Dangerous GE Wastes Recycled as Food, Feed and Fertilizer

From Isis News #6 September 2000 (UK)

Mae-Wan Ho and Joe Cummins report why there is still no biosafety after

The safety of GM crops and GM foods has been grabbing headlines over the
past two years, and a lot of effort appears to be directed towards
addressing many of the concerns raised in the current draft amendment of
the European Commission Directive on Deliberate Release . However, a
potentially much more serious source of hazard remains unregulated. We
pointed to fundamental flaws in the regulation on contained use in a
comprehensive review published in a scientific journal in 1998 (Ho et al,
Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 10. 33-59). This paper was
submitted to the World Health Organization, European Commission, the
Biosafety Conferences at the UN, as well as to the UK Health and Safety
Executive, with additional comments from Mae-Wan Ho and others.

More recently, we raised the matter again in an update calling attention to
the increasing variety and volume of "naked" and "free" nucleic acids
produced in the laboratory and biotech factories under contained use, which
are in fact not contained at all, but discharged in one form or another
into the environment, as sanctioned by the current EC Directive on
Contained Use (Council Directive 90/219/EEC), last amended in 1998. Our
paper was circulated at the Montreal meeting on Biosafety in January, and
contributed to the strength of the Cartegena Biosafety Protocol that was
agreed in the last hours of that conference. But there has been no real
change since to the Directive on Contained Use. This Directive is
fundamentally inadequate for the following reasons.

The scope covers only genetically modified micro-organisms; transgenic
animals, fish and plants are not included. It also excludes nearly all
classes of naked or free nucleic acids, except for viroids (infectious
naked RNAs that cause diseases in both plants and animals).

Notification only and not explicit approval is needed for use of Group 1 GM
microorganisms, GMMs, considered nonpathogenic or otherwise safe; however,
there is no agreement among EU nations on which microorganisms are
pathogens or not; and it is effectively left up to industry to decide.

For Group 1 GMMs, only "prinicples of good microbiological practice"
applies, ie, there is no containment.

"Tolerated release" of Group 1 GMMs are allowed to take place, without
treatment, directly into the environment.

No treatment of GM DNA or RNA is required to break them down fully before

There is no requirement for monitoring for escape of GMMs or GM constructs,
horizontal gene transfer, or impacts on health and biodiversity.

We have presented evidence alerting to the dangers of horizontal gene
transfer, among which are the creation of new viral and bacterial
pathogens and the spread of antibiotic and drug resistance among the

Despite our efforts, successive versions of the Directive have been relaxed
and shaped by the European Federation of Biotechnology. This
industry-dominated group have produced a series of ësafe biotechnologyí
papers, the latest, published this July (Trends in Biotechnology 18,
141-146), specifically addresses DNA content of biotechnological wastes.

The paper admits that DNA persists in soil and aqueous environments, that
it is transferred to bacteria and cells of animals, and that it may become
integrated into their genomes. But they defend current practice by claiming
1) Horizontal transfer of GM DNA occurs, if at all, at very low
frequencies, especially in nature, 2)The persistence of foreign DNA depends
on selective pressure, especially in the case of antibiotic resistance
marker genes, and 3)DNA taken up is unlikely to be integrated into the
cellís genome unless designed to do so.

The first claim is unwarranted. Evidence of horizontal gene transfer from
transgenic plants to soil bacteria has been obtained in the laboratory as
well as in the field, although the researchers themselves are downplaying
the findings, in violation of the precautionary principle (see Horizontal
Gene Transfer Happens, ISIS News#5). The second assumption has been shown
to be false. There is now substantial evidence that antibiotic resistance
can and does persist in the absence of the antibiotic--the so-called
selective pressure (see Phasing Out Antibiotics Will Not Reduce Antibiotic
Resistance, this issue), mainly because biological functions are, as a
rule, all tangled up with one another, and cannot be neatly separated and
selected one at a time. The third point is false as well, for it has been
demonstrated in gene "therapy" experiments that naked DNA-constructs, not
intended for integration, have nevertheless become integrated into the
genome. Integration occurs not only in somatic cells, but also in germ
cells (see Unregulated Hazards: "Naked" and "Free" Nucleic Acids

The most dangerous aspect of current practice, defended by industry, is
that solid wastes, heat-treated, or autoclaved, containing large amounts of
intact or incompletely degraded GM constructs and transgenic DNA are being
recycled or disposed of as food, feed, fertilizer, land reclamation and
landfill. Only in cases where GM constructs are specifically made to
transform higher organisms, such as gene vaccines and genetic pill
applications (for gene therapy) is there a recognition that there may be a
need to "inactivate waste by validated procedures rendering DNA
nonfunctional by either reducing DNA fragment size below functional
entities or altering the chemical composition and structure of the DNA."
However, no such validated procedures exist.

Our regulatory authorities at all levels persist in ignoring scientific
advice and scientific evidence. It is yet another example of the
anti-precautionary approach (see Use and Abuse of the Precautionary
Principle, this issue). They, together the biotech industry, should be held
legally responsible for any harm resulting from the uncontrollable
horizontal transfer and recombination of GM genetic material.

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