ISIS Report 06/10/08
GM is Dangerous and Futile
We Need Organic Sustainable Food and Energy Systems Now
New genetics research invalidates the science underpinning the $73.5 billon
global biotech industry and confirms why genetic modification is futile and
dangerous; we must implement organic sustainable food and energy systems now
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
Invited Lecture at Conference on Future of Food: Climate Change,
GMOs and Food Security, 1-2 October 2008, India International Centre, New
A fully referenced version of this article is posted on ISIS members’ website.
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I am deeply and doubly honoured to be part of this important conference on
Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, because it was Vandana Shiva and Tewolde Berhan Gebre
Egziabher who inspired me and turned me from an ivory tower academic into a
science activist. Consequently, I was thrown out of my university and liberated
to join civil society in fighting corrupt science and protecting good independent
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“Change to gene theory raises new challenges for biotech”
The headline appeared in the business section of the International Herald
Tribune 3 July 2007 . The article went on to say: “The $73.5 billion global
biotech business may soon have to grapple with a discovery that calls into
question the scientific principles on which it was founded.”
It was referring to the findings of project ENCODE (Encyclopedia
of DNA elements), organised by the US National Human Genome Research Institute.
A consortium of 35 research groups went through 1 percent of the human genome
with a fine-tooth comb to find out exactly how genes work.
To their surprise, researchers found that the human genome might
not be a “tidy collection of independent genes” after all…Instead, genes appear
to operate in a complex network, and interact and overlap with one another
and with other components in ways not yet fully understood.”
The Human Genome Research Institute said that these findings
will challenge scientists “to rethink some long-held views about what genes
are and what they do.”
The author of the article Denis Caruso commented that, “the report
is likely to have repercussions far beyond the laboratory. The presumption
that genes operate independently has been institutionalized since 1976, when
the first biotech company was founded. In fact, it is the economic and regulatory
foundation on which the entire biotechnology industry is built.” She went
on to point out that gene patents and safety assessment based on the same
paradigm are also in trouble.
She is right on all counts. I pointed that out 10 years previously when a plethora
of findings in molecular genetics had already invalidated the genetic determinist
paradigm underpinning the biotech industry. In fact, the paradigm had begun
to unravel almost as the industry was starting up twenty years earlier.
The Brave New World of GM Science
In Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare,
the Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business  first published
in 1997/1998 I explained why the science behind GM is wrong and obsolete,
and hence dangerous; a story elaborated further in Living with the Fluid Genome
 published in 2003.
Genetic engineering of plants and animals began in the mid 1970s
in the belief that the genome (the totality of all the genetic material of
a species) is constant and static, and that the characteristics of organism
are simply hardwired in their genome. This was encapsulated in the Central
Dogma of molecular biology. The genetic information goes from DNA, the genetic
material, to RNA, a kind of intermediate, to protein which determines the
characteristic involved, such as tolerance to herbicide, for example. One
gene determines one trait, so you can transfer one gene and get exactly the
trait you want, be it herbicide tolerance, or resistance to insect pest.
But geneticists soon discovered that the genome is remarkably
dynamic and ‘fluid’. It is constantly in conversation with the environment,
and that determines which genes are turned on, when, where, by how much and
for how long. Moreover, the genetic material itself could also be marked or
changed according to experience, and the influence passed on to the next generation.
Most of that was known by 1980, long before the Human Genome Project was conceived.
The best thing about the Human Genome Project is to finally explode the myth
of genetic determinism  (The Myth that Launched a Thousand Companies, SiS
18), revealing the layers of molecular complexity that transmit, interpret
and rewrite the genetic texts  (Life Beyond the Central Dogma series,
The ENCODE project has confirmed and extended the complexities especially with
regard to what constitutes a gene. Traditionally, a gene is a sequence of DNA
that codes for a protein with a well-defined function. This idea has been well
and truly shattered ; as Barry Patrick wrote in the Science News 
“genes are proving to be fragmented, intertwined with other genes, and scattered
across the whole genome.”
