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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 16:47 GMT 17:47 UK

Greenpeace worried by 'mystery DNA'

Genetically-modified soya: Greenpeace says this one is untested and unapproved (Image: Greenpeace)
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Greenpeace is asking scientists worldwide to help identify a fragment of DNA found in genetically-modified (GM) soya.

The presence of the fragment, in Monsanto's Roundup Ready soya, was detected by Belgian scientists.

Greenpeace is urging the UK government to order sales of the soya to be suspended.

But Monsanto says "the information provided by Greenpeace has not changed the competent authorities' conclusions of their original risk assessment".

The Belgian team's discovery, made some months ago and reported now in the European Journal of Food Research Technology, refers to "a DNA segment of 534 bp DNA for which no sequence homology could be detected".

Dr Doug Parr, Greenpeace-UK's chief scientific adviser, said: "No-one knows what this extra gene sequence is, what it will produce in the soyabean, and what its effects will be.

Technology 'imprecise'

"If Monsanto did not even get this most basic information right, what should we then think about the validity of all their safety tests and experiments, which are based upon these data?

"Despite Monsanto's optimistic reassurances, this research presents further evidence that genetic modification is an imprecise technology.

"Given the history of omission and negligence associated with it, regulators should seriously reconsider how they approach approvals of GM plants."

Lindsay Keenan, of Greenpeace International, said: "From a legal point of view, the only adequate reaction regulatory bodies could have is to suspend the GM approval and re-evaluate its environmental and health impact."

Greenpeace says Monsanto's soya represents more than 50% of all GM crops globally.

It is grown only in the US, Argentina and Canada, but sold worldwide and used in processed foods like chocolate, baby-food, bread, pizzas, ice-cream, and as animal feed.

Monsanto says it has previously shown that "any deletion, rearrangement or modification of the DNA referred to by Greenpeace occurred at the time of the original insertion event".

Not new

Tony Combes of Monsanto told BBC News Online: "It would have been a constituent of the Roundup Ready soyabeans used in all the safety assessment studies."

"So this clearer data is not new and has in fact been conveyed to all European Union competent authorities

"There is no discrepancy. The sequence information provided originally has not changed; it's just that now we know more detail about it."

Mr Combes said studies supported the conclusion that there were no unexpected effects from the insertion or transformation process, and that Roundup Ready soya was comparable to conventional beans except for the one trait which gave it its name.

The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, which advises the UK government, said last January it was satisfied with Monsanto's revised risk assessment submitted in response to the Belgian data.

Monsanto's revised assessment, the committee concluded, "did not alter the conclusions of the original assessment . . . the presence of the DNA does not appear to have any deleterious effects with respect to environmental safety".

A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told BBC News Online the Belgian data "are not new and change nothing".

'Technical' concerns

The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, which reports to the Food Standards Agency, asked Monsanto in January for data showing the DNA fragment was "silent" and did not result in the production of a novel protein.

Tony Combes told BBC News Online: "We're doing the experiments to provide the data the committee wants, and they should be complete very soon.

"But its concerns are nothing to do with safety. They're all technical."

Internet links: Monsanto UK | Defra | Greenpeace - Appeal to Scientists |
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