Genetically Modified Animal Feed


According to MAFF (10 May 1999), very little study or research has been carried out in this country into the safety of genetically modified (GM) material in animal feeds. This is despite the fact that GM material has been present in a large, but indeterminable, proportion of the total animal feedstuffs used in the UK for the past three years. While there is a Novel Foods Authority, there is no Novel Feeds equivalent.

A "snapshot" study into Ciba-Geigy Maize was carried out by the laboratory of the Government Chemist in 1966 and the only other research for HM Government to date relates to measures needed to fragment DNA in animal feed. This was by Prof. J M Forbes and Dr G E Blair, Dr A Chiter and Ms S Perks of the University of Leeds, 1997 (see CS0116). Fragmentation of DNA in GM feed is carried out to avoid the transfer to micro-organisms in the mammalian gastrointestinal tract. However, although there are procedures to destroy DNA in GM animal feedstuffs the fact remains that for the past three years, a significant quantity of GM material has entered—and continues to enter—the food chain, via farm animals, and a quantity—perhaps as much as 5% is untreated and contains viable DNA. This untreated material includes feed thrown down for free-range chickens and pigs to forage.

While GM material impacts upon (with the possible exception of the limited amount of certified organic produce) all meat and dairy produce in this country, the British consumer remains almost totally unaware of what is happening and what has been happening for the past three years.

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As to the potential dangers of feeding GM material to animals reared for human foods, nothing seems to be known for certain, especially as so little research has been carried out. Although Dr Arpad Pusztai’s, controversial work at the Rowett Research Institute has been criticised, his point of view, as expressed to a parliamentary committee is not disputed by his critics:

"The testing of modified products with implanted genes needs to be thoroughly carried out in the gut of animals and humans if unknown disasters are to be avoided".
(Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence, Memorandum submitted by Dr Arpad Pusztai, 1 March 1999.)

A MAFF-commissioned report from the University of Leeds (CS0116) was carried out to address a specific concern and examine the necessary treatments to GM material if risks are to be removed:

"Genetically modified (GM) crops are being developed for a variety of reasons, including resistance to herbicides and insects. In some cases the gene in question is linked to another antibiotic resistance gene. Such resistance, if transferred to micro-organisms, would exacerbate the problem of resistance to strains of bacteria, already causing significant problems such as the resurgence of tuberculosis. It is unlikely to be proved impossible for transfer of such genes from plant to microbe to be completely excluded."

MAFF Report, Food Contaminants D, 11 March 1999, states in its conclusion:

"...a substantial proportion of 2 million tonnes of soya meal, 1.1 million tonnes of maize gluten feed and 500,000 tones of distillers grains used in animal feed could contain material derived from unsegregated GM varieties, Thus, there will be a perception that GM material is coming into the country in large quantities to go into animal feed. Of this 3.6 million tonnes, some 2.2 million would be used by UK feed compounders. This comprises nearly 20% of their raw material, and soya and maize products are major, scarcely replaceable sources of energy"

This report states that GM-free status soya imports, in practice, is possible for only crops intended for niche markets. Meanwhile Food Minister, Jeff Rooker MP, in evidence to a parliamentary select committee in April said:

"Of course, we are importing a lot of animal feed into this country. We have to because we cannot grow the chemical make-up of the necessary animal feed because of our intensive farming system, so we do import and you have to assume that anything imported from America or the Americas will probably be mixed up with GMOs..."
(Select Committee on Science and Technology, Minutes of Evidence, 26 April 1999)

Inasmuch as there is public concern about the human consumption of GM food and its associated health risks, the latest of which is emphasised in the recent BMA report, there will also be serious concern when people realise that the animals we eat are reared on GM material that is even less tried, tested and labeled than that permitted for direct human consumption.

A principal concern about the consumption of GM food is whether or not the altered DNA can survive beyond the human digestive system, whether there will be a possible impact on the mammalian gastrointestinal tract, and/or whether the material can impact adversely upon organs or other parts of the body, its immune system, reproductive system or that of its progeny. Will there be unpredictable second, third and subsequent generation impacts, such as those revealed in cloning, for example?

Considerable scientific debate exists about the possibility of "horizontal" gene transfer. See for example, Beatrix Tappeser, Genetic engineering and the production of food stuffs: Biosafety Aspect (presented at Discovery 98, international conference 28 -30.9.1998, Kulmbach, Germany)

"In contrast to earlier views of long standing, DNA is not fragmented in the intestine but rather remains stable surprisingly long. DNA ingested with food can be excreted after only partial digestion. Moreover, it can also pass into the blood to be taken up by leukocytes and cells of the liver and spleen (SCHUBBERT et al., 1994, 1997a)"

These are issues which apply equally to any GM material-fed livestock from which human food is subsequently obtained. Put simply, if GMOs could make humans sick they presumably could make animals sick, or, if GMOs can impact upon humans through diet, they could equally impact upon animals through diet. Clearly, people will not wish to consume animals which are possibly affected.

In evidence to a parliamentary committee, Dr Doug Parr of Greenpeace refrained from making specific accusations or siting examples such as the work of Dr Pusztai to prove the danger of GMOs. Dr Parr rested his case on the unpredictability and instability of the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment or the food chain.

"The concerns that we have about the use of genetically engineered food have the same root in our concerns about the unpredictability of the technology in the sense that we believe genetic engineering is as was described by the DETR. Most objective scientists would agree it is currently rather crude and unpredictable. As a consequence there are unpredictabilities flowing from its use in food and from its use in the environment. The systems into which genetically engineered food and crops are entering the systems are complex and they are people, they are ecosystems, we do not fully understand how they function. Therefore, to have something that is unpredictable into those systems we feel is an unnecessary risk."
Dr Doug Parr, Campaign Centre Director of Greenpeace UK (Oral evidence to Select Committee on Science and Technology, Minutes of Evidence, 10 March 1999).

The unpredictability of GMOs, however, is very much more than the "fear of the unknown" for there are many examples of unpredicted outcomes in the technology. See for example Dr John B Fagan The Tryptophan Incident (copy attached), in which he shows how genetically engineered bacteria was the "highly likely" cause of the death of 37 people in America with a further 1500 permanently disabled.

The traditions of the food industry inspectorate use the doctrine of "substantial equivalence" to certify or reject novel foods. In the case of GMOs however, it is not a sufficiently robust method since the unpredictability and instability of matter which has been genetically engineered cannot be compared with the known stability of conventional food. This is one of the principal arguments of the anti-GM lobby.

Throughout the history of animals in agriculture there has been a tradition of feeding material to livestock which is considered "unfit for human consumption"—material which would otherwise be destroyed. Because of this there is uneven regulation of what can and cannot be fed to livestock exists. In other words, the regulatory systems now severely lags behind the fast moving bio-technology. The lack of regulation failed agriculture when scrapy- infected sheep were ground in with meal and fed to cows with the consequence of BSE, and it must be a priority now to ensure that there is no similar disaster over GMO-fed animals.


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