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.
From the Editor
Genetic Civil Rights
Corporatization of Science Threatens
Integrity of Science
ISIS Gagged in State of the World
Dangerous GM Wastes Recycled as Food,
Feed and Fertilizer
Ban Biological Weapons and Agent
CaMV Promoter Active in Animal and
The Beginning of Real Progress for the
Human Genome - The Biggest Sellout in
Use and Abuse of the Precautionary
Human Gene Patenting
USDA to Support Terminator
Monsanto's Patent Waiver: One Down
Thirty One to Go
Canadian Court Rules Mammals Can be
TRIPS Violate Human Rights - UN
Phasing Out Antibiotics Will Not Reduce
Terminator Gene Product
More on Instability of Transgenic
More Trouble for Transgenic
Bt Pollen Lethal to Monarch Butterflies
Alas Poor Darwin edited by Stephen
and Hillary Rose
Where Next - Reflections on the Human
Future edited by Duncan Poore
Other papers new on the ISIS website
From the Editor
This is a bumper issue with many hot topics that are inextricably linked
in the current scientific debate on genetic engineering: Genetic civil rights
and global ethics which require urgent attention in the fall-outs from the
human genome project; the crisis of public confidence and of science created by
the corporatization of science; the repression of scientific dissent;
victimization of independent scientists who try to tell the truth; the
suppression of scientific data; the use and abuse of the precautionary
principle in collecting and interpreting scientific evidence; the persistent
failure of our regulatory authorities to heed sound scientific advice to
protect health and the environment; the scandal of bad science and big business
in xenotransplantation, biological weapons and many more.
directly concerned with genetic engineering, our star feature is an article by
Harash Narang, a brilliant, independent scientist who lost his job in the BSE
crisis that he could well have prevented. It illustrates the corporatization
and repression of science and scientists that are having drastic effects on
public health and democracy, as well as on the ethical practice of science.
Among the new postings on ISIS website is a compilation of scientific
advice given by scientists of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which
went unheeded, and remained unknown to the public until the biointegrity
lawsuit brought by civil society forced the FDA to release the secret memos.
Due to the uncertainties of funding and other reasons, this may be the last
ISIS News, though we sincerely and desperately hope not. We also hope you can
take up our collective struggle for socially and ecologically accountable
science to serve a just, equitable and compassionate world. Give ISIS News to
all your friends. Copy and distribute as widely as possible. And don't forget
to publicize our World Scientists' Statement and Open Letter. Get your
fellow-scientists to sign on and be counted.
Genetic Civil Rights Alert
To prevent companies and governments from stealing genes, invading
genetic privacy and undermining human rights and dignity, we urgently need a
Genetic Bill of Rights and a Global Ethics Council, Mae-Wan Ho warns of
the fall-outs from the human genome project.
A visit to your local
hospital, or a routine medical check-up may result in your DNA being
'finger-printed' into a database owned by a private company or by the
government. Your gene sequences and cells may be patented and sold on the open
market without your ever knowing about it. Your genetic information can be
correlated with your life-time habits and medical history. Using this kind of
genetic information, mass screening can be done. If you happen to carry a gene
or genes associated with a whole range of diseases, you may be refused
unemployment and health insurance. Should you wish to have children, your
health insurance provider may require prenatal screening of the foetus, or
pre-implantation screening of embryos in order to eliminate the 'bad' gene(s).
Not only that, if you are ever suspected of having committed a crime, this
information can be used to track you down in no time at all. The UK Government
is committing major public funds to creating a DNA database of some three
million suspects, to be held by the police.
These are some of the fall-outs
from the Human Genome Project (see Human Genome: The Biggest Sellout in Human
History, this issue). And it has prompted the public interest organization, the
Council for Responsible Genetics in the US to draft a comprehensive Genetic
Bill of Rights www.gene-watch.org to
protect "human rights and integrity" and the "biological integrity of the
earth". This is a very timely document that should serve as an excellent basis
for legislation notably missing or incomplete worldwide.
But even this Bill
of Rights may be inadequate to cope with rapid developments further down the
line, such as human cloning, cell and tissue replacement and embryonic stem
cell techniques. These procedures are likely to lead to an increase in
international trafficking of human cells, eggs and embryos. Already, according
to a South African government official who spoke at the recent State of the
World Forum (see ISIS Gagged in State of the World Forum, this issue), biotech
companies have contracted hospitals in South Africa to ship frozen placentas of
black people to Paris.
A Global Ethics Council consisting of independent
scientists as well as a representative cross section of civil society should be
established as a matter of urgency to deal with these gross violations of human
rights, privacy and dignity.
Corporatization of Science Threatens Integrity of
Top unions launch a Charter for Science, Brian Goodwin
The corporatization of science has come to a head. Trade union
leaders warn that the integrity of British science is being threatened by "a
dash for commercial cash', reports the Times Higher Education Supplement (Sept
8), the main newsprint for University academics.
An alliance of four
leading unions (lecturers' union NAFTHE, the technicians' union MSF; the
Association of University Teachers AUT and the Institute of Professionals,
Managers and Specialists IPMS) launched a "charter for science" at the British
Association's Festival for Science at Imperial College last week. The charter
will include safeguards for those who blow the whistle on unethical scientists
and their practices. An IPMS survey earlier this year found that unethical
behaviour is shockingly common: a third of scientists working in government or
in recently privatised laboratories had been asked to change their research
findings to suit the customer's preferred outcome, while 10% said there was
pressure on them to bend their results to help secure contracts. In Britain's
handful of top research universities, dependence on private sources of income
is acute, often amounting to 80-90% of the total research budget. The charter
says that research must be guaranteed "by peer review, open publication and by
autonomy over a significant proportion of its resources". Commercialisation
smashes all three tenets. The only way to be sure that science retains its
integrity is to enshrine open and clear-cut whistleblowing, the unions claim.
ISIS Gagged in State of the World Forum
Prominent progressive figures and world leaders in science and the
global society have been invited to this year's State of the World Forum held
in New York (4-10 September) raising great hopes that genuine dialogue may
begin to heal the divisions in society that led to the collapse of the World
Trade Organization Conference in Seattle. But Mae-Wan Ho experienced the dark
underbelly of repression and the insidious extent to which corporate science
has infiltrated civil society.
I was invited to attend this year's
State of the World Forum (SWF) by some of the co-organizers of the event at
least six months ago. Some time later and quite independently, John Templeton
Foundation and International Space Sciences Organization (ISSO) also invited me
to the concurrent, overlapping event on science and spirituality, Future
Visions, which they are sponsoring. I was delighted to be invited along with
eminent scientists that I would love to meet in person, primatologist Jane
Goodall and Amory and Hunter Lovins of renewable energy fame, not to mention
prominent figures who have been vigorously opposing globalization, among them
my good friends, Martin Khor, Vandana Shiva, Hazel Henderson, David Korten,
Nicanor Perlas. I was also full of hopes that I could once again draw attention
to the World Scientists' Open Letter by submitting it to the SWF, and speaking
about the convergence between the scientific, spiritual and poetic visions,
which could serve as the basis for a new global ethic (see The Organic
Revolution in Science and Implications for Science and Spirituality
Right from the start,
however, I sensed that something was not quite right. My e-mail messages to the
organizers were not acknowledged. They claimed never to have received them. My
'visions' and biography were therefore not circulated in advance even though
they had been submitted in time. When I finally received the programme, I
discovered that my name was not included in any panel, least of all those that
had to do with genetic engineering. I decided to attend the conference, if only
to deliver the World Scientists' Open Letter as I had promised. The letter was
e-mailed to the organizers, with a request that it be posted on the SWF
Our letter was not posted, and I was told it could not be. When I
asked for it to be circulated at the Future Visions conference, several
representatives of Templeton and the ISSO took away the paper and did nothing.
When I pressed the matter, they told me the letter had to be 'reviewed'. I also
tried to present it again to the SWF. At first, no one claimed to represent the
SWF. But finally, through my influential friend, I managed to deliver a copy
directly into the hands of Jim Garrison, President of SWF. And that was the
last I heard from him. He was careful never to make eye-contact with me again,
as were representatives of Templeton and ISSO. I got the message that the
matter was not to be raised ever again, or else I would be ex-communicated,
I did manage to pass a few copies out to key
people, but alas, I lost the final copy to a woman who promised to make copies
and bring them back the next day. And that was the last time I saw it. She left
them 'at home', and claimed she thought I did not need it anymore.
managed to intervene from the floor to present a flavour of my 'visions' and
got an applause from the audience. But that cost me dear. Next time I tried to
intervene, I was told to restrict myself to short questions. At a plenary on
science and ethics, I raised the issue of the corporatization of science which
is standing in the way of ethical practice of science (see previous item). This
was met with stony silence, as were my subsequent interventions on science and
spirituality. As for the conference on science and spirituality itself, there
were some excellent talks, from unexpected quarters, but few and far between.
Overall, there was a distinct lack of either science or spirituality.
the genetic engineering sessions were worse. It transpired that a Link
Foundation, run by a man named Walter Link, was sponsoring all the sessions.
The two other scientists invited were Dr. Martha Herbert, pediatrician from
Massachusetts General Hospital, and Dr. Doreen Stabinsky, molecular geneticist
and scientific adviser to Greenpeace USA. Both of them, signatories to our
World Scientists Open Letter, had been invited at the last minute, which caused
me to wonder why. I still thought I was paranoid until the Chairman of the
State of the World Forum told me he had tried to get me on as a speaker in the
main Forum events, and that too, failed.
Still, someone must have
complained, and that got me onto the first, small panel discussion. We were
strongly discouraged to go into detail, on grounds that plenty of time ought to
be given to the floor. All the same, we managed to broach many fundamental
issues: genetic discrimination, eugenics, public participation, accountability
in the face of commercialization of science. William Tiga Tita from Cameroon,
representative of a network of chambers of commerce and industry, eloquently
reminded the proponents of genetic engineering biotechnology not to forget the
point of view of the 'Cameroon village boy' in their eurocentric enthusiasm for
genetic engineering. He confessed to be 'terrified' as a black man of the
resurgence of eugenics, and stressed the need for some form of world governance
(see Genetic Civil Rights Alert, this issue).
