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     Jul 31, 2009
Monsanto, Dow stack up the genes
By Stephen Leahy

BERLIN - The most complex genetically engineered corn (maize) yet has been approved for use next year in Canada and the United States without its potential health and environmental risks being investigated, anti-biotech activists claim.

Neither US nor Canadian health officials have assessed the human health safety of Monsanto's and Dow AgroSciences' new "SmartStax" genetically engineered (GE) corn with eight novel genes inserted into corn DNA, said the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), an non-governmental organization based in Ottawa, Canada.

"Health Canada did not conduct or require any testing for this new eight-trait GE [also called genetically modified, GM or GMO] corn


and did not even officially authorize it for release into the food system," said Lucy Sharratt, CBAN's coordinator. Health Canada is the federal department responsible for "helping Canadians maintain and improve their health", according to its web site.

"People will be eating corn with eight novel traits without any assessment of the potential health risks. Questions about risks are being ignored," Sharratt told Inter Press Service.

According to Sharratt, Canadian regulators did not do health or environmental risk assessments simply because the novel traits had been approved on an individual basis previously. Even though this is the first time a corn variety combines all of these, it gets a free pass by regulators.

"It's a fundamental misunderstanding of basic biology and the complexity of biotechnology," she said. It also points to a fundamental flaw in the Canadian regulatory system.

"Health Canada has entirely abdicated its responsibility and just shrugged off the potential health risks of eating eight GE traits in one corn flake," she said.

SmartStax combines or "stacks" previously approved GE traits of herbicide tolerance [Roundup and glufosinate herbicides] and insect resistance into one seed variety for the first time, providing the most comprehensive insect and weed control, according to a Monsanto press release.

The new GE corn is the result of a collaboration between Monsanto Company and Dow AgroSciences LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company.

"This is a key early step in our commitment to helping farmers sustainably double yields by 2030 to meet the increasing demands for grain for food, feed and fuel," said Robb Fraley, Monsanto chief technology officer and executive vice president, in a statement.

Next year's "product launch would represent the largest introduction of a corn biotech seed product in the history of agriculture", the company claims. Up to 1.6 million hectares could be planted with SmartStax seed in Canada and the US in 2010.

CBAN said Canada immediately withdraw last week's authorization to sell the new GE seed because safety assessments of multi-trait crops are part of the guidelines adopted by the Codex Alimentarius - a United Nations body that develops food safety guidelines.

"Combining many GE traits together can give rise to unintended effects which could adversely affect health, such as creating new allergies or toxins, or exacerbating existing allergies," said Michael Hansen of the Consumers Union, a US-based NGO and leading global expert on the potential health risks of GE.

"This GE crop should have gone through a new safety assessment, as recommended by Codex," Hansen said in an interview.

However, US regulations do not require any health and safety assessments because GE crops are considered the same as regular crops, even when novel traits are combined, he said. "The Food and Drug Administration didn't even take the slightest look at SmartStax," Hansen said.

Any studies on safety and nutrition done by Monsanto and Dow do not have to be made public or shown to regulators, who are entitled only to a summary. Moreover, no independent studies can be done without the companies' permission. "It is illegal for a farmer to give researchers seeds to test without the companies' permission," he said.

There have been studies on various GE foods. In May, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM), a US-based international association of physicians, called for an immediate moratorium on genetically modified foods, saying they pose a "serious health risk".

The AAEM position paper concluded "there is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects" and that "GM foods pose a serious health risk in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune function, reproductive health, and metabolic, physiologic and genetic health".

"Multiple animal studies have shown that GM foods cause damage to various organ systems in the body. With this mounting evidence, it is imperative to have a moratorium on GM foods for the safety of our patients' and the public's health," said Dr Amy Dean, a board member of AAEM.

Moreover, under international trade rules, the lack of a new safety assessment for this GE corn means that other countries could reject SmartStax without running afoul of World Trade Organization rules, Hansen told IPS.

Nor does there appear to have been an environmental risk assessment done by Canadian regulators. "This seems to confirm that the corn bypassed existing scientific assessment processes that have already been judged insufficient by the 2001 Royal Society of Canada Panel," said Sharratt.

The Royal Society of Canada formed an independent panel of scientists to evaluate the regulation and safety of these new GE food products in the country's first-ever independent assessment.

Five years after GE crops and foods were widely available in Canada, the 2001 report from the panel slammed government regulators at Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) who allowed GE crops to be grown.

Little has changed since then and the CFIA has failed to explain its decision not to require environmental risk assessments for SmartStax, said Sharratt.

"This scandal exposes the deepest and most dangerous nonchalance of Health Canada towards the risks of GE foods and the safety of Canadians, said Sharratt.

(Inter Press Service)

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