Independent, 18 August 2002

More GM crop trials break test guidelines

By Geoffrey Lean

Four more of the Government's troubled GM trials have gone alarmingly wrong, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

In a bizarre development, the stubble of harvested GM oilseed rape resprouted late last autumn, putting out new flowers in November - according to an as yet unpublished official investigation.

Neither the Government's regulators nor Aventis, the GM company conducting the trials, spotted the reflowering of the rape, which spread modified pollen in four separate counties. It only came to light when a farmer near one of the sites notified Friends of the Earth.

The revelation follows last week's disclosure that Aventis has sown unauthorised seed, carrying controversial antibiotic genes, at 23 sites in England and Scotland, in what the Government admits was "a very serious breach" of GM regulations.

Ministers have suspended the final phase of the trials, which were due to start next week, and the company may be prosecuted; senior executives could face five years in jail and unlimited fines. Again, the inspectorate was ignorant of the breach; officials first found out about it when the company told them about it.

News of the reflowering rape will further undermine confidence in the company and the inspectorate, and cast even more doubt on the trails, which the Government had been planning to use to justify a decision to grow the crops commercially next year.

Yesterday, Pete Riley of Friends of the Earth said: "If a GM company and the regulatory authorities cannot run a test site properly, how can we trust them to ensure that commercial crops are grown properly in Britain?"
The report, by the GM inspectorate, dated 22 May, says that the reflowering rape was found last winter at trial sites at Witham on the Hill in Lincolnshire, Brind in North Yorkshire, Winfarthing in Norfolk, and Wormington in Gloucestershire.

Aventis was bound by strict conditions to stop the rape flowering again. But these only covered the danger of flowers appearing on new plants seeded from the harvested crop, as no one foresaw that the rape could resprout.

The inspectorate therefore concluded that Aventis had not breached its conditions, though senior officials admit that this amounted to letting it off on a "technicality".

Paul Rylott, head of bioscience at Aventis said that the company had implemented recommendations by the inspectorate to prevent the problem happening again.

News Release - 19th August 2002

Fourteen arrested trying to decontaminate illegal GM trial site in Dorset

(Hilton, Dorset - Sunday 18th August) Fourteen people were arrested for 'criminal damage' and aggravated trespass when a group of fifty or more ordinary people met to remove an illegal public nuisance - a farmscale trial of GM oilseed rape - one of at least 14 where an unauthorised release of antibiotic-resistant rape has been found.

While the government has mentioned that legal action might possibly be taken against the biotech company responsible for allowing this unlawful release - and that that the unlawful crops will be destroyed - they have no plans to take immediate action to prevent the excape of the unauthorised genetic polllution. The longer the crops remain in the ground, the longer they will shed potentially hazardous reproductive pollution into the environment. Those taking responsible and resonable action in an attempt to decontaminate the site yesterday were promptly arrested.

Up to forty police officers, four vans, six cars, police dogs, and a helicopter attended the demonstration that had hastily been organised in reaction to the thursday's contamination news. Those people attending included an ex-genetics student, a local organic farmer,a solicitor, a doctor, gardeners, teachers, grandmothers and a local councillor.
A spray test carried out earlier in the summer had confirmed which side of the field was genetically modified and the plants removed were carefully bagged up to be left for Bayer or DEFRA to dispose of.

The blunder by biotech company Aventis (now owned by German chemical giant Bayer), has resulted in at least 25 of the farmscale trials since 1999 being planted with almost 3% of the unapproved seeds containing an antibiotic resistant marker gene. Aventis was first informed of the problem in June and quick and decisive action at that time could have removed the threat prior to pollination. However Aventis did not inform the government until a few days ago.

The government quickly announced that it would suspend the planting of the final trials (which were due to be sown next week) until the purity of the seed could be assured. However while they admit the failure is a significant one and is damaging to the credibility of the farmscale evaluations, they continue to resist calls to abandon the final phase of the trial.

One of the protesters, Sam Regis said;
"How can we trust the biotech industry with the future of our food when they can't even run a experiment safely? When the government chooses to represent the interests of industry over those of the people, we have a duty to remove whatever we can of these illegally planted GM crops. By doing so we hope to reduce the risk that the antibiotic resistant trait will be taken up by other organisms."

