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Dr Robert Anderson: Testing GE onions

Testing GE onions

Dear Editor

Quite apart from the fact that reluctance to eat GE-foods is increasing world-wide, why risk testing Roundup-Ready onions, especially bearing in mind the possible needless risks (generally ignored by ERMA[i]) that they pose?

It is also disingenuous of Crop and Food to claim the likelihood of horizontal gene transfer (HGT) taking place is extremely remote. In papers produced by GE-advocates they clearly do not see these risks.[ii] Science shows repeatedly these introduced genes will not stay where they are put[iii]. Our farmers do not want RR genes in other crops.

Furthermore the use of Agrobacterium tumefaciens, is a tumour or cancer forming vector. This will have been specifically modified to overcome host specificity, which means that now, the same vector used to carry the transgenes can enter not just the target cell - e.g. inserting RR genes into onions - but other species as well.[iv] I therefore do not find the comment "The risk of other types of horizontal gene transfer are considered to be extremely remote as there are no reports of detrimental horizontal gene transfer in field experiments of this kind" [v] very reassuring. Agrobacterium was found to transfer genes into several types of human cells[vi] and in a manner similar to that which it uses to transform plant cells. Just how many experiments involving onions plants have been investigated with HGT in mind?

On the implied reduction in herbicide use and the "safety" of Roundup-Ready crops, the USDA has stated GE-crops have not reduced the volume of herbicide used. Furthermore, recent studies on humans exposed to pesticides showed that fathers exposed to this herbicide fathered children with birth defects. Roundup may appear relatively benign, but research increasingly suggests it is harmful to health and environment.

A 1993 report from the School of Public Health, California, found Roundup was the third most commonly-reported cause of pesticide illness among agricultural workers; and a further study found it the most commonly reported cause of pesticide illness among landscape maintenance workers.

Can I suggest tax-payers money be spent on the already successful and expanding organic onion crops being grown in Hawkes Bay and Canterbury.

Sincerely Dr Robert Anderson Member Physicians and Scientist for Responsible Genetics


[i] ERMA Review [s 5.7.6] "... some staff appear unwilling to accept that ... genetic engineering is likely to contain some unpleasant events, even disasters. The precautionary approach is the first line of defence against these unknowable risks."

[ii] Feitelson et al., 1992

[iii] Quist D and Chapela IH. Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico. Nature 2001, 414, 541-3, 2001.

The oft-repeated refrain that "transgenic DNA is just like ordinary DNA" is false. Transgenic DNA is in many respects optimised for horizontal gene transfer. It is designed to cross species barriers and to jump into genomes, and it has homologies to the DNA of many species and their genetic parasites (plasmids, transposons and viruses), thereby enhancing recombination with all of them. (Ho MW. HGT and genetic engineering, SCOPES website, AAAS, 2000.)

[iv] McNicole et al (1997) The Possibility of Agrobacterium as a Vehicle for Gene Escape. MAFF. R&D and Surveillance Report: 395.

[v] ERMA application No GMF03001

[vi] Kunik T, Tzfira T, Kapulnik Y, Gafni Y, Dingwall C, and Citovsky V. Genetic transformation of HeLa cells by Agrobacterium. PNAS USA, 2001, 98, 1871-87; also, "Common plant vector injects genes into human cells", ISIS News 2002, 11/12, p. 10

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