Secretary, Ministry of Health and Indigenous Medicine, "Suwasiripaya"
385 Wimalawansa Mawatha, Colombo, 10, Sri Lanka. E-mail: email@example.com
President Chandrika Kumaratunga c/o Presidential Secretariat, Colombo, 01
Sri Lanka. Fax: +941 333 703/ +941 446 657
The Honorable John Seneviratne, Minister of Health, Ministry of Health and
Indigenous Medicine, Colombo, 01, Sri Lanka. Fax: +941 694 227
GM technology is overwhelmingly rejected by citizens all over the world as a dangerous technology in the service of corporations and acting against the common good. Sri Lanka has inspired the world for her intellectual and moral leadership in banning GMOs. In the United Kingdom and a growing number of other countries, there is widespread civil disobedience action against GM field trials, which is set to escalate until and unless their government responds by following your example. Please do not reverse your decision to impose the ban from 1 September 2001.
As a geneticist and biophysicist with more than 30 years experience in research and teaching in universities, I was drawn into the genetic engineering debate in 1994 as scientific advisor to the Third World Network. I have since debated and lectured in 30 countries around the world. I am also Director of the Institute of Science in Society (I-SIS), which I co-founded in 1999 to promote socially accountable and ecologically sustainable science, and the critical public understanding of science. I have close to 300 publications, including 10 books spanning several disciplines, among which is Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare? (1998, 1999), translated into several languages.
I-SIS initiated an Open Letter in 1999, calling for a global moratorium on environmental releases of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), on grounds that they are inherently unsafe, and for a ban on patents on living organisms and processes, on grounds that they are unethical and do not constitute inventions. The letter has been signed by 815 scientists so far, and is on our website (http://www.i-sis.org.uk). You may recognise many eminent scientists of international repute among the list of signatories.
A major part of our work is in monitoring the scientific literature to provide accessible information to policy makers and the general public, especially with regard to GMO biosafety. There is currently no independent scientific body, apart from I-SIS, that is performing this important task.
It has become increasingly evident that GM technology is inherently hazardous and unreliable both in agriculture and in medicine. The list of failures is growing apace. Let me mention a few recent examples that came to light within the past year.
GM crops are genetically unstable, and this is fully borne out by numerous new scientific publications . Even the top success, Roundup Ready soya, is showing every sign of breakdown: reduced yield, non-germination, diseases and infestation by new pests . Molecular genetic characterisation, the first ever done on any commercially grown GM crop so far, has confirmed that both the GM construct of Roundup Ready soya and the host genome have been scrambled (rearranged), and hundreds of basepairs of unknown DNA has got in as well .
GMO instability is now admitted in a research report posted by the European Commission on its website:
"Biotechnology relies to a large extent on our ability to introduce foreign genes into cells. A major problem with present day technology is the non-predictability of the integration of such transgenes. DNA introduced into plant cells mostly integrates at random, i.e. at non-predetermined positions of the genome. The biological process ultimately responsible for random integration is known as illegitimate recombination. DNA integrated at random frequently contains multiply copies and often copies are scrambled. Multiple copies also often induce gene silencing and hence instability in the expression of the introduced genes. In addition, the DNA integrates at loci of unknown stability and capacity for expression of randomly integrated copies may induce unpredictable and undesirable mutations in the host genome. we still lack the knowledge for precision engineering of plants genes." .
The next generation crops are worse. I draw your attention especially to those developed with terminator technologies aimed at protecting corporate patents and preventing farmers from saving and replanting seeds. Many are currently field tested and commercially grown as male sterile crops. Not only are the constructs more complicated and hence more unstable and prone to horizontal gene transfer, the gene products used are cell poisons or recombinases, ie, genome scramblers. Female-sterile and even male-sterile genes (yes!) are being spread via pollen . These dangerous genes will spread and wipe out other crops as well as wild plant species.
It has become all too clear that GM agriculture cannot co-exist with other forms of agriculture. Bees are known to travel up to10km or more in foraging for pollen . And there is no way to prevent the horizontal spread of GM constructs to unrelated species, which can occur in all environments, including the digestive and respiratory tracts of animals . There are both sound a priori reasons as well as empirical evidence to support my contention, shared by other scientists, that GM constructs may more likely spread horizontally than non-manipulated DNA.
GM constructs are designed to cross species barriers and invade genomes. They possess homologies to a wide combination of viral and bacterial DNA and are hence much more likely to recombine with, and transfer genes to all those agents. GM constructs are well known to be structurally unstable and hence prone to fragment and recombine. Some constructs such as those with the CaMV 35S promoter are extra unstable on account of the presence of recombination hotspots. I have mentioned the now abundant empirical evidence of structural instability of transgenic DNA and trangenic plants above. The CaMV 35S promoter has been shown to be extra unstable in GM crops. And horizontal transfer of transgenic DNA has been demonstrated both in the laboratory and in the field.
