Written and compiled by Mae-Wan Ho & Angela Ryan & Joe Cummins
Edited by Mae-Wan Ho
Institute of Science in Society
and Department of Biological
Open University, Walton Hall
Milton Keynes MK7 6AA, U.K.
To Bt or Not Bt - How sound science
makes the case
The Potential of Agroecology to Combat
Hunger in the Developing World by Miguel Altieri, Peter Rosset and Lori Ann
Thrupp, October 1998. Food First Publications, Food First Institute for Food
and Development Policy
Other papers new on the ISIS website
World Scientists Open Letter welcomed by all except industry
World Scientists Open Letter was signed by more
than 310 scientists from 38 countries when presented to the United Nations
Convention on Sustainable Development (CSD), April 24 to 5 May 2000, New York.
It was warmly welcomed and given much prominence in the official as well as
unofficial proceedings because it speaks for the overwhelming majority of the
participants and stakeholder groups. They share our concerns on the hazards of
GMOs and strongly favour a moratorium on environmental releases. They are
opposed to growing GM crops in developing countries, especially to patents on
seeds and other life-forms and living processes, which threaten food security,
sanction biopiracy of indigenous knowledge and genetic resources, and violate
basic human rights and dignity. Most of all, there is a chorus of support for
sustainable agriculture involving holistic approaches that integrate indigenous
and western scientific knowledge and are adapted to local ecological
conditions. Representatives of the G77 (the developing countries) and China
repeatedly called for a holistic approach to sustainable development that is
compatible with the diverse cultural traditions of countries within the
It was clear that industry and the industry-friendly governments of
the Miami Group US, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Uraguay and Chile
were isolated. Farmers across the developed and the developing world,
indigenous peoples, trade unions, consumer groups, public interest
organizations, the majority of government delegates and scientists (those not
sitting with industry), were all speaking as with one voice.
Director of Third World Network and Prof. Miguel Altieri, a well-known
proponent of agroecology were invited to speak in the formal sessions, to much
acclaim. Martin attacked the globalized economy for exacerbating the gap
between the poor and the rich, as the superpowers continue to legislate
unsustainable and unfair treaties in the World Trade Organization that
disadvantage the Third World; perpetrating neo-colonial exploitation and
worsening the global ecological crisis. Miguel gave a detailed documentation of
the successes of agroecology in Latin America and elsewhere, which have doubled
and tripled yields within the past 10-15 years and reversing the social and
environmental devastation of corporate agriculture. Among other contributors to
the stakeholders dialogue were Dr. Peter Rosset of Food First Institute, Chee
Yokeling and Victoria Corpus of Third World Network and myself from ISIS. Third
World Network also organized workshops and a special seminar chaired by
Colombian delegate Juan Mayr, the official Chair of the CSD session, who also
chaired the Cartegena Biosafety Protocol meetings in Cartegena last year and in
Montreal this January.
Thanks to Lim Li Lin of Third World Network, our
Open Letter was subsequently presented to the UN Conference on Biological
Diversity held in Nairobi later in May where some 60 countries signed the
Cartegena Biosafety Protocol. The Letter was given prominent press coverage
amidst calls for moratorium on releases of GMOs in Africa.
Zamora has reported earlier that our Open Letter was presented to the Congress
in the Philippines, which helped to secure a moratorium on GMO imports in that
Many thanks to Sandro Puetz of the Gene-ethics network in Berlin
for translating our Open Letter into German, and posting it on their website
So, please, scientists please stand up for your
convictions and join us. Sign on at our
website. We are taking our letter next to Washington D.C. in the US for a
special forum on June 29, "Can biotechnology help fight world hunger?"
organized by Congressman Tony Hall.
Prominent UK Member of Parliament lashes out at scientists
Dr. Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich North, chairs the
Parliamentary and Scientific Committee and is also a Member of the House of
Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology. He was criticised by the
scientific establishment as "anti-science" when he raised the issue of genetic
discrimination in connection with the increasing number of diagnostic tests
made available by the human genome project. His reply is the strongest
statement yet that scientists have to be socially accountable for what they do.
This is a breath of fresh air. Finally, someone of influence has spoken out for
the public as well as the vast majority of scientists who are not genetic
engineers. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, even corporations, have been called to
account, so why not scientists?
"Why should the issue of genetically modified organisms
be raised in its social context by the green movement, for example, and not
first in a strong manner by scientists?" he writes in the April issue of the
publication of the British Association for the Advancement of Science,
Science & Public Policy.
He challenges scientists to answer "why they are allowed
to spend their time doing blue skies research and are paid for
indulging their talents without having to answer for the social consequences of
their research." He also called for a full dialogue involving legislators,
lawyers, scientists and the public. "Without a proper discourse", he writes,
"science will move backwards and fail to capture public support and scientists
will continue to be portrayed as dysfunctional and arrogant."
Dr. Ian Gibson cannot be accused of not understanding
science, as he has a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and has been a full-time academic
until he got elected to Parliament in 1997.
Joint ISIS and TWN Project
ISIS believes that science as much as scientists should
be socially and ecologically accountable, and has launched a sustainable
science audit project jointly with the Third World Network (Penang). The first
audit is on the golden rice a GM rice engineered to produce
pro-Vitamin A which is being offered to the Third World as cure for
widespread vitamin A deficiency.
The audit uncovers fundamental deficiencies in all
aspects, from the scientific/social rationale to the science and technology
involved. It is being promoted in order to salvage a morally as well as
financially bankrupt agricultural biotech industry.
The scientific / social rationalization for the project
exposes a reductionist self-serving scientific paradigm that fails to see the
world beyond its own narrow confines. The golden rice is a useless
application. Some 70 patents have already been filed on the GM genes and
constructs used in making the golden rice. It is a drain on public
resources and a major obstruction to the implementation of sustainable
agriculture that can provide the real solutions to world hunger and
Golden rice is not a second
generation GM crop as has been claimed. It involves standard first
generation technology, and carries some of the worst features in terms of
hazards to health and biodiversity. Rockefeller Foundation, the major funder of
the project by far is reported to have withdrawn support from it, although this
is still to be confirmed. Our own recommendation is that the project should be
The Report, "The
Golden Rice An Exercise in How Not to Do Science" is
available on ISIS website.
Corporate science engineering consensus
At the World Economic Forum in Davos early this year,
Bruce Alberts, President of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS), gathered
behind the scenes with a group of a dozen other presidents of national science
academies to create an International Academy Council (IAC) to provide
"impartial scientific advice" to governments and international organizations on
issues such as genetic engineering, threatened ecosystems, and biodiversity.
Bruce Alberts also chairs The National Research Council
(NRC), which has a full-time staff of 1000 and a $200 million annual budget.
Through the NRC, the NAS conducts studies and prepares about 200 reports
annually, largely under contract to federal agencies. In flagrant violation of
the rules of open government - the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act - which
Alberts still vehemently opposes, NRC committees and panels meet secretly in
closed sessions. They do not disclose their minutes or conflict of interest
statements, and fail to require that their membership reflects balanced
representation of divergent interests and viewpoints.
The NRC committee which issued the 1996 report on
"Carcinogens and Anti-carcinogens in the Human Diet" dismissed concerns on
cancer risks to infants and children from food contaminated with carcinogenic
pesticides, alleging that these "occur at levels far too low to have any
adverse effects on health." Dr. Sam Epstein, acting on behalf of an ad
hoc coalition of about 100 leading independent experts in public health and
cancer prevention, and representatives of a wide range of labor and citizen
groups, warned Alberts that the committee was grossly unbalanced, being
disproportionately weighted with industry consultants, and pointed out further
that no pediatrician had been invited to serve on the Committee. Alberts
responded by admitting "that some of the committee members have performed some
consulting for industry," but dismissed the concerns on grounds that "the same
members have also advised or consulted for regulatory agencies"!
A more blatant conflict of interest arose in the
composition of the NRC biotechnology panel set up in March, 1999, with
disproportionate representation of experts directly linked to industry. It
transpired that the panels executive director, Dr. Michael Phillips, was
secretly negotiating for a senior position in the Biotechnology Industry
Organization, and joined the industry some 3 months later.
As federal support is beginning to shrink, the NAS plans
to increase funding from non-federal sources, which currently account for some
15% of its budget. The NAS is also planning to extend its influence to major
national policy concerns. Alberts has refused to release a pending report
recommending reorganization of NAS policies and procedures.
All this was revealed in a letter submitted to
Science magazine, co-signed by Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., School of Public
Health, University of Illinois at Chicago and Chairman of Cancer Prevention
Coalition, Edward Goldsmith, Editor and Founder of The Ecologist and
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho of ISIS. The letter was rejected, despite repeated
requests for reconsideration from Sam Epstein.
This is not the first time that magazines such as
Science, Nature and New Scientist have refused to give
voice to scientists dissenting from the corporate view, and they may be
plumbing new depths in the current debate in genetic engineering, when undue
and apparently unlimited access to their pages is granted to pro-biotech
scientists and other supporters of the industry.
Nature Biotechnology (Jan. 2000) published a long report
that attempted to discredit a (now published) paper on the potential hazards of
the cauliflower mosaic viral promoter in the worst style of gutter journalism;
and only gave the authors a very grudging right to reply after a delay of three
to four months (see ISIS News #4) when the same offending journalist was
allowed to have yet another go (see Nature Biotchnology April, 2000). I
have long cancelled my personal subscriptions to these magazines.
There is still no open public debate on the abundant
scientific evidence of actual and potential hazards of genetic engineering, nor
on how scientific evidence ought to be used in the context of the precautionary
principle. Some scientists have had their lives and work ruined, not the least
by having to read boring scientific papers and reports no one would ever have
volunteered to read, if they didn't think it is so important for the public to
be informed as to what corporate science has in store for us.
We can have no confidence in any group of scientific
advisors who have not been through the open democratic process. The US National
Academy of Science report on GM crops was released in April this year amidst
fresh controversy. While the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO)
the industrys lobby - was delighted by the report, claiming in a press
release that GM foods "are thoroughly tested and safe", critics have rejected
the report. US Senator Dennis Kucinich called for the study to be scraped
because the panel was "tainted by pervasive conflicts of interest". Many
scientists in the US are among the critics, though Science magazine
refers to us all as activists (Science, 14 April, 2000). We
have repeatedly invited and challenged those scientists who are still claiming
that GM crops pose no special risks to open debate and discussions in terms
that the public can understand, instead of hiding behind jargon words that
defeat even most other scientists. They have turned us down again and
Dr. C. S. Prakash, Director of the Center for Plant
Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University (USA), is the latest corporate
recruit to counter the worldwide rejection of GM crops. I first came across him
in a pro-GM documentary I was tricked into taking part by Equinox,
the science series of Channel 4 TV in the UK (see ISIS NEWs #4). I met Prakash
again at the multi-stakeholders dialogue at the 8th session of the
United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (April 24-May 4, New
York), where he sat with, and spoke for the biotech industry. On June 1, I
encountered him for the third time in a debate in London, organized by the US
Embassy. I was told Prakash has been sent over by the US State Department.
Unlike his predecessor Val Giddings, Prakash oozes charm and bonhomie. He said
he has already been touring Europe "to prevent other Mae-Wan Hos from springing
up" and London, UK, was his last stop.
The debate, held in The School of Oriental and African
Studies, was on the motion, "Agricultural biotechnology is vital for the
developing world", with Prakash and Matt Ridley, speaking for, and myself and
John Vidal speaking against. Ridley and Vidal are both well-known journalists
on opposite ends of the political spectrum. To my surprise and dismay, it was
not an open debate as only stakeholders were invited. Judging by
comments from the floor, the majority were from industry or pro-biotech
pressure groups. The Monsanto science outreach representative came
out smelling like roses compared to two molecular geneticists associated with
Cropgen, a new pressure-group of scientists funded by industry, members of
which have been very prominent in the media recently, and appearing to be
targeting ISIS in particular.
