Debate at School of Oriental and African Studies,
London, June 1, 2000, organized by the US Embassy.
The proposal that "agricultural biotechnology is vital for the
future of the developing world" can immediately be contradicted if we
are talking about GM crops. Evidence is building up that they are unsafe,
unsound and unsustainable. If theyre not good for us here they cant
be good for the developing world. GM crops allow corporations to tighten
their monopoly on agriculture though patented seeds that farmers cant
resow. And that is especially important for the developing world.
Last month, it transpired that GM canola fields in Canada had
contaminated non-GM seeds sold to Europe, after tens of thousands of
hectares have been planted.
GM pollution is not restricted to cross-pollination between the same or
related species. Prof. Kaatz of Jena has just discovered that GM genes may
have jumped from GM pollen to bacteria and yeasts in the gut of baby bees
(1). The finding is not unexpected, as scientists including myself have
been warning of this possibility for years. The risks of gene jumping are
inherent to the GM technology.
GM genetic material is not like ordinary genetic material. Natural
genetic material in non-GM food is broken down by special enzymes to
provide energy and building-blocks for growth and repair. And should the
foreign genetic material get into a cells own genetic material - its
genome other enzymes can still put it out of action. All these are
part of the biological barrier that keeps species distinct, so gene
exchange across species is held in check.
But along come the genome invaders, genetic engineers and the artificial
constructs they make, which are designed to cross all species barriers and
to literally invade genomes (2). Genetic material of dangerous bacteria,
viruses and other genetic parasites from widely different origins are
combined into new constructs that have never existed in billions of years
of evolution. And genes are transferred between species that would never
interbreed. These constructs include antibiotic resistance genes that make
bacterial infections untreatable. They include aggressive gene-switches or
promoters from viruses that make genes over-express continuously
something which never happens in healthy organisms and are active
across a wide range of species. One such promoter, from the cauliflower
mosaic virus, or CaMV, is in practically all GM crops already
commercialized or undergoing field trials. Colleagues and I have reviewed
the scientific evidence surrounding the CaMV promoter and called for all
these crops to be withdrawn on grounds that they are unsafe (3).
GM constructs are designed to jump into genomes. Unfortunately, they can
also jump out again, to invade other genomes. GM lines are well-known to
be unstable, partly because the integrated GM construct can be lost (4),
and the viral promoter makes it worse.
Experiments have shown that GM genes can transfer from plants to soil
fungi and bacteria. Two German geneticists monitored fields where GM sugar
beet was planted (5). They found that the GM construct has persisted in
the soil for at least two years after the plants were removed, and some
bacteria in the soil may have taken up different parts of the construct.
The same kinds of constructs are used to genetic engineer animals and
human beings. Recent experiments in so-called gene therapy leave little
doubt that these constructs can get into all mammalian cells including our
own, and in many instances, become incorporated into the cells
What are the dangers of GM gene jumping? GM constructs are made from
viruses and bacteria and designed to cross species barriers. In the
process, they may recombine with other viruses and bacteria to create new
pathogens. The antibiotic resistance genes may also spread to bacteria
associated with serious diseases such as meningitis and tuberculosis.
Artificial constructs invading genomes may also wake up dormant viruses
that are in all genomes. The CaMV promoter, which is necessary for the
virus to multiply, has been found to be interchangeable, in part or in
whole with promoters of other viruses to give infectious viruses. Alien
genetic material invading genomes also give rise to gene mutations, some
of which may result in cancer.
GM crops are turning out to be useless as well as unsafe. The bacterial
bt-toxins, engineered into many crops are poisonous for beneficial and
endangered species such as lacewings and the Monarch butterfly. They also
encourage new resistant pests to evolve. Stink Bugs in North Carolina and
Georgia are eating up the bt-cotton crops (7). Monsanto recommends
spraying with toxic pesticides including methyl parathion, among the
deadliest chemicals used in American agriculture. Studies in the
University of Nebraska indicate that GM Roundup Ready soya yielded 6-11%
less than non-GM soya, and needed 2-5 times more herbicide.
