GE Free New Zealand in Food & Environment, 10th  March 2004

Concern over GE link to fever and vomiting
 
The latest findings in the Philippines stand to confirm long-held fears that GE crops could result in dire health problems. Early research shows GE corn pollen is associated with serious illness in local villagers who are showing high antibody reactions to GE corn pollen. 
Symptoms include fever, respiratory, skin and stomach disorders, and the deaths of two horses is also being investigated.

How many New Zealanders have been sick with similar symptoms and been told that it was a strange virus? There are no clinical tests for doctors, or patients to rule out GE as responsible for any problem, and there is no public health monitoring of the impacts of GE foods in our diet.

One human health study, conducted after just one snack meal was consumed, found that gene constructs from GE organism could survive the digestive process far longer than previously believed. Scientists have raised concerns that over the long term digestive symptoms leading to colon cancer could result from ingestion of GE foods.

This lack of diagnostic tools and health studies makes the application that has been received by the Australia and New Zealand Food Safety Authority (FSANZ) for MON 71800 GE wheat totally irresponsible. Indeed, the company refuses any liability, even as it pushes on with products that are a threat to the supply of safe conventional GE-free food.

FSANZ body assesses the safety of GE foods released onto the food chain.  It has approved for initial debate the application of MON GE wheat (http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/standardsdevelopment/applications/applicationa524foodd2349.cfm. Yet there have been no independent safety studies for GE Wheat and across North America’s wheat belt there is almost universal dismay at the prospect of GE wheat being introduced.

"It is totally irresponsible to consider approval for GE wheat when Monsanto says that it won't do any health tests until it knows if it can get its crop into the Australasian market" said Claire Bleakley of GE Free (NZ) in food and environment.

"New Zealand consumers and farmers do not want it – especially if research is showing some GE crops may be linked illnesses identified in the Philippines. Where are the published safety tests?".

GE Free New Zealand in food and environment calls for the removal of all approved GE foods in the system until further research and diagnostic tools for clinical testing are developed to prove there are no negative impacts on public health. 

Claire Bleakley (06) 3089842

GM PROOF?
Saturday Despatch, Daily Mail 6/3/04 by Richard Pendlebury in Kalyong,
Philippines
http://cnnmoney.yellowbrix.com/pages/cnnmoney/Story.nsp?story_id=48074436&ID =cnnmoney&scategory=Healthcare&

These children's families suffer fever and vomiting and their horses are dying. They blame GM crops and a scientist is backing them.

COUNCILLOR Boy Amarille has an image problem. It is election year and the politician farmer is accused of inadvertently poisoning more than 50 men, women and children in his rural constituency.

Clearly, this does not play well on the hustings, and his battered clipboard, wide pinstriped trousers, shiny loafers and silver front tooth exude a desperate sense of window-dressing as he jabs a finger to the Philippines sky and declares: 'I want to be re-elected.' However, it is clear that he has already lost the vote of Sammy Malayon. 

When the Mail visited his wooden shack yesterday, Mr Malayon was absent, undergoing yet more hospital tests. 
His official sick-note, shown to me by his wife, says that he is suffering from 'intestinal ambiasis' (a parasite infection). Last year, three generations of the family were simultaneously stricken with similar and other ailments, which they blame on Mr Amarille's farming methods. 

No wonder the councillor is worried about his electability. But this affair threatens not just Mr Amarille's modest political ambition. 
The impact has echoed around the world, fuelling an already highly charged debate involving the environmental and ecological future of our planet and the health of mankind.

For the 1.75 hectares of corn seed that Mr Amarille planted last May on the edge of the village of Kalyong, amid the sweaty uplands of the civil war-riven island of Mindanao, was genetically modified. Developed by an arm of the American GM products giant Monsanto, the seed has an inbuilt pesticide gene, designed to poison the stem borer insect which is the primary menace to corn harvests in this part of the world.

However, the GM toxin may well have affected more than the local borer population. The flowering of the corn stalks in July coincided with an outbreak of fever, respiratory, skin and stomach disorders among villagers living within 100 metres of the field. 

Some, like Mr Malayon, still claim to suffer from symptoms, eight months later. Two horses are also alleged to have died suddenly.

AT the time, many locals blamed the outbreak on Mr Amarille's GM corn. Predictably, Monsanto immediately mobilised its PR operation and denied that there was any link.