As to playing God, a
theologian declared that was exactly what we should do, as we are all made in
the image of God! That terrified me most of all. There is a distinct tendency
for commentators, many of them theologians and bio-ethicists and others who
don't know much science, to fail to distinguish hype from reality. This leads
to fantastic future projections on the one hand and on the other, resignation
that there is nothing we can do to stop whatever scientific progress may bring.
(Speaking of fantastic projections, Paul Davies, famous physicist and author,
stated in his opening plenary lecture that the human genome map is showing how
everything is genetically determined, even evil; and he questioned whether it
was moral to remove evil which is intrinsic to human nature by genetic
engineering!) And that was the last and only time I was allowed on any panel. I
got an inkling of the hidden agenda at another session I attended. This time,
Walter Link himself was in the Chair. Panelists were given about two minutes
each to say what their position is on the human genome project and all its
fall-outs (see Human Genome: The Biggest Sellout in Human History), while the
Chair and moderator (also from Link Foundation) were allowed longwinded,
pious-sounding and essentially empty speeches. The audience were therefore
invited to comment in the absence of any real information or knowledge. Martha
Herbert and Doreen Stabinsky defended accountable science brilliantly and
I finally lost patience when Walter Link said it was
ethical to reduce suffering with genetic engineering, and Martha Herbert and
Amory Lovins both pointed out that there were other means, and that it was a
pity Biology has been completely taken over by molecular genetics. I intervened
and said I can confirm that the Universities have been completely taken over by
corporations and that molecular genetics is excluding almost all other
approaches. Also, we are attracting the wrong kind of people into science who
are more interested in making money than in science, let alone alleviating
suffering. And those who want to work for public good are being victimized and
villified. We should be banning and revoking all biotech patents in the
interest of alleviating suffering. The bottom line of ethics is to ask if
something will be done when there is no hope of making lots of profit.
Walter objected that I was straying too far from ethics, that the issue of
patents had been thoroughly discussed at another panel the day before, and he
asked people not to go into that again. In his long summing up, Walter
announced that he was very satisfied with the discussions, and it was the first
time that people with such a wide range of disparate opinions are brought
together so that they can listen to one another. He even chided the audience
for applauding the scientists who urged caution and respect for the web of
life, but not those 'bioethicists' who proposed going ahead with genetic
Walter Link reminded me of some of the people who earn a fat
fee 'facilitating' conflict resolution. As soon as anyone raises any point of
substance, they would steer the discussion away to calmer waters in order to
engineer a 'consensus'. Walter is looking for funding to bring panels, such as
the ones he has assembled, around the world so that "all voices will be heard".
(Actually, it is easy to guess whom he is going to exclude.) His next stop is
India. So watch out. I can imagine a string of conferences stretching out to
infinity, accompanied by the ceaseless droning of soothing voices to calm all
dissidents, to lull people into thinking that their concerns are being
addressed, reducing them to a state of confused impotence, talking them into
mental and physical exhaustion if not paralysis while industry trundle on full
Dangerous GM Wastes Recycled as Food Feed and
Mae-Wan Ho and Joe Cummins report why there is still no
biosafety after Cartegena.
The safety of GM crops and GM foods has
been grabbing headlines over the past two years, and a lot of effort appears to
be directed towards addressing many of the concerns raised in the current draft
amendment of the EC Directive on Deliberate Release (see next report, this
issue). However, a potentially much more serious source of hazard remains
unregulated. We pointed to fundamental flaws in the regulation on contained use
in a comprehensive review published in a scientific journal in 1998 (Ho et al,
Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 10. 33-59). This paper was submitted to
the World Health Organization, European Commission, the Biosafety Conferences
at the UN, as well as to the UK Health and Safety Executive, with additional
comments from Mae-Wan Ho and others.
More recently, we raised the matter
again in an update calling attention to the increasing variety and volume of
'naked' and 'free' nucleic acids produced in the laboratory and biotech
factories under contained use, which are in fact not contained at all, but
discharged in one form or another into the environment, as sanctioned by the
current EC Directive on Contained Use (Council Directive 90/219/EEC), last
amended in 1998. Our paper was circulated at the Montreal meeting on Biosafety
in January, and contributed to the strength of the Cartegena Biosafety Protocol
that was agreed in the last hours of that conference. But there has been no
real change since to the Directive on Contained Use. This Directive is
fundamentally inadequate for the following reasons.
1. The scope covers
only genetically modified micro-organisms; transgenic animals, fish and plants
are not included. It also excludes nearly all classes of naked or free nucleic
acids, except for viroids (infectious naked RNAs that cause diseases in both
plants and animals).
2. Notification only and not explicit approval is
needed for use of Group 1 GM microorganisms, GMMs, considered nonpathogenic or
otherwise safe; however, there is no agreement among EU nations on which
microorganisms are pathogens or not; and it is effectively left up to industry
3. For Group 1 GMMs, only 'prinicples of good microbiological
practice' applies, ie, there is no containment.
4. 'Tolerated release' of
Group 1 GMMs are allowed to take place, without treatment, directly into the
5. No treatment of GM DNA or RNA is required to break them
down fully before release.
6. There is no requirement for monitoring for
escape of GMMs or GM constructs, horizontal gene transfer, or impacts on health
We have presented evidence alerting to the dangers of
horizontal gene transfer, among which are the creation of new viral and
bacterial pathogens and the spread of antibiotic and drug resistance among the
Despite our efforts, successive versions of the Directive have
been relaxed and shaped by the European Federation of Biotechnology. This
industry-dominated group have produced a series of 'safe biotechnology' papers,
the latest, published this July (Trends in Biotechnology 18, 141-146),
specifically addresses DNA content of biotechnological wastes.
admits that DNA persists in soil and aqueous environments, that it is
transferred to bacteria and cells of animals, and that it may become integrated
into their genomes. But they defend current practice by claiming 1) Horizontal
transfer of GM DNA occurs, if at all, at very low frequencies, especially in
nature, 2)The persistence of foreign DNA depends on selective pressure,
especially in the case of antibiotic resistance marker genes, and 3)DNA taken
up is unlikely to be integrated into the cell's genome unless designed to do
The first claim is unwarranted. Evidence of horizontal gene transfer
from transgenic plants to soil bacteria has been obtained in the laboratory as
well as in the field, although the researchers themselves are downplaying the
findings, in violation of the precautionary principle (see
Horizontal Gene Transfer Happens, ISIS
News#5). The second assumption has been shown to be false. There is now
substantial evidence that antibiotic resistance can and does persist in the
absence of the antibiotic - the so-called selective pressure (see Phasing Out
Antibiotics Will Not Reduce Antibiotic Resistance, this issue), mainly because
biological functions are, as a rule, all tangled up with one another, and
cannot be neatly separated and selected one at a time. The third point is false
as well, for it has been demonstrated in gene 'therapy' experiments that naked
DNA-constructs, not intended for integration, have nevertheless become
integrated into the genome. Integration occurs not only in somatic cells, but
also in germ cells (see Unregulated Hazards: 'Naked' and
'Free' Nucleic Acids www.i-sis.org).
The most dangerous aspect of
current practice, defended by industry, is that solid wastes, heat-treated, or
autoclaved, containing large amounts of intact or incompletely degraded GM
constructs and transgenic DNA are being recycled or disposed of as food, feed,
fertilizer, land reclamation and landfill. Only in cases where GM constructs
are specifically made to transform higher organisms, such as gene vaccines and
genetic pill applications (for gene therapy) is there a recognition that there
may be a need to "inactivate waste by validated procedures rendering DNA
nonfunctional by either reducing DNA fragment size below functional entities or
altering the chemical composition and structure of the DNA." However, no such
validated procedures exist. Our regulatory authorities at all levels persist in
ignoring scientific advice and scientific evidence. It is yet another example
of the anti-precautionary approach (see Use and Abuse of the Precautionary
Principle, this issue). They, together the biotech industry, should be held
legally responsible for any harm resulting from the uncontrollable horizontal
transfer and recombination of GM genetic material.
EU Directive on Deliberate Release Still
Angela Ryan reviews the current Directive being negotiated
and points out its deficiencies
European Parliament June 2000 voted on
the 1998 amended EU Directive 90/220/EEC on Deliberate Releases of GMOs. But
major issues remain outstanding between the texts proposed by the European
Council of Ministers (representing the member nations of the EU), and that of
the European Parliament. Industry is still fearful that political opposition in
Europe will continue to stifle marketing progress (1).
The new directive is
much tighter than its predecessor in terms of assessing the environmental
impact of GMOs but serious inadequacies remain that present hazards to health
and the environment.
There is no requirement for the molecular
characterisation of each transformed line over generations (2). Every
genetically transformed plant is unique, due to factors associated with the
random insertion of transgenes. Transgenes are also unstable (see More on
Instability of Transgenic Lines, and More Trouble with Transgenic Lines, this
issue) especially over generations, and they can move around within the host
and horizontally, across species barriers. Molecular data need to be taken over
a number of generations to ensure genetic stability, and horizontal gene
transfer must be carefully monitored. There is still no requirement to monitor
for horizontal gene transfer. Parliament rejected the amendment that attempted
to prevent horizontal gene transfer. This amendment is the most important in
terms of safety. An industry spokesman said it would have "killed off the whole
technology" forgetting to add that industry has been claiming all along that
horizontal gene transfer does not happen, or happens at extremely low
frequency, and is therefore not a safety concern (see item above). Whilst
Parliament has officially acknowledged that horizontal gene transfer is a
natural phenomenon, it fails to provide measures for adequate monitoring or
prevention. The risks associated with horizontal gene transfer present the
greatest hazards to health and the environment and could result in widespread
genetic pollution of the environment. The EU Commission called for a ban on the
use of antibiotic resistance marker genes due to the risk of horizontal gene
transfer, but Parliament voted only for a phasing out by 2005. The Commission
also want released pharmaceutical products included in the scope, as agreed in
the Cartegena Biosafety Protocol, but parliament voted them out too. Industry
was further let off the hook regarding specific liability for environmental
harm associated with their products. However, this may be only a temporary
measure as Parliament is already committed to introducing liability rules by
A conciliation process is underway and expected to take several
months to complete. The Directive will be enacted during the French presidency
and this does not bode well for industry as the French are especially sensitive
regarding safety issues. Dominique Voynet, the French Green Minister, insisted
the political moratorium will remain in place until there is legislation to
ensure GM products can be traced through the entire production chain, from
field to plate. But without collecting molecular data for each transformed line
over generations and adequate monitoring for horizontal gene transfer, GM DNA
will be passing through this new regulatory net unchecked.
still fears political opposition to European Union GM legislation. By John
Hodgson. Nature Biotechnology, Vol 18, June 2000, p589.