The genetic engineer’s idea of a gene is presented in Figure
1. It has a regulatory signal, a promoter that says to the cell, go and make
lots of copies of the coding sequence that would be translated into a protein,
and a terminator that says stop, end of message. This is what genetic engineers
put into cells to make a genetically modified organism (GMO).
Figure 1. A gene expression cassette,
the genetic engineer’s idea of a gene
Instead, within the human genome, and indeed other mammalian
genomes, coding sequences are in bits (exons) separated by non-coding introns,
and exons contributing to a single protein could be in different parts of
the genome. Coding sequences of different proteins frequently overlap. Regulatory
signals are similarly scattered upstream, downstream, within the coding sequence
or in some other distant part of the genome. Coding sequences occupy just
1.5 percent of the human genome, but between 74 and 93 percent of the genome
produce RNA transcripts , many now known to have regulatory functions.
So much so that the project of mapping genetic predisposition to diseases,
the original rationale for the Human Genome Project, has now run into serious
David M. Altshuler, associate professor of genetics and medicine
at Harvard Medical School and his research team showed that the risk for type
2 diabetes involves more than a mutated gene. Instead, diabetes, heart disease,
some cancers, and other deadly ailments involve non-coding DNA as well as
in genes . “We’re realizing that things happening ‘somewhere else’ in the
genome, not in genes, are playing critical roles” in sickness and in health,
David B. Goldstein at Duke University is very pessimistic. He
said the effort to nail down the genetics of most common diseases is not working
: “There is absolutely no question that for the whole hope of personalized
medicine, the news has been just as bleak as it could be. After doing comprehensive
studies for common diseases, we can explain only a few percent of the genetic
components of most of these traits.” For schizophrenia and biopolar disorder,
there is almost nothing, for type 2 diabetes, 20 variants, but they explain
only up to 3 percent of familial clustering, and so on.
Goldstein added: “we have cracked open the human genome and can
look at the entire complement of common genetic variants, and what do we find?
Almost nothing. That is absolutely beyond belief.”
That is just what I predicted soon after the human genome sequence
was announced [10, 11] (Human DNA 'BioBank' Worthless,
SiS 13/14; Why Genomics Won't
Deliver, SiS 26)
Fresh attempts are now made to redefine a gene either in terms
of a protein product  or a transcript , neither of which are satisfactory
or would save the industry. All patents on genes based on the old concept
are no longer valid; ultimately because the patent is awarded on a supposed
function attached to a DNA sequence. But as genes exist in bits interweaving
with other genes, so are functions. Multiple DNA sequences may serve the same
function, and conversely the same DNA sequence can have different functions.
Again, I have explained Why Biotech Patents Are Patently Absurd
Despite the bewildering complexities of how the genome works, individual
processes are precisely orchestrated and finely tuned by the organism as a
whole, in a highly coordinated molecular ‘dance of life’ that’s necessary
In contrast, genetic engineering in the laboratory is crude,
imprecise and invasive. The rogue genes inserted into a genome to make a GMO
could land anywhere; typically in a rearranged or defective form, scrambling
and mutating the host genome, and tend to move or rearrange further once inserted.
Transgene instability is a big problem, and has been so right from the beginning.
There is fresh evidence that GM crops grown commercially for years have rearranged
[15, 16] (MON810 Genome Rearranged
Again. Transgenic Lines Unstable
hence Illegal and Ineligible for Protection, SiS 38). This is a
real opportunity to challenge the validity of all biotech patents. Another
key issue is safety. Transgene instability means that the original transgenic
line has turned into something else, and even if it had been assessed as ‘safe’,
this is no longer the case.
The genetically modified genes are a big hazard because they do not know the
intricate dance of life that has been perfected in billions of years of evolution.
That’s ultimately why genetic modification is both dangerous and futile.
Thirty years of GM are more than enough
We’d had 30 years of GM and more than enough damage done, as detailed in the
ISP Report The Case for A GM-Free Sustainable World  and the dossier GM Science Expose :
Hazards Ignored, Fraud, Regulatory Sham, Violation of Farmers Rights  we
compiled for the European Parliament in June 2007. And more evidence has been
piling up since. Why has this been allowed to go on? W documented how national
and international regulators and advisory bodies such as the European Food Safety
Authority not only routinely ignore the precautionary principle, but also actively
abuse science, sidestep the law, and helping to promote GM technology in the
face of evidence piling up against the safety of GM food and feed  (GM Food Nightmare
Unfolding in the Regulatory Sham, ISIS scientific publication).