However, this week, the preliminary findings of a Norwegian-led scientific study suggest that the ill-health was indeed a reaction to the crop. This is the first such instance anywhere in the world.

Of course, more research needs to be done. But among further issues the Norwegian team will be exploring is whether the GM toxin has combined with existing viruses to create new diseases.

The implications are enormous. Crucially, the events in Mindanao come just as the British Government is stepping up its plans for GM in the UK - despite huge public unease.

This week, the Cabinet agreed to allow GM crops to be produced commercially in Britain, only to run into a grave warning against doing so from an influential committee of MPs.

Yesterday, the Commons Environmental Audit Committee published a hard-hitting report saying that the UK trials on which the Cabinet based its decision were deeply flawed: 'It is vital that the Government permit no commercial planting of GM herbicide-tolerant forage maize until that crop is thoroughly re-trialled.' The committee said there was clear evidence that conventional crops could be contaminated by GM varieties and called for a delay of at least four years.

The fact is that once the GM genie is let out of the bottle, there is no going back.

RURAL MINDANAO is a prime example of how multinational agricultural firms are changing the face of the planet. Forty years ago, the landscape around the village of Kalyong was very different from today.

Then, the indigenous B'laan tribespeople engaged in mixed, smallscale farming; cornfields predominated, but rice, coffee and other crops were also grown.

However, the subtropical climate was identified as being perfect for the mass cultivation of pineapples. Today, the low, green plants stretch as far as the eye can see, to the cloud-topped volcano Mount Matutum. Fields are huge, trees rare; vast amounts of chemicals are used; soil erosion is a serious problem. And the whole area is owned, or subcontracted, by the American fruit firm Dole.

Meanwhile, local environmentalists worry about the region's almost total dependency on one crop and how farmers and their workforce are under the control of a single foreign company.

However, the pr ofit margin for pineapple over the traditional, small-scale corn crop, threatened as it was by the stem borer, is seductive to farmers earning only Pounds 500 a year.

BUT then along came Monsanto with its wonder corn which promised high-yield crops with an inbuilt defence against the stem borer. After much lobbying and some field trials in late 2002, the Philippines government said commercialisation of GM corn could go ahead. Monsanto began the hard sell.

Mr Amarille was one of 200 local farmers invited to a government-organised seminar in March last year, at which the American firm promoted the idea. What was on offer is known as 'Bt corn', which contains a gene for an insect-killing toxin, isolated from the soil microbe 'Bacillus thuringiensis'. The Monsanto-produced strain is called Dekalb 818 YG.

The farmers were told that they could sow corn in May, when the stem borer is at its most voracious, without recourse to pesticide.

But the Bt corn seed cost twice as much as the one the farmers were already using. Asked why, Monsanto officials replied: 'You are paying for peace of mind.'

'We were convinced by them,' says Sensie Victoriano, a local farmer who had previously lost money on traditional corn production. 'The government said they had done their studies.' Amarille was equally enthused. 'They said I did not have to use any chemicals and that I could plant it at any time – even May, when the stem borers attack it. So I bought two bags planted them on May 28 last year.' No one else knew that he had planted the GM seed.

Indeed, Cllr Amarille was savvy enough not to inflame an already vocal opposition to GM crops - just as in Britain, the issue is extremely contentious. It is said in the village, however, that at least one neighbour guessed the truth and was paid to keep silent, lest the crop be attacked.

But when the corn flowered two months later, releasing its pollen which some said smelt strangely, a large number of villagers fell inexplicably ill. Sammy Malayon, 48, and his family lived in a wooden hut on the edge of Cllr Amarille's field. Mr Malayon's five-month-old granddaughter, Mary Alim, was the first to show symptoms.

'She had a fever, coughing and was vomiting,' her mother, Mary Jane Alim, 23, told me. She, too, fell ill. As did her father, Sammy, who, until now, had been a strong, healthy man.

THE family decided to move away from the area - to the home of his wife's family, two miles away. All but Sammy recovered quickly.

By this time, others living around the field were also beginning to feel unwell. Two sisters, Marilyn and Maricar Sinon, aged 12 and nine, whose house is across a dust track from the field, had chest pains, headaches and respiratory problems. Their mothers says that Maricar still suffers from unexplained nosebleeds.

Meanwhile, the oldest victim of the outbreak was Kutay Planzal, who is well into his 80s but still farms natural corn, coffee and sweet potato on ten hectares of land. He recalled that during the corn's pollen season, he felt a terrible tiredness, suffered chest pains, itchiness of the skin and began spitting blood.

