Sick lab rats prompt SA probe into GM maize
By Bobby Jordan The Sunday Times (South Africa), 1 July 2007
Report sparks concern after test shows effects on blood, organs
The government is assessing the safety of genetically modified (GM) maize in South Africa after a flare-up over its effect on laboratory rats that ate NK603 during a 90-day trial.
A shocking report, commissioned by global environmental lobbyists Greenpeace, said that there were "statistically significant" effects on the blood and organs of laboratory rats.
The rats that were fed the GM maize suffered liver and kidney toxicity and differences in weight gain between the sexes .
NK603 is licensed in South Africa and is eaten in maize products such as mealie pap, but the report says more tests are needed before it is deemed safe for consumption.
The report also contains a detailed analysis of the Monsanto Company's own health and safety trial of NK603.
The multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation's analysis also found significant differences between rats fed NK603 and other maize.
However, Monsanto said the differences pose no health or safety risk.
"In the absence of such results, consent for maize to be released into the environment, for food, feed or cultures, may present a serious risk to human and animal health and releasing it should be forbidden," said the Greenpeace report, compiled by scientists called the Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering.
Dr Julian Jaftha, chairman of South Africa's GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) executive council , said the government could reverse its decision to license the products if toxicity claims proved to be true.
The Department of Agriculture has issued 74 licences this year for NK603 maize or maize consignments containing NK603, department records show.
The licences were issued for planting, "general release" and "use as commodity".
Jaftha said the new report had not been studied and would be referred to a scientific advisory panel.
"We have not had any insight into the report so it's difficult to make a judgment of its scientific authenticity."
A similar report, raising concerns about another type of GM maize, Mon863, was referred to the panel earlier this year.
"That report has been forwarded to one of our scientific reviewers and we are awaiting the outcome of his recommendation," said Jaftha.
"Similar to what we've done [with Mon863], we would review this latest data and it would go through to our scientific advisory panel to make a recommendation on it.
"The [GMO] executive council is empowered to reverse a decision. If it is found that there is some uncertainty as to NK603's safety we would take it through the process of reversing the decision [to license it]," Jaftha said.
This week the European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA) GMO panel ruled in favour of Mon863.
It said there were no grounds for new safety concerns. They have yet to make a ruling on NK603.
Monsanto has slammed the report, which it claims is part of a broader anti- GMO strategy.
Monsanto South Africa spokesman Wally Green said: "These foods are as safe if not safer than conventional foods. People who don't like the technology obviously have another agenda."
National Chamber of Milling executive director Jannie de Villiers said he was satisfied with the safety protocols governing the licensing of GMOs in South Africa.
However, environmental group Biowatch says the maize rumpus is further proof that GMOs need to be thoroughly tested before being released into the market.
Biowatch has also questioned the benefit of allowing patents on critical seed resources, particularly in resource-poor Africa.
"Unlike other seed, GM seed is patented and owned by the world's top five pesticide companies, giving them unprecedented control over the basics of life. These patents have enhanced the profitability of the GM industry but have had few benefits for farmers or the poor," said Biowatch South Africa director Leslie Liddell.
Half of South Africa's maize supply is genetically modified.
It is grown either locally or imported from North and South America. It is mixed together with natural maize, before being sold and turned into products like mealiemeal, breakfast cereals and chicken and cattle feed.
The cumulative area planted with GM maize in South Africa over the past six seasons is 2.686-million hectares, an area bigger than the Kruger National Park, according to a report commissioned by the maize industry.
Picture caption: They've got the pip: Greenpeace activists sit in a cage with genetically modified maize outside the Environment Council in Luxembourg last week. They were trying to alert ministers entering the meeting to 'protect Europe from risks in consuming genetically modified food'