Genesis of Eden

Genesis Home

4 Jan 97 New Scientist

YOU might think that the faceless bureaucrats of Brussels would occasionally learn that secrecy doesn't pay. But it seems not. Last week, the European Commission approved for sale in Europe a genetically engineered maize produced in the US. The maize contains genes for herbicide resistance plus a "natural insecticide" gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (This Week, p 8). In principle there is nothing wrong with genetically engineered food, and there may be nothing wrong with this decision. The trouble is that we are not being given all the facts: the Commission based its decision on a set of scientific reports that it will not release to the public. This is unacceptable. There are good scientific reasons to be concerned about the product. To provide a marker in the engineering process, the geneticists inserted a gene that confers resistance to a commonly used antibiotic. Unfortunately, they left the gene there. Objectors argue that there is a chance that when animals eat the maize feed, the gene could jump to bacteria in their guts and help spread antibiotic resistance. The chance of this happening seems small. But if it is to be totally discounted, we need to know why. There is clearly a lot we don't know about how genes spread. By coincidence, we report this week (p 14) that DNA fed to a mouse can survive the gut and pass into cells in the body. This result was totally unexpected. Worries about the presence of the antibiotic gene were sufficient for the British government to raise objections to the sale of the maize in Europe. Why have we not had open discussion of the Commission's own scientific findings? Perhaps the Commission just panicked. It has the US government breathing down its neck, demanding that Europe open its markets to the maize or risk a trade war. Each year American farmers export $500 million worth of maize to Europe and they don't want to have to separate genetically engineered maize, which currently makes up less than 2 per cent of the total, from traditional varieties. And the Commission also faces an impressive opposition campaign from Greenpeace. Although Greenpeace indulges in its usual alarmist rhetoric-referring to genetically engineered organisms as "alien life forms", for example-it has managed to raise the stakes with blockades of ships carrying genetically engineered American crops. Whatever the reason, the Commission should have encouraged an open debate. It now faces further quarrels. In an unusual move, Austria decided just before Christmas that it would challenge the Commission decision under the EU's founding treaties. These allow a member state to exclude a product, despite the overriding goal of free trade, if it believes that the product poses a threat to health or the environment. Let's hope that Austria forces a full and frank airing of all the scientific arguments.

15 Feb 97 New Scientist

A CONTROVERSIAL form of genetically engineered maize grown in the US, and approved for import by the European Commission, is continuing to cause trouble in Europe. Last week, Luxembourg became the second EU member to ban the maize. The maize, produced by the Swiss-based firm Ciba, carries a gene for a bacterial insecticide called Bt, and another for resistance to a herbicide. But the controversy surrounds a third gene, for resistance to a widely used beta-lactam antibiotic, ampicillin, introduced as a genetic "marker" to reveal which plants had taken up the other genes. Many scientists fear that the antibiotic resistance gene could spread to bacteria in the guts of livestock fed the maize, and then to bacteria infecting humans. Last December, the Commission approved the maize on the advice of three scientific committees. Almost immediately, Austria launched a legal challenge to the decision (This Week, 4 January, p 8). Austria's import ban took effect last week, and can go on for three months while the country tries to reverse the Commission's decision. Luxembourg raised the stakes by announcing its own import ban last week. Denmark is "watching the situation closely", according to an official, as is Sweden. France says it will allow maize imported from the US-any of which could contain a small quantity of the genetically engineered -only if it is labelled as genetically modified. took When the Commission approved the maize, it did not immediately release the last reports from its committees. But the Scientific Committee for Food's report has now been seen by New Scientist and will do little to end the controversy. The maize contains a DNA sequence that triggers cells to make up to 600 copies of the antibiotic resistance gene. This would increase the chance of the gene being passed to other bacteria. The food committee's report says there is little cause for alarm, as it is unlikely that DNA would survive intact in an animal's gut to be picked up by bacteria. Any bacterium carrying hundreds of copies of the gene would making vast quantities of the enzyme that disables ampicillin. This means it "would not have a competitive advantage and therefore would not spread", says the report. But Tony Atkinson of the drugs company Duramed, a member of Britain's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, says there is "plenty of evidence" that DNA can survive in an animal's gut. He also claims that the widespread use of beta-lactam antibiotics on livestock "would provide a major competitive advantage" to bacteria carrying the resistance genes. Debora MacKenzie, Brussels

