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ERMA challenged over cavalier attitude to science

23.5.04

ERMA challenged over cavalier attitude to science.

The Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) is to face a legal challenge over the adequacy of controls placed on GM test sites. In a landmark case, ordinary New Zealanders are having to call ERMA to account for a cavalier attitude to sound science, and their refusal to monitor sites like the PPL GE Sheep farm. The farm has been sold off and the proceeds are to be taken out of this country despite a lack of funding for ongoing monitoring of the site.

The legal case, expected to be lodged in court next week is being taken by Claire Bleakley. GE Free (NZ)in food and environment were unable to take the case on because of fears that the authority would attempt to destroy the community group in the same way that MAdGE was sued for costs by AgResearch. Situations like this show that a functioning watchdog is needed to protect New Zealand’s GE Free status.


"Claire Bleakley is acting on behalf of the vast majority of New Zealanders in calling ERMA to account," says Jon Carapiet from GE Free NZ in food and environment.

"She has our moral backing. She is fighting for something ERMA should have done, that is to ensure proper protection for NZ in health and economic terms."

ERMA have been burying their heads in the sand and pretending there are no risks to consider from transgenes in the soil.

Claire Bleakley's lawyer wrote to ERMA to put them on notice that papers would be filed with the courts following ERMA's dismissal of such concerns.

ERMA's stated intention is to allow PPL to re-patriate remaining assets to the UK. This leaves the field trial site soiled by 8 years of transgenic sheep to be sold for farming without any research or monitoring of transgenic material.

ENDS

BACKGROUND Wellington, May 14 - New Zealand's first and biggest farm for genetically-engineered (GE) livestock has been cleared of GE sheep, and sold for over $3 million.

But a strong critic of farming GE livestock has questioned whether environmental agencies should be allowed to sign-off on the King Country property, effectively declaring it to be free of harmful organisms.

Featherston woman Claire Bleakley, who has campaigned against approval of GE experiments outside laboratories, said today she expected to file a legal action next week over the experimental property, and its proposed ``sign-off''.

Scottish biotech entrepreneur PPL Therapeutics had over 3000 transgenic sheep on the farm producing human proteins in their milk, when it announced 11 months ago that it was pulling the plug on the operation. It had 2482 sheep confirmed as transgenic, and another 581 animals classed as ``unconfirmed transgenic'', out of a total flock of 4186 sheep on the 170ha Whakamaru research farm, 37km southwest of Tokoroa.

Since then it has slaughtered all the animals, incinerating the GE sheep on the farm and burying the ``normal'' animals. The company said it had an unconditional agreement to sell its farm land and buildings at Whakamaru, plus equipment, to Whakamuru Farms Ltd, ``for a gross consideration of 1.13 million pounds sterling (NZ$3.15 million)''

Mrs Bleakley said there was a lack of research available on the survival times of altered DNA and other ``heritable material'' which might have leached into the soil, or survived the incineration of the transgenic sheep.

She was concerned not only about survival of altered DNA in the farm soil, but also any potential prion-based disease, from the same family of illnesses as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

The farm was originally placed in quarantine for five years because the original GE livestock used on the farm were brought from Britain, where the prion disease scrapie is widespread. New Zealand is scrapie-free and farmers expressed concern at the time about the potential for infection.

When cows in Britain were burned on big fires in recent years because of a foot-and-mouth outbreak, scientists there noted there was theoretical potential for infective material for BSE, another prion, disease to be dispersed by such fires.

Mrs Bleakley has also sought information on how the ashes of the GE sheep were disposed of.

She said it appeared the ashes of transgenic animals had not been disposed of in special pits where any environmental effects could be monitored. This could be important because recent research had shown it was difficult to kill prions by incineration: only 90 percent of the prions in scrapie-infected animals were destroyed after an hour at 360 degC. An examination in Britain of the brain of one ram which died in 2001 showed spongiform changes in the brain, and a pathologist was not able to rule out scapie, she said.

Mrs Bleakley said she wanted Erma to ensure there was longterm monitoring of the farm for the next 15 years, to check on any transfer of altered DNA to soil organisms. There should also be longterm monitoring of the health of workers from the site, and there should a ban on allowing livestock to graze the farm, or if they did, they should be kept out of the human food chain.

The original Erma approval of the project required all biological matter to be destroyed at the end of the research project: which literally meant that none of the tissues, embryos, semen or vital organs could be stored for further research purposes once the remaining sheep in the flock had been slaughtered.

Wellington, May 15 - Genetic engineering campaigners say a King Country farm recently sold for over $3 million after being used for genetic engineering experiments should be monitored for the next 15 years.

Featherston woman Claire Bleakley, a farmer who has argued against GE experiments outside laboratories, said last night she expected to file a legal action next week over the farm at Whakamaru, 37km southwest of Tokoroa, and its proposed ``sign-off'' by regulatory agencies.

She has raised questions over the failure of a regulatory watchdog, the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma), to require monitoring of the property for survival and transmission of altered DNA from over 3000 GE sheep slaughtered on the property, or for the transmission of other organisms, such as prions which cause the disease scrapie.

``We've got the paper trail now to take it to court,'' she said. ``We have tried every means possible to make them consider the correct process''. ``They haven't considered it properly''.

Erma has admitted there is no monitoring at the Whakamaru farm, and that there were no recommendations in place for on-site monitoring following the destruction of all genetic material. Mrs Bleakely said Erma executives told her: ``The site is no longer a registered containment facility and there are no requirements for on-site monitoring''.

Failed biotech entrepreneur PPL Therapeutics used semen from transgenic rams at East Mains in Scotland on 100 New Zealand ewes at Whakamaru to create its foundation GE flock. The animals were required to be kept in quarantine for five years because of the potential for the semen to have come from rams carrying scrapie.

PPL had 147 transgenic animals in March 1999, when it received Erma approval to breed up to 10,000 sheep as a commercial flock on two farms.

When the PPL bubble burst last June, it had 17 New Zealand employees -- nine farmhands and eight administrative staff, and a 170ha farm.

Former prime minister Jim Bolger -- who chairs a policy ``think tank'' involved in biotechnology -- recently said that by the time its fortunes collapsed in June last year, PPL had bred over 3500 transgenic sheep. They were engineered with copies of DNA from a Danish woman to produce a human protein with potential to be used in medical research. PPL had planned to produce human alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAT) from the sheep milk

At June 22 last year it had 4186 sheep, including 2482 known to be transgenic, plus 581 unconfirmed transgenic, animals. The last of those was slaughtered on the farm in March of this year, at the time Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry staff made their last check on the farm.

Shortly after that visit, PPL announced it was selling the farm $3.15 million to Whakamaru Farms Ltd, a company incorporated on March 18.

The original Erma approval of the project required all biological matter to be destroyed at the end of the research project, and Mr Bolger has criticised this constrain for preventing any of the tissues, embryos, semen or vital organs to be stored for further research purposes.

But Mrs Bleakley, a strong critic of farming GE livestock, has questioned whether some traces of the engineered sheep may remain, such as in altered DNA from the animals or their ashes which has been taken up by soil organisms, or in the infective prions which transmit scrapie.

She does not think Erma and its enforcement agency, the Ministry for Agriculture and Forestry, should be allowed to sign-off on the farm, effectively declaring it to be free of harmful organisms.

All the GE sheep on the farm were incinerated and the ``normal'' animals killed and buried on the property.

She was also worried that infective prions -- difficult to destroy completely in incinerators -- might persist. New Zealand is scrapie-free and farmers expressed concern at the time about the potential for infection.

ENDS

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