A few days later, one of the Cropgen scientists, Conrad
Lichtenstein, wrote a pompous article in The Guardian newspaper ("A
misguided media swarm" June 6) where he dismissed all the scientific studies
that cast any doubt on the safety of GM crops, especially those that have been
given a lot of press coverage: Arpad Pusztais work that GM potatoes
adversely affecting young rats and John Loseys finding that GM pollen is
lethal to Monarch butterflies. In anticipation of the as yet unpublished report
from Jena University in Germany - that GM genes have transferred from GM pollen
to the bacteria and yeasts of baby bees - he argued that, if so, it must be
occurring all the time. (Not so long ago, these scientists have denied that
such horizontal gene transfer can occur.) And, he claims, it doesnt
matter, because neo-Darwinian natural selection will select them out: the
organisms to which the foreign genes have transferred will die out either
immediately or in the long run, by the principle of the survival of the
fittest. He failed to notice that neo-Darwinian natural selection operating on
human beings to whom GM genes and constructs have spread wont be very
good for health. The article ended with an attack on me.
He was "alarmed to hear an anti-GM university biologist
state that GM genes are more resistant to the natural processes by which
enzymes break down other DNA and that GM genes, as they are designed to
"invade" genomes, are also more unstable and can more easily move around,
dangerously spreading". He claimed that when he asked for direct experimental
evidence, he was given "the techno-babble which puts fear into the hearts of
the scientifically uneducated".
I wrote a letter to The Guardian (June 8)
answering his attacks, and inviting him yet again to visit the ISIS website
where all the evidence has been presented with detailed citations of the
scientific papers. The Guardian then published another attack from him
in the same tone (June 12) , demanding actual references to the scientific
literature. I again submitted my reply.
But The Guardian did not publish my letter the
next day, nor the next after I made a polite enquiry. Finally, when I
threatened to complain to the Independent Press Commission, they agreed to
publish a much shorter version without the references because their
spokesperson said they simply cannot engage in detailed scientific debates of
that kind. Why did they allow Lichtenstein to demand the references knowing
that they wont allow me to supply them?
Lichtenstein and others like him are the reason why the
public continue to perceive scientists as "arrogant and dysfunctional", as UK
Member of Parliament Dr. Ian Gibson wrote (See "Scientists, Dont Forget
the Social context!", this issue). They are also guilty of abuse of scientific
evidence (as well as abuse of scientists) and acting against the precautionary
The text of my talk, "GM Crops How Corporations Rule
and Ruin the World" can be found on the ISIS website. My first reply to
Lichtenstein was published in the letters section of The Guardian (8
June) with the last two sentences omitted. The second reply published (16 June)
was much shorter than what I had originally submitted, but makes the key point
that the best kept secret of the biotech industry is that there is no evidence
for the long term stability of the GM inserts in both structure and location in
the plant genome for any GM line already commercialized or undergoing field
Both original letters are reproduced at the end of this
report. Lichtensteins comments on horizontal gene transfer and natural
selection are typical of GM proponents adhering to the discredited,
reductionist neo-Darwinian paradigm (see "An End to Bad Science and Beginning with Life Again"
(www.i-sis.org) on how the new genetics makes neo-Darwinian theory untenable).
Ho Replies to Lichtenstein 1
I am the "anti-GM university biologist" that Conrad Lichtenstein
referred to in his article on the GM controversy (6 June). The debate he
described was arranged by the US Embassy for biotechnologist, Dr. C.S. Prakash,
sent by the US State Department to promote GM agriculture in Europe. I agreed
to participate because I believe in promoting critical public understanding of
science and to draw attention to well-known and relevant scientific knowledge
that is being ignored. Almost by definition, genetic engineering organisms
involves designing GM-constructs which invade genomes and overcome natural
processes that break down foreign genetic material. Due to their highly mixed
origins, however, GM-constructs are more unstable than natural genetic material
as well as more invasive; and may therefore be more likely to spread to
unrelated species. Those points were not challenged by Prakash because these
basic principles and observations of genetic engineering are covered in text
books and are also areas of active research. I answered Lichtensteins
questions in full and referred him to our website <www.i-sis.org> where
the relevant scientific papers are cited and where more than 300 scientists
from 39 countries, including many molecular geneticists who share my concerns,
are demanding a moratorium on releases of GM organisms.
There is genuine scientific dissent among scientists and
the public are not served by those who continue to misrepresent the GM debate
as science versus anti-science. In demanding a moratorium, we are not
trying to stop research into molecular genetics. On the contrary, we are
arguing for more basic research that can tell us how and if GM technology can
be safely used. More than that, we need open, wide-ranging and inclusive
debates on the kind of science and technology that can best serve society.
Ho replies to Lichtenstein 2
Conrad Lichtenstein (Letters, 12 June) demands
references on the invasiveness and instability of GM constructs in genetic
engineering. There are many; here are just a few.
For designing GM constructs to overcome being broken
down, and to increase invasiveness and stability, read Kumpatla et al,
Trends in Plant Sciences 3, 96, 1998.
A major class of GM constructs are artificial vectors
for transferring genes, made from the most invasive natural viruses and genetic
parasites; their instability is highlighted in a text book, Principles of
gene manipulation, by Old and Primrose, Blackwell Science, 5th ed, 1994.
There are many articles on the instability of GM plants,
a recognized problem area. The most actively investigated are mechanisms
silencing integrated GM genes, but loss of part or all of the GM construct has
also been observed, even during later generations of propagation (see for
example, Register et al, Plant Molecular Biology 25, 951, 1994).
Finally, a GM gene in Arabidopsis was found to be
up to 30 times more likely to spread than the same gene created by conventional
induction of mutation (Bergelson et al, Nature 395, 25, 1998).
But no investigations were done to determine if this was associated with
instability of the GM construct.
The instability and invasiveness of GM constructs are
supported by direct and indirect evidence, while no evidence exists for the
long term stability of the GM inserts with regard to structure and location in
the plant genome. On grounds of safety and efficacy, such evidence should have
been provided before approvals for releases were granted.
No "absence of toxicity" of Bt pollen
The paper which claims "absence of toxicity" of
Bt-pollen under field conditions is faulty in experimental design and actually
demonstrates that Bt-pollen is toxic in the laboratory.
A study in Cornell University last year (1) prompted
widespread concern that pollen from Bt-corn may be harmful to the Monarch
butterfly. Researchers from the University of Illinois now claims that a field
study on the black swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes, shows that Bt-pollen
is not toxic to this species (2).
The black swallowtail feeds on host plants found in
narrow strips between roads and crop fields in midwestern USA. A day after the
start of Bt-pollen release, researchers set up five rows of five potted
host-plant beside a field of Bt-corn (Pioneer variety 34R07 expressing the
CrylAB gene in its pollen), at various distances from the edge of the field.
Pollen traps consisting of a microscope slide coated with vaseline was placed
with each plant to measure total pollen deposited. A second set of potted
plants were placed behind the first set three days later. Ten first instar
larvae were put on each plant, and the number of live larvae on each plant
recorded daily for 7 days.
However, no control experiments were set up. A proper
control experiment would have consisted of a replicate set of potted host
plants and larvae placed next to a non-GM corn field.
It rained during the 5th and 7th day of the first
experiment, and during the 2nd, 4th and 5th day of the second experiment. Would
that not have washed away the pollen from the surface of the leaves? If so,
what relevance would the pollen counts - on greasy pollen traps - have on
actual pollen ingested by the larvae?
Pollen counts decreased sharply with distance from the
field as expected; but there was no correlation between pollen counts and
mortality. Even though the larvae were counted everyday for seven days, the
detailed counts were not given. Instead, the aggregate percentage mortality was
presented. Not only were the mortalities high, they were also highly variable.
The means ranged from 45 to 82%, and in many cases, the standard deviation in
each direction was almost as large as the mean. It was obviously impossible to
draw any conclusion from such an experiment. But they stated, "No significant
relationships between larval survivorship or mass were detected either as a
function of distance from the edge of the field or as a function of pollen
deposition." That was true, but the main reason may be that it was a bad
experiment. They suggested that the high mortalities might be due to predation.
If so, would mortality not be correlated with "larval mass"? Yet no such
correlation was reported.
Back in the laboratory, they deposited different amounts
of Bt and non Bt pollen on leaf-discs and fed each in a single dose to a first
instar larva which was observed over the next three days. They found no effect
with the Bt-pollen collected from the field, even at the highest dosage. But
exactly how much Bt toxin did each larva consume? From the figures presented,
it can be calculated that at the highest dose used - 10 000 pollen grains
the larva would have consumed only 1 picogram of Bt protein, ie, 1/1 000
000 000 000 or one trillionth of a gram, over the three days.
With another Bt-corn pollen - Novartis Max 454 - which
expresses 40 times as much Bt protein, ie, 40 picograms, a highly significant
increase in mortality was found on the third day: 80% compared with about 10%
for the rest.
As the laboratory experiments involved feeding a single
dose over three days, it gave no information as to the effects on mortality of
cumulative doses over the entire life-cycle of the butterfly, such as it may
experience in the field.
The claim of "absence of toxicity" in the title of this
paper is thus misleading to say the least. It will be an abuse of science if
this report were to be accepted as evidence that Bt-pollen is safe for black
References and Notes
- Losey, J.E., Rayor, L.S. and Carter, M.E. (1999). Transgenic pollen
harms monarch larvae. Nature 399, 214.
- Wraight, C.L., Zangeri, A.R., Carroll, M.H. and Berenbaum, M.R.
(2000). Absence of toxicity of Bacillus thuringiensis pollen to black
swallowtails under field conditions. PNAS early Ed.
How sound science makes the case
Since the publication of Loseys study in the
journal Nature showing that Bt-corn pollen harms monarch butterflies,
things have gone into a downward spiral for Bt-crops. Bt-corn is now banned in
Austria, France and Germany, and Monsantos Bt-potato division has been
closed down by its new parent company, Pharmacia.
Bt is short
for Bacillus thuringiensis, the soil bacterium providing the genes for
making toxins that kill insects; different forms of which are incorporated into
GM crops. The adverse environmental impacts of Bt crops are now well documented
in the scientific literature, ranging from harm to non target organisms to the
evolution of resistance in insect pests, making it necessary to plant a high
proportion of non-Bt crop for 'resistance management'. Aberrant gene expression
in the field results in low-dose varieties which are ineffective in pest
control and foster resistance. Cross pollination with non GM varieties creates
Bt-weeds, and the Bt-plants themselves cause major problems as volunteers.
Active Bt toxin leaks from plant roots into the soil where it is not
biodegradable and accumulates over time. This will have major impacts on soil
health, with knock-on effects on all other trophic levels of the ecosystem. The
recent report that a GM gene has transferred from GM pollen to microbes in the
gut of bee larvae underlines the fact that Bt toxin genes, like all other GM
genes, will spread out of control. The case for withdrawing all Bt-crops is now
The way the case has been built is exemplary of the power of
good independent science, which is indispensable for sound policy decisions.