Let me summarize the evidence stacked up against GMOs.
Successive reports [17, 18, 20] confirm that the yields of all major GM crops
varieties cultivated are lower than, or at best, equal to yields from non-GM
varieties. Studies from 1999 to 2007 consistently show that GM soya decreased
yields by 4 to 12 percent compared to non-GM soya, while Bt maize yields from
0 to 12 percent less than conventional isolines. Up to 100 percent failures
of Bt cotton crops have been recorded in India  (and amply confirmed by
the farmer witnesses who are here today). New research from the University
of Kansas found a 10 percent average yield drag for Roundup Ready soya ,
and extra manganese is needed for the soil Scientists from the USDA and the
University of Georgia found growing GM cotton in the US could result in a
drop in income by up to 40 percent [22, 23] (Transgenic
Cotton Offers No Advantage, SiS 38)
- No reduction in pesticides use
USDA data showed that GM crops increase pesticide use by 50 million pounds
from 1996 to 2003 in the United States . New data paint an even grimmer
picture: the use of glyphosate on major crops went up more than 15-fold between
1994 and 2005, along with increases in other herbicides  in order to cope
with rising glyphosate resistant superweeds . Palmer 3pigweed is a major
concern in Georgia, with farmer there having to mow cotton down in fields
with glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth . And following close on the
health of that is glyphosate resistant giant ragweed . Roundup tolerant
canola volunteers are top among the worries of Canadian farmers [27, 28] (Study Based on Farmers’
Experience Exposes Risks of GM Crops, SiS 38)
- Roundup lethal to frogs and toxic to human placental and embryonic
Roundup is more toxic than glyphosate, and it is used in more than 80 percent
of all GM crops planted in the world.
UK’s farm scale evaluations have found that GM crops harm wildlife ;
more recently a study led by Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois in the United
Stated, found that wastes from Bt corn impaired the growth of a common aquatic
insect [29, 30] (Bt Crops Threaten
Aquatic Ecosystems, SiS 36). This is just the tip of the iceberg.
There is evidence that GM crops, especially Bt crops contribute to the demise
of the honeybee worldwide because it compromises their immune system and make
them exra-susceptible to attacks by parasitic fungus (31) (Parasitic Fungi and Pesticides
Act Synergistically to Kill Honeybees? SiS 35).
- Bt resistance pests and Roundup tolerant superweeds render the two
major GM crop traits practically useless .
A recent review concluded that  “evolved
glyphosate-resistant weeds are a major risk for the continued success of glyphosate
and transgenic glyphosate-resistant crops.” And the evolution of Bt resistant
bollworms worldwide have now been confirmed and documented in more than a
dozen fields in Mississippi and Arkansas between 2003 and 2006 . Worse
yet, secondary pests now plague the fields and spread to other crops in India 
gift from Monsanto to India, SiS 38).
