Genetic Pollution

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New study on the spread of genetically altered traits in plants confirms fears of genetic pollution

Mentmore, 18 December 1997

With the publication of new research in Germany highlighting the dangers of genetic engineering in agriculture, the Natural Law Party has repeated its call for a complete ban on all genetically altered foods since they pose great hazards for human health and the environment.

In the German state of Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony), a detailed study by the state's Ministry for Ecology has shown convincingly that herbicide resistance that has been engineered into oilseed rape is transferred to normal rape 200 metres away [see article below].

According to London-based independent genetics scientist Dr Michael Antoniou, "This is only the latest in a long list of field trials showing that genetically engineered (GE) crops, once released, are totally uncontainable. They will become a nightmare for conventional farmers to control. For farmers who do not want to grow them, such as the organic sector, these crops will be almost impossible to avoid."

Studies published in Denmark, as well as by the Scottish Crop Research Institute, have also shown that GE oilseed rape readily cross pollinates, not only with non-engineered rape but also with wild weedy relatives (such as field mustard and radish). In these studies cross pollination was found up to 2.5 kilometres away.

"This means that herbicide resistant weeds - so-called superweeds - will rapidly appear and spread," Dr Antoniou said. "Once weeds have multiple resistance genes, which may occur within just a few growing seasons, they will be particularly difficult to control. This will result in greater dependence and use of agrochemicals, rather than less, as is claimed by the biotechnology companies."

Dr Antoniou also pointed out that "volunteers" (plants which grow from seed that has fallen from a crop at the time of harvesting) will also be herbicide resistant. This will pose a great problem for farmers who usually clear volunteers with herbicides before planting the next crop. Warning to the British government Dr Geoffrey Clements, a physicist and leader of the Natural Law Party in the UK, said that this information should be noted by the British government ministers who are now considering approving oilseed rape as the first GE crop to be grown commercially in Britain from next spring. Oilseed rape is currently the fourth most widely grown crop in Britain.

"The government must listen to the warnings and avoid being driven by short-term commercial interests," Dr Clements said. "Genetic engineering is a novel, untried, and very inexact science. Already there are numerous indications of the potential for great damage to the environment and to human health from genetically engineered foods."

Dr Clements said that in recent decades the promise of cheap power through nuclear energy was soon dashed not only by the astronomical cost of dealing with nuclear waste but also by the impracticality of storing ever-increasing quantities of radioactive material. "Those problems will seem insignificant compared to the aftermath of genetic pollution on this planet which will result if the rush to exploit the short-term profitability of GE crops is not curbed," he remarked.

Dr Clements congratulated the Ministry for Ecology in Niedersachsen, as well as the Consumers' Association, Friends of the Earth and other groups in the UK, who are bringing these issues to the awareness of the public. He also praised The Guardian newspaper for its in-depth coverage of all the issues in its Monday to Thursday editions this week.

"Every single survey has shown that wherever the public is well-informed about the issues, the vast majority are opposed to genetically engineered foods. Perfectly safe natural alternatives are readily available, and no one believes the propaganda that GE crops are essential to help feed the hungry or to secure food stocks for the future. In fact, if the GE revolution is not halted and if the balance of Nature continues to be disrupted, we could well see the worst famines and disease of all time."

END of press statement

See also briefing sheet by Friends of the Earth on genetically engineered oilseed rape (canola), e-mail:

MORE: Translation of German article follows . .

DIE TAGESZEITUNG Nr. 5401, 6 December 1997 (Germany) Page 8 Business and Environment (TRANSLATION)

Herbicide-resistant rape spreads its manipulation by Jurgen Voges

Genetically engineered rape plants on a test field in Gehrden near Hanover have passed on their herbicide-resistance gene to ordinary rape growing in the area. The Niedersachsen Ministry for Ecology (NLV) has been able to show that normal rape situated at a distance of 200 metres from the test field of the Hoechst/Schering subsidiary AgroEvo has been transformed into transgenic, herbicide-resistant rape.

The Niedersachsen Minister of the Environment, Monika Griefahn, said that the NLV research in Gehrden confirmed her worst fears. "Once the manipulated genes are released into the surroundings, there is no way to contain them," said Griefahn yesterday in Hanover. Bees and wind spread the pollen of genetically engineered plants just as they do with other plants, and in this case they also spread the artificial genes.

The open-air field trial to grow the genetically modified rape, which is resistant to the herbicide Basta [glufosinate ammonium], was authorised in 1995 by the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, in the face of opposition from Griefahn. AgroEvo merely had to provide an eight-metre safety border around the test field.

Niedersachsen financed its own research programme, parallel to the open-air field trial, at a cost of DM450,000. Within a radius of 1,000 metres around the test field, the NLV indexed plants and collected hundreds of thousands of seeds from wild plants and normal rape growing in the area.

The NLV has so far tested only the rape seed it has collected, for the Basta resistant gene. The seeds were fed a solution containing the Basta herbicide. Seeds that grew into plants in spite of the Basta were then tested for the herbicide-resistant gene. Environment Minister Griefahn is concerned that further tests will show that the resistance gene has been carried over into wild plants as well. Most likely this would occur with plants that are related to rape, such as mustard or wild radish. A transfer of resistant genes to these type of plants would cast doubt on the whole concept of Total Herbicide, by which the seed of the genetically modified plant is sold together with the corresponding herbicide. Wild plants that had absorbed the resistance gene from the genetic rape would then thrive magnificently as weeds and increase, in spite of the use of Basta.

Following the first NLV findings, it is clear for Monika Griefahn "that in the neighbourhood of transgenic fields cultivated plants can also become transgenic". This would harm also those farmers who declined to use genetically modified crops. They would no longer be able to guarantee to the consumers that their products are not genetically modified.
Translator's note: Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) is one of the largest states in Germany. The research study was initiated and funded by the state government of Niedersachsen. The Robert Koch Institute is responsible for authorising test licences.