No less than eighteen Bt crops were approved for field testing by the US
Dept. of Agriculture between 1987 and 1997 (1). Bt cotton was the first to be
approved for commercial use (USA 1995), followed by corn, potato and
The first specific concerns on the safety of Bt crops were raised
from within the scientific community in 1997 when Angelicka Hilbeck and
colleagues (2) showed that lacewings fed on pests that have eaten Bt-maize took
longer to develop and were two to three times more likely to die.
farmers also started to voice their fears - they have been using the spores of
Bacillus thuringiensis as an occasional insecticide spray. Their fear
was founded in the rapid development of resistance to Bt toxin in pest
populations continuously exposed throughout the GM plant's growing season, with
the potential loss of their only organic insecticide. They were also worried
about GM contamination via cross-pollination - now admitted as unavoidable by
Bt toxins are active against insects in the Order
of Coleoptera (beetles, weevils and styloplids) which contains some 28,600
Then came Loseys famous Monarch butterfly study
(3), which was confirmed by another from the University of Iowa (4), showing
that milkweed in and at varying distances from Bt crops in the field does cause
an increase in mortality to Monarch butterflies. Milkweed samples were taken
from within and at the edge of the Bt corn field and were used to assess
mortality of first instar monarch, D. plexippus exposed to Bt and non-Bt
corn pollen. Within 48 hours, there was 19% mortality in the Bt corn pollen
treatment, compared to 0% on non Bt-corn pollen exposed plants and 3% in the no
In a desperate recent attempt to counter this evidence,
the pro-biotech lobby has just released a story claiming that pollen from Bt
corn does not harm the black swallowtail. This story has been thoroughly
deconstructed (see "Swallowing the Tale of the Swallowtail", this issue).
The biotech industry is fully prepared to misreport research results in order
to confuse and mislead the public. On Nov 2nd 1999, a scientific meeting took
place in Rosemount, Illinois, to discuss Bt corn and monarchs. That same
morning, all the major news desks round the US received a fax carrying a News
article about the meeting - which had only just begun at that point -
headlining 'Researchers conclude Bt corn poses little risk to Monarchs'.
Luckily, Carol Yoon of the NY Times was at the meeting and received word
from her editor in New York. She asked the participants if they agreed with
what was obviously a press release from industry. The answer from the floor was
a resounding "No" - her report was the only accurate account of the meeting,
but unfortunately, the majority of US citizens got the industries take on
After months of heated debate on the effects of Bt on non-target
insects, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) convened a Scientific
Advisory Panel (SAP) meeting in Dec 1999 and asked the panel to review
EPAs non-target organism testing requirement, applicable to Bt crops. The
panel found EPA requirements inadequate and urged the agency to substantially
expand the scope and quality of the studies that it relies upon (6).
for managing the development of Bt-resistance in insect pests have been
actively debated in the scientific literature, and earlier this year, the EPA
revised their original mandate and ruled for larger refuges of non GM crop
planted with the GM crop. This was hailed as a step in the right direction and
now refuges have to be at least 20%. But major controversies remain as to
whether or not the refuges should be sprayed by conventional insecticides (7).
A study in the University of Arizona (8) showed that boll worm larva fed on GM
and non GM develop at different rates and it is highly unlikely that they will
interbreed, dashing any hopes of diluting out or slowing down the evolution of
resistance. These moths mate within three days of hatching and the males only
live for a week. Also, dilution only works if the Bt-resistance is recessive,
ie, requiring two copies of the resistance gene, and the EPAs resistance
management program relies on the trait being recessive. Unfortunately, studies
on the inheritance of Bt resistance showed that it is a dominant trait (9) as
insects with only one copy of the resistance gene survive exposure to Bt. Low
levels of Bt expression in Bt crops has also been documented and also serves to
In June1999, Monsanto applied for the first Experimental
Use Permit on CRY3Bb transgenic corn, another Bt corn line aimed at corn
rootworm. The application has been thoroughly assessed by an alliance of four
independent non profit organizations (10), who report the most astonishing
findings. The technical study submitted by Monsanto in July 1999 contained no
molecular data, nor data on the breeding regime, for three different Bt lines.
Data on the levels of protein expression in different tissues was included. But
300 corn plants were produced for two of the transformation experiments, and
some of the critical measurements of expression levels were done on only two
plants. Despite this, the data clearly indicate that different transformations
led to significantly different levels and patterns of protein expression. Such
differences are of crucial important in assessing efficacy, resistance
management and non-target impacts, as well as changes in the microflora of the
digestive systems of livestock and humans using the crop for food.
then submitted its application in full in August 1999, moving from
greenhouse-scale research to unrestricted field use within one year. In the
covering letter they wrote; "Please note that approval of this registration by
May 2000 would reduce the need for additional submissions and reviews for year
2000 field trials". This statement makes it blatantly obvious that Monsanto has
no intention of investigating their findings any further with respect to health
and environmental impacts. To date, the full application is still pending in
the US, but has been granted commercial approval in Puerto Rico and Hawaii for
this growing season.
In Dec 1999, Gunther Stotsky and colleagues (11)
reported that Bt toxin is released into the rhizosphere the area around
the plant roots in the soil - in exudates from the roots of Bt corn, where the
toxin is protected from biodegradation and accumulates. This raised, for the
first time, the question of what is happening underground? A total of 15
million acres of Bt corn were planted in the US in 1998, 20% of the total
acreage. The leaked toxin enters the soil in an activated form - Bt transgenes
are truncated to produce active toxin, unlike the precursor-form produced in
the bacterium, which has to be cleaved in the gut of susceptible insect pests.
Moreover, the toxin is expressed continuously, and hence exuded for extended
periods of time.
In organic farming the toxin is sprayed sporadically in an
inactive precursor form, only becoming active in the gut of the target insects
once ingested. Furthermore, it is sprayed onto the surface of plants where it
is readily biodegraded. Stotsky suggests that the widespread planting of Bt
crops is equivalent to adding large doses of active toxin to the soil, not only
from the plant root but also from the plant residues ploughed in, as well as
from pollen. There is at present no clear indication as to how soil communities
might be affected by Bt toxin from root exudates. It may promote evolution of
toxin resistant target insects. But receptors for Bt toxins are present in both
target and non-target insects, therefore both
will be affected. Bt toxins
are active against insects in the Order of Coleoptera (beetles, weevils and
styloplids) which contains some 28,600 species, far more than any other Order
(12). The widespread use of Bt genes in crops and the build up of active toxin
in the soil will have long term ecologically risks to non-target species and
organisms in higher trophic levels, such as birds.
Simultaneously, it was
reported that Novartis had filed a patent for another insecticide to be used in
conjunction with Bt crops (13). It turns out that the pest-control spectrum of
Bt toxins is limited, and other pesticides have to be used, that have been
shown to be very damaging to health. This discredits industrys claim that
Bt is essential for reducing harmful pesticide use.
This April brought
further reports on pockets of Bt-resistance among pests in GM fields, and of GM
cotton plants turning up as weeds in other crops (14). The cotton boll weevil
may make a come back if such volunteers are ignored. An entomologist at Clemson
Univ. said, "I could look across soybean fields and see hundreds of these Bt
cotton plants". A return of the cotton boll weevil to parts of the American
Cotton Belt would be a disaster, considering it
cost $1.3 million to
eradicate them by 1995.
The ecological interaction between organisms is
complex and scientifically challenging. The behaviour of insects with regard to
choice of food can have important impacts. This aspect has been
overlooked completely in environmental risk assessments of GM crops.
Researchers at Rothamstead in the UK (15) have pointed out that killing
non-target species is a risk not unique to GM technology, as conventional
regimes actually kill insects in an indiscriminate manner that is equally
unsustainable. They highlight the need to find alternatives to conventional
practices and suggest that management and good husbandry of bio-control agents
should act in an integrated manner to eliminate caterpillars.
assessment of Bt crops relies totally on past experiences with Bt sprays in
organic farming. It is wrong to assume that Bt toxin in GM crops is the
equivalent to what has been used for over thirty years on organic produce with
no deleterious effects. As with all GM crops, comprehensive feeding trials have
yet to be conducted and therefore there are no data supporting the safety of
eating Bt crops. Furthermore, there is a general lack of scientific
transparency with all GMOs and Bt-crops are no exception. Crucial data are
withheld from the public domain under various confidentiality statements made
by the biotech companies in their applications for license.
agronomist Charles Benbrook has just completed a comprehensive review on
EPAs management of Bt-corn (16). It provides important insights into the
structural and legal shortcomings in the approval process, the major among
which was the failure to adhere to the precautionary principle.
of findings reported by independent scientists investigating or evaluating
environmental risks are sufficiently compelling to warrant the immediate
withdrawal of all Bt crops from use.
Notes and references
- ISB Environmental Releases Database for USDA APHIS website :
- Hilbeck, A., Baumgartner, M., Fried, P.M. abd Bigler, F. (1997).
Effects of transgenic Bacillus thuringiensis-corn-fed prey on mortality and
development time of immature Chrysoperla carnew (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae)
Enivronmental Entomology 27, 480-487
- Losey. J., Raynor. L., & Carter. M. E., (1999) Nature
[Non-target effects of Bt corn pollen on the Monarch butterfly
(Lepidoptera:Danaidae) *L. Hansen, Iowa State University, Ames , IA 50011 and
J. Obrycki, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011. Contact e-mail:
- First Hand Account Industry manipulation of Bt research, by
Beck Goldburg, Environmental Defense Fund. Forwarded to Biotech Activists
- The final report of the SAP panel is accessible at
- Shelton, A.M., Tang, J., Roush, R.T., and E. Earle. (2000) "Field
tests on managing resistance to Bt- engineered plants, Nature
Biotechnology, Vol 18;399-342
- Liu, Y-B., Tabashnik, B.E., Dennehy, T.J.,Patin, A.J., &
Bartlett, A.C. (1999) Nature 400:519.
- Huang, F., et al. (1999) Science 284, 965-967
- Comments Submitted to Docket No OPP-30487a: Registration application
for CRY3BB transgenic corn modified to control the corn rootworm March 20 2000.
On behalf of Environmental Defense, the Institute of Agriculture and Trade
Policy, the Science and Environmental Helath Network, the Center for Food
Safety, and the Consumer Policy Institute/Consumer Union.
- Deepak Saxena, Saul Flores, G. Stotzky (1999) Insecticidal toxin in
root exudates from Bt corn. Nature Vol 402 pp 480
- Arnett, R.H., and R.L. Jacques. Guide to Insects, Simon and Schuster.
- Genetically modified plants may still need pesticides, By Andy
Coghlan and Barry Fox, New Scientist, 18.12.99
- Pockets of resistance : A pest might make a comeback thanks to
engineered weeds. New Scientist, By Andy Coghlan April 15 2000.
- Poppy, G. (2000) GM crops:environmental risks and non-target effects,
Trends in Plant Science 5 , 4-6.
- Benbrook, C. and Suppen, S. (2000) Applying the Precautionary
Principle in Assessing Transgenic Corn Technologies in the US
A practical exercise in applying the precautionary principle
At first, they said horizontal transfer of genes to unrelated species
couldnt happen, then they said "just because it happens in the laboratory
doesnt mean it happens in nature". Recently, Prof. Kaatz of Jena
University found in field studies that GM genes may have transferred from GM
pollen to bacteria and yeast in the gut of baby bees (The Observer, 28
May, 2000). That study is not yet published.
But, researchers have earlier
found evidence of horizontal gene transfer of GM genes to soil bacteria in the
field where GM sugar beet was planted, and this has been reported in the
scientific literature (1). Readers of ISIS News will note that there have
already been several studies documenting the horizontal transfer of GM genes
from GM plants to soil fungi and bacteria in the laboratory (2).
article, I shall review the published study to show how the precautionary
principle can be applied in practice to interpret and use scientific evidence
responsibly and in accordance with sound science.
German geneticists Frank
Gebhard and Kornelia Smalla began a series of experiments in 1993 to monitor
field releases of GM rizomania-resistant sugar beet (Beta vulgaris) for
persistence of the GM construct in the soil and for horizontal gene transfer.
They found that the GM construct has persisted in the soil for at least two
years after the plants were grown and harvested, and different parts of the GM
construct may have transferred to unknown soil bacteria.
are exemplary in documenting clearly their experimental material as well as the
procedure, and I take pleasure in reporting their research in some detail. The
GM sugar beet contained the following genes.