- Vast areas of forests, pampas and cerrados lost to GM soya in Latin
Argentina alone has lot 15 m hectares ; and this has worsened considerably
with the demand for biofuels (see later)
- Epidemic of suicides in the cotton belt of India
An estimated 100 000 farmers have killed themselves between 1993-2003, and
a further 16 000 farmers a year have died since Bt cotton was introduced 
- GM food and feed linked to deaths and sicknesses
Evidence of serious health impacts in lab tests and from farmers’ fields
around the world (more below)
GM food and feed inherently hazardous to health 
Here are some highlights from our GM Science dossier  on the hazards of
GM food and feed. Dr. Irina Ermakova of the Russian Academy of Sciences showed
how GM soya made female rats give birth to severely stunted and abnormal litters,
with more than half dying in three weeks, and those remaining are sterile. Hundreds
of villagers and cotton handlers in India suffer allergy-like symptoms, thousands
of sheep died after grazing on the Bt cotton residues, goat and cows as well
were reported in 2007 and 2008  (Mass Protests against GM Crops
in India , SiS 38). (As reported by farmer witnesses as this conference,
the problem is continuing and sterility in offspring of exposed animals has
also been observed.) A harmless bean protein transferred to pea when tested
on mice cause severe inflammation in the lungs and provoked generalised food
sensitivities. Dozens of villagers in the south of the Philippines fell ill
when neighbouring GM maize fields came into flower in 2003, at least five have
died and some remain ill to this day. A dozen cows died having eaten GM maize
in Hesse Germany and more in the herd had to be slaughtered from mysterious
illnesses. Arpad Pusztai and his colleagues in the UK found GM potatoes with
snowdrop lectin damaged every organ system of young rats; the stomach lining
grew twice as thick as controls. Chickens fed GM maize Chardon LL were twice
as likely to die as controls. And finally, GM maize Mon 863 was claimed to be
as safe as non-GM maize by the company, and accepted as such by European Food
Safety Authority. But independent scientists of CriiGen in France re-analysed
the data and found signs of liver and kidney toxicity.
Different animals and human beings exposed to a variety of transgenic crops
with different traits either fall ill or die. The evidence compels us to consider
the possibility that the hazards of GMOs may be inherent to the technology,
as I suggested more than ten years ago .
Table 1. Summary of Exposure of Animals and Human Beings to GMOs
|Species ||GM species ||Transgene trait ||Effect |
|Rat||Soya||Roundup Ready||Stunting, death, sterility|
|Sheep||“||“||Death, liver toxicity|
|Mice||Pea||Alpha-amylase Inhibitor||Lung Inflammation, General food sensitivity|
|Mice||Soya||Roundup Ready||Liver, pancreas and testis Affected|
|Humans||Maize||Cry1Ab||Illnesses and death|
|Rats||Maize||Cry3Bb||liver and kidney toxicity|
|Cows||Maize||Cry1Ab/Cry1Ac||Death and illnesses|
|Rats||Potato||Snowdrop lectin||Damage in every organ system. Stomach lining twice as thick as controls|
|Mice||Potato||Cry1A||Gut lining thickened|
|Rats||Tomato||Delay ripening||Holes in the stomach|
An epidemic of Morgellons Disease has hit the US and other countries that had
been involved in genetic modification technology  (Agrobacterium &
Morgellons Disease, A GM Connection?. SiS 38). The pathogen is suspected
to be Agrobacterium, which has been widely used in smuggling genes into cells
to make GMOs. Is this a disease created by GM? There have been close calls before.
US courts rule GM crop field-tests and releases illegal
The message that GM crops are unsafe appears to have got through to
the judiciary system in the United States. There have been three court rulings against the US Department of
Agriculture (USDA) for failing to carry out proper environmental impact assessment,
making the original releases illegal  (Approval of GM
Crops Illegal, US Federal Courts Rule, SiS 34).
These are the first rulings against GMOs in the top producing country in the
world, which has been also promoting GMOs aggressively.
The first case was on drug-producing GM crops in Hawaii. The court said that the USDA violated
the Endangered Species Act as well as the National Environmental Policy Act.
The second court case not only ruled GM herbicide-tolerant
creeping bentgrass illegal, but also that the USDA must halt approval of all
new field trials until more rigorous environmental reviews are conducted.
The third decision was passed on Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa for
having been commercial released illegally without an Environment Impact Statement.
An avalanche of bans and rulings strikes GM crops
There have been numerous bans and restrictions imposed on GM crops
in recent years, which say a lot about the inadequacies of regulatory regimes
worldwide (see Box 1).
