Swiss biotech giant, Syngenta, is facing charges in the German criminal courts over its failure to report evidence of harm caused by a GM crop.
The crop in question is 'Bt176' maize which generates an insecticidal protein, 'Cry1Ab'. This protein is modelled on one found in the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.
Bt176 maize is an old GM crop, developed back in 1994. It was grown in America until 2001 and cultivated in Europe from 1997 until 2007.
The safety of Cry1Ab does not ever seem to have been sensibly questioned. Assumptions that the protein would disappear during digestion, and that the man-made analogue Bt protein inside the plant wouldn't be any different from the natural version in bacteria lying on the outside of the plant seem to have been used to dismiss any likelihood of harm.
In 1997, Syngenta commissioned a pro-GM German farmer to field-test Bt176. Planting started in 1997 and increased yearly until, by 2000, the farmer's maize area was totally GM . The maize was used to feed his dairy herd.
In 2001, four of his cows inexplicably died within four months. The following year, seven more cows died, milk production dropped and more cows had to be slaughtered due to an unknown illness. The farmer stopped feeding his cows Bt176, brought a civil lawsuit against Syngenta and demanded a full investigation by the Koch Institute which was regulating the GM trials.
During the civil court proceeding, which ended in 2007, Syngenta denied its GM maize had harmed the cows, and the case was dismissed leaving the farmer thousands of Euros in debt (Syngenta gave him €40,000 as partial compensation, presumably as an act of goodwill).
The Koch Institute carried out some routine tests on the Bt176 feed, and minimal tests on a single carcass, but failed to examine the soil or dung. What tissue samples it had taken for laboratory analysis mysteriously vanished. None of the data are publicly available. Not surprisingly (since it didn't look very hard), the Institute found no conclusive evidence on the cause of the sickness and death.
However, it has since come to light that a US feeding study commissioned by Syngenta in 1996 also resulted in four cows dying in two days. That trial was abruptly terminated. The problems in America and Germany should, of course, have been registered as “unexpected occurrences”, but it seems the biotech company has, until now, managed to cover them up.
Since Bt176 is no longer in the food chain, is its safety still an issue?
The answer is definitely 'yes'.
Cry1Ab protein is engineered into several other GM crops, notably Bt11 maize currently cultivated in the EU.
If you're wondering why there aren't reports of dead Cry1Ab-fed cows all over the place, bear in mind that animal feed is a commodity: any GM content will be diluted with conventional and other GM strains. The unfortunate cows in the US and German trials were fed a Bt176-only diet.
There are several possible culprits which may have caused, or contributed to, the ill-health of these cows: a toxic reaction to Cry1Ab protein itself or to other novel proteins generated by the GM plants' disturbed genome, novel pathogenic microbes thriving in the GM plants or in the guts of the GM-fed cows, novel viruses generated by the cauliflower-mosaic viral promoter DNA incorporated into the Bt176 maize DNA ...
Whatever the cause, we need to know, because it could happen again. It could happen with a similar Bt crop, or with some other entirely different GM crop. And, next time, there could be dead people too.
Sweeping the evidence under the carpet is dangerous and criminal. And Syngenta's deliberate cover-up may just be the tip of the biotech-shenanigans ice-berg.
- Cows ate GM Maize and Died, Science in Society #21, Spring 2004
- Dr. Eva Sirinathsinghji, Syngenta Charged for Covering up Livestock Deaths from GM Corn, Institute of Science in Society Report, 13.06.12