Local mum Claire Taylor said: "These trials aren't about establishing the safety of GM crops, they don't examine the creation of herbicide- resistant 'superweeds', or the effect of an incompetent and unpredictable biotechnology industry on our agriculture. They're an amateurish investigation into the effect of the herbicide on insects. What will it take for the government to admit that they're a threat which must be immediately abandoned? We must start to limit the damage now by cancelling all further planting and banning the growing of related species on land which has contained these antibiotic resistant crops."

Bill Posters, from Weymouth said "The trials are widely recognised as a farce - a waste of time and money and an unnecessary risk to our environment. They should be abandoned. Any information required about the effects of growing GM crops can be obtained by looking to the US, and Canada, were they have been grown commercially for several years. These real life situations show that in practice, growing GM increases the use of chemical herbicides, creates and spreads 'superweeds', and has failed to provided the promised economic returns for farmers."

Editors notes:

Antibiotic resistant genes have been used extensively in crop genetic engineering as a selectable marker. Selectable markers are used in the laboratory to identify cells or embryos that bear the genetic modifications that the engineer wishes to commercialize. Thereafter the genetically modified organism has the antibiotic resistant gene in each and every one of its cells.

The OSR trials are contaminated with a variety of seed resistant to the antibiotic Kanamycin. This antibiotic is still used medicinally and it is know to cross-react with other related antibiotics. Kanamycin is a member of the aminoglycoside family of antibiotics. Cross-resistance between Kanamycin and other aminoglycosides including streptomycin, gentamycin and tobramycin has been recorded. All of the antibiotics mentioned are used to treat human diseases. Along with cross-resistance to aminoglycoside antibiotics, pathogenic bacteria frequently develop multiple drug resistance transmitted on a single plasmid, and acquire plasmids with multiple antibiotic resistance genes in areas where the antibiotics are used extensively.

Kanamycin is used prior to endoscopy of colon and rectum and to treat ocular infections. It is used in blunt trauma emergency treatment and has been found to be effective against E coli 0157 without causing release of verotoxin. Extensive use of antibiotic-resistant marker genes in genetically modified crops is shortsighted.

Many scientists have expressed concern that the gene may leak out into the environment, and particularly to bacteria. This could make the bacteria resistant to antibiotics and so make it difficult for doctors to treat infections. The biotech companies claim there is virtually no chance of this happening but admits it is possible.

It was an agricultural college in Scotland discovered that GM crops that it had planted for Aventis/Bayer were contaminated by another strain of GM seeds, which had an antibiotic-resistance gene. They informed Aventis in early June. Subsequent tests on other sites found that a total of twelve in England and two in Scotland were also currently contaminated with the antibiotic-resistant varieties.

The following is a list of sites at which these seeds have been planted during the last three years:
98/R19/18 1999 SK 968 589 Boothby Graffoe Lincolnshire
98/R19/18 1999 SU 157 919 Hannington Wiltshire
98/R19/18 1999 SU 677 980 Shirburn Oxfordshire
98/R19/18 2000 SK 959 592 Boothby Graffoe Lincolnshire
98/R19/18 2000 SP 069 360 Laverton Worcestershire
98/R19/18 2000 TA 265 382 East Newton Hull
98/R19/18 2000 SP 241 486 Alderminster Warkshire
98/R19/18 2000 NZ 137 115 Hutton Magna Yorkshire
98/R19/18 2000 SO 675 313 Kempley Gloucestershire
00/R14/8 2001 SAC Aberdeenshire
00/R14/8 2002 SAC Aberdeenshire
00/R33/9 2002 SK 600 712 Meden Vale Nottinghamshire
00/R33/9 2002 TF 944 250 Horningtoft Norfolk
00/R33/9 2002 TA 221 373 Aldborough East Riding of Yorkshire
00/R33/9 2002 TM 102 875 Winfarthing Norfolk
00/R33/9 2002 SJ 683 255 Hinstock Shropshire
00/R33/9 2002 NZ 205 365 Oakenshaw Durham
00/R33/9 2002 TF 216 976 Thorganby Lincolnshire
00/R33/9 2002 TF 221 888 Ludford Lincolnshire
00/R33/9 2002 SJ 399 262 Bagley Shropshire
00/R33/9 2002 SE 820 490 Kilnwick Percy East Riding of Yorkshire
00/R33/9 2002 ST 788 028 Hilton Dorset
00/R33/9 2002 TA 065 596 Nafferton East Riding of Yorkshire
98/R19/18 2002 NJ 746 301 Daviot Aberdeenshire
98/R19/18 2002 NJ 772 280 Daviot Aberdeenshire