- BNYYV cp (the coat protein of Beet Necrotic Yellow Vein Virus) with
CaMV 35S promoter (from the cauliflower mosaic virus) and 3nos
terminator (from soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens). A promoter
is a gene switch required to turn the gene on, ie, to transcribe the gene; a
terminator, in this context, is a genetic signal to ensure that the gene
transcript will be translated into protein.
- Marker genes nptII (neomycin/kanamycin phosphotransferase
(from Tn 5, a bacterial transposon) with terminator 3ocs (from
A. tumefaciens) and bar (phosphinotricin acetyltransferase (from
Streptomyces hygroscopicus, another soil bacterium) with terminator
3g7 (source unspecified) both under the control of the bidirectional
TR1/2 promoter (from A. tumefaciens). These two marker genes confer
resistance, respectively, to the antibiotic kanamycin (Km) and the herbicide
In order to detect the GM construct, PCR (Polymerase
Chain Reaction) was carried out with three different sets of primers - short
DNA sequences complementary to and hence specific for different parts of the
construct. This allowed the amplification and detection of even trace amounts
of GM construct.
Bacteria in the soil samples were cultivated in media
with, and without kanamycin, in order to detect the proportion that is
kanamycin-resistant. Individual kanamycin resistant colonies were probed for
the GM construct. To detect GM construct independently of cultivation, total
soil DNA was extracted and amplified by PCR with the three different primer
The GM construct or parts of it was found to have persisted for up to
2 years under field conditions and in soil microcosms with introduced GM plant
DNA for up to six months. Let us look at the findings regarding horizontal gene
GM sugar beet litter introduced into the soil led to an increase
in both the Km resistant and total bacterial populations. Most of the kanamycin
resistant bacteria are those that already exist in the soil, as antibiotic
resistance is widespread. Though the authors did not comment on it, the
proportion of resistant bacteria did increase significantly between 1.5 and 2
years, suggesting that this increase may be due to the transfer of kanamycin
resistance marker genes from the GM construct to soil bacteria. It takes time
for litter to rot and the DNA contained to be released.
A total of 4000
isolates of Km resistant bacterial colonies were individually screened with a
"dot blot" technique to identify sequences that bind to, or "hybridize with" GM
specific probes. This technique is more direct, but much less sensitive
than PCR. "A few isolates giving weak hybridization signals
detected". These were checked with the PCR technique, but none gave PCR
products, and hence the authors dismissed the results as false positives. There
are obvious limitations to this experiment. First, 4000 is a small number of
isolates, and most of them are probably from bacteria already carrying
pre-existing kanamycin resistance. Second, the failure to obtain PCR products
can be due to the fact that only fragments of the GM constructs or rearranged
versions of the GM construct have been transferred. In order to rule out those
possibilities, it is necessary to do more extensive molecular analyses.
Construct-specific DNA was found in practically all soil samples 6 months after
GM sugar beet litter was introduced into the soil, while no GMspecific
DNA was present in the soil with young GM plants. GM-specific DNA persisted for
up to 2 years in the field. This suggests that GM-DNA is released mainly after
the plant litter has disintegrated.
When total bacteria from soil were
isolated, treated with DNAase (enzyme which break down DNA) to remove free DNA,
two out of seven samples were found to contain GM construct after 18 months.
This again suggests that horizontal gene transfer has occurred. The authors
were careful not to rule out the possibility that GM-DNA may simply have
"adsorbed" onto the external surfaces of the bacteria.
studies to which free DNA from the GM sugar-beet was added showed that the
intensity of the signal for GM construct decreased during the first days and
subsequently increased (strongest at 23 days). This suggests that the GM-DNA
may have been taken up by soil bacteria and have replicated with the
multiplication of the bacteria. But the authors did not state this explicitly,
nor offer any other explanation for the observation.
Bacterial lawns were
grown up from soil samples in the microcosm experiments. After four days, the
bacteria were harvested, treated with DNAse and the DNA released from the
bacteria by boiling and freezing. PCR amplification with all three primer sets
resulted in several positive signals, "which might indicate uptake of
transgenic [GM] DNA by competent bacteria". But, "Because the isolates carrying
the construct-specific DNA sequences were not accessible, an interpretation of
the signals remains inconclusive."
The authors are scrupulously careful not
to interpret the results as proof that horizontal gene transfer has
taken place. The results, however, are prima facie evidence of
horizontal gene transfer. The failure to isolate the bacteria which have taken
up the GM construct is not surprising, as over 99 percent of soil bacteria
cannot be isolated by current culture techniques, and this is one major
limitation to detecting horizontal gene transfer in the field. The authors
further state, "The presence of bacterial genes, promoters, terminators, or
origins of vegetative replication in transgenic plants will enhance the
probability of stable integration of DNA stretches based on recombination
events [should transgenic DNA be taken up by the bacteria]." (pp. 270-1).
The precautionary principle states that where there is reasonable suspicion of
harm, scientific uncertainty or lack of scientific consensus must not be used
to postpone preventative action. The precautionary principle also requires us
to interpret scientific evidence appropriately, to allow for uncertainty.
Uncertainty is the hallmark of any active knowledge system, which is
what science is, as opposed to religious fundamentalism. And this is ultimately
why the precautionary principle must be part and parcel of sound science. The
valid use of scientific evidence is to set precaution, and not to set
permissive standards for scientists and corporations to continue to treat life
and our life-support system as one vast laboratory, as has been the case for
the past 50 years.
Gebhard and Smallas paper does not provide
positive proof, by itself, of horizontal gene transfer, but it does
provide reasonable suspicion that horizontal gene transfer has occurred,
especially as it corroborates previous laboratory investigations demonstrating
horizontal gene transfer. There is already overwhelming evidence that
horizontal gene transfer and recombination have created new bacterial and viral
pathogens and spread drug and antibiotic resistance among the pathogens. GM
constructs consist predominantly of bacterial and viral genetic material as
well as antibiotic resistance marker genes. To persist in ignoring horizontal
gene transfer in risk assessment not only violates the precautionary principle,
it violates all the tenets of sound science and responsible governance.
- 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,
- For a more recent review, read "Horizontal Gene Transfer
Hidden Hazards of Genetic Engineering" by Mae-Wan Ho, to be posted on ISIS
The CaMV debate continues
The question of whether viruses can cross from plants to
animals was raised in the course of the debate on the hazards of the
cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) promoter used in practically all GM crops.
There is indeed evidence that viruses may have crossed from plants to animals.
Also, similar viral sequences have integrated into the genomes of both plants
and animals, which suggests that sequences may have moved from animals to
plants. Transposons (jumping genes related to viruses) and endogenous viruses
are now found in the genomes of all higher organisms, plants and animals
included. All these recent findings have important implications for the
ecological and health impacts of GM crops, which have not been adequately
addressed by our regulatory authorities.
The circoviruses are small
single stranded DNA viruses that cause serious infections of the digestive
systems of humans and other animals, particularly pigs and chickens. They also
cause infections in clover, banana and coconut. There is evidence that
vertebrates may have acquired circovirus from exposure to plant sap (1). The
similarity between plant and animal circoviruses was noted earlier (2,3). As
the virus group is quite recently discovered, it is not known when the shift
from plants to animals may have occurred, nor whether the virus may still
migrate between plants and animals at present. Plant and animal circoviruses
are related to the plant geminiviruses (4) which have been used in genetic
engineering but not commercially.
The soya genome contains several hundred
copies of a large retroviral sequence called SIRE (Short Interspersed
Repetitive Element), which is related to retrotransposons called copia
in the fruitfly and Ty1 in yeast (5, 6). Retroviruses are RNA viruses
that replicate via reverse transcription, ie, making a complementary copy of
DNA from the RNA. A retrotransposon is a jumping gene that uses reverse
transcription to spread itself around the genome. In other words, SIRE is a
plant retrovirus related to the retrotransposons of fruit flies and their food,
Plant pararetroviruses, which include the cauliflower mosaic virus,
have also been found to be integrated into plant chromosomes at high copy
numbers (7), and virus infection may result from endogenous pararetrovirus in
plants (8,9). Pararetroviruses are DNA viruses which use reverse transcription
to multiply itself.
Foamy viruses are found in animals including human
beings, which are integrated into the chromosomes during each cycle of
replication. These resemble plant pararetroviruses in that they infect as
double stranded DNA (10, 11). Foamy virus is associated with human thyroid
infection leading to Graves disease (12). The foamy virus and plant endogenous
pararetrovirus are very similar, and possibly related. Switching of such
viruses between plants and mammals took place some time in our evolutionary
past, but whether or not it can still take place is not known, and should be
The use of pararetrovirus promoter sequences from cauliflower
mosaic virus (CaMV) in essentially all commercial GM crops and those undergoing
field trials has not been subject to risk assessment in the light of all these
and other recent findings suggesting it may be unsafe (13, 14, 15). Government
agencies such as USDA, and scientists advising the UK government argue there is
no risk from the CaMV promoter because the virus has been eaten with infected
cabbages (16). Furthermore, they also imply that as so many copies of
retrotransposons and pararetroviral sequences are already in the plant genomes,
each of which has a promoter, then adding a few copies of CaMV promoter will
not make any difference (17). These arguments have been answered in full (see
ref. 15 in particular). Some key points are summarized here.
promoter in the intact virus and the intact viral genome is a stable integral
part of the virus and is very different from the isolated CaMV promoter in GM
constructs, which are notoriously unstable and prone to break and join with
other genetic material. This increases their propensity for horizontal gene
transfer. A prima facie case that the CaMV promoter in the intact virus
is not the same as the one in GM construct is that while the intact virus is
specific for plants in the cabbage family, the latter is promiscuous, and works
in many, if not all species (look out for the next episode soon!).
integrated viral and retrotransposon sequences may have intact promoters, but
again the promoter is a stable integral part of the element; furthermore, most
of the elements are inactive, which means that their promoters are chemically
modified to be non-functional.
The CaMV promoter has a recombination
hotspot (18) a site at which it is likely to break and join with other genetic
material. Consequently, GM constructs with CaMV promoter(s) will be more prone
to horizontal gene transfer and recombination
The CaMV promoter is
promiscuous in function, and is active in all plants, algae, yeast and E.
coli. Thus, any gene linked to it will be expressed continuously at high
levels in all these species to which it is transferred.
The CaMV promoter
has a modular structure, and is interchangeable in part or in whole with the
promoter of other viruses to give infectious viruses.
Adding a CaMV
promoter, prone to recombination, to genomes laden with sleeping
pararetroviruses and retrotransposons can only increase the chances of
re-activating infectious viruses and creating new viruses that may cross from
plants to animals.
- Gibs,M., and Weiler, G. (1999). Evidence that a plant virus switched
hosts to infect a vertebrate and then recombined with a vertebrate infecting
virus. Proc. Natnl. Acad. Sci. USA 96,8022-7..
- Meehan,B.,Creelan,J.,McNulty,M. and Todd,D. (1997). Sequence of
porcine circovirus DNA affinities with plant circovirus" J.GenVirol.
- Bassami,M., Berryman,D.,Wilcox,G., and Raidal S. (1998). Psittacine
beak and feather disease virus nucleotide sequence analysis and its
relationship to porcine circovirus, plant circoviruses and chicken anaemia
virus. Virology 249,453-9.
Luckert,P. (1998). Beak and feather disease virus and porcine circovirus
genomes intermediates between the geminivirus and plant circovirus. Arch
- Laten,H.,Majundar,A. and Gaucher,E. (1998). SIRE-1 a copia/Ty1-like
retroelement from soybean encodes a retoviral envelope-like protein. Proc.
