Scientists working for Swiss food giant Novartis have developed and patented a method for 'switching off' the immune systems of plants, to the outrage of environmentalists and Third World charities who believe the new technology to be the most dangerous use so far of gene modification.
Patents filed by Novartis, manufacturers of Ovaltine, reveal that its scientists expect to be able to use the radical biotechnology for almost every crop on Earth.
Novartis claims that the new use of genetic modification will give farmers greater control over disease and boost production. But critics insist that it will make Third World farmers dependent on buying the company's chemicals each year to produce healthy harvests.
A spokeswoman for Novartis said: 'We are trying to help farmers, not hinder them. We are looking at ways to improve the way plants fight disease.'
She agreed that the company had discovered a way of genetically modifying crops so that their immune systems were disabled, but stressed that this was for 'research purposes' only.
The process involves transferring a single DNA molecule, described by the firm as the 'NIM gene', to the plant. This gene then reacts with the plant's immune system, allowing it to be switched on selectively by the use of chemicals when disease threatens. But the patent also describes plants where the entire immune system has been switched off, making them highly prone to disease.
Environmentalists fear the new technology could have a disastrous ecological impact if crops with their immune systems suppressed are allowed to cross-pollinate with surrounding plant life. The use of GM technology, which uses chemicals to activate genetic traits, was specifically condemned by the UN earlier this year. It recommended that the technology should not be field-tested and called for a moratorium on its development until the impact had been fully assessed.
The patent documents seen by The Observer suggest that Novartis intends to use the new GM technology on 'barley, cucumber, tobacco, rice, chilli, wheat, banana and tomato'.
The company cites an extensive list of more than 80 crops, including several cereals, dozens of fruit such as apples, pears and strawberries, vegetables like beans and lentils, and cash crops like cotton and tea.
Alex Wijeratna of Action Aid, a development charity that works with farmers in developing countries, said: 'We find it extremely frightening that such a powerful multi-national is working on this type of technology, which seems aimed at protecting their profits by threatening the rights of poor farmers.'
Dr Sue Mayer, director of Gene Watch, said: 'These companies should halt development of these potentially dangerous products until there has been a proper assessment of whether they are good for agriculture.'
On Wednesday, the shareholders of Novartis and biotechnology giant Astra Zeneca will vote on whether to merge and create the world's largest GM company.
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Last Updated on 10/9/00