Gene crops threaten human health

26 April 1999

Gene crops ‘threaten human health’

By Johann Tasker

GENETICALLY modified (GM) crops containing a gene resistant to antibiotics could pose a catastrophic risk to human health, claim government scientists.

Antibiotic-resistant genes are used as “markers” in the creation of some GM crops so scientists can monitor to what extent genetic modification has occurred.

But scientists have voiced fears that the same genes could jump to other organisms, including bacteria affecting humans, making them resistant to antibiotics.

The story was reported in The Sunday Times yesterday and followed up this morning by the Daily Mail and The Express.

All three papers report that the revelation effectively links some varieties of GM crops to killer diseases such as meningitis.

Their warning is similar to worries that antibiotic growth promoters in animal feed could cause meat-eating humans to develop resistance to medicinal antibiotics.

In a version of the story that could increase demand for GM-free livestock rations, the Daily Mail reports that the “Danger gene may be in animal feeds”.

The governments Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes has opposed the planting and selling in this country of GM crops containing the genes.

One expert on the committee, Dr John Heritage, a microbiologist at Leeds University, has written about his concern of the genes to the American authorities.

“Its a huge concern to me,” Dr Heritage was reported as saying in The Sunday Times yesterday.

“While the risk is small, the consequences of an untreatable, life-threatening infection spreading within the general population are enormous.”

A spokeswoman for the biotechnology company Monsanto told Farmers Weekly today that the claims were “sensationalist reporting”.

But the news comes at a time when public fears are running high about the potential effects of GM crops on human health and the environment.

Government scientists in Cambridgeshire last week claimed GM oilseed rape had cross-pollinated with wild turnips to create herbicide resistant weeds.

And a senior Monsanto director told yesterdays Independent on Sunday that insects, too, were capable of becoming resistant to GM plants designed to kill them.

“Resistance can develop,” said Gary Barton, director of biotechnology communications for Monsanto in the USA.

Mr Barton denied that that “superweeds” were an issue, saying that they could always be killed off with other weedkillers to which they were not resistant.

The topic is expected to be among those raised by MPs this week at a meeting of the Commons Environmental Audit Committee.

The committee will question former agriculture minister Jack Cunningham who is now chairman of the governments Cabinet Committee on Biotechnology.

According to another of yesterdays Sunday papers, the Government would handle the controversy over GM crops differently had it the chance to do so.

The Sunday Telegraph has obtained leaked notes from a meeting between Agriculture Minister Nick Brown and his American counterpart Dan Glickman.

“Undoubtedly the whole GMO [genetically modified organisms] issue would be handled differently if we had it to do over again,” the notes quote Mr Brown as saying.

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