by John Vidal
27 February 2004
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Scientists investigating a spate of illnesses among people living close to GM maize fields in the Philippines believe that the crop may have triggered fevers, respiratory illnesses and skin reactions.
If preliminary results are confirmed, it would be one of the first recorded cases of serious health problems associated with GM crops, and could damage the reputation of the biotech agriculture industry, which is rapidly expanding in developing countries.
The scientists' findings were immediately challenged by Monsanto, the world's leading GM company, and by the Philippine government.
The concern surrounds an unnamed village in northern Mindanao, where 39 people living near a field of Bt maize -- which contains a pesticide in the gene -- started suffering last autumn when the crop was producing pollen.
Doctors thought they had an infectious disease, but when four families left the village and recovered, and then showed the same symptoms on return, an environmental cause was suspected.
Terje Traavik, scientific director of the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology, was asked to investigate. Blood tests showed the villagers had developed antibodies to the maize's inbuilt pesticide.
Professor Traavik, who issued a summary of his results yesterday, said more tests were needed, but felt his preliminary findings were reliable.
His studies suggest that a virus promoter -- which is like a motor driving the production of the genetic message -- was unexpectedly found intact in human cells.
His team also said it had found that genetically engineered viruses used in the GM process recombined with natural viruses to create new hybrid viruses with unpredictable characteristics. If confirmed, this could suggest that they could cause new diseases.
Prof Traavik said tests so far showed evidence of an immune reaction. He will return to the Philippines this week to continue the research before publishing full results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
But he rejected accusations that he was trying to scare people with data not yet reviewed by other scientists. "Publication of results typically requires a waiting period of up to one year or more," he said in Kuala Lumpur.
"With such evidence of possible human health impacts of foods already on the market, we believed that waiting to report our findings through publication would not be in the public's interest."
Monsanto said it was "extremely unlikely" that the limited production of the GM crop in the Philippines would have produced such results.
"There have been no documented cases of allergic reactions to Bt maize after seven years of broad commercial use on millions of hectares in the US, Canada, Argentina, Spain and South Africa, starting in 1996," a spokesman said.
The company was backed by the government in Manila, which approved GM cultivation last year.
"It's absurd -- no biology student will believe it," said Artemio Salazar, the director of the maize programme of the Philippine department of agriculture.
"The implication of the study is that the resistant gene got inserted into the human gene, which is impossible."
Greenpeace called for more research. "There is such a huge amount of uncertainty around these crops," a spokesman said.
But Willy de Greef, a biotech law consultant formerly employed by the Swiss agrochemicals company Syngenta, expressed surprise at Prof Traavik's findings, saying research showed Bt maize pollen did not carry the toxin so no reaction should occur. "One would want a scientific panel to look at Traavik's results," he told Reuters.