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May 10, 2011 | by  | in Online Only | [ssba]

Failure to Communicate – Agriculture

This week, GE Free NZ (along with a couple of other environmentally activist organisations) lodged a complaint against AgResearch, New Zealand’s biggest science research organisation. Normally in these situations, I side with the scientists and blame the incident on a lack of understanding about the science of genetics, the risks present and the measures taken to safeguard against these risks. However, on this occasion I have to admit the AgResearch has dropped the ball.

The substance of the complaint is that AgReseach has failed to carry out tests of a phenomenon called ‘Horizontal Gene Transfer’ (HGT) to a sufficient level in a herd of genetically modified cattle. HGT is the name for non-reproductive transfer of genetic material. This occurs relatively commonly in micro-organisms, and even more in viruses. There is documented evidence of this occurring in plants and fungi as well, but it is not something that happens between mammals and other complex animals. Still, it is possible that genetic material could be exchanged in this way from a GE cow to a bacterium, and then from the bacterium to another non-GE cow. Possibly a retrovirus or two would need to be involved in this process as well. This represents a potential risk to the environment/economy[1], and so AgResearch agreed to carry out tests for HGT as a condition to their research.

It is worth pointing out that in order for HGT to occur between two cows requires a hugely unlikely sequence of events under current understanding. It is also worth pointing out that even the release of genetically modified gene sequences into micro-organisms is a risk.

AgResearch did indeed carry out tests to try and detect HGT, but some of them had very poor methodology. Either someone along the line did not understand the problem, or someone did not consider the experiments important, but if I get the reports right, the experiments were flawed in two ways: First, the sample size was too small to effectively test for HGT (which is a rare event, so you have to look at lots of samples to expect to find it). Second, the samples were taken from the wrong place – rather than take samples from soil right next to dead animals, the samples were taken from soil some metres above the burial site.

My assessment of this situation is that there is no need to panic. It is very unlikely that HGT has in fact occurred, there’s pretty much no risk that you need to worry about. On the other hand, AgResearch made a promise to undertake tests to ensure reasonable precautions were in place when they started their research, and it is extremely negligent of them to have failed in that respect. Especially when you consider that they could have done successful tests simply by digging a bigger hole! Shame on you AgResearch! The public needs to be able to trust science, and every incident like this deservedly undermines the confidence we are able to have in it.

Next week, an exploration of some scientific terms, and how we should understand them!

[1] delete whichever is not your preferred measure of ethics.


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  1. I think your analysis of the situation is spot on. AgResearch has continually been sloppy with research concerning GE. Another recent example of this saw ERMA give the go ahead for some GE pines to be planted even though no data had been collected about the possibility of HGT. And in fact concerns about HGT had been totally ignored. And that’s not to mention ERMA used out of date data about pollen distribution and other important factors that could result in HGT.

    However, maybe it is something to be worried about. The more NZ compromises our 100% pure image — whether that is by the release of GE organisms or pollution etc — the less credible that brand becomes and the fewer tourists come, the less trusted our agricultural products become.

    AgResearch should be taking a precautionary approach with GE and keeping it in the lab.

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