2. The need for
detailed molecular characterization is presented in Biosafety Alert: Submission to TEP on the detailed
molecular characterization required for commercial approval of transgenic lines
Angry Thai Farmers Say Ban GM Rice
They demand protection of indigenous knowledge and wisdom Mae-Wan
Ho reports on an extraordinarily invigorating and informative gathering of
farmers, activists, government officials, academics and rice research
scientists (with many thanks to tireless interpreter, Chalotorn
Kansuntisukmongkol, back home on holiday from University of California,
Farmers from all over Thailand flocked to the day-long Rice
Forum held in the Museum Hall for Culture and Agriculture in Kasetsart
University near the outskirts of Bangkok on August 15. There, they met with
activists, government officials, academic scientists, students and indigenous
peoples to hear speakers which included distinguished Professors from the
Universities and Ministry of Agriculture in Thailand, the leader of the Karen
tribes as well as invited foreign guests. This was in preparation for the long
march in September, in protest of the introduction of GMOs to Thailand.
Monsanto from next door sent their representative to listen in. Professor Rapee
Sakrik, twice Rector of the University and orchid breeder, opened the morning
session with an elegant reminder of the importance of orchids to Thai culture
in developing an inner appreciation of the fine things of life. It is the good
intention from the heart that would really change people's perception and
action, he said.
Dr. Ampon Kittiampon, Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of
Agriculture and Cooperation, regrets that modern knowledge does not include
traditional wisdom, and that the emphasis on cost-effectiveness has sidelined
societal values. The recent economic crisis gave the opportunity to reassess
the balance between cultural conservation and external demands. "Rice is what
supports our society" he said, "Export is important but cannot be the only
focus." External influence and the Intellectual Property Rights both undermine
traditional knowledge. Furthermore, if farmers have to buy seeds, it would
compromise food security.
Joni, leader of the Karen, told his audience that
"rice is life for the Karen" and that losing the seed is to lose life itself.
Their whole culture revolves around rice. The spirit of rice rises to heaven
every year and a rice ceremony takes place before planting. The Karen used to
plant 100 varieties of which only 5 are now left. He blamed the academics and
the authorities for not understanding swidden (shifting) agriculture which
works on a four year cycle. Planting rice in the same place for 4 years led to
the loss of both the rice crops and the forest.
Prof. Prapas, rice breeder
from the Ministry of Agriculture and Day-ene Siripetra from the Khoaw Kwan (or
Rice Spirit ) Foundation gave differing versions of the history of rice
breeding in Thailand. In the olden days, Prof. Prapas told us, there were four
ministries, one of which was the Ministry for rice affairs. The Department of
Rice, which became the Rice Research Institute, used to research social and
cultural aspects of rice and not just genetic modification. During the reign of
King Rama V, Thailand was exporting rice, but the price was very low. So the
King organized a competition on rice varieties. This led to many varieties
being developed, and for years, the top ten in the Canadian rice competition
went to Thailand. Now, only jasmine rice is left. In those days (45-50 years
ago) the main focus of farmers was to plant for their own use. Now the focus is
on export and high yield. Prof. Prapas suggested that genetic engineering may
be used on traditional varieties to create high yield and good taste, or to
Day-ene Siripatra told his audience that the practice of rice
planting did not change until the British forced Thailand to open her market.
After that, Thailand developed irrigation systems, rice research stations and
organized rice competition. The Rice Research Institute was established to get
varieties that were good for export (those that won prices in Canada). Of the
ten that won prices, nine were no longer used, but kept in the seed bank. After
World War II, Thailand had a contract with the US. Dr. Love, a rice specialist
from the US, came to Thailand to train Government officials to collect rice
varieties. A total of 120 000 varieties were collected, which Dr. Love took to
the US. (So, biopiracy is nothing new!) The present day Jasmine rice was also
developed by the farmers themselves.
In the 1960s, the Green Revolution was
introduced to Thailand by the World Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation, and
caused drastic loss of traditional varieties through emphasis on high yield
with high input. Farmers were told to exchange their traditional varieties for
the new ones which turned out to be very susceptible to disease. Norman
Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, came to Thailand two weeks earlier to
promote GMOs. From past experience, Day-ene is not at all convinced GMOs are
the way ahead.
Farmer after farmer made passionate and at times angry
contributions from the floor. "Jasmine rice is losing fragrance because the
Ministry of Agriculture is promoting new varieties. The new varieties cross
with the old and make them lose fragrance. Farmers are in debt because
merchants reduce the price for the loss of fragrance."
"We must revive
traditional varieties and the Government must raise the price of traditional
varieties." "Lots of fragrant rice used to be planted but the Government
developed varieties for export and emphasized yield, so farmers stopped
planting fragrant rice varieties."
"To conserve rice varieties, the
Government must buy different varieties."
Farmers confirmed that the use of
pesticides and fertilizers resulted in many diseases, while traditional
varieties never gave so many problems. They also pointed out that the benefit
of rice planting is that it provided food and feed for animals as well as a
surplus for selling on the market. "Without rice planting, we become poorer."
They called for more integrated farming.
In concluding the session, Joni
deplored the fact that people are losing their natural cooperative tendencies
on account of the money culture. Siripatra called for a change of paradigm, and
not just try to patch the old one up. The really holistic way is to integrate
agriculture with culture: rice as life and not rice as commodity.
session in the afternoon dealt with the technical aspects of GM rice, which
confirmed what had been said in the morning already. I gave an overview of the
state of resistance to GM crops all over the world, explained what genetic
engineering is and how it is really a whole way of life that threatens not just
food security but our most deeply held social values. The resistance to GM is a
struggle to reclaim the good life for all in every sense.
Devlin Kujek from
the Barcelona based ngo, GRAIN (www.grain.org) gave a very useful review of the
transgenic rice engineered to resist bacterial blast, BB rice for short; which
the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is to field trial in South
East Asia, starting in the Philippines. The Philippine's Biosafety Guidelines
actually state that,
"Genetic manipulation or organisms should be allowed
only if the ultimate objective is for the welfare of humanity and the natural
environment and only if it has been clearly stated that there is no existing or
forseeable alternative approaches to serving the welfare of humanity and the
environment." It turns out that only green revolution varieties are susceptible
to bacterial blight and not the local varieties. IRRI has in fact caused
bacterial blight and is proposing to use the GM rice to solve the problem . But
past experience has shown that this strategy will not work, as the bacterial
blight will merely mutate to a new form. Lene Santos, also from GRAIN, exploded
the myth of the 'golden rice' - engineered to produce pro-vitamin A in the
polished grain - that is supposed to cure widespread vitamin A deficiency in
the Third World. She pointed out that the poor and malnourished are actually
deficient in multiple vitamins and nutrients, and that the problem cannot be
addressed by pro-vitamin A alone. There are already some 70 patents on the
golden rice, owned by 32 companies. The rice variety modified is a temperate
rice unsuitable for growing in the tropics. (See also ISIS Sustainable Audit
#1, The Golden Rice, an Exercise in How Not To Do
The Monsanto representative finally spoke up
and said that the company is only trying to improve the quality of life for
people in the Third World, and villagers can choose not to use GM crops. China
and Singapore, she said, are promoting and embracing the technology
enthusiastically just so they won't be dominated by foreign countries.
According to Devlin, a Chinese contact told him that they had the same
problems with Monsanto's GM cotton that was known in the US, with cotton balls
dropping off when the crop was sprayed with Roundup. But the farmers were under
contract to Monsanto to say nothing!
Monsanto was rebutted by a Professor
from Prince Songkla University who dwelt on the importance of protecting
Thailand as a centre of biodiversity of rice, and that it would be very
dangerous to release rice GMOs. (Thailand already has a huge variety of rice,
all differing in both fragrance and colour - shades of yellows, reds and black
- rich in all kinds of vitamins and minerals.) Another forceful speaker from
the floor said, "Monsanto, don't try to push us! Academics and Government
officials ought to try to find a clear understanding of how to protect the
natural world. Instead Thailand is being dominated by a group of corporate
scientists reaping benefits from the developing to the developed world. Small
farmers are being forced into contractual arrangements, or bribery, and have no
choice. The Philippines are taking an aggressive stand before the GM crops come
The last session was on intellectual property rights and the speakers
were Professor Chakkrit , an academic from the Department of Law, and Mr.
Bantoong of the Biodiversity Institute. Thailand already has comprehensive
draft legislations to protect her genetic resources, the forests and especially
her rich tradition of herbal medicines, which is being recovered for use in
public health, in an effort to substitute for the high costs of imported
medicine and to promote the exchange of knowledge and resources in the form of
medical herbs, health foods and other healthcare items. Western scientific
knowledge is combined with indigenous scientific knowledge, and government
agencies, ngos and academics are all involved in the important task of
recovering traditional medicines. Provisions are being made to register
inventions under the ownership of communities, ngos, traditional healers, monks
and private individuals. This model should be taken seriously by countries all
over the world, as it will do much to counteract corporate biopiracy as well as
unsustainable corporate monopoly on food and health.
