AFB - GM crop connection possible
Letter to the editors of bee journals

Joe Rowland
mmercial Beekeeper
Secretary/Treasurer of the Empire State (New York) Honey Producers Association
October 2000

Dear Editor,

The New York State Legislature has been considering enactment of a moratorium on the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops, and/or requiring labeling of products containing GM ingredients. State legislative committees held public hearings on this subject during October 2000. I was invited to testify at these hearings. Although I am no authority on the topic, I decided to review publicly available information pertaining to the possible impact of GM crops on honeybees, and present this material at the hearing. I identified three main areas of concern.

There is an alarming lack of publicly available information evaluating the effects of GM crops on bees. Biotechnology corporations fund research on GM crops in their efforts to gain regulatory approval for the marketing of GM varieties of corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, and other crops. This research supposedly proves beyond a reasonable doubt that these novel genetic combinations are safe to introduce into the environment. Canadian researcher, Mark Winston, recently attempted to gain access to the results of research that assessed the effects of GM crops on honeybees. Canadian government authorities acknowledged that such research had been conducted, but refused to provide any details. Their refusal was attributed to the fact that such research is confidential and owned by the undisclosed biotechnology corporations who funded the studies in question. I believe FDA/EPA policy is similar in this regard. This lack of openness raises serious credibility issues regarding corporate claims about the safety of GM crops. If their research is solid, then why is it kept secret?

Laboratory studies carried out by the French government research institute INRA indicate that pollen from some GM crops shortens the lifespan of adult bees. Also, it seems to cause some learning dysfunctions that could result in the disorientation of foraging bees. Disoriented bees may become lost or unable to locate nectar sources.

Possibly the most important public disclosure came out in June, 2000, when German researchers at Jena University showed that genetic material from GM canola crossed the species barrier, and was positively identified in bacteria that reside in the guts of honeybees. I believe this is the first publicly documented case of horizontal gene transfer from GM crops to bacteria. This discovery may have major implications for the future of GM crops. One main objection to GM crops has focused on the fact that during genetic manipulations required to create GMOs, antibiotic-resistant "marker" genes are combined with the so-called genes of interest. These combined genes are inserted into the target plant. Within the plant, the antibiotic resistant gene has no expression and is harmless. However, if this gene were able to transfer from the GM plant and enter another bacterium, that bacterium would become antibiotic-resistant. This might render commonly used antibiotics useless against diseases attacking humans and livestock, including honeybees.

Bees in the US are increasingly afflicted with a strain of antibiotic resistant American foulbrood (AFB). Before the advent of antibiotics, this bacterial infection was the most serious bee disease in the world. Tetracycline had been used effectively against AFB for 40 years until 1996. In that year, tetracycline resistance was confirmed in both Argentina and the upper Midwestern states of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Since then, it has spread to at least 17 states in the US, including New York, and to parts of Canada. During the 1990s, millions of acres of Round-up Ready crops were planted in the US, Canada, and Argentina. According to my information, the antibiotic resistant gene used in the creation of Round-up Ready crops was resistant to tetracycline. After 40 years of effective usage against an infective bacterium found in the guts of honeybees, suddenly two geographically isolated countries develop tetracycline resistance simultaneously. A common thread between the US, Canada and Argentina is the widespread and recent cultivation of GM crops containing tetracycline resistant genes.

I spoke about this with Dr. Hachiro Shimanuki, who until recently was the research leader of the USDA/ARS bee research lab in Beltsville, MD. He is not aware of any attempt to analyze the resistant foulbrood for genetic pollution from GM crops. I think that the technology exists to be able to determine whether these AFB bacteria have the Round-up Ready gene. That gene should have tagged along with the tetracycline resistant gene if in fact this antibiotic resistant AFB was due to horizontal gene transfer between GM crops and foulbrood bacteria.

I want to stress the speculative nature of this possible GMO/antibiotic resistant AFB connection. However, if it is true, the public health implications are enormous. A documented antibiotic resistant gene transfer into a disease organism would strongly indicate that the FDA should re-assess the potential human risks associated with GM crops, and possibly revoke federal approval for the sale and consumption of some of these modified plants.

As an industry, I think we should immediately request, through our local, state, and national associations, that the FDA analyze samples of antibiotic resistant AFB in order to determine whether or not a genetic transfer has occurred from GM crops.

If we act together, the FDA will find our combined resolutions to be a powerful stimulus to investigate this matter in a timely fashion.

Biotech corporations have maintained that we should trust their research findings that secretly prove to Federal regulators that GM crops are safe. I would suggest that it would be wise to maintain a healthy skepticism on this matter. Often there is a fundamental conflict between the corporate interest in short-term profit, and the public interest in the health and safety of the people. In fact, we have recently seen examples of this conflict exposed in the courts concerning other corporations.

I believe that we all are now participating in a vast GMO experiment without our informed consent. Many European beekeepers are fiercely opposed to the cultivation of GM crops in the vicinity of their apiaries. It is well within the realm of possibility that we should be too.

Joe Rowland
2495, Montrose Turnpike,
Owego,NY 13827

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