GMO risks for bees and beekeeping

By GM Watch

1.Letter from Swedish beekeepers to Advocate General
2.EU beekeepers stage win against GM crop producers

NOTE: Item 2 provides the background for the letter to the Advocate General (item 1). See also this important piece on GM crops and honey bee research, which includes an interview with the bee researcher Prof. Dr. Hans-Hinrich Kaatz of the University of Halle-Wittenberg.

1.Letter from Swedish beekeepers to Advocate General

Dear Mr Yves Bot

We wish to thank you for the excellent report you have written concerning GMO and pollen. As beekeepers we are very concerned about the situation in which we now find ourselves and therefore greatly appreciate that these issues are been dealt with so thoroughly.

We do however wish to call your attention to certain points:

– None of the existing approvals for any GMOs  in food and feed include an approval for placing pollen on the market. Nor have any food/feed safety or environmental risk assessments of pollen been carried out.

– With respect to renewed approvals, for example of Bt 11 (decision 2010/419/EU), MON 88017+MON810 (decision 2010/419/EU) and 1507+59122 (decision 2010/432/EU), the approvals have been renewed in accordance with the earlier decision and also extended to include all food/feed products made from these crops. This approval has been given without having carried out a risk assessment and approved placement on the market all the various products – for example honey or pollen as a food supplement

These renewed approvals are not in line with EUs GMO Regulations because the initial approvals did not include pollen.    Pollen in honey and raw pollen as a food supplement have never been assessed for risks nor approved for placement on the market. Also EFSA’s Scientific Opinion does not take these aspects into consideration. For example, the risk for horizontal gene transfer from pollen mixed with the lactic acid bacteria from the bees honeystomach has not even been considered. Due to the graveness of the risks involved the Precautionary Principle must be applied.

– In the recently (2010) approved Mir604 no risk assessment of its pollen has been carried out and no specific request for the placement of pollen on the market has been made. The approval covers all food and feed containing, consisting of or produced from this genetically modified maize. It also covers products over than food and feed containing or consisting of  this maize for the same uses as any other maize with the exception of cultivation.

It is of great urgen[cy] that the renewed approvals as well as the recently approved MIR604 be challenged based on the fact that no risk assessment of pollen has been carried out. The risks that GMOs carry for bees and beekeeping need to be taken seriously.  We need both support and research. Beekeeping is threatened if beekeepers are thrown out into a legal ‘limbo’ where we alone shall bear the responsibility that our products follow food regulations concerning GMO content while at the same time no risk assessment has been carried out, no approval given for release on the market and no labelling rules are applicable.

Syngenta has recently applied for authorization of Event MIR604 maize cultivation in the EU. If this and other applications for cultivation of GMO crops in the EU are approved the result will be widespread contamination of bees and bee products  with GMO pollen. This will occur without any serious attempt to asses the risks involved for bees, beekeeping and consumers of bee products. Traceability and consumer information, two of the cornerstones of EUs GMO policy, will be undermined. If the EU regulations are to be of any value to beekeepers and consumers then GMO pollen must also be included in the approval for market release after a thorough risk assessment has been made. All regulations governing GMOs must also rigorously apply to our products. Anything less is completely unacceptable.

Yours sincerely,
Ann-Charlotte Berntsson
Daphne Thuvesson
Marie Rosell

Beekeepers in Sweden

c.c Whom it may concern or be of interest.

2.EU beekeepers stage win against GM crop producers
Nina Haase
Deutsche Welle,,14843153,00.html

The EU’s highest court may classify honey containing traces of genetically modified material as “food produced” from modified plants. Such a ruling may enable beekeepers with hives close to GM crops to seek damages.

Beekeepers with hives close to fields of Monsanto genetically modified maize can’t sell their honey in the European Union without regulatory approval, an adviser to the European Court of Justice has said.

The presence in honey “even of a minute quantity of pollen” from the maize is reason enough to restrict its sale, Advocate General Yves Bot told the court last week.

Damage claim

“Food containing material from a genetically modified plant, whether that material is included intentionally or not, must always be regarded as ‘food produced’ from modified plants,” said Bot. Acting as an independent adviser to the court, he was tasked with suggesting a ruling, based on previous EU decisions. If the EU tribunal follows Bot’s advice, which it is expected to do, the ruling could have consequences across the bloc.

This would be a huge success for “anyone wanting to prevent food and animal feed from being more and more contaminated with genetically modified material,” said Achim Willand, a lawyer representing food producers. “Beekeepers are especially susceptible because bees collect the pollen of GM plants within a radius of three to five kilometers,” he told Deutsche Welle.