'I remember the Japanese occupation and the days when we used to plough the fields with our bare hands,' he said. 'When we were ill, we used herbs for medication. Now, these illnesses that they have created cannot be cured by natural means. It has brought great harm to the village.' His daughter, Loretta, and her three children all suffered from skin rashes, coughs, vomiting and diarrhoea. 'This corn is not our future,' she says.

Mysteriously, two horses in the village are said to have died after suffering seizures and frothing at the mouth. Locals also pointed out the discolouring and brittleness of the leaves on pineapple plants, which they blame on the Bt corn.

Some villagers confronted Amarille who denied that the corn was to blame.  He was not affected - but he did live more than two miles from the field. In August, a petition was sent from the village to the local authorities requesting medical assistance. The GM lobby was alerted, as was Monsanto.

Battle was joined. Health officials also began their investigations. A preliminary report blamed chemicals.

But then the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology, at Tromso University, became involved. Dr Terje Traavik was visiting Mindanao in relation to a separate study on Bt corn. 
Hearing of the Kalyong case, he volunteered to analyse the blood of sick villagers. So, last October, these were taken from 38 individuals and sent to his laboratory in Norway.

Meanwhile, hot on their heels, a Monsanto troubleshooting team had arrived in the village. According to residents I spoke to, they proceeded to put on a most patronising display of reassurance. Villagers were gathered and Bt corn cobs cooked in front of them. The officials then ate the cobs, making noises of appreciation. 'Look, they are perfectly safe,' the villagers were told. 'OK, you are welcome to eat all of them then,' the Monsanto employees were apparently informed.

Widespread protests began. A hunger strike was held outside the Department of Agriculture in Manila by anti-GM protesters who blamed the Government for failing to set up a proper system monitoring the effects of Bt corn.

Government ministers were described as 'lackeys' of Monsanto. 

So, what is the truth? The first results of the Norwegian tests suggest that the villagers' immune systems had reacted to the Bt corn toxin. The study demonstrated that those who fell ill had, at the very least, been exposed to the Bt toxin. However, those results alone do not conclusively prove a 'cause and effect'.

More tests need to be carried out to prove or disprove a conclusive link between the toxin and the illness. But Dr Traavik suggests that because it can be interpreted as an 'early warning', it should encourage serious further study.

He defended himself against accusations that he had published incomplete results by arguing that a few years down the line it may be too late. And he pointed out that most of the scientists engaged in this field are employed by the GM corporations. 'Where can society go for unbiased advise on this very, very important issue?' he asked.

'When I started out 25 years ago, I was a fanatical proponent of modern biotechnology,' he told me in Manila. 'But now I am a sceptic because genetic modification is so unpredictable. It is assumed the results will be the same in the Philippines as in the American Mid-West.’

‘But you can never predict the given amount of toxin from a given plant in a given place.' And he described Monsanto's reaction as 'very, very unhelpful'. 

HOWEVER, Dr Romeo Quijano, a toxicologist from the University of the Philippines, said: 'These sort of studies should have been carried out before Monsanto marketed the product here.' Government officials argue that Amarille's field is only one to have been linked to health problems. Similar sicknesses break out in places where there are no GM fields.

We shall have to wait for the conclusive Norwegian report. But others disparage the Bt corn for different reasons. 

One anti-GM website reports: 'US Department of Agriculture revealed no significant reduction in pesticide use among farmers growing Bt corn. Moreover, Bt corn is wreaking environmental havoc. In a study conducted by Cornell University, Monarch butterflies died after being fed with leaves dusted with pollen from Bt corn engineered by Monsanto.' And the Kalyong field at the centre of this affair? Despite Amarille's confidence in the safety of Bt corn, it is now covered in young pineapple plants.

'The No. 1 problem as far as I'm concerned is that it affects my political career,' he complains. 'The people will not vote for me any more. So, in order to keep my office, I am growing pineapples.' Such expediency is typical of politicians the world over. Of course, Tony Blair may not be planting GM crops at Chequers, but his approval could mean their appearance on a farm near you.

Will voters tell him, as they did Amarille, that if you use them as GM guinea pigs, you will be gambling not only with your political career but also with people's wellbeing?

Websites
http://www.gmwatch.org
http://www.ngin.org.uk

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