Natnl.Acad Sci USA 95,6897-902.
- Bi,Y and Laten,H. (1996). Sequence analysis of a cDNA containing the
gag and pol regions of the soybean reteovirus like element. Plant. Mol.
- Jakowitsch,J.,Mette,M.,van der Winden,J.,Matzke,M. and Matzke,A.
(1999). Integrated pararetroviral sequences define a unique class of dispersed
repetitive DNA in plants" Proc. Natnl. Acad. Sci. USA 13241-6.
- Ndowora,T.,Dahal.G.,LaFleur,D.,Harper,G.,Hull.R.,Olszwewski,N. and
Lockhart,B. (1999). Evidence that badnavirus in Musa can originate from
integrated pararetroviral sequences. Virology 255,214-20.
- Harper,G.,Osuji,J.,Heslop-Harrison,J and Hull,R. (1999). Integration
of banana streak badnavirus into the Musa genome:molecular and cytogenetic
evidence. Virology 255,207-13.
and Neumann-Haeflin,D. (1999). An active foamy virus integrase is required for
virus replication" J. Gen Virol 80,1445-52.
- Yu,S.,Sullivan,M., and Linial,M. (1999). Evidence that the human
foamy virus genome is DNA J. Virol. 73,1565-72.
- Lee,H.,Kim,S.,Kang,M.,Kim,W.,and Cho.B (1998). Prevalence of foamy
virus related sequences in the Korean population. J.Biomed
- Ho, M.W., Ryan, A. and Cummins, J. (1999). Cauliflower mosaic viral
promoter a recipe for disaster? Microbial Ecology in Health and
Disease 11, 194-197.
- Cummins, J., Ho, M.W. and Ryan, A. (2000). Hazards of CaMV promoter?
Nature Biotechnology 18, 363.
- Ho, M.W., Ryan, A. and Cummins, J. (2000). Hazards of transgenic
plants with the cauliflower mosaic viral promoter. Microbial Ecology in
Health and Disease (in press).
- Hull R, Covey SN, Dale P. Genetically Modified Plants and the 35S
Promoter: Assessing the Risks and Enchancing the Debate. Microbial Ecology
in Health and Disease (in press).
- Matzke, M.A., Mette, M.F., Aufsatz, W., Jakowitsch, J. and Matzke,
A.J.M. (2000). Nature Biotechnology (in press).
- Kohli,A.,Griffiths,S.,Palacios,N.,Twyman,R.,Vain,P., Laurie,D. and
Christou,P. (1999). Molecular characterization of transforming plasmid
rearrangements in transgenic rice reveals a recombination hot spot in the CaMV
35S promoter and confirms the predominance of microhomology mediated
recombination" Plant.J. 17,591-601.
Major Victory Neem Patent Revoked
May 10th 2000 The Opposition Division of the
European Patent Office (EPO) revoked a controversial patent, which had been
granted to the US multinational corporation W.R. Grace for a fungicide derived
from seed of the Neem tree. The legal opposition to the patent was filed five
years ago and spearheaded by Indian scientist Vandana Shiva. IFOAM President
Linda Bullard said " This is a great day not only for us but for all people
throughout the world, especially from the Third World, who have been fighting
to take back control of their resources and knowledge systems from the patent
regimes of the North. We are gratified about the decisions recognition of
the intellectual achievements of the South and urge the patent office to reject
the 11 Neem patent applications still under examination. We hope that our
victory will mark a turning point in the struggle against biopiracy". On the
day of the hearing the EPO was presented with a petition signed by 500,000
Indian citizens demanding that all the patents on the Neem tree be revoked and
Shortly after the victory, Murli Manohar Joshi, the Minister for
Science in India announced new plans to create a digital database for Indian
plants that will be included in the patent application system of the
Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organisation. The new database will be
available to patent offices world wide, so data can be obtained before issuing
patents for non-original inventions that belong to traditional Indian systems.
Source: The Edmonds Institute. See
& Jarayaman K.S May 18th 2000,
As India pushes ahead with
plant database, Nature 405, 267
Terminator is back!
Seven new terminator patents were filed in 1999 and
beyond these, at least 43 patents have been issued for inducible gene control
systems, or genetic trait control technology. The patentees include virtually
all the gene giants or their subsidiaries; Aventis, Bayer, Dupont, Monsanto,
Novartis and Zeneca, amongst others. Recent take over events may render
corporate commitments to disavow terminator meaningless. Both Monsanto and
Astra Zeneca have each merged with other companies since pledging not to
commercialise suicide seeds. Whilst Astra Zeneca claims its policy on
terminator remains the same, it could not say what might happen in light of its
merger with Novartis. Astra Zeneca also holds a minority stake in a company,
ExSeed Genetics, that won a terminator patent last year.
At the CBD meeting
in Nairobi the biotech industry and US government regulators were arguing that
seed sterility could be used to mitigate the problem of horizontal gene
transfer from GMOs, offering a built in safety system. But surely this is an
admission that GMOs are not environmentally safe? Besides, horizontal gene
transfer cannot be prevented by this technology, and it is not clear that the
technology can mitigate the effects of horizontal gene transfer
(see "Terminator in new Guises" ISIS
News #3). Silvia Ribeiro from RAFI says " If the CBD doesnt have the
intestinal fortitude to ban this technology then they wont have the guts
to enforce the Biosafety Protocol". ARSource: Terminator on Trial. News release
12 May 2000. RAFI. Nairobi Biodiversity meeting Must Ban Terminator or
the Precautionary Principle will become a Post Mortem critics
Battle Ground of Rice Research
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is
pushing Asian farmers to accept intellectual property rights (IPR) on rice,
that include plant variety protection (PVP) systems or terminator
technology. IRRI has also just won a handsome $5M grant from the US
senate to develop Vit A rice for Asia. There are currently 160 rice
patents world wide, held by 13 companies in the industrial north. Huge
investments have gone in, and IRRI has its own trademark on rice varieties and
are very proactive with rice patents. How else can wealthy corporations capture
and control the huge rice markets of Asia?
IRRI should be supporting the
African region and other developing world countries in the struggle to reform
the WTO agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS), to
promote equity and sustainable development, as well as the implementation of
provisions under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
movements, NGOs and independent farmer-scientist networks from Southeast Asia
are all calling for a complete restructuring of agricultural rice research.
They want to see it go into the hands of those who genuinely wish to benefit
the poor, instead of transnational corporations.
The initiative of Asian
rice farmers must be supported internationally and all patents on rice
varieties should be revoked and banned. These measures alone will protect the
interests of the poor. For more details see ISIS Sustainable Science Audit
Vit A rice An exercise in how not to do science this issue.
Source: See GRAIN news and analysis 31 March 2000
Letter to President Bill Clinton on behalf of Institute for Agriculture and
Trade Policy, ActionAid, and Centre for International Environmental Law.
Press Release, 2 June, BIOTHAI, KMP and MASIPAG in co-operation with VIA
CAMPESINA and GRAIN
Biopiracy in Japan
Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Indonesia launched a
boycott campaign (April 2000) against the Japanese manufacturing company
Shiseido Co Ltd. Shiseido have stolen and patented nine Indonesian herbs that
originate from tribal indigenous peoples in Indonesia. The herbs have been
passed down through their ancestors and used for healing since ancient times.
They include remedies for anti-ageing agents, hair tonics and skin
preparations. Shiseido even has the audacity to cultivate the herbs on
plantations in Indonesia, for they will not grow in Japan. They are
manufacturing various skin and hair care products and have given no
consideration whatsoever to the people who rightfully own the intellectual
property. This is a clear case of Biopiracy.
During last months
meeting at the World Intellectual Property Organisation the United States
pressured Colombia and other developing countries to weaken and finally
withdraw a proposal seeking to promote the interests of indigenous communities
by protecting their traditional knowledge. The proposal was to register the
genetic resources of patents under an access contract, thus implementing
Article 8 (j) of the CBD ensuring these communities share in the benefits of
their genetic resources. AR
Source: PAN Indonesia, email
email@example.com & Letter to
President Bill Clinton on behalf of Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy,
ActionAid, and Centre for International Environmental Law.
CIMMYT Cop-out over patents
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre
(CIMMYT) one of the worlds most influential green revolution
institutes, under the umbrella of the Consultative Group on International
Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has always been one of the most honourable
and transparent of all the CGIAR institutes. Their position on patents has
until recently been unreservedly hostile. Therefore, it came as a disappointing
blow when they announced April 2000 that they had amended their policy on
intellectual property and will now adopt a case-by case evaluation system,
which will accept patents and other intellectual property options. The
rationale is that selective patenting will ensure farmers and researchers in
the South have free access to CIMMYTs inventions
preventative patenting in other words. They believe the decision
will keep profiteers at bay, and allow CIMMYT to collaborate with Gene Giants
on cutting-edge biotech research. They claim they are making the best of a bad
situation and their decision sounds a reality check for other
public- research institutions trying to find their way through the patent
But patents are governed by civil law and cost thousands of
dollars to obtain. CIMMYT will also have to invest scarce resources in new
monitoring mechanisms to police its intellectual property. Moreover, patents
are extremely expensive to defend on average, it costs well over a
quarter of a million dollars in patent litigation, per litigant. Will donors
allow their foreign aid money to be used to pay for lawyers fighting patent
violation in various parts of the world?
An alternative strategy could
achieve the same goal and cost CIMMYT nothing; they could file non-patent
patents, which legally entrench the invention in the public domain so
that patent examiners and applicants must take its claims into account when
considering new claims. CIMMYT can also simply publish its research.
Theoretically, either or both mechanisms can be used and will prohibit others
from making patent claims on the same information. Publicity is another
powerful weapon against predatory patentees and several patent claims have been
dropped in recent years simply because the abuse of the system was so obvious.
By taking those options instead, CIMMYT would not be participating in a system
which it claims to despise. Their present decision is a cop-out and will be
politically painful to review and harder still to reverse. AR
Advancement Foundation International article
RAFI GENO-TYPES, 12th April 2000 see
Pioneer Hi-Bred wins Federal Lawsuit
As part of a $100 million settlement in a federal
lawsuit, Cargill admitted to growing Pioneer Hi-bred International Inc.s
seed corn in order to isolate unique genetic material for its own use. Pioneer
sued Cargill as well as two other competitors - Asgrow and DeKalb - in October
1998 after it found Pioneer genetics in these other companies
Cargills executive vice president Fritz Corrigan said "This
has been a painful period for Cargill; we were shocked that our investigation
into Pioneers allegations revealed that our seed business hadnt
always lived up to our high ethical standards". The investigation resulted in
Cargill pulling 11 hybrid varieties from the market. Pioneers president
and chief executive applauded Cargill for "doing a thorough job of
investigating and eradicating problem areas it found in its seed business".
The outcome of this federal lawsuit demonstrates that biotech companies are
prepared to go to any lengths to get GM products into the market, included
stealing from one another. AR
Source: Cargill Settles Gene-Theft Lawsuit
By Susan Stocum, Associated Press Writer
More Challenges for USPTO
The Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG) is
challenging the USPTO to further amend its revised Guidelines before they are
final. CRG notes US patent law excludes "Products of nature" from patentable
subject matter [35 USC 112; Diamond v Chakrabarty 100 S. Ct 2204, 2206]. It
further notes that the essential goal of the description of an
invention requires that applicants clearly convey the information that they
have invented the subject matter. It is clear that human genes are products of
nature for they are derived from our progenitors through the human germ line.
