Mutants on your plate

Mon, 08/29/2005 - 00:00
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What government should do, he says, is "channel these funds to support farmers who are pursuing organic and sustainable agriculture instead of wasting these resources to support multinational companies doing their best to control the world's food supply."

"There are a lot of ongoing efforts to improve corn production that makes Bt corn unnecessary", Ocampo says. "All the information they are giving out on yield increase is also misleading since they are using traditional varieties as a point of comparison when in fact they should use hybrid varieties as a basis -- hybrid corn can yield the same as Bt corn so why go Bt?"

Despite the inroads Bt corn has made, many remain unconvinced, The inhabitants of Sitio Kalyong in Polomolok, South Cotabato, believe that on July 2003, blossoming Bt corn from a nearby field caused a mass allergy attack in their villagedoubtful, and in some places downright hostile. Three years ago, a group of farmers broke into an experimental field station in South Cotabato and uprooted a crop of Bt corn just as it was about to be harvested.

Dr. Peczon believes the contentiousness and fear generated by GMOs is "expected and normal people like to be scared." But he adds, "when people understand it, they'll accept it."

Advocates are fond of allaying fears about GM by saying that it's nothing really new, that it's been done for centuries by plant and animal breeders. This is a glib misstatement. Genetic engineering makes it possible to selectively transfer genes from, say, animals to plants - a feat completely beyond the abilities of traditional cross-breeders. It is this precise genetic manipulation that also makes state-of-the-art biotechnology different from the so-called "Green Revolution" of the 1960s, which similarly sought to increase food production. That revolution was based on improved irrigation, chemical fertilizers and the identification of high-yield strains for producing "miracle seeds."

By comparison, what biotech scientists do is to engineer novel traits directly into crop plants. In the case of Bt corn, researchers cloned a gene from the soil bacterium bacillus thuringiensis. (the "Bt" in Bt corn). The gene, which produces crystal proteins, was then inserted into a corn plant to enable it to make the protein within its own cells.

The resulting mutation, Bt corn, is toxic to the corn borer - the crystal protein dissolves in the insect's gut and releases a toxin which melts the lining. Because of this lethality, the insect pest tends to give Bt corn plants a wide berth. The protein has no effect on the human stomach, which lacks the "receptors" needed to activate the toxin.

Reacting to worries about Bt corn's safety, Dr. Peczon points out that the GMO has been in use in the US for more than eight years now, and was tested in the Philippines for at least three years - all without any records of adverse effects.

Still, the inhabitants of Sitio Kalyong in Polomolok, South Cotabato, believe that on July 2003, blossoming Bt corn from a nearby field caused a mass allergy attack in their village.

"Suddenly, the children and the adults became sick", recalls farmer Pablo Senon. "They had headaches, their bones hurt, they were coughing and they had stomach pains." Fifty-one inhabitants had to be treated for ailments that included coughs, fever, vomiting and headaches. Animals were also affected: two horses died frothing at the mouth, their stomachs bloated.

According to the villagers, the sickness - which lasted more than two weeks -- started around the same time a nearby crop of maize blossomed, emitting a terrible smell.

Last year, Dr. Terje Traavik, director of the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology, had blood samples of 38 sick villagers flown to Norway for analysis. He claimed preliminary findings showed the people had developed antibodies precisely against the Bt toxin. While cautioning that the findings are "not conclusive", he noted what he called "a coincidence in time: a small epidemic (on the one hand) and the development of antibodies to a specific (Bt) antigen (on the other)." According to Dr. Romeo Quijano, president of the Pesticide Action Network Philippines, "there's a high biological possibility that Bt toxis are allergenic."

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