Monsanto’s genetically modified corn type MON 810 has not been authorized for sale on the European food market. If new regulations are established, making it impossible for beekeepers to sell their product because it has been contaminated by pollen from MON 810 crops, the beekeepers may be able to claim damages from Monsanto.

Zero tolerance policy

“Yves Bot didn’t use the word, but the opinion basically translates into a zero tolerance policy,” said Thomas Radetzki, an advocate for German beekeepers against genetic engineering in agriculture. “It would mean that any produce with even the slightest trace of genetically modified crop would become a GM food product, with all the consequences.”

Beekeeper Karl-Heinz Bablok, from Kaisheim near Augsburg in Southern Germany, originally brought the case to court. His hives were two kilometers away from fields where research was being conducted with Monsanto’s MON 810 maize. He went to court trying to get the research stopped or get protection for his produce. Researchers argued that the bees weren’t interested in pollen from maize.

In an attempt to prove the researchers wrong, Bablok put his hives 500 meters away from the maize fields. He had to throw away the honey his bees produced, because he found it was contaminated with traces of GM pollen.

Lack of protection

Thomas Radetzki of the beekeepers’ action group said beekeepers who have hives close to GM crop fields have not had enough protection, despite the existence of protective laws.

Currently, Monsanto is banned from testing its maize in Germany. Meanwhile, the beekeepers case is being watched closely by the agricultural sector. “If we’re successful, others may follow, and then the matter may be brought to other national courts too,” said Radetzki.

No winner declared yet

Achim Willand, the lawyer representing food producers, said the Advocate General’s suggested ruling could have implications for anyone seeking permission to grow genetically modified plants in the EU.

But Thomas Radetzki said, while opponents of GM crops may be pleased at the moment, the case hadn’t been won yet. Advocate General Yves Bot based his suggested ruling on laws which are in place right now. Radetzki warned that, even if the EU tribunal were to follow Bot’s advice, “the EU Commission can always change its laws. Then we’d have to start from scratch.”


GM crops and honey bee research

26 October 2009
GM Watch

This interview about GM crops and bee research, taken from the new report ‘Risk Reloaded’ is doubly interesting.

First, it suggests that genetically modified Bt maize could be a possible co-factor in bee die-off.

Second, it seems to confirm the recent concern, including pieces in Scientific American and Nature Biotechnology, over the degree of control and interference that the biotech industry and its supporters may be able to exert over the conduct and publication of research.

For more on this issue, see:–global-food-security

Interview by Christof Potthof with the bee researcher Prof. Dr. Hans-Hinrich Kaatz, University of Halle-Wittenberg

Taken from Risk Reloaded
Risk analysis of genetically engineered plants within the European Union
(A report by Testbiotech e.V., Institute for Independent Impact Assessment in Biotechnology
Authors: Christoph Then, Christof Potthof, October 2009)


In an investigation colonies of honey bees infected with the parasite nosema and fed with the pollen of the genetically modified maize MON810, collapsed much earlier than those colonies which were fed with conventional maize pollen.

Christof Potthof: What did you observe during the investigation?

Prof. Kaatz: In the first year of the field trial designed to last six weeks in that year, the honey bee colonies fed with the Bt maize pollen very clearly collapsed after three weeks. The effects were always the same in the Bt nets. I found this very unsettling because it was not what I had expected; all the previous data from other researchers, which is naturally not transferable, had suggested that the Bt toxin had no effect on honey bees. Then, of course, one has to think about why this should be. It was possible that the causes could be found in our methods; we had used a ten-fold higher concentration of the Bt toxin than there would have been in a natural environment i.e. the Bt content given as the content in the pollen of the genetically modified plants. Because we had not expected any effect we thought we would “use the tenfold amount to be on the safe side. Also if we used the ten-fold amount and found nothing then we could put our minds at rest about the lower content in
the plants.” (…..)

Christof Potthof: Did you find any other clues when you examined the dead honey bees?

Prof. Kaatz: Well, of course, we asked ourselves what had happened to the bees. There were dead honey bees everywhere. We tried to find out which factors had caused their deaths. One possible factor was that affliction with nosema was relatively high in the honey bee colonies. That was something we had not expected quite so strongly at that time in autumn. Basically we knew that the occurrence of nosema can be intensified under stress conditions.

Christof Potthof: If the higher occurrence of nosema is connected to stress then it should have appeared in the colonies without Bt.

