BY CAT LAZAROFF
Belgian scientists have found DNA from an unknown source in Roundup Ready soya beans, a genetically engineered crop produced by US-based biotechnology giant Monsanto. The announcement comes as the Bush administration places increasing pressure on other nations to relax food safety laws that are seen as threatening US economic interests.
A peer-reviewed study in the European Journal of Food Research Technology details work by a team of scientists from three Belgian universities and research centres. The team isolated and characterised the different strains of DNA found in genetically engineered Roundup Ready soya beans, looking specifically at the junctions between the original plant DNA and the inserted engineered DNA.
"Our results establish that during integration of the insert DNA, several rearrangements occurred", the team writes. "The genomic plant DNA at the pre-integration site may have been rearranged."
In addition, the paper reports finding "a DNA segment of 534 bp DNA for which no sequence homology could be detected".
The scientists conclude that "during integration of the insert DNA, rearrangements or a large deletion may have occurred".
This is the second time this team of researchers has observed inaccuracies in Monsanto's description of its best selling genetically engineered (GE) soya beans.
"The findings clearly establish that the GE soybean that has been approved based on Monsanto's own description of the genetic alterations is not identical to the GE soya sold by the company since 1996 worldwide", said Lindsay Keenan of the environmental group Greenpeace International, which has publicised the team's findings. "Monsanto have again been shown to not even know the basic genetic information about what is in their GE soya."
This is the first time that a peer-reviewed scientific journal has published an independent scientific analysis of data submitted by a company for approval of a GE food product. The announcement comes as a coalition of conservation, consumer and farm groups have contacted US officials, protesting threats by the Bush administration to challenge food safety laws of other countries as barriers to international trade.
The United States, the world's largest producer of genetically engineered crops and products, has a vested interest in maintaining world markets for these products. Trade officials backed by the Bush administration have made public statements warning that the US will retaliate against countries that bar or restrict marketing of GE products.
For example, in May, Weyland Beeghly, agricultural counselor from the US Embassy in New Delhi, India, threatened that the US might challenge a ban in Sri Lanka of genetically engineered organisms by submitting a complaint to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The ban is scheduled to take effect on September 1, 60 days later than planned as Sri Lanka granted a WTO request to allow exporters time to adjust to the law.
More than 200 groups, representing citizens in Australia, Brazil, Germany, India, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the United States and Zimbabwe, sent a letter on August 14 calling the US threats unreasonable, particularly as the US allows states to establish food safety and environmental laws that are tougher than national laws.
Last April, for instance, the state of Maryland passed a five year moratorium on the import, raising or marketing of genetically engineered fish. US pesticide laws also allow states to set limits on pesticide use that are stricter than federal law.
"If a US state can have a moratorium on genetically modified foods, why can't other countries do the same?" said Ricardo Navarro, chair of Friends of the Earth International and a resident of El Salvador. "The US has no right to tell Sri Lanka or any other country how to write their food safety laws."
The letter to the Bush administration argues that Sri Lanka and other nations have a scientific, regulatory and moral basis to set limits on the proliferation of genetically engineered organisms.
Monsanto's Roundup Ready soya beans account for about 50% of all GE crops sold worldwide, Greenpeace says. In light of the new evidence that even Monsanto may not be fully aware of what these soya beans contain, Greenpeace is calling on countries that have approved Roundup Ready soya beans to take immediate steps to review that approval.
"From a legal point of view, the only adequate reaction is to suspend the approval and to re-evaluate the environmental and health impacts of the GE soya", said Greenpeace's Keenan. "This is fundamental: the accurate description of the inserted DNA and the genetic alterations of the GE soya is the very basis of any further risk assessment."
Keenan noted that researchers cannot so far rule out the possibility that the unknown DNA found in Roundup Ready soya beans comes from another organism used in the genetic engineering process.
In Europe, Britain's government Advisory Committee on Novel Food & Processes was the authority that initially assessed Monsanto's GE soy and proposed to approve its import into Europe. In January 2001, the committee agreed there was still uncertainty regarding the origin of the DNA and asked Monsanto to provide data demonstrating that this DNA is "silent" and does not result in the production of a novel protein.
"To ask the company who did not inform the relevant authorities about this DNA in the first place to now confirm it is not significant is certainly not what you would call a sound scientific approach, and it is certainly not what consumers would call appropriate measures to protect their safety", said Keenan.
Monsanto counters that the so-called mystery DNA was part of the GE soya beans used in all safety testing, and can therefore be assumed to be safe.
"Any deletion, rearrangement or modification of the DNA referred to by Greenpeace occurred at the time of the original insertion event", Tony Combes of Monsanto told BBC News Online. "It would have been a constituent of the Roundup Ready soyabeans used in all the safety assessment studies."
"So this clearer data is not new and has in fact been conveyed to all European Union competent authorities", Combes explained. "There is no discrepancy. The sequence information provided originally has not changed; it's just that now we know more detail about it."
The additional detail provided by the Belgian research team goes above and beyond that provided by Monsanto, and that examined by the authorities responsible for approving the crop. In most cases, government authorities do not have the means to counter check the accuracy of GE product descriptions, relying entirely on the data submitted by the companies themselves.
So far, no one can be sure what, if any, effect the mystery DNA might have on the soybean plants, or on animals or people that consume the beans. But the size of the unknown DNA would reportedly allow the sequence to code for a new protein or exert other functions within the DNA.
Marc De Loose, one of the new paper's authors, told Reuters that the unidentified DNA shows no evidence of leading to unexpected or adverse effects in the plant or those who eat it.
"There is no scientific data to support this idea because we checked this sequence in different generations that were on the market and we didn't see any differences", De Loose told Reuters. "This means that the sequence is stable and all the data concerning safety are still valid in my opinion."
"There is also no evidence that the sequence causes any expression, so we did not demonstrate that the sequence is expressed", added the researcher from the Department for Plant Genetics and Breeding at Belgium's Centre for Agricultural Research. "There is no indication that this [soy] might cause any allergy."
But biotechnology critics are not convinced.
"No one knows what this extra gene sequence is, what it will produce in the soyabean, and what its effects will be", said Dr Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK's chief scientific adviser.
Greenpeace has published the DNA sequence on its website, and invited the international scientific community to help identify its nature and possible consequences. Greenpeace's information on the mystery DNA is available at: <A_MP.htm>.
[Reprinted from Environmental News Service, <http://www.ens.lycos.ens>.]