New Scientist

THE European Commission has finally decided to allow a controversial genetically modified maize into Europe. The British government, which originally challenged approval for sale of the maize in Europe, says it is happy with the decision, now that the Commission has consulted with its scientific advisers. But Tony Atkinson, the scientist who persuaded Britain to oppose the crop, is still highly critical of the move. And the Austrian government has lodged a legal challenge to the decision. The maize, produced by the Swiss-based company Ciba-Geigy and grown in the US, contains a gene which makes the plant resistant to a herbicide, glufosinate, and a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis which produces Bt, an insecticide. France approved the maize for sale in the European Union a year ago, but in April Britain blocked the move (This Week, 4 May 1996, p 7). The dispute was referred to three scientific committees that advise the Commission on animal nutrition, food and pesticides. In December, the committees decided that the maize was safe to market. But their reports have not been published.

The British Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) was worried about a third gene in the maize, for an enzyme called beta-lactamase. The enzyme destroys ampicillin, an antibiotic in the penicillin family. Ciba scientists used the gene to help determine whether plants had been genetically modified or not.

But Tony Atkinson of the drugs company Duramed, an ACNFP member, still fears that the beta-lactamase gene will jump from corn to bacteria in an animal's intestine. "No one has yet looked at the effect of feeding a gene to lots of animals day in and day out for years," he says. Ciba argues that up to 10 per cent of human gut bacteria already contain the beta-lactamase gene, and that there are other antibiotics which are not destroyed by the enzyme. But Atkinson notes that the gene in the new maize is coupled with a stretch of DNA which causes cells to make 600 copies of the gene. This will not only make it more likely that a gene will eventually jump from maize to bacteria. It will also mean that once it does jump, the bacteria might produce the enzyme in large enough quantities to destroy a wide range of beta-lactam antibiotics. "The argument that there are plenty of antibiotics that will still work even if this particular gene spreads makes me squea mish," says Tony Medeiros of the Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, an expert on antibiotics. Atkinson points out that the US company Monsanto has applied to market a maize in Europe that does not contain the beta-lactamase gene. John Beringer of the University of Bristol, head of Britain's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, believes the risk from the gene is low. But he adds that he is "staggered" that Ciba did not avoid the controversy by removing the beta-lactamase gene from the maize before applying to market it.

SUPPORTERS and critics of genetic engineering have denounced proposals by the European Commission to make it easier to get permission to release genetically manipulated organisms into the environment. As protests against genetically altered crops imported from the US gather steam across Europe, the Commission says that European industry will suffer unless member states make it easier for companies to gain permission to sell products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Since 1992, just two animal vaccines and five crops containing GMOs have been approved for sale in Europe out of the 16 that companies sought permission for, compared with 23 approvals in the US. These approvals are dealt with under a European i directive governing the release of GMOs into the environment. in the current system of approval for GMOS, one country is given responsibility for approving a product for the entire European Union. But other countries are allowed to contest the approval, and delays of two years or more are common. The Commission is supposed to resolve such disputes, but it admits that as it has no clear mechanism or system of deadlines for doing so, the process has been "time-consuming and cumbersome". The solution, says a report released in December and sanctioned by all 20 commissioners, is for EU countries to agree common objectives for safety assessments of GMOs so that countries will object less often to each other's decisions. The Commission also wants to have a simplified system for approving products that are deemed to pose a low risk.

But experts in the regulation of GMOs argue need is that the Commission's proposal will not address the problem. "The Commission hasn't understood that people always reach different conclusions about safety from the same information," says John Beringer of the University of Bristol, head of Britain's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE). "What we need is a better system to resolve disputes." Sue Mayer, formerly director of science with Greenpeace, which opposes genetically engineered crops, questions how the proposed simplified procedure could work: "How do you know what is low-risk before you do the assessment?" The Commission also wants to allow single countries to approve field trials of genetically engineered crops in several countries, including their own. The other countries involved would not have the right to object to such approvals. Beringer says this could be dangerous because advisory committees such as the ACRE might not be able to predict whether genes are likely to spread from engineered crops elsewhere in Europe. "A plant that is safe in Britain might cross with wild relatives in Portugal," he says.

