Brussels, November 25, 2002 – Friends of the Earth today expressed “shock and anger” at yesterday’s report in United Kingdom (UK) newspaper The Observer that Morphotek, a US-based biotechnology company, were planning to use the genes that cause colonic cancer in humans to generate new crops varieties by speeding up the evolutionary process. The new technique is called morphogenics.

Morphotek is based in Pennsylvania. It is currently trying to persuade transnational biotech companies, such as Bayer, Monsanto and Syngenta, to adopt the new technique they have developed following research at John Hopkins University, Baltimore. “It is staggering that this technology which raises huge ethical and safety issues has progressed so far in the US without being challenged by the regulators and been subject to a full public debate. For many people in Europe, the use of human cancer genes in producing crop plants will be a step too far, ” said Geert Ritsema, GMO Campaign Coordinator for Friends of the Earth Europe.

Genes that trigger colonic cancer in humans were isolated by the team which set up Morphotek. The genes create a chain of mutations in all plants, mammals and micro organisms which can produce thousands of mutated offspring which are then screened for useful characteristics. In plants the selected offspring are then breed to produce new crop varieties with a range of character, such as drought and pest resistance, that Morphotek claim would be impossible using conventional breeding in the same time scale. The technology has been likened by some commentators to speeding up evolution with a “rocket powered backpack”.

Morphotek uses Genetic Modification (GM) techniques to get the cancer genes into crops and claims that they can be bred out before the mutated varieties are put on the market. US patents have been granted to scientists on the Morphotek board and more have been applied for.

“The US Administration seems to accept any GM development without question so the EU has a vital role in ensuring that GM technology is controlled and rejected if unethical or high risk. Morphotek is already touting morphogenics to the big biotech companies in Europe. Friends of the Earth trust that the European Commission and the European Parliament will be very critical of this new GM technology. We urge the EU to organise a public debate on morphogenetics and scrutinize this new gene technology very carefully. Only after consultation of the public and thorough scientific research a decision can be taken whether to allow morphogenetics in the EU or not ”, added Geert Ritsema.


Friends of the Earth in Brussels
Geert Ritsema, GMO Campaign Coordinator
Phone: +32-2-542 0182 Mobile: + 31-6 –290 05 908