Uncertainty over the safety of genetically engineered (GE) corn has not been reflected in Government announcements, a leading gene scientist believes.
Five days before Christmas, the Government approved high-lysine GE corn intended for animals as safe for New Zealanders to eat.
This was despite concerns from some that it may cause cancer, diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease if it accidentally entered the human food chain.
Food Safety Minister Lianne Dalziel gazetted the Monsanto LY038 GE corn after a nearly six-month delay, which the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) said was not due to safety concerns.
But University of Canterbury scientist Dr Jack Heinemann, the director of the university’s Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety (INBI), has taken issue with the NZFSA.
He said the authority had made some “interesting comments” in its public statements that were inconsistent with the expert opinion it had sought from crown research institute ESR (Environmental Science and Research) on a report by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).
The NZFSA is already being reviewed for its controversial handling of the milk safety issue and the way it portrayed findings publicly — by drawing conclusions that contradicted a report and releasing the report when the reviewer was unavailable to talk publicly about it.
INBI had objected to approving the corn for human consumption because the new protein introduced into the GE corn had not been laboratory tested to see how it reacted to cooking.
When cooked, the high level of lysine combines with sugars to form chemicals called advanced glycation endproducts (Ages), strongly implicated in diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and forms of heart disease.
Heinemann said his main concern was with the NZFSA’s press release, which said: “The New Zealand Food Safety Authority also reviewed the FSANZ safety assessment and agreed with its conclusions. In addition, NZFSA commissioned ESR to provide an expert opinion on the safety assessment. ESR also agreed with the FSANZ conclusions.”
Heinemann said he had a different impression after reading a copy of FSANZ’s final risk assessment report with comments by ESR, released under the Official Information Act.
“To my reading, the ESR report is not entirely consistent with the view expressed by the NZFSA.
“ESR stated in January 2007 that `the (FSANZ) assertion that LY038 corn, cooked as part of a normal diet, would not make a substantial change to dietary Age intake’ is unsupported.”
“In many places, ESR stops short of endorsing the FSANZ conclusions. ESR used the cautionary phrasing `arguments presented by FSANZ seem logical’.
“I think that ESR has not provided a report that is inconsistent with the FSANZ assessment, but to say that ESR found none of the same problems with the assessment — that would have to be a gross overstatement,” Heinemann said.
He was also concerned ESR had stated it had no-one “with the appropriate background to comment on the technical validity” of his submission, dealing with the safety of the GE corn and Ages.
Instead, the ESR reviewer said consultation “would suggest” scientific evidence to support Heinemann’s view was “not strong”.
A genetic modification (GM) supporter, former Life Sciences Network chairman Dr William Rolleston, claimed Heinemann’s INBI laboratory “stands to gain from increased testing on GM”.
But Heinemann said Rolleston was wrong.
“My lab is a university lab — publicly funded to do basic research. We have nothing to gain, privately or commercially.”