Hidden Gene Risk Reveals More Doubts About GM Regulations
Researchers from the European good Safety Authority (EFSA) have highlighted that the most common genetic control mechanism in commercial GMOs also links to a viral gene.
This “finding” has serious ramifications for crop biotechnology and its regulation because there are clear indications that this viral gene (called Gene VI) might not be safe for human consumption,
EFSA has dismissed suggestions that this marks a new “discovery” or “finding” saying they have long been aware of Gene VI and have found no grounds for assuming it poses a health risk.
Other researchers however, are asking for evidence of this and point out that EFSA have not referred to Gene VI nor provided any information about its risk assessment in any published evaluation of GM crops.
Given that Gene VI has now been identified in 54 of the 86 different transgenic events (unique insertions of foreign DNA) commercialized to date, including some of the most widely grown GM crops such as Roundup Ready soybeans , MON810 maize and NK603 maize; it beggars belief that EFSA has never before referred to it.
Unintended consequence? Yes- but does EFSA know if it’s a health risk?
A number of questions are raised: did EFSA really know about Gene VI and have failed to carry out adequate or transparent risk assessment? Did they not know, in which case their competence is open to question? Or was knowledge of Gene VI buried in the layers of confidential information which EFSA’s critics say undermine its credibility?
The EFSA researchers themselves concede that Gene VI “might result in unintended phenotypic changes.” But others point to the possibility of significant health risks.
Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson have reviewed EFSA’s position and point out that in general, viral genes expressed in plants raise both agronomic and human health concerns (1).
“Many viral genes function to disable their host in order to facilitate pathogen invasion, often by incapacitating specific anti-pathogen defences. Incorporating such genes could clearly lead to undesirable and unexpected outcomes in agriculture.”
“Furthermore, viruses that infect plants are often not that different from viruses that infect humans. For example, sometimes the genes of human and plant viruses are interchangeable, while on other occasions inserting plant viral fragments as transgenes has caused the genetically altered plant to become susceptible to an animal virus “
“Thus, in various ways, inserting viral genes accidentally into crop plants and the food supply confers a significant potential for harm.”
EFSA and its New Zealand equivalent FSANZ, dismiss these concerns. They say that the viral Gene VI is safe for human consumption and will not disturb the normal functioning of crops.
Gene VI is associated with the cauliflower mosaic virus (used as a promoter, CaMV 35S, in genetic engineering) and according to a statement from FSANZ; “Human exposure to DNA from the cauliflower mosaic virus and all its protein products through consumption of conventional foods is common and there is no evidence of any adverse health effects.”
But how do they know if they haven’t looked?
Industry links and lack of transparency fuel doubts
In fact, the Institute of Science In Society (ISIS) first raised concerns over the CaMV 35S and similar promoters in a paper published in the journal Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease in 1999 in a paper titled: Cauliflower Mosaic Viral Promoter - A Recipe for Disaster?
Nonetheless EFSA argue that they have assessed all health risks and have found no evidence for concern and certainly no reason to question the safety of any GM crops currently on the market.
But they do seem to be on the back foot. If they have done a thorough risk assessment of Gene VI why hasn’t it been published? If they knew about Gene VI, why haven’t they mentioned it before? What or who are they hiding? Or are they just incompetent?
In recent weeks they have been forced to the point of admitting that 90 day feeding trials may not be robust enough for safety assessments of GM crops; and they have been obliged to release data on GM maize that they had long kept away from public scrutiny.
EFSA loses credibility over GM by the month. If the EU wants citizens to trust GM technology it has to sweep away the industry’s overwhelming influence on EFSA and its culture of secrecy and confidentiality.
Jan 28th 2013