A spokesperson from
the Agricultural Research Department said, "Our biodiversity is our national
treasure. The problem is how to protect our treasure which include tropical
fruits and microorganisms." He stressed the need to conserve living organisms
in nature and not only in gene banks. In the Rice Research Institute in Central
Thailand, 30 000 varieties of rice have already been collected, and it is not
at all clear that they can keep. "About GMOs, we don't allow the use of GMO
commercially, only for research."
This brought a torrent of condemnation
from the farmers.
"The Government has led us in the wrong direction. Up to
now we did not know anything about GMOs, but thanks to this seminar, things
have changed. Research Institutes have concentrated in creating varieties that
are sensitive to fertilizers and dependent on pesticides, and now GMOs are much
worse. We are losing our life!"
"The lies we have been told! The patents
that have been obtained based on modifying our varieties. And adding vitamin A
to our varieties for higher profit."
"Anyone pushing GMOs is wicked. We
have to stop them. We cannot allow GMOs in Thailand."
"We have to collect
names of villagers in Thailand who do not want GMOs and tell the Department of
Agriculture and Development to stop."
"Stop explaining the benefits of
GMOs!" "Patenting of rice is robbing us of our liveihood."
"We still have
lots of varieties But we may lose them because of Government policies. The
Government does not care about the traditional way of life in the highlands.
Government says people don't have knowledge and destroy natural resources under
swidden agriculture, and arrest them. It is the Government that is destroying
our rice varieties, first through the green revolution, and now trying to
fix-it with GMOs"
In a television debate two days later, Dr. Suthep
Limtongkul, Director of Rice Research Institute, announced that they have put
all GM rice in the gene bank, and will not carry out any more research on them.
But still, farmers want the GM rice destroyed.
World Scientists in US Congress
Mae-Wan Ho reports on a special Educational Forum on
Biotechnology that packed the Golden Room on Capitol Hill
standing room only when Rev. David Beckmann began his introduction as Moderator
of the event, and people were still filing in. The educational forum "Can
biotechnology help fight world hunger?" (June 29, 2000) attracted a record
number of congressional staff as well as members of the public. Our World
Scientists Open Letter, updated, and signed by 327 scientists from 38
countries, was presented to US Congress on the occasion and was crucial in
drawing attention to the scientific debate.
The event was sponsored and
organized by Congressman Tony Hall, well-known for his efforts in raising the
profile of world hunger. In his opening remarks, he stressed that he was not
interested to know if biotechnology could make money, but in how it could do
something for hungry kids and how we can share prosperity with the poor.
Senator Richard Lugar, Chair of the Senate Agricultural Committee, a strong
supporter of biotech industry, condemned the opposition as 'emotional' and
stressed the 'enormous potential' of GM crops, citing 'golden rice' -
engineered to produce pro-vit. A - as a cure for vit. A deficiency in the Third
World. In anticipation of just this bit of biotech propaganda, ISIS'
Sustainable Science Audit #1, "The 'Golden Rice' - An
Exercise in How Not to Do Science" had been circulated in advance, thanks
to Consumer Choice Council.
Representative Robert Ehrlich, who claimed to
represent small businesses, answered yes to the question. "Sound science" ought
to be used, he admonished. He had seen what happened in Europe when ideas get
demonized quickly, and it should not happen in the US.
Dennis Kucinich, who has introduced a bill for labelling of GMOs to Congress,
reminded everyone that we all have a common interest to feed the hungry. But
his answer to the question was no. The world is not short of food, he stated,
and if people are hungry, then we have to think again. It is financial hardship
and poor distribution of food that are the causes of world hunger. Perhaps
sustainable agriculture can help, but the Green Revolution did not.
Biotechnology should encourage sustainable agriculture that can be compatible
with mandatory labelling, which is the right to know.
"No one should have
to choose between food inadequately tested and no food at all!" Kucinish
stated, "Food standards should be the same all over." He was against food aid
dumping. It was an ethical responsibility not to do so. This remark was
particularly pertinent, as Dr. Vandana Shiva had just presented Congress with a
memo objecting to GM food being dumped as relief to flood victims in Orissa and
elsewhere. Four scientists were the main presenters, with Dr. Martina
McGloughlin of UC Davies and Dr. C.S. Prakash of Tuskegee University arguing
that biotechnology is needed to combat world hunger and Dr. Vandana Shiva,
Director of the Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resources in
India and myself from ISIS arguing that it is far from needed. On the contrary,
sustainable agricultural methods are already proving successful all over the
world, that biotechnology and corporate monopoly on food through seed patenting
and biopiracy can only exacerbate world hunger, while the question of safety is
at best unresolved.
After the presentations, a questions and answers
session was led by prominent 'challengers' representing the ngos, the industry
and the press. It was notable that although McGloughlin and Prakash were both
scientists, neither spoke about science at all. They refused to acknowledge
that there is already evidence of actual and potential hazards, while offering
no scientific evidence to back up their claims that GM crops are safe.
McGloughlin even went as far as to accuse the European Union of erecting false
trade barriers on grounds of safety. When Vandana Shiva brought up the subject
of the patents on the Indian Neem tree, Basmati rice and other indigenous
plants that Indian farmers have developed and used for centuires, Prakash
loudly proclaimed, " I am sick and tired of hearing about biopiracy. Thank God
I stressed that there was genuine scientific dissent
within the scientific community, as witnessed by the hundreds of scientists who
have signed our open letter and the FDA's own scientific advisors who warned of
new risks associated with GMOs. When I reminded the house that the lack of
scientific consensus and uncertainty are the conditions for applying the
precautionary principle, supporters of the biotech industry predictably
scoffed. (For more detailed arguments for the precautionary principle as part
and parcel of sound science see Use and Abuse of the Precautionary Principle,
The representative from Zeneca, also predictably, sang the
praises of golden rice, which they have recently acquired the rights for, and
have announced that they will offer it 'free' to the Third World. I challenged
her on how something that already has 70 patents can be offered free, and hoped
that Zeneca will reply in detail to ISIS' Audit. She replied, admitting that
the patents issue is very complicated and has to be solved. Michael Pollan, the
N.Y. Times journalist who stunned the United States into action on GMOs with
his famous article on Monsanto's GM potato, confessed to be not at all
convinced by the arguments on benefits. "Have the benefits been proven?" He
asked, "Have the risk been proven to outweigh the benefits?" He urged
precautionary approach. "Industry is in trouble", he stated, "But why should I
eat a GM potato?"
In his summing up, Rev. David Beckman, President of Bread
of the World, stressed that other tools besides biotechnology must be used to
combat world hunger, that it is the imbalance of power that is the cause of
world hunger. He also touched on the ethics of science and the fact that people
don't quite trust scientists anymore.
Bad Science and Big Business Put the World at Risk
from Viral Pandemics - Xenotransplantation
This is the finding of ISIS Sustainable Audit #2 by Mae-Wan Ho
and Joe Cummins
Xenotransplantation - the transplant of animal
organs into human beings - is a multi-billion dollar business venture built on
the anticipated sale of patented techniques and organs, as well as drugs to
overcome organ-rejection. It has received strong criticism and opposition from
scientists warning of the risks of new viruses crossing from animal organs to
human subjects and from there to infect the population at large. But regulators
are adopting a permissive attitude for clinical trials to go ahead. Scientific
reports of virus crossing from pig to human cells and of viral infections in
humans subjects transplanted with baboon livers are being ignored or dismissed,
while inconclusive, widely faulted papers are taken as evidence that no viruses
are found in xenotransplant patients. Our audit exposes the shoddy science that
puts the world at risk of viral pandemics for the sake of corporate profit, and
concludes that xenotranplantation should not be allowed to continue in any
form. Instead, effort should be devoted to developing safer, more sustainable
alternatives that are already showing promise. One particular approach
suggested is to encourage stem cells in adults to regenerate within the body,
without the need for transplantation.
See the full paper on ISIS website
Ban Biological Weapons and Agent Green!
Clinton admits that US' plan to use Fusarium to eradicate drug crops
in Colombia may have an impact on biological weapons proliferation. Joe
Cummins reviews the scientific literature showing why that is the case.
Please write to your Government to give them this information, and demand a
total ban on this and other similar biological weapons.
States government is considering using biological control agents to eradicate
coca plants in Columbia. Because of its illicit coca crop, Colombia is on the
front line of US biological warfare plans. Other projects to develop biological
agents to kill opium poppy and marijuana are also funded by the US and the
Clinton overruled the US Congress to decouple the link
between Colombian acceptance of Agent Green and the overall implementation of
the US 1.3 billion dollar bilateral assistance package for Plan Colombia.
Clinton states that the US will not use Agent Green until "a broader
national security assessment, including consideration of the potential impact
on biological weapons proliferation and terrorism, provides a solid foundation
for concluding that the use of this particular drug control tool is in our
national interest." That implies it is still on the cards.
biological control agent is the fungus Fusarum oxysporum a common plant
pathogen. To be effective and safe for application, strains of the common
pathogen would have to be selected and those strains would have to be supremely
resistant to mutation and sexual gene exchange because small changes in a few
genes can alter host range and the range of side effects on animals. The best
available scientific evidence suggests that those goals of genetic conservatism
and stability are unattainable, and that widespread saturation of a
geographical area with this plant pathogen may not only impact on food crops,
but on human health and a wide range of mammals and birds.
oxysporium is a fungus without a reproductive cell (without sexual spores) but
one well known to have very active genetic recombination following fusion of
mycelia (the fungal mat). Mitotic recombination (recombination during ordinary
cell division) is common in asexual fungi (1).
The presence of several
families of transposable elements (jumping genes) also contribute to mutation
and chromosome rearrangement (2). Among the transposons is the impala element,
a member of the mariner transposon family that is known to spread horizontally
across fungi, plant and animals (3). Horizontal gene flow contributes to the
variability in Fusarium. There is no known way to control gene flow in Fusarium
and such gene flow is the key to the success of the pathogen. It is certainly
ill-advised to drench a geographical area with a fungus known to infect humans
or animals. In humans with normal immune systems, Fusarium oxysporum was
associated with infection of skin and nails (4). A respiratory disease along
with fungal infection of the liver was observed in a patient (5). People with
undeveloped, aging or compromised immune system are highly sensitive to fungus
infection. Fusarium oxysporum is associated with Kaschin-Beck (KB) disease, an
early aging disease affecting numerous people in China and Russia, and the
disease also strikes mammals and birds. For example, Fusarium oxysporum
infected corn caused KB disease symptoms in chickens (6). Fusarium oxysporium
infected grain caused KB symptoms in rats (7). and monkeys (8). The main onset
of KB disease in humans is between the ages of 4 and 13 and the disease was
twice as prevalent in boys than in girls (9).