In order to qualify as invention, description of a gene
would have to establish that the gene does not occur in nature. CRG maintains
the original US Patent Acts, as written 200 year ago under the supervision of
Thomas Jefferson, remain as valid today as they have always been.
officials backed by groups such as the Association of American Medical Colleges
(AAMC) is also challenging the USPTO over homologous sequences or sequences
with similar genetic codes. They claim the difference in a single base pair in
a gene sequence can have important functional implications and that it is
extremely difficult to make an accurate prediction on utility based on
similarity. The National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research puts it
even more bluntly, "Finding partial sequence similarity is an obvious and
non-inventive step". Patent holders currently do not need to continue with a
full characterisation of their genes, for they can eventually claim rights over
others hard won results. AR
Source : David Dickson. May 4 2000, NIH opposes
plans for patenting similar gene sequences. Nature, Vol 405 p3.
& Council for Responsible Genetics Open letter, distributed by Philip L
Bereano Department of Technical Communication,, College of Engineering,
University of Washington.
Patenting Smelling Genes
Oaklands DigiScents announced that it has filed a
patent covering 125 of the genes that allow us to recognise smells. Ambryx Inc.
in San Diego is on the same trail. Smell is one of our six senses that evolved
so as we can sense nutrients. We have some 300 to 400 receptors in our nasal
cavity, in a region called the olfactory epithelium and a different gene
regulates each one. Odours react with lots of different receptors and humans
can recognise 10,000 separate smells. Moreover, two people bent over the same
rose use differing receptors to register the scent. This complexity could
complicate the patenting of olfactory genes. DigiScents is being very quiet
about its patent claim, other than to say it covers a large percentage of the
smell receptor universe. About 150 smell receptors are already safely in the
public domain, put there by government funded research. The companies point to
a variety of uses, including creating corrective lenses for the
Source; BioScope. Tom Abate. Patenting Scent. Email,
Human Gene Patenting Unfair Say Researchers
AIDS research scientists have found four errors in the
gene and protein sequence of a patent issued by US PTO (Feb. 2000) to Human
Genome Sciences Inc. The company isolated the gene using automated computers to
sequences it and software to determine it belonged to a class of cell membrane
receptors, chemokine receptors, which pick up chemical signals in the body.
They could not claim the sequence as the invention, only a copy of the actual
gene, which they deposited in the American Type Culture Collection in Virginia.
A few months later, scientists at the Aaron Diamond AIDS research centre in
New York discovered HIV requires the receptor to enter cells. A drug that can
block the receptor would be a new weapon against AIDS. The question now stands
who deserves to profit from this discovery?
The AIDS research
scientists claim that it is simply not fair to award ownership rights to gene
to a company that had no idea of its function in disease and that did not even
spell out the sequence correctly in its patent. Tanya Dragic of Aaron Diamond
said "They use sophisticated equipment
it isnt innovative work.
Its not fair for others to have to pay licensing fees just because they
got lucky". Automation of gene sequencing has meant that tens of thousands of
genes and gene fragments have been patented this way. There are more than three
million patents pending in the US on human genetic material alone. AR
Source: Errors found in patent for Aids genes,
scientists say. Los Angeles Times, 03/21/00 By Paul Jacobs, Peter G Gosselin
& RAFI GENOTYPES April 12 2000. & David Dickson. May 4 2000, NIH
opposes plans for patenting similar gene sequences. Nature
Vol 405 p3.
Human Genome 2000 Taking Bets
At the Cold Spring Harbor genome meeting (May 2000)
biologists were literally taking bets on the number of genes in the human
genome. One person told Nature, "Sequencing is like digging a gold mine
- how much gold is there to find???"
Companies use gene-hunting software
programs to find genes but Tim Habbard of Britains Sanger centre has doubts
"Automatic annotation over-predicts the number of genes due to false positives
and cases where multiple genes are annotated when there is really only one."
Extrapolation methods have weaknesses too. Chromosome 22 and 21 whose
sequences have just been published - are similar in size; but Chromosome 21 has
225 genes, compared to 545 on chromosome 22.
The Sanger Centre in
Cambridge UK is determined to ensure the human genome will not be privatised. A
preliminary First Draft will be jointly published shortly by Sanger
and Celera; Venter has abandoned the race and will concentrate on follow-up
However, in the wake of the Clinton Blair announcement Todd
Dickinson, the Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks made a mockery of it and
said "genes and genomic inventions that were patentable before the
announcement, still continue to be patentable under the same set of rules". It
appears the announcement did nothing to slow or stop the privatisation and
exclusive monopoly control of human genetic material but rather served to take
the political heat off human gene patenting. AR
Source: Researchers take a gamble on the human genome.
By Paul Saglik, Nature Vol 405 p 264 & RAFI GENO-TYPES 26
March 2000. DeCoding the Clinton/Blair Announcement. See
Genetics Scandal in Iceland
The Icelandic government is suspected of receiving $250,
000 from deCODE Genetics, a biotech firm, whilst it was working on trying to
pass a genetics bill. The genetic database was approved by the Icelandic
parliament through the Icelandic Health Sector Database Act in 1998. In Jan 00.
Parliament granted deCODE an exclusive licence to the database for 12 years,
including the ability to sell any discoveries. But Icelanders are inflamed and
strongly oppose the plans. Icelanders make attractive subjects for geneticists
because of the homogenous nature of the population - the island is remote, has
a small population and the people have remained, relatively racially
pure. The database has been widely criticised by several groups
including the World Medical Association and the Iceland Psychiatric Human
Rights group. A major concern is privacy, the database contains the genetic
information of practically all Icelanders, and citizens are assumed to agree to
participate unless they opt out - 17,240 people out of 275,000 so far targeted
have done exactly that. AR
Source: Genetics Scandal Inflames Iceland, by Kristen
Philipkoski See <
Wired Digtital Inc, a Lycos Network site.
Defence Against Genome Invaders
Plants have a wide-range of defences against genome
invaders foreign genetic material. Thats why GM plants are often
unstable. A review of the processes is presented by researchers.
widespread occurrence of transgene inactivation in plants and classical cases
of silencing of duplicated sequences in fungi suggest that all genomes contain
defense systems that are capable of monitoring and manipulating intrusive DNA.
Such DNA might be recognized by its structure, its sequence composition
relative to that of its genomic environment and possibly by its disruption of
normal biochemical functions."
Although methylation, especially of repeated
sequences, is widely associated with gene inactivation, other mechanisms may be
involved, including modification of chromatin structure. Elimination of
inactivated intrusive DNA (presently best documented for filamentous fungi) may
also contribute to genomic defense mechanisms in plants. " It is likely that,
like viral and other infectious RNAs, alien RNA is also recognized by cellular
Most of the knowledge of defence mechanisms against
foreign genetic material came originally from observations in bacteria. But
over the years, similar mechanisms are uncovered in higher organisms. These
- Cytoplasmic nucleases (enzymes) which break down invading genetic
- DNA methylation for inactivating the foreign genes
- Modification of histones (proteins) bound to foreign genes
- Genomic surveillance systems capable of searching and debilitating
repeated sequences or foreign sequences which are out of place
- Gene-silencing mechanisms which pick out genes that have similar or
- Post-transcriptional gene silencing which breaks down the transcripts
of foreign genes
- Selective elimination of duplicated sequences, including integrated
viral sequences in mammalian transformed cells
The three major events postulated to occur in response
to invading DNA or RNA are "detection, inactivation and elimination". These
events work against the stability of transgenes.
This review covers
interesting aspects of genome architecture and the structure of
chromatin (the association of DNA with histones and other proteins
involved in packaging the DNA into chromosome) which affect the fate of the
integrated foreign genes. Most transposition and viral integration
intermediates share certain structural features that may be prime targets for
DNA methylation. Genomes appear to be made up of isochores very long
stretches of DNA with high compositional homogeneity, either GC rich or AT
rich. This makes it possible to detect inserted genes that are compositionally
Stable integration and expression of introduced genes are
essential for genetically engineered crops, and thus "transformation constructs
must be designed to avoid host surveillance processes." The review outlines
some design strategies for avoiding host surveillance suitable for
Agrobacterium-mediated transformation methods as well as for biolistics
and other direct DNA-mediated procedures, "provided that conditions for
obtaining plants with few transgene copies can be established."
design strategies include introducing gene sequences that are different from
those in the plant to avoid gene-silencing which work on duplicated sequences,
and adding either GC rich or AT rich flanking sequences to direct it to the
Reference: Kumpatla, S.P., Chandrasekharan, M.B.,
Iyer, L.M., Li, G. and Hall, T.C. (1998). Genome intruder scanning and
modulation systems and transgene silencing. Trends in Plant Sciences 3,
Our Comments: This review explicitly acknowledges
the problem of transgene instability in plant genetic engineering and suggests
design strategies to overcome different mechanisms that break down, search out,
inactivate and eliminate invading genetic material. It deals realistically with
the fact that transgenes are recognized to be invaders by crop plants (see also
"Transgenes are Genome Invaders", this issue), which is denied by Conrad
Lichtenstein, a pro-biotech molecular biologist (see "Corporate Science on the
Offensive", this issue).
Transgene instability not only compromises the agronomic
performance of GM lines, it has important ecological and health consequences.
Structural instability of GM-inserts, due to excision mechanisms or the
instability of GM constructs - not explicitly covered in this review - will
also give recombinations and rearrangements within the host plant genome that
may alter the plants metabolism towards the production of harmful
metabolites. It makes unintended, secondary horizontal spread of transgenes
Transgenes are Genome-invaders
Transgenes are recognized as genome-invaders by the host plant. The host
plant mounts defence mechanisms against transgenes which are normally used
Post-transcriptional gene silencing is a
defense mechanism in plants similar to quelling in fungi and RNA
interference in animals. It silences foreign genes (ie, inactivates it) after
the gene is transcribed into RNA, by preventing the RNA being translated into
protein. Four genes are found to be required for post-transcriptional gene
silencing in Arabidopsis. One of these, SDE1, is a plant homolog
of QDE-1 in the fungi, Neurospora crassa that codes for an
RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (an enzyme which makes a complementary copy of an
existing RNA). The researchers propose that SDE1 polymerase synthesizes a
double-stranded RNA which initiates post-transcriptional gene-silencing.
According to this idea, when a virus induces post-transcriptional gene
silencing, the virus-encoded RNA polymerase will produce the double-stranded
RNA, and therefore has no need for plant SDE1.
themselves from invading DNA or RNA primarily by inactivating the RNA messages
of the invader. Virus RNA is recognized during replication because it is double
stranded, and double-stranded RNA is otherwise unusual in plant cells. The
double-stranded RNA is destroyed by another plant enzyme (RNAse). To be
successful, a virus must have a gene that inactivates the plant gene coding for
the enzyme that destroys the replicating virus. Transgenes (GM-constructs) are
recognized by the plant cell as foreign invaders because the plant cell has an
RNA dependent RNA polymerase (resembling the virus replication enzyme) that
converts the messenger RNA of the transgene into double stranded RNA. The
double-stranded RNA is then attacked and destroyed by the same cellular defence
mechanisms that work against replicating viruses. To be successful, the
transgene must evade the plants defences against invading foreign nucleic
Reference: Dalmay, T., Hamilton, A., Rudd, S.,
Angell,S., and Baulcombe, D.C. (2000). An RNA-dependent RNA polymerase gene in
Arabidopsis is required for posttranscriptional gene silencing mediated
by a transgene but not by a virus. Cell 101, 543-553.
Our Comment: Transgene silencing and the defense
against foreign nucleic acid illustrate a fundamental aspect of the organisms
in that they must defend their genetic identity and integrity against a
multitude of foreign nucleic acids. As transgene constructs become better
designed to overcome host defence mechanisms, they will be more powerful genome
invaders. Their potential for successful horizontal gene transfer and
recombination will concomitantly increase, and so will their ecological and
health hazards. It is time to pause and reflect. JC & MWH
No Vaccines in Food Plants!