New Scientist 20 Sept 97

AUSTRIA is planning to take the European Commission to court in a last-ditch attempt to defend its ban on the import of a genetically modified maize. The Commission decided last week that Austria, Luxembourg and Italy must lift their bans on the maize, which contains genes for an insecticide called Bt toxin. lt also includes genes that confer resistance to glufosinate, a weedkiller, and ampicillin, a common antibiotic. The last gene was introduced as a marker for the presence of the other two. The modffied maize, developed by the Swissbased multinational Novartis, was approved for sale in the European Union in February, but the three countries banned it. Under EU rules, they were allowed three months to prove that the maize posed a risk to human health or the environment. Austria claims it could cause increased resistance to ampicillin in humans, and to Bt among insect pests. The Commission's scientific committees on food, pesticides and animal nutrition have now rejected that opinion. The other 12 member states are expected to approve the decision. The Commission says it will try to address Austria's concerns by launching a monitoring programme for Bt resistance. Italy and Luxembourg have yet to give their reaction. A spokeswoman for the Austrian government says the country will do "everything we can" to keep the ban, including bringing the case to the European Court of Justice. Last April, 20 per cent of Austrian voters signed a petition to keep genetically modified crops out of Austria. Debora MacKenzie, Brussels

Andy Coghlan New Scientist 4 May 1996 7 Supermaize Halted

UNDER pressure from Britain, Europe has for the first time blocked the approval of a genetically engineered crop plant. In a landmark decision last week officials in Brussels rejected an application from Swiss-based multinational Ciba-Geigy to sell Europe's farmers maize with an inbuilt protection against one of its worst enemies, the European corn borer. Corn borers that attack the maize are poisoned by a toxin that is normally made by the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensls. Ciba-Geigy's scientists have spliced the gene that makes Bt toxin into the maize genome. They also gave the plant a gene that makes it resistant to glufosinateammonium, a herbicide sold by Ciba under the trade-name Basta. This means farmers can clear their crop of weeds without harming the maize plants. The plant has already been cleared for sale in the US and Canada. Companies that want to market their products in Europe generally only need the approval of one country. The findings of that country's regulatory authorities are passed on to their counterparts in all other European countries, and then governments vote to decide whether the application should go through unchallenged. So far, four genetically engineered plants have been approved in this way. Ciba's is the first to fall at this hurdle. Although France initially approved the maize, Britain, Sweden, Austria and Denmark voted it down and four other countries-Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and Greece-abstained. Now, for the first time, the final decision will rest with the Council of Ministers, which meets next month. "We are into completely new legal territory now," says one British official. "It could go either way." Britain objects to the maize because it also contains a gene that makes it resistant to the antibiotic ampicillin. This gene serves no useful purpose in the crop but is a useful marker that allows genetic engineers to screen out plants that have failed to take up the extra genes. Ampicillin is widely used to treat infections in both people and livestock, and Britain is worried that cattle fed on the corn might become resistant to treatment, or even that the gene will find its way into bacteria in people. "We thought that the risk was real enough to be concerned," says Derek Burke, chairman of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, which advises the British government. What especially worried the committee, says Burke, was that the gene for antibiotic resistance in maize is linked to a bacterial .promotor", a genetic "switch" that would tum the gene on in many bacteria. In all the other plants approved so far, the antibiotic resistance gene is linked to promotors that only work in plants, so the resistance could not spread to bacteria. Burke says that the committee told ministers about this a year ago so Ciba should have been aware of it. "It's not something we've sprung out of the blue," he says. Sweden, Austria and Denmark objected to the French approval on the grounds that France had not insisted that the maize should be labelled as genetically engineered. There is also concern that corn borers might develop resistance to the Bt toxin, and that the gene for herbicide resistance might spread into weeds. Greetipeace, which shares many of these concerns, was delighted by the ruling. "We are pleased by what seems a step in the right direction," says Isabelle Meister. The decision is likely to alarm biotechnology companies. They argue that Europe's strict laws handicap them while rivals in the US and Japan enjoy laxer rules.