GM genes 'can spread to people and animals'
By Geoffrey Lean, Volker Angres and Louise Jury
Genes from genetically modified crops can spread from plants into other
forms of wildlife, new research shows. The research, which is the result
of a three-year study at the University of Jena in Germany, supports
environmentalists' warnings and raises the possibility that people who eat
GM foods may also be affected.
Beatrix Tappesser from the Ecology Institute in Freiburg said: "This is
very alarming because it shows that the cross-over of genes takes place on
a greater scale than we had previously assumed.
"The results indicate that we must assume that changes take place in the
intestinal tubes of people and animals. The crossover of microorganisms
takes place and people's make up in terms of micro-organisms in their
intestinal tract is changed. This can therefore have health consequences."
The research - which has found that bees take up engineered genes from
oilseed rape - will dramatically increase pressure on farmers and
ministers to destroy the crop accidentally sown over thousands of acres of
Britain. Yesterday, Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, in an emergency
announcement, advised farmers to plough in the crop at a cost estimated by
the National Farmers' Union at 3m.
While this represented a sharp U-turn from his previous denials that such
action would be necessary, he admitted he had no legal authority to order
them to do so. Mr Brown said they had the alternative option of harvesting
the crop and trying to sell it outside Europe, although it was unclear
whether the law allows them to do that.
He ruled out any government compensation for the farmers, although the
food industry has now made it clear that they will not buy any of the
crop. He said that farmers should instead seek redress from Advanta, the
company who sold them the GM contaminated seed.
The new research about GM genes infecting other forms of life seriously
undermines assertions by the biotech industry and GM supporters that the
genes cannot spread and is being taken "very seriously" by the German
Professor Hans-Heinrich Kaatz of Jena's authoritative Bee Institute
released the insects onto a crop of genetically modified rape and removed
the pollen they gathered when they returned to the hive. He fed the pollen
to young bees, and when he analysed the bacteria in their guts found that
they had taken up the same modified genes.
He told the German television station ZDF: "They had obviously taken up
these genes. They were in the bacteria in the intestinal tract of the bees
and seemed to have come from the genes of the original plant and to have
been taken up into their own genetic make-up."
Ulrike Riedel of the German Health Ministry said that the experiment
should be taken "very seriously". She added: "This kind of study is a good
reason why we should not assume that everything is OK."
Brian Johnson, English Nature's top GM expert, said that the main question
was whether the bacteria had incorporated the modified genes temporarily
or permanently. He thought that the risk of permanent alteration was "very
small" but added: "We can't rule it out."
Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth said: "This study shows once again how
little we know about the science and adds strength to call for a freeze on
growing all GM crops."
Nick Brown said yesterday that the accidental GM contamination of the
oilseed rape highlighted the need for European standards on seed purity.
While the crops posed "no danger" to the environment or to public health,
the consumer had the right to know what was in the food supply.
At an informal meeting with European colleagues tomorrow, he will press
his European colleagues to establish standards and tougher checks.