A recent review considers the development of plants
expressing antigens of bacteria and viruses a particularly promising approach
to vaccine development. The first human clinical trial for an edible plant
vaccine was approved (by the US Food and Drug Administration) and carried out
in 1997. GM potatoes expressing an E. coli diarrhea toxin gene (the B
subunit of E.coli heat-labile toxin LT-B) constitutively (ie,
continuously and in all parts of the plant) were taken orally by human
volunteers in Phase I/II clinical trials.
Each received raw potato cubes
from a random sample of non-GM control tubers or GM tubers. Eleven received 50
-100 g of GM potato while three received 50 g of non-GM potato. Ten of the 11
who ate the GM potatoes showed a significant rise in LT-B antibodies, whereas
no LT-B specific antibodies were detected in the controls. The serum antibody
levels induced by ingestion of the GM potatoes were comparable to those
measured when volunteers were challenged with 10 6 virulent
enterotoxigenic E.coli (ETEC) bacteria.
Thus, GM potatoes expressing
the recombinant LT-B protein proved capable of inducing an immune response in
humans when taken orally. Phase I and II trials are currently in progress with
GM potatoes expressing hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) as a booster for the
commercial hepatits B vaccine, and GM potatoes with Norwalk virus virus-like
particles (VLPs) as a vaccine against viral diarrhea. All three trials
successfully induced systemic and mucosal immune responses without the aid of
adjuvants (additional agents that stimulate immune response), and there were no
adverse effects observed.
Reference: Amanda M Walmsley, A.M. and Arntzen,
C.J. (2000). Plants for delivery of edible vaccines. Current Opinion in
Our Comments: Food crops should not be used for vaccine
production. First of all, they will readily contaminate crops that are used as
food. This point has been made previously (Ho, M.W. and Steinbrecher, R.
(1998). Fatal Flaws in Food Safety Assessment, Environmental &
Nutritional Interactions 2, 51-84). For example, it is assumed potatoes do
not spread by pollination or by over-wintering tubers. Actually, both modes of
transfer are known. Genes for the vaccines may also spread horizontally by
sucking insects and by transfer to soil microbes. The genes and proteins may be
released during plant wounding or breakdown of roots and rootlets and pollute
surface and ground water. The vaccines may provoke allergic responses if humans
or other mammals or birds are repeatedly exposed to the allergen.
addition, many instances of recombination between viral transgenes and viruses
have already been reported (reviewed in Ho et al (2000). Microbial
Ecology in Health and Disease (in press)). Have these plants been assessed
for their ability to generate recombinant viruses? When genes of viruses
infecting human beings are incorporated into plants, are we not increasing the
potential for generating new recombinant viruses that may cross from plants to
human beings? (see "Can viruses cross from plants to animals?" This issue).
Vaccine production in plants may be a good idea. But it should be done in
plant tissue culture under strictly contained conditions and not in crops grown
in the open field. JC & MWH
Bacterial Genes and Autoimmune Responses
Bacterial DNA can trigger autoimmune responses, and so
can synthetic oligonucleotides.
Over the past few years, it has become
recognized that along with structural components and products of bacteria,
bacterial DNA is also capable of signaling danger of infection to cells of the
immune system. Particular DNA sequences (CpG motifs), which are abundant in
prokaryotic (bacterial) but not in mammalian DNA, cause the activation and
stimulation of immune cells. Research has been catalyzed by the finding that
certain synthetic oligodeoxynucleotides mimic the action of bacterial DNA (see
ISIS News#2, "Gene therapy and naked DNA vaccines can trigger autoimmune
reactions"). Immuno-stimulation induced by bacterial DNA or synthetic
oligonucleotides is being used therapeutically to condition or modify ongoing
For example, CpG motifs have been used as vaccine
adjuvants as well as instructing agents to selectively induce primary (Th1)
immune responses involving T- helper cells, inflammation and cellular immunity.
Hence, CpG motifs might be used in future as adjuvants and/or immunomodulatory
agents in an attempt to treat or prevent undesired humoural cell response
including allergy (associated with IgE antibodies).*
Reference: Heeg K and Zimmermann S (2000). CpG
DNA as a Th1 Trigger. Int Arch Allergy Immunol. 121, 87-97.
Our Comments: Practically all transgenic crops
have bacterial genes. Not much thought has been given to the potential impact
of these bacterial DNA sequences in crop plants as they are digested by mammals
or taken up in through wounds as plant juices or breathed in as pollen or crop
dust. Recent research in gene therapy and DNA vaccines show that DNA can indeed
be delivered into cells by oral ingestion, skin application or nasal inhalation
(Reviewed in Unregulated Hazards:
Naked and Free Nucleic Acids, ISIS and TWN Report,
Jan. 2000 from www.i-sis.org). Bacterial DNA not only produces immunity but
stimulates inflammation and autoimmune responses. Autoimmune diseases include
diabetes, Lupus , arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
It may be supposed that
people and animals have bacteria in their guts but these bacteria normally pass
through the digestive system protected by their thick cell walls. Bacterial DNA
incorporated into the cells of the food crops is not so protected, and will be
subject to digestive breakdown to generate fragments that may trigger
autoimmune reactions. Whether these bacterial DNA danger signals are good or
bad for mammals is something that should be known before we expose the world a
to an avalanche of transgenic crops. JC
Note added by Editor
The following was posted
to ISIS by Bili Goldberg (BiGoldberg@aol.com)
Apparently, according to an abstract in a recent FASEB
Journal, the use of synthetic CpG oligonucleotides (ODNs) as DNA vaccine
adjuvants and in plasmid vectors (including HIV vaccines) may be fraught with
problems with the finding of inhibitory CpG ODNs.
Ashman et al. FASEB Journal 2000, 14:A963
(Abstract 46.6) state:
These results imply that the design of CpG-based
vaccine adjuvants and plasmid vectors for DNA immunization must not only
include stimulatory ODN sequences but avoid inhibitory ones."
GM Crops and the Ecology of Microbes
The widespread horizontal gene trafficking among
bacteria makes it highly likely that GM constructs in GM crops will spread to
microbial populations in all environments.
organisms which sequester their genomes in a nucleus) evolve principally
through the modification of existing genetic information passed on in normal
reproduction. Bacteria, however, have obtained a significant proportion of
their genetic diversity through the acquisition of genetic material from
distantly related organisms. Such horizontal gene transfer produces extremely
dynamic genomes in which substantial amounts of DNA are introduced into and
deleted from the chromosome. These lateral transfers have effectively changed
the ecological and pathogenic character of bacterial species.
of DNA are acquired by bacteria by taking up naked DNA molecules, by mating, by
plasmid exchange and by virus (the transduction process). For example the
disease causing genes for both cholera and anthrax are located on transferable
plasmids and can also be spread by bacterial viruses in nature. The
evolutionary biology of bacteria is dominated by horizontal gene transfer.
Reference: Ochman, H., Lawrence, J.G. and
Groisman, E.A. (2000). Lateral gene transfer and the nature of bacterial
innovation. Nature 405, 299 - 304
Our Comments: Large blocs of bacterial/viral DNA
are introduced into all transgenic crops now released to the environment in
field tests or commercial production. The bacterial genes include antibiotic
resistance markers, replication origins (of plasmids), expressed genes for
herbicide or insect resistance and other bacterial plasmid genes. Such genes
are released back into the bacterial milieu during digestion in the gut
of predators from human to insect, and as crop residues in the soil. The
ecological and health impacts of such gene releases from the millions of acres
of GM crops have largely been ignored by those charged with protecting health
and the environment. JC
Plastic gene activators have been synthesized in the
laboratory. Ken and Barbie may be due for incarnation.
Genes need activator
proteins to turn them on, called transcription factors. Transcription factors
typically consist of a DNA binding domain and a separable activation domain;
most activator proteins are also dimers consisting of two subunits or
modules. Researchers have replaced these protein modules with synthetic
counterparts to create artificial transcription factors. One of these,
molecular weight 4.2 kD, gives high levels of DNA site-specific l activation of
transcription in vitro (in the test-tube). This molecule contains a
sequence-specific DNA-binding polyamide in place of the typical DNA-binding
region and a nonprotein linker in place of the peptide involved in forming the
dimer. The activating region is a designed peptide. Because synthetic
polyamides can, in principle, be designed to recognize any specific sequence,
these results represent a key step towards the design of small molecules that
can up-regulate any specified gene.
Reference: Mapp, A.K., Ansari, A.Z., Ptashne, M.,
and Dervan, P.B. (2000). Activation of gene expression by small molecule
transcription factors. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, Vol. 97, Issue 8,
Our Comments: Polyamide polymers include nylon
along with a range of versatile plastics such as bar code holders. It is truly
a step to the "new world" of genetic technology to design plastics that replace
proteins (and biology) as gene regulators. This should throw the world of gene
patents into turmoil. It should further stimulate a new genetic engineering
industry that provides for biodegradation of plastic cell components (in the
interim incineration may have to suffice). Presently there are no genetic code
words for polyamide monomer but such words may not be far off.
synthetic gene activators will have many applications. But they should only be
used in vitro under well-contained conditions. Perhaps plastic genes and
wholly plastic beings are not far off (they may be named Barbie and Ken).
Exploding the Food Myths in the GM debate
The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm
Agriculture in the Context of Global Trade Negotiations by Peter M. Rosset,
Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food
Security in the Years of Crisis by Catherine Murphy, May 1999
The Potential of Agroecology to Combat Hunger in
the Developing World by Miguel Altieri, Peter Rosset and Lori Ann Thrupp,
October 1998. Food First Publications, Food First Institute for Food and
Development Policy www.foodfirst.org
These three excellent concise reports are just a
sampling from the Food First Institute. Together, they explode all the myths
currently used to promote GM crops and at the same time clearly identifying the
problems as well as the opportunities that must be brought into the GM
The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farms challenges the
conventional wisdom that small farms are backward and unproductive. Evidence
drawn from both North and South shows that small farms are more productive,
more efficient and contribute more to economic and social development than
large farms. Small farmers are better stewards of natural resources; they
conserve biodiversity and safeguard the future sustainability of agricultural
This report also shows that trade liberalization and corporate
export agriculture have had a significantly negative impact on small farmers
and this will be exacerbated by agreements negotiated at the World Trade
Organization (WTO). The Agreement on Agriculture is likely to further undermine
the already fragile viability of small farms, which will be devastating for
rural economies and environments worldwide.
Small farms encourage a
diversity of cropping systems, landscapes, local cultures and traditions,
creating an aesthetically pleasing rural landscape and open space. They also
encourage responsible management of soil, water and wildlife. Farmers and
consumers are brought into more direct contact, fostering friendly, accountable
relationships. Most importantly, small farms mean more equitable distribution
of land and other resources as well as economic opportunities, empowering both
farmers and local communities.
Small integrated farms are far more
productive than monocultures. Figures from the US Agricultural Census in 1992
depicts a sharp decline of net income, from $1400 to $12/acre, as farm size
increased from 4 to 6709 acres. Similar trends are found in at least ten other
countries in the Third World. In some Third World countries the smallest farms
are not the most productive, but the most productive farms are still small, of
ten hectares or less.
As the result of trade liberalization, corporations
have been able to flood the Third World and the world market in general with
cheap food which is heavily subsidized by the state, both directly and
indirectly. This has driven food prices down to below the cost of production.
Local farmers are undercut, and at the same time, the minimum acreage needed to
support a family goes up. The end result is the disappearance of small farmers
and the concentration of farm land in ever fewer hands. This has been happening
not just in the Third World but everywhere in the industrialized world as
Large farmers, meanwhile, turn increasingly to mechanized
monocultures, replacing human labour in order to keep production costs down, to
be competitive. The major drive to export grain from America, which
began in the 1970s contributed to a 40 percent increase in soil erosion in the
corn and soybean belts. Today, about 90% of US cropland is losing topsoil
faster than can be replaced. But large farmers have not benefited at all.