We cannot allow the US
Government to spray a fungus associated with such a serious disease. It is
tentamount to waging biological warfare on the people of Columbia and their
In conclusion, Fusarium oxysporium is unlikely to eradicate
coca in Columbia but there is a reasonable chance that it will spread a
horrific disease among young humans and animals.
1. Taylor,J, Jacobson,D,
Fisher,M. (1999). The evolution of asexual fungi. Ann Rev. Phytopath
2. Hua-Van,A, Daviere,J, Kaper,F, Langin,T and Daboussi,M
(2000).Genome organization in Fusarium oxysporum: clusters of class ii
transposons. Curr Genet 37,339-47.
3. Hua-Van,A, Hericourt,F, Capy,P,
Daboussi,M and Langin,T (1998). Three highly divergent subfamilies of the
impala transposable element coexist in the genome of the fungus Fusarium
oxysporum. Mol. Gen Genet 259,354-62.
4. Romano,C, Miracco,C and Difonzo,E.
(1998). Skin and nail infections due to Fusarium oxysporum in Tuscany, Italy.
5. Sander,A, Beyer,U and Amberg,R. (1998). Systemic
Fusarium oxysporum infection in an immunocompetent patient with an adult
respiratory disease syndrome (ARDS) and extracorporal membrane oxygenation
(ECMO). Mycoses 41, 109-11
6. Chu,Q, Wu,W. Cook,M and Smalley,E. (1996).
Elevated plasma glycosaminoglycans in chickes with tibial dyschondriaplasia
induced by a Fusarium oxsyporum isolate. Avain Dis 40, 715-9.
7. Fu,Z and
Zhang,S (1993). Effects of cereals from Kaschin-Beck's disease endemic area on
fibrillogenesis in vitro of cartilage type II collagen in rats. Chung Hua Yu
Fang I Hsueh Tsa Chih 2,77-80.
8. Zhang,G and Lui,J. (1989). An
experimental animal model of Kashin-Beck disease. Ann Rheum Dis 48,149-52.
9. Zhai,S, Kimbrough,R, Meng,B, Han,J, LeVois,M, Hou,X and Yin,X. (1990).
Kashin-Beck disease: a cross sectional study in seven villages in the People's
Republic of China. J Toxicol Ennviron Health 30,239-59. For more information,
please see The Sunshine Project www.sunshine-project.org
CaMV Promoter Active In Animal and Human
Since the publication of our original paper on the CaMV promoter, we
have been subjected to personal abuse and attack of the kind meted out to many
other scientists who refuse to be intimidated into a 'scientific consensus' by
the corporatized scientific establishment.
In a continuing campaign to
mislead and obfuscate, the pro-biotech brigade have been re-cirulating again
and again the same scientific critique of our paper which we have already
rebutted in full in an article published in the same issue of the Journal.
But the worse is yet to come. Plant genetic engineers, including our
critics, have been telling us that the CaMV promoter is safe because it is a
plant promoter that only works in plants and plant-like species. We have now
found in the scientific literature more than 10 years old that the CaMV 35S
promoter is active in frog eggs as well as in extracts of a human cell line. It
means that if the CaMV promoter ends up in our genome, it could well have
unpredictable, untoward genetic effects.
We submitted a short paper to
Nature Biotechnology which has been publishing the most despicable attacks on
us, but they rejected it after a two months delay. This paper is now in press
in Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease, practically the only scientific
journal that would allow a fair debate in their pages. The paper is posted on
It is nothing short of a scandal that the plant genetic
engineers have not bothered to check whether the CaMV promoter is active in
animals before they started to use it so widely. Those who are still supporting
the use of the CaMV 35S promoter should be held legally responsible for any
harmful consequences arising from it.
The Beginning of Real Progress for the BSE/CJD
In this exclusive feature article, Dr. Harash Narang,
pioneering researcher in new variant CJD, who lost his job because he dared to
disagree with the orthodox opinion, tells his story of the crisis and how he is
being vindicated by recent discoveries. If he had been heeded, many lives could
have been saved, and the needless slaughtering of tens of thousands of cattle
could have been prevented. "The tragedy of the BSE crises is that from the
start, the government has approached BSE as a matter of policy instead of as a
matter of science. But science is not a convenience store where one can browse
around and pick up the hypotheses that best suits one's policy". But
misrepresentation and misconduct in the corporate scientific community
An article on the BSE crisis (Reservoir Sheep? New Scientist
July 27) reports that Prusiner told a scientific meeting in Birmingham that his
colleague Mike Scott believes sheep carry two strains of the BSE agent, the
scrapie prion and the BSE prion. Furthermore, Scott also believes that the
scrapie strain is somewhat dominant, preventing the BSE strain from infecting
cattle and people when both are present. In other words the scrapie strain acts
as a vaccine against the BSE strain. This is not news. Clinically speaking, it
has been known for more than 30 years that there are two distinct strains of
the scrapie agent. Type I is common and causes sheep to loose their wool. This
is the common scrapie strain. Type II, is very rare and appears in only 1 sheep
in 100,000 or more. It causes trembling and is the BSE strain. The most
important difference between the two strains is the mode of transmission - the
BSE strain can be transmitted orally whilst the scrapie strain cannot. This has
helped the BSE strain to spread to a large number of mammalian species whilst
incorporated into cattle feed.
In fact, twenty strains of the scrapie agent
have been isolated and the phenomena of interference between strains has been
known for a number of years (1). I have proposed that the eradication of BSE
would be achievable if a vaccine were to be developed based on this phenomena.
The BSE inquiry reveals that MAFF has known since 1989 that Type II - the
BSE strain - was different. Transmission studies revealed type II clinical
symptoms in sheep, showing that the BSE strain poses a threat not only to
cattle but also to sheep. MAFF have also known since 1990 that scrapie
resistant sheep can be infected with type II, whilst sheep infected with type I
cannot. Why then is MAFF presently asking sheep farmers to breed from scrapie
resistant sheep? This would only reduce the numbers of scrapie-infected sheep
in herds and thus leave sheep farmers vulnerable to a rise in the incidence of
the BSE strain in sheep. Furthermore, scrapie infected meat acts as a vaccine
against the BSE agent and therefore offers some protection to the human
Now that Prusiner has openly admitted the phenomena of
interference between the two strains of the agent, it further suggests that the
BSE agent could not be a protein after all. It must be a virus. Moreover,
Prusiner's group, following a number of experiments in transgenic mice, have
concluded that another "X" protein, a chaperone, is required in the post
translational process (2), as has been previously suggested by myself (3).
The final conclusion of these findings suggest that the prion protein is
not the agent and therefore it is something else. Moreover, Prusiner's earlier
work has proved not to be repeatable (4) and the protein only hypothesis has no
direct evidence to support it. On the contrary, most of the new evidence
supports a virus hypothesis.
I have published a large number of papers
supporting the hypothesis that the BSE/CJD agent is a virus. More recently, I
transmitted the disease using isolated single stranded DNA - in demonstration
of Kock's postulate - that a single stranded DNA genome is the viral genome for
the disease of BSE/CJD (5). I have also described this in detail in my book,
The tragedy of the BSE crises is that from the start, the
government has approached BSE as a matter of policy instead of as a matter of
science. But science is not a convenience store where one can browse around and
pick up the hypotheses that best suits one's policy - the main priority of
which is the avoidance of public alarm.
When I found young patients dying
from CJD in the late 80's I kept my employer, The Public Health Service
Laboratory, well informed of my investigations. However, it took a further
eight years before the government and SEAC, the advisory body, admitted
publicly the link between BSE and CJD. To this day, after spending millions of
pounds and years in time, MAFF still do not know the source of the BSE agent or
how to eradicate the disease.
The extent of the problem can be demonstrated
in recent announcements from government regarding BSE/CJD. Since 1991 a body of
evidence has revealed that maternal transmission of the BSE agent has occurred.
In June 1999, 39,384 BSE cases were confirmed in cattle born after the feed ban
in July 1988. MAFF can no longer deny the reality of maternal transmission. I
began developing a practical BSE diagnostic test in the late 80's for use in
abattoirs. Had this test been introduced BSE infected cattle would have been
stopped from entering the food chain. But the government still to this day has
not taken it up.
In recent weeks the government has acknowledged a number
of other real BSE/CJD issues that I have also been highlighting for many years.
First, they have acknowledged that there is at least one cluster of CJD cases
in a community living in close proximity to one another. Then SEAC announces
there maybe a theoretical link between CJD and dental instruments (See p 268,
The Link). In fact the same problem also extends to other medical instruments,
such as those used in surgery. The SEAC spokesperson said there is no means
available to sterilise dental instruments contaminated with the CJD agent. This
is however not accurate and there are methods available for decontamination
(See p 71,The Link). Finally, Nick Brown ordered an inquiry into whether there
is a connection between BSE, milk and dairy products. Unfortunately this
inquiry is not based on good science. The only way to establish whether the
agent is lurking in milk or dairy products is to feed BSE infected dairy
products to mink (See p 38, The Link). These animals are very susceptible to
the BSE agent and will develop clinical disease within 14 months.
amounts to some very disturbing news on the BSE/CJD front and in order to calm
public fears, a new study by Neil Ferguson and colleagues has been highly
publicised with headlines such as "CJD epidemic fears unfounded". However, even
this study does not escape the grip of the continuing BSE crisis. It was a
computer based study and according to the data imputed, CJD will claim 136,000
victims in Britain. With some simple calculations one can work out that one
person in 400 will contract the disease. This is greater than the death toll
for TB and AIDS. Furthermore, the study estimates that 750,000 cattle infected
with BSE were slaughtered for human consumption in Britain. But in 1988, when I
was developing an abattoir test for BSE, most of the cattle being slaughtered
were incubating the disease.
