plant remains, and transgenic wastes, both ensilaged and otherwise, is endangering the health of farm animals and of human beings in spreading antibiotic resistance marker genes and other transgenic DNA.
15. Serious health concerns are also raised by the cauliflower mosaic viral (CaMV) promoter in transgenic DNA. The CaMV promoter, widely used in expression cassettes of transgenes, is known to contain a 'recombination hotspot'. One usual mechanism of recombination involves the double-stranded DNA breaking and joining with other double-stranded DNA. This has been identified as the mechanism generating many different lines of transgenic rice during a routine transformation experiment. Extensive recombination at the hotspot has taken place in the absence of the viral recombinase, indicating that the host plant cell can catalyse such recombinations.30 Thus, the CaMV promoter has an enhanced capability to transfer horizontally, with potentially dangerous consequences.31
16. CaMV is closely related to human hepatitis B virus, and also has a reverse transcriptase gene related to that in retroviruses such as the AIDS-associated HIV.32 Thus, the CaMV promoter not only enhances horizontal gene transfer, but has the potential to reactivate dormant viruses (which are in all genomes) and to generate new viruses by recombination.
17. The British Medical Association, in their interim report (published May, 1999), called for an indefinite moratorium on the releases of GMOs pending further research on new allergies, the spread of antibiotic resistance genes and the effects of transgenic DNA. This position is fully in accord with the precautionary principle.
18. Contrary to the claims of the UK Government, no useful results can be obtained in the current massive 'farm-scale' trials of transgenic herbicide-tolerant oil-seed rape and maize where the spread of transgenic pollens cannot be controlled, and which make no attempts to monitor for horizontal gene transfer or for impacts on health.33
19. We urge all Governments to take serious account of the now substantial scientific evidence of hazards arising from GM technology and many of its products, and to impose an immediate moratorium on further releases in accordance with the precautionary principle. In particular, Governments should negotiate a strong and effective International Biosafety Protocol under the Convention of Biological Diversity, and to insist that biosafety legislations at the national and international levels take precedence over trade and financial agreements of the WTO.
20. Research into sustainable, non-corporate agricultural systems which do not involve GM crops should be widely supported. Many of these systems have already resulted in increased yield and income for family farmers, diminished environmental impacts, and improvements in nutrition and health for all.34
World Scientists' Statement
World Scientists' Statement launched in Cartegena, Columbia, (Feb. 1999) during the UN Convention of Biological Diversity Conference on the International Biosafety Protocol, calling on all governments to:
* Impose an immediate moratorium on further environmental releases of transgenic crops, food and animal-feed products for at least 5 years.
* Ban patents on living organisms, cell lines and genes.
* Support a comprehensive, independent public enquiry into the future of agriculture and food security for all, taking account of the full range of scientific findings as well as socioeconomic and ethical implications.
2 See Ho, M.W. and Traavik, T. (1999). Why Patent on Life Forms and Living Processes Should be Rejected from TRIPS - Scientific Briefing on TRIPS Article 27.3(b). TWN Report, Penang.
3 James, C. (1998). Global Status of Transgenic Crops in 1998, ISAAA Briefs, New York.
4 Benbrook, C. (1999). Evidence of the Magnitude and Consequences of the Roundup Ready Soybean Yield Drag from University-Based Varietal Trials in 1998, Ag BioTech InfoNet Technical Paper No. 1, Idaho.
5 See Watkins, K. (1999). Free trade and farm fallacies. Third World Resurgence 100/101, 33-37.
6 Farm and Land in Farms, Final Estimates 1993-1997, USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.
7 See Griffin, D. (1999). Agricultural globalization. A threat to food security? Third World Resurgence 100/101, 38-40.
8 Farm Aid fact sheet: The Farm Crisis Deepens, Cambridge, Mass, 1999.
9 Simms, A. (1999). Selling Suicide, farming, false promises and genetic engineering in developing countries, Christian Aid, London.
10 Farmer's Declaration on Genetic Engineering in Agriculture, National Family Farm Coalition, USA, <email@example.com>
11 Farmer's rally on Capitol Hill, September 12, 1999.
12 MAFF Fact Sheet: Genetic modification of crops and food, June, 1999.
13 See Ho, M.W. and Tappeser, B. (1997). Potential contributions of horizontal gene transfer to the transboundary movement of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology. Proceedings of Workshop on Transboundary Movement of Living Modified Organisms resulting from Modern biotechnology : Issues and Opportunities for Policy-makers (K.J. Mulongoy, ed.), pp. 171-193, International Academy of the Environment, Geneva.
