By Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
We have repeatedly warned against using food crops to produce gene drugs and industrial chemicals since 1998. The inevitable contamination of our food supply has now come to light. But the more insidious pollution of our soil, water and air has yet to be assessed. Poisons can seep through the plant roots and dissolve in ground water. Pollen carrying the offending drugs and chemicals could be inhaled. Wild and domestic animals of all kinds are likely to feed on the crops.
On November 11, the US government ordered the biotech company, ProdiGene, to destroy 500,000 bushels of soybeans contaminated with GM maize, engineered to produce a drug not approved for human consumption. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) refused to give details on the protein involved because it is deemed ‘confidentual business information’.
It could be one of the following: the HIV glycoprotein gp120, a blood-clotting agent (aprotinin), a digestive enzyme (trypsin), an industrial adhesive (a fungal enzyme, laccase), vaccines for hepatitis B, vaccine for a pig disease, transmissible gastroenteritis.
USDA records show that ProdiGene has received 85 test permits for experimental open-air trials of pharm crops and chemical crops in at least 96 locations.
The ‘edible’ AIDS vaccine with the HIV glycoprotein gp120 gene has been condemned as dangerous by a number of AIDS virologists because the gp120 gene and gene product can undermine our immune system and generate new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases.
A day later, the US government disclosed that ProdiGene did the same thing in Iowa back in September. The USDA ordered 155 acres of nearby corn to be incinerated for fear of contamination.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. The true extent of the contamination remains unknown owing to the secrecy surrounding more than 300 field trials of such crops across the country since 1991. Still others sites are in Canada. The chemicals these plants produce include vaccines, growth hormones, clotting agents, industrial enzymes, human antibodies, contraceptives, immune suppressive cytokines and abortion-inducing drugs.
The majority of engineered biopharmaceuticals are being incorporated into maize. ProdiGene, the company at the centre of the current scandal has the greatest number of pharm crops and projects that 10 percent of the US maize will be devoted to biopharm products by 2010.
Far from supporting even weak containment strategies such as buffer zones, ProdiGene has told its shareholders it is hoping to “gain regulatory approval to lessen or abandon these requirements altogether”.
Trials in other countries have also come to light. According to a recent report by Genetically Engineered Food Alert, a US-based coalition of environmental and consumer advocacy groups, Puerto Rico is one of four main centres in the US for these tests. The other three are the states of Nebraska, Wisconsin and Hawaii.
Another report by the same group reveals that these plants are by no means the only experimental GM crops grown in Puerto Rico. This Caribbean island has been host to 2,296 USDA-approved GM open-air field tests as of January 2001, making Puerto Rico host to more GM food experiments per square mile than any US state, except Hawaii.
Puerto Rico is not a state. Its residents are US citizens but have no voice or vote in the US Congress or in the UN.
Puerto Rico Farmers Association president Ramon Gonzalez revealed that he plants GM crops in his farm in the town of Salinas. He said that genetically modified crops in Puerto Rico are commercial and include a herbicide-resistant soya made by Monsanto (Roundup-ready) and a variety of corn that produces its own bio-pesticide, or Bt corn.
According to Gonzalez, the harvested GM crops planted there are sold as seed to be planted elsewhere. “Puerto Rico is the preferred place to make seed because our weather permits us to have up to four harvests a year.”
Local regulatory agencies seem to be unaware of the issue. A spokeswoman for the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board said that as Puerto Rico has no laws or regulations for GM crops, it has no mandate to intervene or investigate.
USDA spokesman Jim Rogers is reported to have said, “Nobody’s going to know all the possible risks”, and “We mitigate these risks to what we feel is appropriate”.
On the contrary, we do know enough of the risks for such crops to be banned immediately. The USDA and other government regulators have been warned, and they should be held liable for all damages along with the companies involved.