Now, John Collinge from MRC Prion Unit at St
Mary's Hospital London, suggests (PNAS Aug 2000) that the BSE agent can be
easily transmitted to many other animal species. Moreover, he presents his
evidence, as if it where new and claims these animals often incubate the
disease without showing clinical symptoms. But in my evidence to the BSE
enquiry (1997) and in my book The Link, I have demonstrated and described that
chickens and sheep do develop clinical and pathological disease. Furthermore,
Collinge is fully aware of this fact, having often been present at scientific
meetings in which I have presented these findings. He also possesses a copy of
The Link. Has Collinge broken the scientific code of ethics by not quoting my
work and is he guilty of scientific misconduct by reporting this as a new
finding in his recent PNAS paper? There are also several outstanding issues
regarding the actual death toll from CJD and in addition, the methods employed
for diagnosing CJD are also questionable in my opinion.
A recent report in
The Lancet (vol 356, p481) shows that 15 CJD deaths have occurred this year
compared with 18 for the whole of 1998. This is a four-fold increase in
incidence of CJD between 1998-99. However, it is important to note that whilst
BSE is a notifiable disease, CJD is not and therefore no one really knows how
many people are actually dying from CJD each year. One thing is clear, in
comparison with the 50 recorded deaths in the early 1990's, the incidence is
rising. In addition, the name "new variant CJD" (nvCJD) is very misleading as
nvCJD is caused by the BSE strain of the agent, which is not a 'new' strain -
it originates from Type II scrapie in sheep. And like with scrapie and BSE
there are two types of CJD. Type I, which is classical CJD and Type II, termed
'new variant' CJD (nvCJD), which is caused by the BSE strain of the agent. For
diagnosing classical Type I CJD there are three major distinguishing features.
First, classical CJD starts with dementia. Second, confluent spongiform changes
are not usually found in the cerebellum. And third, PrP plaques are rarely
observed. In Type II CJD, three main features distinguish it from Type I
classical CJD: a) the first leading clinical signs are difficulty in balancing
and ataxia. b) Confluent spongiform changes are seen in the cerebellum and c)
the distribution of PrP plaques are unique and different from those observed in
Since the first appearance of BSE in cattle, nvCJD in people
has only been recorded in young patients. However, based on the three main
distinguishing features described above and following a literature review, I
have evidence that patients of all ages are dying from Type II CJD and that
these patients are not been recorded. It is imperative that Type II CJD be made
a notifiable disease so as the actual death toll can be determined more
accurately. After ten wasted years in the wilderness with BSE/CJD there is
still hope that we can eradicate this disease from Britain. Prusiner's
admission should mark the beginning of real progress in pinpointing the
disease. In the short term, we must restore public confidence in meat products
by announcing decisive measures that can really address the BSE crisis. The
first of which should be the implementation of a diagnostic test for
identifying BSE and CJD cases. The second of which must be the development of a
Dr Harash Narang was a microbiologist for the British
government until 1994, when he was made redundant from his job at the Public
Health Laboratory Service in Newcastle. Despite official denials, he maintains
he was dismissed because of his controversial scientific investigations, which
established the link between BSE and CJD. He is an expert on BSE/CJD and has
written two books " The Link" (ISBN 0-9530764-0-7) and "Death on the Menu" (
1. Narang H. K., Molecular Cloning SS DNA purified from
Scrapie infected hamster brain. Res Virol. 144: 375-387, 1993.
GC, Scott M, Mastrianni J, Gabizon R, Torchia RM, Cohen F, DeArmond SJ,
Prusiner SB. (1995) Prion propagation in mice expressing human and chimeric PrP
transgenes implicates the interaction of cellular PrP with another protein.
3. Narang HK.(1992). Relationship of protease-resistant
protein, scrapie-associated fibrils and tubulofilamentous particles to the
agent of spongiform encephalopathies. Res Virol 143:381-386.
4. Balter M.
Prions: Alone killer or a vital accomplice? Science 286:660-662, 1999
Narang HK. (1998). Evidence that single-stranded DNA wrapped around the
tubulofilamentous particles "Nemavirus" is the genome of the scrapie agent. Res
Human Genome -The Biggest Sellout in Human
Our Governments have handed over the human genome to private
ownership. The hype continues, but will it deliver? Not likely. Mae-Wan
Ho concludes that, unless and until there is a quantum leap to a new
paradigm for understanding the organism as a coherent whole, human genome
research will remain a scientific and financial black hole that swallows up all
resources without any return to investors or to improving the health of
"To-day, we are learning the language that allowed God to
create life." That was how Clinton greeted the announcement of the human genome
map on June 26. The Human Genome Project, (HGP) an international public
consortium of research laboratories led by the United States, and Celera, a
private American company, made the announcement jointly, ending months of
competition to complete the first sequence of the human genome. Craig Venter,
Director of Celera, marked this "historical day in the 100,000 years of human
history" when, for the first time, "the human species can read the letters of
its own text." Not to be outdone, Francis Collins, head of the public project,
called it "the revelation of the book of life".
French Research Minister,
Roger-Gérard Schwartzenberg, hailed the event as " the victory of those
who wanted knowledge to remain free". In reality, it is the biggest sellout in
human history dressed up with the most far-flung hyperboles.
genome has been sequenced with major public finance from the United States and
the European Community. The US Government alone had earmarked $3 billion for
the initiative. But that has not prevented the human genome from being
patented, owned and exploited by private companies.
Celera's genetic maps
would eventually be available on the Internet, and the company will claim
royalties from any commercial pharmaceutical application of its discoveries. In
contrast, the gene sequences and gene maps produced by the public consortium
have been deposited regularly within 24 hours of completion in GenBank, a
public database set up in the early 1980s when DNA sequencing began, access to
which is totally free. Celera kept its own human genome data secret while
benefiting from free access to the public database throughout the period that
the company was busy sequencing, thereby significantly reducing the time and
effort needed to complete the task.
Celera is not the only company stealing
from HGP's Genbank. Others such as Incyte has mined the public data to help
build its catalogue of genes and patents. There are some 20 000 patents on gene
sequences pending at the US patent office.
The US Patent and Trademark
Office had tightened up the criteria for gene patents by issuing two new
directives under section 101 "utility", and section 112 "written description
requirements" last December. Under the new utility guidelines, the USPTO is
looking for "specific utility" and "substantial utility". So, DNA fragments or
express sequence tags (EST) will require a written description of their
specific utility in order to be patented (though millions of patents based on
those have already been granted in the US). Similarly, according to the current
EU Directive on biotechnological inventions, genes and gene-sequences can still
be patented if an "industrial application" is specified.
"industrial application" may amount to no more than speculation on function
based on similarity to gene sequences in the existing database. Another
industrial application for which many patents have been awarded is "association
with condition X", where X is anything from cancer to criminality. There are
already 740 patented gene tests on the market, among them are BRCA1 and BRCA2,
genes linked to breast cancer in women. Years after the tests were launched,
scientists still do not know to what degree those genes contribute to a woman's
But it is precisely ignorance that is fueling a goldrush in
'bio-infomatics' - a fusion of information technology with biology - that
promises to turn the raw genomic base-sequence data into knowledge for making
even more lucrative new drugs. It is already a $300 million industry expected
to grow to $2 billion within 5 years.
The public GenBank holds sequence
data on more than seven billion units of DNA, while Celera Genomics claims to
have 50 terabytes of data in store, equivalent to 80 000 compact discs. The raw
sequence data consist of monotonous strings of four letters - A, T, C and G
-that make up the 3 billion or so bases in the human genome. It is impossible
to access the data or to make any sense of the sequences without special
software. Some softwares are developed and made freely available in the public
domain, but the databases of private companies are provided to paid-up
subscribers only. Incyte launched an e-commerce genomics program in March that
allows researchers to order sequence data or physical copies of more than 100
000 genes on-line. Subscribers to the company's genomics database include drug
giants such as Pfizer, Bayer and Eli Lilly. Celera's gene notes, similarly,
will cost commercial subscribers an estimated $5 to $15 million, and academics,
$2000 to $15000 a year.
Close on the heels of bioinformatics is
'proteomics', details on when and where genes are active and on the properties
of the proteins the genes encode. It attempts to make sense of the complex
relationships between gene and protein and between different proteins, and has
so far attracted hundreds of millions in venture capital.
spawned a number of technical innovations, among which is the Gene Chip,
developed by Affy-metrix in Santa Clara, California. It consists of glass
microarrays coated with cDNAs (complementary DNA) to identify which mRNA
species are made (and hence which genes are expressed). One microarray allows
researchers to identify more than 60 000 different human mRNAs. The US National
Cancer Institute has been examining the mRNAs produced by various types of
cancer cells in a Human Tumor Gene Index project involving government and
academic laboratories as well as a group of drug companies including
Bristol-Myers Squibb, Genetech, Glaxo Wellcome and Merck. So far, more than 50
000 genes have been identified that are active in one or more cancers.
sequencing of the human genome is undeniably a technical feat comparable
perhaps to landing on the moon. And it is difficult not to be caught up in a
frenzy of speculation on what can be achieved as genomics joins forces with the
latest in information and nanotechnology. But will it deliver health, let alone
Two medical geneticist writing in the New England Journal of
Medicine, warned that the 'genetic mantle' " may prove to be like the emperor's
new clothes." As has been pointed out by many scientists, most diseases are
complex, and correlations between genes and disease are therefore weak.