Prof. Kaatz: Yes, that is how it was. We examined the control colonies without Bt and found no differences. But it was clearly observed that first of all only the Bt group of colonies collapsed and the control group collapsed later on. However, I need to repeat that we have no evidence. At the moment it is nothing more than a correlation, it could be coincidence.

Christof Potthof: But does it have statistical significance?

Prof. Kaatz: Yes. That is indisputable except that we could not clarify the cause. Interaction between microorganisms found in the digestive tract and the target cells for the toxin has been described in the literature. This has been observed in butterflies …. So thinking in this direction is not erroneous. (….)

Christof Potthof: Have co-factors been included in this type of investigation in the past?

Prof. Kaatz: No, the effect of co-factors has not really been taken into account. One has to say that this kind of investigation is a huge undertaking. In an investigation of a pesticide it is only the active agent factor that is examined. Clearly we need to be very careful here and look much more closely at this aspect in future. Other questions arise too: for instance, is the present testing procedure really adequate in its dimensions to include co-factors? If we actually find evidence that there is some interaction between the effects of co-factors then we need to get down to work. It is a relatively new view point. (…)

Christof Potthof: In the past you have done other honey bee research. Can you tell us a little bit about this?

Prof. Kaatz: Before starting the project with the Bt plants we had already done some research on possible hazards to the health of honey bees due to genetically modified herbicide resistant oil-seed rape and maize plants. We did not find anything negative here. Apart from this we also investigated whether the genes that come from the pollen of the plants could be transferred to honey bees. This is called horizontal gene transfer. Our first step was to find out if genes from the plants could be transferred to the microorganisms in the digestive tract of the honey bees. Later on we aimed to determine how high the probability was that the honey bees incorporate the genes themselves. One must consider that the crossover of genes is one of the principal mechanisms of evolution. It happens in very many groups of organisms.

It was more a fundamental question of scientific principles than a practical problem. We cultivated the microorganisms with the pollen and the result was that the microorganisms had indeed taken up the pat gene. In the debate on genetic engineering it had always been said that one thing that could never happen was the horizontal transfer of newly inserted genes. We presented the results to the Nature journal and got two expert opinions. One was very positive, thinking it could be published immediately.

The other thought we should do an additional analysis, a so-called Southern blot which would further verify our results. Then he would back publication. We said, “We’ll do that.” We did the Southern blot and submitted the article again in the belief that there was now nothing in our way. For a long time we heard nothing at all from the editorial team at Nature but in the meantime we were visited by a ZDF (German public television channel) team who asked us about our research. At the time we told them that nothing could be broadcast until an agreement had been reached with Nature and the article had been published. They nevertheless did broadcast a television programme. It was even on the news – all before we had had a final decision from Nature. We intervened strongly whereupon one of the ZDF team said, “Wait a minute, don’t you know that your article has been rejected.” Until that moment we had had no idea. When we asked him how he knew he said that he had spoken to some people at
Monsanto and they had told him. Naturally I was shocked. It is good that they get to know these things, but I find it awful that they should know before the authors know.

Christof Potthof: How extraordinary!

Prof. Kaatz: Well, you know that when the person making the decision has contacts to Monsanto says something … good. But the editorial team – since they were the only ones to have had both reports – that they pass this on, I find that very annoying. Such a highly respected journal. They shouldn’t need to do that. In fact such a review process should first and foremost be…..(falters)

Christof Potthof: ….discreet?

Prof. Kaatz: ….very discreet.

Christof Potthof: You probably don’t know the names of either of these editors, do you?

Prof. Kaatz: No.

Christof Potthof: Do they know your name?

Prof. Kaatz: Yes, they get the paper and then of course they know the names of the authors. It is not anonymous. Unless you insist. Sometimes that happens. In sensitive cases. I didn’t think our data was so sensitive. We have repeated the experiment. And we have been able to prove that horizontal transfer occurs with a whole series of microorganisms of different kinds. (….)

Christof Potthof: Were your findings published somewhere else later on?

Prof. Kaatz: No, not yet. Since they are something no one wants to hear it is difficult to find an adequate place for them. (….)

3 responses to “GMO risks for bees and beekeeping

  1. Pingback: The Progressive Mind » GMO risks for bees and beekeeping | Food Freedom

  2. Risks to the bees is not acceptable under any conditions. You have been put on notice, Monsanto, Syngenta, et al.

  3. Bernard Kahagi

    Hi! …would like to know the risk factors of genetically modified plants.

    Thak you

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