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Politics versus facts

Date: 1.9.2010 

The start of new technologies was never easy. From to-day bureaucratic vocabulary we can say that new achievements always met "precautionary principle". This is a box available for whole set of wild catastrophic scenarios. The first test drive of steam-powered train was connected with the fear that cows watching such terrible speed (about 30 km/hour) will cease milking. Man with a red flag should run in front of an automobile to warn people that this devil invention is approaching.

Is this just nostalgic sentiment of "good old times" of European civilization? By no means. Precautionary principle is a barrier European legislation resolutely erected in the pathway of modern biotechnology in agriculture. Many studies, e.g., White Book by Czech scientists, have been analyzing the conflict of EU politics in genetically modified organisms (GMO) and science. But one may hear voices calling scientists lobbyists for industry or simply stating that scientists (including the EFSA's GMO panel) are bribed by the industry. Let us forget science and move to plain simple facts: Politics and facts.

Politics

"Invoking the EU's safeguard clause, the Austrian parliament has unanimously instructed the Ministry of Health to establish a specific legal measure to prohibit the cultivation of the biotech potato Amflora in the country. Health Minister Alois Stöger signed a decree prohibiting the cultivation of Amflora." We may read in European Biotechnology News (9, 5-6, 2010 p. 20). Why? "Stöger has the support of the majority of the Austrian parliament, which criticised Amflora because it carries a gene for resistance to certain antibiotics. Releasing it to the environment could raise bacterial resistance to life-saving medicines, they said. Austria also blamed the EU for putting the ionterests of potato producers before human health." This is politics. We must admit in concert with the arguments of the ex-commissionaire Stavros Dimas.

Facts

Antibiotics are the weapons of microorganisms struggling for food in the environment - mostly soil with organic debris. This is the same evolutionary feature like toxins produced by plants as a defence from herbivores: potato is producing solanine, cabbage allylisothiocyanates. Therefore the larvae of cabbage butterfly cannot consume potato leaves, however developed resistance to allylisothiocyanate. This acts as a good defence from Colorado beetle that in turn is able to overcome solanine.

This is the general chain weapon-defence known from military history. One power develops weapon - the other must rush to get defence against it. If successful defence is available improved weapon must be designed - and so on. It is just natural that microbial word is rich in various chemical weapons. They are products of living organisms - thus represent biotica - but are formed during evolution to repress other competitors for food and living room - therefore are anti-biotica in nature. As explained above we must expect that in the environment rich in anti-biotica broad spectrum of defence systems will be found.

FACT 1: This is nice theory, where are the facts? They are simply available in any microbiology lab. Take a sample of soil from the field or grass cows are fed with (see. e.g., http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RK5RbTX_4L4&feature=channel_page ) make a suspension and plate it on the agar medium with or without antibiotic under study. Then incubate and count the colonies. Such study was performed many times. At Ecole Centrale de Lyon 5.5 to 8% soil bacteria resistant to penicillin were detected under a standard maize field. In the prairie soil this fraction was 54 to 70%. This is one fact that can be easily verified in any simple laboratory. Even in Austria!

FACT 2: The other fact can be found in the decree of the Ministry of Health that sets limits to the number of microorganisms in our food. Unfortunately, I do not know Austrian standards. Czech decree set the limit 105 cfu/gram for baby-food and 107 cfu/gram for standard food. Cfu means the number of bacteria that are able to form visible colonies on the surface of laboratory media. That means we consume daily about billion of such bacteria that are mostly soil bacteria. We know that bacteria forming colonies in the laboratory are just fraction of total bacteria living in the environment. Performing the above described experiment with plates with and without kanamycine (this is the antibiotics the gene in Amflora provides resistance for), we obtain information how many copies of this gene are in the soil. It may be tens of millions in one gram of soil. This very probably holds also for the soil of Austrian fields.

FACT 3: Go to the cafeteria, maybe parliament cafeteria, and get the menu. Then mix it in a sterile mixer and plate it as above. The result will disclose the number of kanamycine resistance genes poor MPs are forced to eat. The figure will not be far from million. Surprisingly MPs survive.

FACT 4: Visit an advanced laboratory course in the university and follow the experiment demonstrating the bacteria-to-bacteria gene transfer. It is not rare. Then go to the library and try to find solid study proving the plant-to-bacteria gene transfer. You will find no such proof. After this go and tell people how high is the risk of the resistance gene transfer from Amflora to life threatening bacteria.

These are facts and this is politics. Amflora potato is introduced in the environment loaded with billions of bacteria-carried genes of kanamycine resistance. Millions of them we eat daily and we may be sure that we are inhaling them with the soil dust. Bacteria-carried genes are transmitted to other bacteria without problems. All this is a standard way of human life. By the way - thanks to this we develop immunity. No Health Minister is concerned. But the gene in the potato cell is another business! We do not know how it can be transmitted to life-threatening pathogens as nobody was able to show this. Nevertheless its presence is fatal danger for the mankind as it "could raise bacterial resistance to life-saving medicines". This is the belief of policy makers and basis of laws with serious impact on economy and agriculture.

 

Author: Prof. Jaroslav Drobník


 

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