Associations between a disease and a 'genetic marker' (of unknown function) can
occur by chance and some have proved to be spurious. Although many
disease-related genes have been mapped to regions of specific chromosomes, no
clear markers for asthma, hypertension, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and
other disorders have been found despite intensive efforts.
susceptibility genes in breast cancer, colon cancer, rare early-onset forms of
type II diabetes, and Alzheimer's disease have been more successful, but in
each case these account for less than 3 percent of all cases. That is because
the risk of disease depends not only on other genes but also on environmental
Holzman and Marteau conclude, "In our rush to fit medicine with
the genetic mantle, we are losing sight of other possibilities for improving
the public health. Differences in social structure, lifestyle, and environment
account for much larger proportions of disease
Those who make medical and
science policies in the next decade would do well to see beyond the hype." Let
us take stock of some of what is on offer. The human genome sequence, we are
told, will enable geneticists to,
- cure cancer
- understand more about diseases and thereby to design better drugs
- design customized cures based on our individual genetic makeup
- prescribe an individual's lifestyle based on genetic makeup. More
contentious are the claims to
- diagnose all the bad genes that cause diseases · identify all
the good genes responsible for desirable qualities such as longevity,
intelligence, being slim and beautiful, good at sports, and so on
- replace bad genes in 'gene therapy', including germline gene therapy
· create 'genetic enhancement' by introducing 'good' genes
- create 'designer babies' and superior human beings.
In reality, the only concrete offering from mapping the human
genome are the hundreds of patented gene tests. The high costs of the tests
have prevented them from being used in cases where it might benefit patients in
providing diagnosis. At the same time, those healthy subjects who have tested
positive are likely to suffer from genetic discrimination and risk losing
employment and health insurance. The value of diagnosis for conditions for
which there is no cure is highly questionable. The claim to identify putative
'bad' and 'good' genes is also fueling the return of eugenics, which has
blighted the history of much of the 20th century. This is exacerbated by the
dominant genetic determinist mindset that makes even the most pernicious
applications of gene technology seem compelling. A prominent band of scientists
and 'bioethicists' are actively advocating human genetic engineering, not just
in 'gene therapy' for genetic disease, but in positively enhancing and
improving the genetic makeup of children of parents who can pay for the
privilege, and have no qualms regarding human reproductive cloning either. They
have been given much attention in the mainstream media.
The promises as
well as the threats remain largely in the realm of future potential if not
outright fantasy. We were promised no less than "the blueprint for making a
human being" by no less than Nobel laureate James Watson when the Human Genome
Project was first touted, along with miracle cures for cancer and other
diseases, and even immortality. Now, ten years and dozens of sequenced genomes
later, it is all too obvious that geneticists haven't got a clue of how to make
even the smallest bacterium, or the simplest worm, let alone a human being. Nor
has anyone been cured of a single disease on the basis of genes or genetic
information. Rather than address the contentious claims of the human genome
project, let's concentrate on those offerings generally seen to be beneficial
and uncontroversial; for if it cannot deliver on those, it can certainly not
deliver on the rest.
The growth in 'bio-informatics' and 'proteomics' is an
admission of the vast realms of ignorance that separate the 100 000 genes in
the human genome from the living human being. It is also an acknowledgement
that the genetic determinist paradigm which has done so much to promote the
human genome project has failed miserably. There is no simple, linear causal
chain connecting a gene to a trait, good or bad. Behind the hype is a desperate
attempt to turn the exponentially increasing amount of information into
knowledge that can pay off the heavy investments already sunk into the project.
Private ownership of the human genome is obviously not ever going to
benefit those who cannot afford to pay. Proponents of human genetic
engineering, indeed, see the creation of a 'genetic underclass' to be
inevitable, as those who can afford to pay for genetic enhancement will become
'gene rich' relative to those who cannot afford to pay . But can knowledge of
the human genome really deliver the goods? Genuine genetic diseases that can be
attributed to single genes constitute less than 2% of all diseases, and more
and more geneticists are coming around to the view that even those are subject
to so many other genetic and environmental influences that there is simply no
such thing as a single-gene condition. For the rest, the association between
the condition and the specific genes or genetic markers reduces to tenuous
'predispositions' or 'susceptibility' (see above).
cancer for example, conceals the fact that important environmental factors are
left out of consideration. These include the hundreds of acknowledged
industrial carcinogens polluting our environment. It is well-known that the
incidence of cancer increases with industrialization and with the use of
pesticides. Women in non-industrialized Asian countries have a much lower
incidence of breast cancer than women living in the industrialized west.
However, when those Asian women emigrate to Europe and the United States, their
incidence of cancer jumps to that of the white European women within a single
generation. Similarly, when DDT and other pesticides were phased out in Israel,
breast cancer mortality in pre-menopausal women dropped by 30%. The
overwhelming causes of ill-health are environmental and social. That is the
conclusion of a major body of research findings, still growing everyday.
Environmental influences swamp even large genetic differences.
determinist approach of the human genome programme is pernicious because it
diverts attention and resources away from addressing the real causes of
ill-health, while at the same time stigmatizing the victims and fueling eugenic
tendencies in society. The health of nations will be infinitely better served
by devoting resources to preventing environmental pollution and to phasing out
agrochemicals, rather than by identifying all the genes that 'predispose'
people to ill-health. Even the UK Royal Society, not known for holding
progressive views, has produced a report in July calling for national and
international coordination to deal with the dangers posed to humans and
wildlife by endocrine-disrupting chemicals, substances thought to mimic or
block natural hormones in amounts too minute to trigger a conventional toxic
response. But it is the inherent complexity of the human organism and the lack
of a concept of the organism as a coherent whole that will continue to
frustrate all attempts at understanding health and disease within the dominant,
Despite the almost weekly hype on cancer cures,
there is none, or none that has resulted from information on genes and gene
sequences. As mentioned earlier, some 50 000 genes have been identified that
are active in one or more cancers using the Gene Chip, which is half of the
maximum number of gene predicted in the human genome!
In principle, knowing
the genes that are over-expressed or inactive in individual cancers can allow
specific genes to be targeted. But this is no different from interventions that
have previously been available to single-gene defects such as sickle cell
anaemia or cystic fibrosis, none of which has been cured as a result; which is
why gene therapy has been attempted, equally to no avail so far.
To try to
understand disease in terms of genes and protein interactions is worse than
trying to understand how a machine works in terms of its nuts and bolts, simply
because the parts of the organism, unlike those of a machine, are inseparably
tangled up with one another. That is how they have to function. This kind of
understanding is extremely unlikely to lead to the design of better drugs,
which requires knowledge of the design of the human organism. And no amount of
information on genes and protein interactions will ever add up to the complex
entangled whole that is the organism.
The promise of customized medicine
and prescribed lifestyle based on an individual's genetic makeup is a
pipe-dream. The effect of each gene depends not just on environmental factors,
but ultimately on the genetic back-ground of all other genes in the genome. It
is estimated that individuals differ on average by one per thousand bases. This
amounts to three million bases over the entire genome. As each gene is at least
a thousand bases in length, it means that every gene will most probably be
different. In fact, hundreds of variants are typically found for each gene.
Consequently, every individual is genetically unique, except for identical
twins at the beginning of development, before different genetic mutations can
accumulate in each of the pair. That is why it is generally impossible to give
accurate prognosis of even single gene diseases unless the genetic background
is homogenous, as in an inbred laboratory strain of mice. And even then, the
mice have to be raised in a uniform environment.
The Icelandic population
is thought to approach a genetically homogenous population, which is why the
company deCode Genetics has acquired the genetic database of Iceland's 270 000
inhabitants, linked, anonymously to medical records. The hope is to enable all
the genes linked to a variety of diseases to be identified. Unfortunately, the
results will be valid for the Icelandic population only, and will not be
transferable to other populations. Thus, mutations in the gene giving rise to
cystic fibrosis among Northern Europeans is associated with quite another
condition among the Yemans; while bona fide cystic fibrosis in the latter
population is due to mutations in another gene altogether.
There is a
current debate as to whether genetically heterogeneous populations, such as
those in Manhattan and London, or homogeneous populations, such as those in
Iceland and Finland, could yield better genetic data for linkage to diseases.
According to biometrical genetic analysis, the net effects of a gene should be
determined over all environments as well as over all genetic backgrounds, so we
are back to the limited predictive power based on averages obtained in large
populations. It is impossible, in principle, to predict anything based on any
individual genome. Those who claim otherwise are doing so in ignorance of the
most basic principles of population genetics.
In case you still think that
the blueprint for making a human being is written in our genome, just take note
that up to 95% of the human genome may be 'junk' DNA, so called because no one
knows what its function is. The same is true of all genomes of higher
organisms. The rough draft of the human gene map announced in June is only 85%
complete for the coding (functional) regions only.
It is difficult to see
any strategy within either bioinformatics or proteomics that can pay off,
either in terms of basic understanding the human organism as a whole, or in
terms of miracle cures and wonder drugs. There is nothing beyond the
proliferation of more and more detailed information on genes and proteins that
have been spilling out of the pages of scientific journals for the past decade.
The one million proteins encoded by the 100 000 genes interact with one
another, with the genes themselves, and small molecular weight 'cofactors' and
'messengers'. Those interactions vary in different cells and tissues at
different times, subject to feedback from the environment. Feedback from the
environment can alter the genes themselves, and hence the cascades of
interactions involved. All that is the reality of the fluid and adaptable
genome which the moguls of genomics and bioinformatics have yet to come to
grips with. The prospect of understanding the human being by a detailed
description of its molecular parts is essentially nil. This reductionist
fallacy has been exposed in different forms, starting with the physicist Walter
Even if a computer is large enough to represent the states of all
the molecules and their interactions, and fast enough to give a description of
how these change in real time as the organism goes about its business of
living, we would still be left with no understanding of what is being
described. Current computation cannot handle the dynamics of one single protein
folding, even given all the information on the amino-acid sequence and the
final shape of the folded protein. It takes the computer four hours to find a
solution at best 70% accurate. But the protein itself folds to perfection
within a fraction of a second.