Proponents of GM technology had attempted to refute our warnings about the CaMV 35S promoter . But they have failed to counter our point that the isolated, recombined CaMV 35S promoter cannot be equated with the promoter in the intact viral genome or the intact virus. The intact viral genome had evolved over millions of years. The host range of the virus itself is restricted to the cabbage family, and it has a well-tried and tested life cycle in the host cell that does not require integration into the host genome . The fact that no transfer from the virus into the plant genome has taken place in the course of evolution attests to the effective biological barriers that keep species distinct.
The same promoter, removed from the viral genome and put next to strange genes in the GM construct, is entirely different. It now functions promiscuously across the living world, including animal and human cells . Its destabilising effect on GM crops is such that many scientists, including those who pioneered its use, are now phasing it out. But CaMV 35S promoter is still in practically all GM crops commercially grown or undergoing field trials. Sri Lanka is extremely wise not to let any into her soil.
Apart from the CaMV 35S promoter, many crops also contain antibiotic resistance marker genes. Monsantos GM cottons contain an antibiotic resistance marker gene that UK Government scientists have warned against, on account of its serious implications for the treatment of gonorrhea . Another, the kanamycin resistance marker gene, is widely used. The approval of this marker gene was a regulatory blunder committed in the United States and elsewhere, as it is clear that kanamycin is still in clinical use, and the marker gene confers resistance to new generation aminoglycosides as well . European regulators are now agreed that antibiotic resistance marker genes should be phased out by 2004, because they can spread to pathogenic bacteria, making life-threatening diseases potentially untreatable.
There is also plenty of evidence that GM crops with viral genes are prone to give rise to recombinant viruses, some of which more virulent than the wild type .
When I first drew attention to horizontal gene transfer in 1995, proponents of GM technology reacted by denying it exists. Now they are saying it does not matter because it is a natural process. Horizontal gene transfer may have occurred in our evolutionary past, but GM constructs are anything but natural. They are synthetic genes and new combinations of genes that have never existed in billions of years of evolution, and cannot in any sense be regarded as natural.
And, I am afraid, the GM proponents will have to change their tune again; for a rigorous reanalysis of the human genome and other data has failed to substantiate the claim that the human genome has 113 to 226 bacterial genes transferred into it . The actual number could well be no more than a few, or none at all. What is the lesson? Precisely as I have always said, horizontal gene transfer does not readily happen without genetic engineering. Genetic engineering enhances it, with dangerous consequences. The possibility of horizontal gene transfer, too, is now admitted in a research report posted by the European Commission.
The study notes that the risks of "horizontal gene transfer cannot be excluded Free DNA persists in some materials for weeks, and furthermore, some bacteria develop natural/chemical competence to take up DNA from the environment. In addition, in the gastrointestinal tract of man and husbandry animals, DNA may remain stable for some time, particularly in the colon." .
In biomedical applications, the GM gene-centred approach is equally misplaced and pernicious . So-called health genomics is a drain on our intellectual and financial resources. It is preventing us from addressing the real, overwhelming causes of ill health: poverty, malnutrition, social injustice and environmental pollution. It is stigmatising and victimising those most in need of care and treatment, and making even the most unethical applications, such as human cloning and therapeutic human cloning, seem compelling.
Furthermore, the cures on offer are literally deadly. The toll from gene therapy trials so far is at least 6 deaths and more than 650 adverse events. It is now admitted that gene therapy has been oversold by the scientists themselves . Presumed stem cells from human foetuses transplanted into the brain of 5 Parkinsons patients turned into an irredeemable nightmare because the cells grew uncontrollably . The latest verdict from an international team of cloners is that mice embryonic stem cells are uncontrollably variable in culture, the clones themselves are also subject to uncontrollable and unpredictable variations and defects .
And xenotransplantation is widely condemned because there is clear evidence that endogenous viruses from animal organs can cross into humans .
New lethal viruses continue to be created in genetic engineering labs, some of the latest being SHIVs, hybrids of human and monkey AIDS viruses that can infect both . Finally, AIDS virologists have issued serious warning against AIDS vaccines that undermine the immune system, making it more susceptible to viral infections, and have the potential to generate lethal viruses and bacteria in the vaccinated populations .
A sweeping paradigm change is long overdue if we are to survive the destruction that reductionist science and technology have wrought on us and on our planet. We have all the means to deliver genuine health and food security to the world without using GM technology and going against the wishes of the vast majority of people. Among the most important means, as you know, are indigenous health and agricultural systems that urgently need to be revitalised and protected from corporate biopiracy.
I thank your Government for standing up for the people of the world.
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
Institute of Science in Society, UK
Article first published 23/08/01
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