Rulings and bans on GMOs between May
2007 and May 2008
- US GM alfalfa ban made permanent 
- US Federal Court of Appeals ruled against GM bentgrass again
- Four counties in California have bans or moratorium on GM crops
and the first state bill to protect Californian farmers against lawsuits
that intimate and harass them when their field are contaminated passed
through the Agriculture committee in January 2008 
- Montville USA became the first town outside California
to ban GM crops 
- South Australia extended its GM ban 
- Romania joined EU members in banning GM crop Mon 810 , the
others are France, Hungary, Italy, Austria, Greece, and Poland
- 13 out of 20 counties in Croatia have declared themselves
- Greece renewed its ban on GM maize seeds 
- Germany imposed much stricter regulations on GM maize 
- Scotland backs GM ban in Europe 
- France banned GM maize Mon 810 in February 2008 and passed GMO
law in April to guard against contamination by GMO, making it compulsory
for farmers to “respect agricultural structures, local ecosystems and
non-GMO commercial and production industries” [48, 49]
- Wales is set to ban GM crops 
- Switzerland bans crops until 2012 
- More than 230 regions, over 4 000 municipalities and other local
entities and tens of thousands of farmers and food producers in
Europe have declared themselves GMO-free so far 
EU Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas has expressed
serious reservations concerning GMOs  (GM-Free
Europe Beginning?, SiS 36), which is unprecedented in the history
of the European Commission. On 7 May 2008, the European Commission delayed
a decision on allowing farmers to grow more GM crops, and asked European Food
Safety Authority to reconsider its previous review, which it had admitted
was inadequate, as it was unable to take indirect and long term impacts into
No case for GM crops, small scale organic farming is the way ahead
Meanwhile, on 15 April 2008, 400 scientists of the International Assessment
of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) released its
2 500-page report [55, 56] (GM-Free Organic Agriculture
to Feed the World”, SiS 38) that took 4 years to complete. It is
a thorough examination of global agriculture on a scale comparable to the
Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change.
The IAASTD calls for a fundamental change in farming practice
to counteract soaring food prices, hunger, poverty and environmental disasters,
it says GM crops are controversial with respect to safety for health and the
environment, and will not play a substantial role in addressing climate change,
loss of biodiversity, hunger and poverty. Small scale farmers and agro-ecological
methods are the way forward, and indigenous and local knowledge are as important
as formal scientific knowledge. It warns that growing crops for biofuels could
worsen food shortages and price rises.
The conclusions of the IAASTD are remarkably similar to our own
report Food Futures Now *Organic *Sustainable
*Fossil Fuel Free  launched in UK Parliament a week later.
Our Food Futures Now report goes a step
further. We argue that only organic agriculture can truly feed the
world. More than that, organic agriculture and localised food and energy systems
can potentially compensate for all greenhouse emissions due to human activities
and free us from fossil fuels, and we need to implement this urgently.
The UN has declared 2008 the year of the Global Food Crisis, and it has been
the top news story everyday for months now as the crisis deepens. Food prices
increased by an average of 40 percent last year; a string of food riots and
protests spread around the world including the UK, and more than 25 000 farmers
killed themselves in India.
Most commentators agree that the immediate cause of the food
crisis is the divestment of food grains into producing biofuels. BusinessWeek
identified Monsanto as a “prime beneficiary”. Its stock correlated closely
with the price of oil (better than ExxonMobile), and hardly correlated with
the price of corn, basically because no one will eat its GM corn. Nevertheless
the pro-GM lobby are out in force, using the food crisis to promote GM crops.
GM crops are one big failed experiment based on an obsolete scientific
theory, and this failure has been evident since 2004 if not before  (Puncturing the GM Myths, SiS
22). Apart from yielding less and requiring more pesticides, anecdotal evidence
since 2005 from farmers around the world indicates that GM crops also require
more water . Industrial Green Revolution agriculture is now generally
acknowledged to be a major driver of climate change as well as being vulnerable
to climate change because of its heavy dependence on fossil energies and water,
and its susceptibility to pests, diseases and climate extremes [56, 60, 61]
(Beware the New "Doubly
Green Revolution", SiS 37)..GM crops have all the worst features
of industrial Green Revolution varieties exaggerated, and not least, there
are outstanding safety concerns as I mentioned. Growing GM crops for biofuels
does not make them safe, as they will contaminate our food crops all the same.
Any further indulgence in GMOs will surely damage our chances of surviving
global warming. We must get on with the urgent business of building organic,
sustainable food and energy systems right now.