When the huge agricultural export boom took off in the US in
the 1970s, the farmers income actually declined, and remained
almost level between 1975 and 1995. "[T]he average American farmer has not
benefited from the export boom at all. Rather the profit have accrued to the
grain cartels." The US drive to dominate global grain markets has destroyed
family farmers and damaged rural ecosystems both at home and abroad.
greatest myth perpetrated in the world today is the need to be
competitive in everything, from food production to the mobile phone
and education, even. For far too long, this ideology has pitched farmers and
sweat-shop labourers in the South against their counterparts in the North. All
the while, it is the corporate bosses that have been growing obscenely rich at
their expense. University academics and scientists have been willing
instruments and accomplices in this corporate takeover. By and large, they have
been too self-engrossed, too comfortable or too timid to do otherwise, or to
tell us the truth. It has been a continuing revelation for me just how much of
the most important and innovative work has been done outside of our academic
institutions. It is no wonder that the National Farmers Coalition in the US are
demanding that the land grant universities stop agricultural biotechnology
research which benefit the corporations at their expense.
Havana is a unique documentation of the period immediately following the
breakup of the Soviet Bloc in 1989, which plunged Cuba into the worst economic
crisis in its history. It lost 85% of its trade, including both food and
agricultural inputs. The conventional system of agriculture was highly
dependent on imports of agrochemicals and farming equipment, and without those
inputs, domestic production fell, leading to a 30% reduction in caloric intake
in the early 1990s. Cuba was faced with a dual challenge of doubling food
production with half the previous inputs.
The way Cuba responded was an
inspiration to the rest of the world. It began with a nation-wide call to
increase food production by restructuring agriculture. This involved converting
from conventional largescale, high input mono-crop systems to smaller scale,
organic and semi-organic farming systems. The focus was on using low cost and
environmentally safe inputs, and relocating production closer to consumption in
order to cut down on transportation costs.
Urban agriculture has been a key
part of this effort. A spontaneous, decentralized movement had arisen in the
cities. People responded enthusiastically to government initiative, and by
1994, more than 8000 city farms were created in Havana alone. Front lawns of
municipal buildings were dug up to grow vegetables. Offices and schools
cultivated their own food. Many of the gardeners were retired men in their 50s
and 60s, and urban women played a much larger role in agriculture than their
By 1998, an estimated 541 000 tons of food were
produced in Havana for local consumption. Food quality has also improved as
people now have access to a greater variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Although the program still faces many challenges, urban gardens continue to
grow and some neighbourhoods are producing as much as 30 percent of their own
The growth of urban agriculture is largely due to the States
commitment to make unused urban and suburban land and resources available to
aspiring urban farmers. The issue of land grants in the city has converted
hundreds of vacant lots into food producing plots, and new planning laws place
the highest land use priority on food production.
Another key to success
was opening farmers markets and legalising direct sales from farmers to
consumers. Deregulation of prices combined with high demand for fresh produce
in the cities allowed urban farmers to make two to three times as much as
The government also encourages gardeners through an
extensive support system including extension agents and horticultural groups
that offer assistance and advice. Seed houses throughout the city sell seeds,
gardening tools, compost and distribute biofertilizers and other biological
control agents at low costs.
New biological products and organic gardening
techniques are developed and produced by Cubas agricultural research
sector, which had already begun exploring organic alternatives to chemical
controls, enabling Cubas urban farms to become completely organic. In
fact, a new law prohibits the use of any pesticides for agricultural purposes
anywhere within city limits.
Many believed that when the economy recovered,
urban agriculture would disappear. But quite the opposite has occurred. The
urban agricultural movement is stronger than ever and growing, and both public
and private sectors are investing.
The big surprise is that Cuba did not
invent urban agriculture. It has been a world-wide movement since the 1970s,
and today an estimated 14 percent of the worlds food is produced in urban
areas. This is perhaps one of the most important aspect of sustainable
development, as more and more of the populations worldwide are becoming
urbanized. It presents both a challenge and an opportunity for town-planning
and design to transform the concrete jungle into habitats surrounded by open
fields and gardens which can attract and support wild-life at the same time.
Just imagine growing up in cities with urban agriculture instead of existing
slums and soulless housing estates.
The Potential of Agroecology to
Combat Hunger in the Developing World presents a convincing case.
Agroecology is a special blend of indigenous and western scientific knowledge
and practices "to arrive at environmentally and socially sensitive approaches
to agriculture, encompassing not only production goals, but also social equity
and ecological sustainability of the system." Despite this obviously
political-sounding description, it is intensely practical, and has already a
lot to show for it in farms around the world: Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
For example, a programme in Honduras started in the 1980s by World
Neighbours introduced soil conservation practices to control erosion by
drainage, contour ditches, grass barriers and rock walls and to restore soil
fertility with chicken manure and intercropping with legumes. Yields tripled or
quadrupled from 400 to 1 200-1 600 kilograms per hectare for the 1 200 families
involved in the programme. The use of grain legumes as green manure has been
particularly successful. The velvet beans (Mucuna pruriens), planted by
hundreds of farmers in the northern coast of Honduras have boosted corn yields
to 3 000kg/hectare, more than double the national average. Taking advantage of
well-established farmer to farmer networks such as the campesino a campesino
movement in Nicaragua and elsewhere, this simple practice spread rapidly. In a
single year, more than 1 000 peasants recovered degraded land in the Nicaraguan
San Juan watershed. Farmers adopting cover cropping have lowered their use of
chemical fertilizers from 1900 to 400kg/ha, while increasing yields from 700 to
2000 kg/ha, and lowering their production costs by 22 percent.
pre-Columbian technologies have been revived. One of these is the raised fields
system that evolved on the high plains of the Andes some 3 000 years ago.
According to archaeological evidence, these waru-warus, or
platforms of soil surrounded by ditches filled with water, were able to produce
bumper crops despite floods, droughts and killing frosts common at altitudes of
nearly 4 000 meters. Reconstructing these systems showed that the combination
of raised beds and ditches had a temperature modulating effect , extending the
growing season and giving higher productivity. In the Huatta district,
sustained potato yields of 8-14 tonnes/ha compare very favourably with the
average yields for the area of 1-4 tonnes/ha. Similar successes are repeated in
Bolivia, Chile and Cuba.
In Africa, agroecological practices have succeeded
in regenerating soil for subsistence farmers suffering from soil degradation.
In Senegal, millet and groundnut are planted in rotation and legumes are
intercropped with cereals. Compost is used to restore soil fertility and manure
from cows, goats and sheep are added to the compost. Yield increases in millet
of more than 400 kg/ha were achieved by applying at least 2 tonnes of compost.
In Tanzania, a soil erosion and agroforestry project began in 1980 in the
Lushoto district. Perennial grass is planted along contours as well as contour
strips of trees, shrubs and creeping legumes. Erosion was reduced by an average
of 25 percent. Total yields increased by 64 - 87 % and gross marginal income
for the hundreds of people adopting these practices was 74% higher compared to
The tremendous advantages of agroecological
approaches are clear. It relies on local knowledge and are adapted to local
ecological and cultural practices. It offers the only practical way to actually
restore degraded agricultural land. It is environmentally sound and affordable,
and can be used to recover marginal lands which cannot be used by
green-revolution crop. Finally, it empowers the farmers and frees them from the
control of corporate monopolies. It is an approach that is likely to increase
equality as well as sustainability.Why, then, are these approaches not more
widely adopted? Mostly because "powerful economic/corporate and institutional
interests have backed research and development (R&D) for the conventional
GR [Green Revolution] agroindustrial approach, while R&D for agroecology
and sustainable approaches has[sic] been largely ignored or even ostracized."
Farmageddon by Brewster Kneen,
New Society Publishers, British Columbia, Canada, 1999.
I once saw a French film about the tragi-comic musings
of a teenage girl who imagined how she was conceived by artificial insemination
(AI). The sperm-donor was her father, married to her mother at the time, but
mother couldnt bear to have sex with father. In todays world, where
not only AI, but in vitro fertilization, pre-implantation diagnosis,
germline gene therapy, human embryo cloning and human stem cell organogenesis
are threatening to become routine, that film has lost much of its irony. But
how did we get here, and what was the problem?
That is the question asked
by Brewster Kneen. In his opening gambit, he wondered if the apparently
innocuous step of getting rid of the bull and using AI to breed cows was the
first step down the road to the current biotechnology, which he aptly defines
as "the application of technology to life and the practice of treating life as
technology". It occurred to him that in agriculture, the problem was farm
consolidation and the consequent disappearance of small diversified family
farms. What Kneen has to say about agriculture exactly parallels other aspects
of our life. Farm consolidation was referred to as rationalization then.
Rationalization is the term used when they get rid of human labour, in the
farm, as in the manufacturing and other industries. Rational philosophy is
grounded in the science of mechanics and informs the mechanistic science that
has dominated much of the twentieth century. Rationalization is a gradual
replacement of human beings, animals and life with machines in the drive for
efficiency, for competitiveness. It is the substitution and the subjugation of
life by machines and ultimately the transformation of life into machines.
Farmageddon is defined by Kneen as the late
twentieth-century conflict apparently over control of crops and food, with
prospects of turning into the final struggle between the forces of life and the
forces of death early in the twenty-first century. Despite the
apocalyptic-sounding title, it is a very readable yet thoughtful analysis of
how we got here in agriculture, and why we must and can resist the corporate
takeover. Right from the first, it exposes the moral blackmail implicit in the
demand created by the biotech propaganda machine, to "feed the world and save
"There is also the subtle and pernicious assumption that
it is we who must feed the world. There is no suggestion that this moral
imperative is itself immoral, and that the people of the world might well be
able to feed themselves if we would leave them alone and not demand that they
produce luxury foods for us." (p.18) And if we dont keep dumping heavily
subsidised surplus foods on the world to destroy the livelihoods of family
For decades, pundits have been issuing dire warnings of the
population explosion that will cause hundreds of millions to starve to death,
and population control was seen to be the only way out of the impending
catastrophe. Since the push for biotechnology, however, no one mentions
population control any longer. Instead, the Times magazine, several
years ago, assures us that even though the population will hit 10 billion,
farmers can meet the challenge with "modern biotechnology and a little bit of
ancient wisdom." And that has been the message ever since.
father of the Green Revolution, at first a sceptic, soon turned fervent
convert. He roundly condemns "misinformed environmentalists" for claiming that
the consumer is being poisoned by monoculture crops and stopping "scientific
progress" by objecting to GM crops, which he believes can feed a population of
The figure of 10 billion happens to have no basis whatsoever.
It is a wild exaggeration. The United Nations world population figures
have had to be revised downwards several times in the late 1990s. By mid-1998,
the projection was that world population will peak at 7.7 billion in about
2040, then go into long-term decline, dropping to 3.6 billion by 2150, or less
than two-third of present world population. That changes the complexion on the
feeding the world argument.
This book is a mine of valuable
information. It goes behind the veil of secrecy into the dark culture that
permeates corporate biotechnology, to identify those who stands to benefit from
this dangerous experiment with life and our life-support system. It is also
liberally annotated with quotations from books that one would like to read and
does not have time for.
New Postings on ISIS website
ISIS Sustainable Science Audit #1:
The Golden Rice" - An Exercise in How Not to Do Science
GM Crops How
Corporations Rule and Ruin the World (MWHs debate with C.S.
The Prince Speaks for
the People, and for Scientists Too (MWH on Prince Charles Reith
Biotech Breakdown (good
popular article on genetic engineering by Susan Borowitz)
World Scientists Open Letter to
All Governments Submitted to US Congress 29 June, 2000
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