14 Mellon, M. and Rissler, J. (1998). Now or Never. Serious New Plans to Save a Natural Pest Control, Union of Conerned Scientists, Cambridge, Mass.
15 Garcia,A.,Benavides,F.,Fletcher,T. and Orts,E. (1998). Paternal exposure to pesticides and congenital malformations. Scand J Work Environ Health 24, 473-80.
16 Hardell, H. & Eriksson, M. (1999). A Case-Control Study of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and Exposure to Pesticides. Cancer85, 1355-1360.
17 "Cotton used in medicine poses threat: genetically-altered cotton may not be safe" Bangkok Post, November 17, 1997.
18 Hilbeck, A., Baumgartner, M., Fried, P.M. and Bigler, F. (1998). Effects of transgenic Bacillus thuringiensis-corn-fed prey on mortality and development time of immature Chrysoperla carnea (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae). Environmental Entomology 27, 480-96.
19 Losey, J.E., Rayor, L.D. and Carter, M.E. (1999). Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae. Nature 399, 214.
20 Birch, A.N.E., Geoghegan, I.I., Majerus, M.E.N., Hackett, C. and Allen, J. (1997). Interaction between plant resistance genes, pest aphid-population and beneficial aphid predators. Soft Fruit and Pernial Crops. October, 68-79.
21 Ewen, S.W.B. and Pusztai, A. (1999). Effect of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine. The Lancet 354, 1353-1354.
22 Mayeno, A.N. and Gleich, G.J. (1994). Eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome and tryptophan production : a cautionary tale. Tibtech 12, 346-352.
23 Epstein, E. (1998). Bovine growth hormone and prostate cancer; Bovine growth hormone and breast cancer. The Ecologist 28(5), 268, 269.
24 Reviewed in Ho, M.W. (1998,1999). Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare? The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, Gateway Books, Bath; Ho, M.W., Traavik, T., Olsvik, R., Tappeser, B., Howard, V., von Weizsacker, C. and McGavin, G. (1998b). Gene Technology and Gene Ecology of Infectious Diseases. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 10, 33-59; Traavik, T. (1999a). Too early may be too late, Ecological risks associated with the use of naked DNA as a biological tool for research, production and therapy, Research report for Directorate for Nature Management, Norway.
25 Reviewed by Doerfler, W., Schubbert, R., Heller, H., Kmmer, C., Hilger-Eversheim, D., Knoblauch, M. and Remus, R. (1997). Integration of foreign DNA and its consequences in mammalian systems. Tibtech 15, 297-301; see also note 18.
26 Draft Guidance for Industry: Use of Antibiotic Resistance Marker Genes in Transgenic Plants, US FDA, September 4, 1998.
27 See Letter from N. Tomlinson, Joint Food Safety and Standards Group, MAFF, to US FDA, 4 December, 1998.
28 Forbes, J.M., Blair, D.E., Chiter, A., and Perks, S. (1998). Effect of Feed Processing Conditions on DNA Fragmentation Section 5 - Scientific Report, MAFF.
29 Mercer, D.K., Scott, K.P., Bruce-Johnson, W.A. Glover, L.A. and Flint, H.J. (1999). Fate of free DNA and transformation of the oral bacterium Streptococcus gordonii DL1 by plasmid DNA in human saliva. Applied and Environmental Microbiology 65, 6-10.
30 Kohli, A., Griffiths, S., Palacios, N., Twyman, R.M., Vain, P., Laurie, D.A. and Christou, P. (1999). Molecular characterization of transforming plasmid rearrangements in transgenic rice reveals a recombination hotspot in the CaMV 35S promoter and confirms the predominance of microhomology mediated recombination. The Plant Journal 17, 591-601.
31 See Ho, M.W., Ryan, A. and Cummins, J. (1999). The cauliflower mosaic viral promoter - A recipe for disaster? (submitted for publication).
32 Xiong, Y. and Eickbush, T.H. (1990). Origin and evolution of retroelements based upon their reverse transcriptase sequences. EMBO J. 9, 3353-3362.
33 Firbank, L.G. Dewar, A.M., Hill, M.O., May, M.J., Perry, J.N., Rothery, O.P., Squire, G.R. and Woiwod, I.P. (1999). Farm-scale evaluation of GM crops explained. Nature 399, 727-8.
34 See Pretty, J. (1995). Sustainable Agriculture, Earthscan, London; also Pretty, J. (1998). The Living Land - Agriculture, Food and Community Regeneration in Rural Europe, Earthscan, London.