So-called second generation GM crops are worse. This includes the golden
rice engineered to make pro-vitamin A in the polished grain and
promoted as the cure for vitamin A deficiency in the Third World. The
scientists are supposedly offering Third World farmers "free"
access to the grain while allowing it to be commercially exploited in the
developed world. They didnt mention that there are already 70 patent
claims on the genes and gene-constructs. It has also cost US$100 million
to produce, and may need as much to develop.
To offer that to the poor and malnourished is worse than telling them to
eat cake. There are plenty of alternative, infinitely cheaper sources of
pro-vitamin A such as green vegetables and unpolished rice. It is the
substitution of the traditional varied diets in the Third World by green
revolution monoculture crops thats responsible for vitamin A
deficiency as well as deficiencies of iron, iodine and other
Golden rice is an abomination. The technology is standard
first generation ie, unpredictable, unreliable and uncontrollable (8); the
constructs just as unsafe if not more so. There are at least two genes
with the CaMV promoter, one of which codes for antibiotic resistance.
The way to feed the world is definitely not GM crops. World population
figures have been wildly exaggerated. Norman Borlaug, father of the green
revolution, claims GM crops are needed to feed 10 billion. In fact,
figures have had to be revised downwards several times in the late 1990s.
By mid-1998, the UNs estimate was that world population will peak at
7.7 billion in 2040, then go into long term decline to 3.6 billion by
2150, less than two-third of todays number (9).
Population arguments are based on the ecological notion of carrying
capacity. But the carrying capacity of an ecosystem depends on its
organization. Ecologists are increasingly finding that the more biodiverse
the ecosystem, the greater the carrying capacity, and hence the more
people and wild-life it can support. Also, biodiverse systems are more
stable and resilient. The same principles have guided traditional
indigenous farming systems, and are now being re-applied in holistic
approaches that integrate indigenous and western scientific knowledge
(10). Some 12.5 million hectares around the world are already farmed in
this way. The yields have doubled and tripled and are still increasing. At
the same time, these agricultural systems have been reversing some of the
worst environmental, social and health impacts of the green revolution.
World market for GM crops has collapsed because people all over the
world are rejecting them and opting for organic sustainable agriculture
(11).An organic revolution is rising from the grass-roots and also
sweeping across the disciplines within western science. From quantum
physics to the ecology of complexity and the new genetics, the message is
the same: nature is dynamic, interconnected and interdependent. Proponents
of GM technology are stuck in the mechanistic era, it is that above all
that makes the technology both futile and dangerous.
In conclusion, this house must reject GM crops because it is not safe,
not needed and fundamentally unsound. It is standing in the way of the
necessary global shift to sustainable organic agriculture that can really
provide food security and health around the world.
Notes and References
Barnett, A. (2000). GM genes jump species barrier The
Observer May 28, 2000.
See Pawlowski, W.P. and Somers, D.A. (1996). Transgene inheritance in
plants genetically engineered by microprojectile bombardment. Molecular
Biotechnology 6, 17-30.
Gebhard, F. and Smalla, K. (1999). Monitoring field releases of
genetically modified sugar beets for persistence of transgenic plant DNA
and horizontal gene transfer. FEMS Microbiology Ecology 28,
This can be seen in the scientific report itself: Ye, X., Al-Babili,
S., Kloti, A., Zhang, J., Lucca, P., Beyer, P. and Potrykus, I. (2000).
Engineering the provitamin A (b-carotene) biosynthetic pathway into
(carotenoid-free) rice endosperm. Science 287, 303-305; see also
ISIS Sustainable Science Audit #1: The
Golden Rice An Exercise in How Not to Do Science .
World Population Projections to 2150, UN Population Division, New
See Altieri, M., Rosset, P. and Trupp, L.A. (1998). The Potential
of Agroecology to Combat Hunger in the Developing World, Institute
for Food and Development Policy Report, Oakland, California; also
Rosset, P. personal communication.
Over the past four years, US corn exports to the EU have fallen from
$360 million a year to near zero, while soya exports have fallen from
$2.6 billion annually to $1 billion- and expected to fall even further
as major food processors, supermarkets, and fast-food chains ban GM soya
or soya derivatives in animal feeds. Canada's canola exports to Europe
similarly fell from $500 million a year to near zero. From Biodemocracy
News #27 www.purefood.org