Working Group on Biodiversity Forum Environment & Development, Germany 1992 was the first year of a series of campaigns launched to increase public acceptance of genetic engineering in agriculture and food production in Germany. Until now, these campaigns failed to illustrate the benefits of genetic engineering for the civil society. Years of discussions and risk assessment research revealed that central issues lacked any scientific foundation.
It became clear, for example, that the introduction of herbicide resistant canola – the predominant transgenic plant in Germany – will not reduce the adverse impacts of industrial agriculture. According to scientific databases glyphosate as one of the herbicides in discussion is more persistent than 70% of all registered herbicides in Germany (BLUME et al. 1992). The two important canola herbicides in Germany are up to ten times faster degradable than glyphosate (WAUCHOPE et al. 1992; TOMLIN 1994). Recent risk assessment research showed that canola pollen could escape from field trials and pollinate surrounding canola plant despite of the safety measurements for such trials. In the case of commercialization without any safety measurements an outcrossing of genes into other canola varieties and wild relatives is undeniable. Relevant assessments of potential ecological risks in German ecosystems are lacking.
In this situation a new element should replace the collapsed ones in the row of benefits: Genetic engineering will lead to the elimination of allergenic proteins from food. In summer 1997 the German Ministry of Agriculture, supported by influencial advisers, announced the successful development of Japanese rice varieties “that do not any longer contain the allergenic protein” (BMELF 1997) and therefore “can be eaten by allergenic patients” (JANY 1997). Through antisense technique a reduction of the content of the main allergenic protein to ineffective levels had been made possible. This new argument was deliberatly used by numerous following authors from governmental, lobby organisations and PR bureaus of the biotech industry.
The analysis of available scientific publications on this issue gave rise to doubts about the trustworthyness of this story. The review of NAKAMURA and MATSUDA (1996) from the University of Nagoya summing up the Japanese research done so far did not mention any proven medical benefit: “However, it is still uncertain whether such hypoallergenic rice seeds obtained from the transgenic rice plants are tolerable for the patients allergic to rice, because even a small amount of residual allergens might elicit an allergenic reaction in the patient”. In addition, the original publication announcing the development of low-allergenic rice points out that no medical tests with the plants have been performed so far (TADA et al. 1996). To clarify these contradictions, contacts were established to the Japanese researchers. Y. TADA, former project leader from the industrial partner Mitsui Plant Biotechnology Research Institute informed the author as follows: “We showed that the major rice allergen and proteins highly homologous to it were reduced to undetectable levels in some tranformants, but other allergens with lower homology were less affected by antisense supression. We concluded that it was unpracticable to reduce all kinds of allergens by antisense strategy. Furthermore, as it was shown that allergenic sufferers are very sensitive to allergens, our low-allergen rice seems to have no practical benefit for them. In the end we were defeated by the complexicity of patients’ allergy spectrums.” (TADA 1997). Apart from being uneffective, the new phenotype was not stable as well, the transgenic plants of the second and third generations only showed a 20 to 30% reduction of the main allergenes. The Mitsui Plant Biotechnology Research Institute cancelled the collaboration. TADA’S remarks were confirmed by a letter of T. Matsuda (MATSUDA 1997).
The failure was foreseeable. Scientific literature allows to predict the inadequacy of the antisense approach. On the molecular level, the complexicity of rice allergies was revealed by URUSI et al. already in1991. Out of 24 examined rice proteins ranging in size from 15 to 92 kD, 22 reacted positively with antibodies from allergenic patients. The mayority of the patients’ antibodies reacted with proteins of a size between 14 and 16 kD, underlining their role as main allergenic proteins. But in addition, one third of the antibodies reacted with larger proteins and 41% of the antibodies reacted with 6 ore more proteins. Only 22% of the patients were exclusively allergenic to the main allergens. Knowing these results efforts in order to solve the allergy problems by applying genetic engineering with a simple antisense strategy have been sentenced to failure from the very beginning.
Two conclusions can be drawn.
- The efforts of the biotech industry and their advocates have entered a new phase. Argumentations like this example from Germany give up any scientific demands. They are constructed to weaken critical positions by accusing them to hinder the help for sick peoples.
- Genetical engineering confirms ist role as repair tool of industrial agriculture. Rice is not allergenic per se, the situation in Japan has been triggered by the loss of biological diversity within the breeding process of rice varieties. As scientists from Japan and the Phillippines pointed out, all examined Japanese varieties showed high levels of the main allergenic proteins and exhibited an almost identical general protein pattern (ADACHI et al. 1995). “These results could be due to the fact that most Japanese cultivars are sister-line varieties derived from genetically close species.” It was shown that there are several rice varieties in the South East Asian area without the main allergenic proteins. Thus, reestablishing diversity among Japanese rice varieties is a promising step towards a sustainable solution of the allergy problems.
Adachi, T.; A. M. Alvarez; N. Aoki; R. Nakamura; V. V. Garcia. 1995. Sreening of rice strains deficient in 16-kDa allergenic proteins.
Blume, H.-P.; E. A. Loop; L. Rexilius. 1992. Pesticides. Handbook of Soil Protection, ed. H.-P. Blume. Landsberg: Ecomed, p. 325-353 (in German).
BMELF. 1997. Is there a special allergy risk with genetically modified food? The Green Genetic Engineering, ed. BMELF. Bonn: BMELF, p. 52 (in German).
Jany, K.-D.. 1997. The current interview: Genetic engineering and food allergies. Ernährungslehre und -praxis 9/97. Ernährungs-Umschau 44: B33-B36 (in German).
Matsuda, T.. 1997. Email to the author, 12 th of November 1997.
Nakamura, R.; T. Matsuda. 1996. Rice allergenic proteins and molecular-genetic approach for hypoallergenic rice. Bioscience, Biotechnology, Biochemistry 60: 1215-1221.
Tada, Y.. 1997. Letter to the author, 13th of August 1997.
Tada, Y.; M. Nakase; T. Adachi; R. Nakamura; H. Shimada; M. Takahashi; T. Fujimura; T. Matsuda. 1996. Reduction of 14-16 kDa allergenic proteins in transgenic rice plants by antisense gene. FEBS Letters 391: 341-345.
Tomlin, C.. 1994. A World Compendium – The Pesticide Manual. Farnhem: British Crop Protection Council.
Urisu, A.; K. Yamada; S. Masuda; H. Komada; E. Wada; Y. Kondo; F. Horiba; M. Tsuruta; T. Yasaki; M. Yamada; S. Torii; R. Nakamura. 1991. 16-kilodalton rice protein is one of the major allergens in rice grain extract and responsible for cross-allergenicity between cereal grains in the poaceae family. International Archives of Allergy and Applied Immunology 96: 244-252.
Wauchope, R. D.; T. M. Butler; A. G. Hornsby; P. W. M. Augustijn-Beckers; J. P. Burt. 1992. The SCS/ARS/CES pesticide properties database for environmental decision-making. Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, Vol. 123, ed. G. W. Ware. New York: Springer, 125 pp.