Unless and until there is a quantum leap to
a new paradigm for understanding the organism as a coherent whole, human genome
research will remain a scientific and financial black hole that swallows up all
public and private resources without any return either to investors or to
improving the health of nations. (See the full version of this paper on
Use and Abuse of The Precautionary Principle
Proponents of biotechnology have been busy attacking the
precautionary principle lately. Why? Because it holds the key to protecting
health and the environment and require the industry to prove beyond reasonable
doubt that a technology or a product is safe before it can be adopted. Peter
Saunders, Professor of Mathematics and co-Founder of ISIS shows how the
precautionary principle is just codified common sense that people have accepted
in courts of law as much as mathematicians have accepted in setting the burden
of proof in statistics. But pro-biotech scientists have been abusing science as
well as the precautionary principle. A version of this article has been
submitted to the US Senate Committee on Biotechnology
There has been a
lot written and said about the precautionary principle recently, much of it
misleading. Some have stated that if the principle were applied it would put an
end to technological advance. Others argue that it fails to take science
properly into account, though in fact it relies more heavily on scientific
evidence than other approaches to the problem. Still others claim to be
applying the principle when clearly they are not. From all the confusion, you
might think that it is a deep philosophical idea that is very difficult for a
lay person to grasp (1).
In fact, the precautionary principle is very
simple. All it actually amounts to is a piece of common sense: if we are
embarking on something new, we should think very carefully about whether it is
safe or not, and we should not go ahead until we are convinced it is. It's also
not a new idea; it already appears in national legislation in many countries
(including the United States), and in international agreements such as the 1992
Rio Declaration and the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol agreed in Montreal in
Those who reject the precautionary principle are pushing forward with
untested, inadequately researched technologies and insisting that it is up to
the rest of us to prove that they are dangerous before they can be stopped. At
the same time, they also refuse to accept liability, so if the technologies do
turn out to be hazardous, as in many cases they already have, someone else will
have to pay the costs of putting things right.
The precautionary principle
is about the burden of proof, a concept that ordinary people have been expected
to understand and accept in the law for many years. It is also the same
reasoning that is used in most statistical testing. In fact, as a lot of work
in biology depends on statistics, neglect or misuse of the precautionary
principle often arises out of a misunderstanding and abuse of statistics.
The precautionary principle does not provide us with an algorithm for
decision making. We still have to seek the best scientific evidence we can
obtain and we still have to make judgements about what is in the best interest
of ourselves and our environment. Indeed, one of the advantages of the
principle is that it forces us to face these issues; we cannot ignore them in
the hope that everything will turn out for the best whatever we do. The basic
point, however, is that it places the burden of proof firmly on the advocates
of new technology. It is for them to show that what they are proposing is safe.
It is not for the rest of us to show that it is not.
The Burden of Proof
The precautionary principle states that if there are reasonable
scientific grounds for believing that a new process or product may not be safe,
it should not be introduced until we have convincing evidence that the risks
are small and are outweighed by the benefits. It can also be applied to
existing technologies when new evidence appears suggesting that they are more
dangerous than we had thought, as in the cases of cigarettes, CFCs, lead in
petrol, greenhouse gasses and now genetically modified organisms (GMOs) (2). In
such cases it requires that we carry out research to gain a better assessment
of the risk and, in the meantime, that we should not expand our use of the
technology but should put in train measures to reduce our dependence on it. If
the dangers are considered serious enough, the principle may require us to
withdraw the products or impose a ban or moratorium on further use.
principle does not, as some critics claim, require industry to provide absolute
proof that something new is safe. That would be an impossible demand and would
indeed stop technology dead in its tracks, but it is not what is being
demanded. The precautionary principle does not deal with absolute certainty. On
the contrary, it is specifically intended for circumstances in which there is
no absolute certainty. It simply puts the burden of proof where it belongs,
with the innovator. The requirement is to demonstrate, not absolutely but
beyond reasonable doubt, that what is being proposed is safe.
principle applies in the criminal law, and for much the same reason. In the
courtroom, the prosecution and the defence are not on equal terms. The
defendant is not required to prove his innocence and the jury is not asked to
decide merely whether they think it is more likely than not that he committed
the crime. The prosecution must establish, not absolutely but beyond reasonable
doubt, that the defendant is guilty.
There is a good reason for this
inequality, and it has to do with the uncertainty of the situation and the
consequences of taking a wrong decision. The defendant may be guilty or not and
he may be found guilty or not. If he is guilty and convicted, then justice has
been done, as it has if he is innocent and found not guilty. But suppose the
jury reaches the wrong verdict, what then?
That depends on which of the two
possible errors was made. If the defendant actually committed the crime but is
found not guilty, then a crime goes unpunished. The other possibility is that
the defendant is wrongly convicted of a crime, in which case his whole life may
be ruined. Neither of these outcomes is satisfactory, but society has decided
that the second is so much worse than the first that we should do as much as we
reasonably can to avoid it. It is better, so the saying goes, that a hundred
guilty men should go free than that one innocent man should be convicted.
In any situation in which there is uncertainty, mistakes will occur. Our
aim must be to minimise the damage that results when they do.
society does not require a defendant to prove his innocence, so it should not
require objectors to prove that a technology is harmful. It is up to those who
want to introduce something new to prove, not with certainty but beyond
reasonable doubt, that it is safe. Society balances the trial in favour of the
defendant because we believe that convicting an innocent person is far worse
than failing to convict someone who is actually guilty. In the same way, we
should balance the decision on risks and hazards in favour of safety,
especially in those cases where the damage, should it occur, is serious and
The objectors must bring forward evidence that stands up to
scrutiny, but they do not have to prove there are serious dangers. The burden
of proof is on the innovators.
The Misuse of Statistics
have an antique coin that you want to use for deciding who will go first in a
game, but you are worried that it might be biased in favour of heads. You toss
it three times, and it comes down heads every time. Naturally, this does
nothing to reassure you. Then along comes someone who claims to know about
statistics. He carries out a short calculation and informs you that as the
"p-value" is 0.125, you have nothing to worry about. The coin is not biased.
Now this must strike you as nonsense, even if you don't understand
statistics. Surely if a coin comes down heads three times in a row, that can't
prove it is unbiased? No, of course it can't. But this sort of reasoning is
being used to prove that GM technology is safe.
The fallacy, and it is a
fallacy, comes about through either a misunderstanding of statistics or a total
neglect of the precautionary principle - or, more likely, both. In brief,
people are claiming to have proven that something is safe when what they have
actually done is to fail to prove that it is unsafe. It's the mathematical way
of claiming that absence of evidence is the same as evidence of absence.
see how this comes about, we have to appreciate the difference between
biological and other kinds of scientific evidence. Most experiments in physics
and chemistry are relatively clear cut. If we want to know what will happen if
we mix copper and sulphuric acid, we really only have to try it once. We may
repeat the experiment to make sure it worked properly, but we expect to get the
same result, even to the amount of hydrogen that is produced from a given
amount of copper and acid.
Organisms, however, vary considerably and don't
behave in closely predictable ways. If we spread fertiliser on a field, not
every plant will increase its growth by the same amount, and if we cross two
lines of maize, not all the resulting seeds will be the same. We often have to
use some sort of statistical argument to tell us whether what we have observed
represents a real effect or is merely due to chance.
The details of the
argument will vary depending on exactly what it is we want to establish, but
the standard ones follow a similar pattern.
Suppose that plant breeders
have come up with a new variety of maize and we want to know if it gives a
better yield than the old one. We plant one field with each of them, and we
find that the new variety does actually produce more maize.
encouraging, but it doesn't prove anything. After all, even if we had planted
both fields with the old strain, we wouldn't have expected to get exactly the
same yield in both. The apparent improvement might be just a chance
To help us decide whether the observed effect is real, we
carry out the following calculation. We suppose that the new strain is actually
no better than the old one.
This is called the "null hypothesis" because we
assume that nothing has changed. We then estimate as best we can the
probability that the new strain would perform as well as it did simply on
account of chance. We call this probability the p-value.
smaller the p-value the more likely it is that the new strain really is better,
though we can never be absolutely certain. What counts as a small enough value
of p is arbitrary, but over the years statisticians have adopted the convention
that if p is less than 5% we should reject the null hypothesis, i.e. we may
infer that the new strain is better. Another way of saying this is that the
increase in yields is 'significant'.
Why have statisticians fastened on
such a small value? Wouldn't it be reasonable to say that if there is less than
an even chance (i.e. p=0.5) of such a large increase then we should infer that
the new strain is better?
No, and the reason why not is simple. It's a
question of the burden of proof. Remember that statistics is about taking
decisions in the face of uncertainty. It is a serious business advising a
company to change the variety of seed it produces or a farmer to switch from
one he has grown for years. There could be a lot to lose if we are wrong. We
want to be sure beyond reasonable doubt that we are right, and that's usually
taken to mean a p-value of 0.05 or less.
Suppose we obtain a p-value of
greater than 0.05. What then? We have failed to prove that the new strain is
better. We have not, however, proved that it is no better, any more than by
finding a defendant not guilty we have proved that he is innocent.
example of the antique coin, the null hypothesis was that the coin was fair. If
that were the case, then the probability of a head on any one throw would be
0.5 so the probability of three heads in a row would be (0.5)3=0.125. This is
greater than 0.05, so we cannot reject the null hypothesis. Thus we cannot
claim that our experiment has shown the coin to be biased.
Up to that
point, the reasoning was correct. Where it went wrong was in the claim that the
experiment has shown the coin to be fair. It did no such thing.
Yet that is
precisely the sort of argument that we see in scientific papers defending
genetic engineering. A recent report "Absence of toxicity of Bacillus
thuringiensis pollen to black swallowtails under field conditions" (3) claims
by its title to have shown that there is no harmful effect. In the discussion
however, the authors state only that there were "no significant weight
differences among larvae as a function of distance from the corn field or
pollen level." In other words, they have only failed to demonstrate that there
is a harmful effect. They have not proven that there is none.
paper (4) claims to show that transgenes in wheat are stably inherited. The
evidence for this is that the "transmission ratios were shown to be Mendelian
in 8 out of 12 lines." In the accompanying table, however, six of the p-values
are less than 0.5 and one is 0.1. That is not sufficient to prove that the
genes are unstable and so inherited in a non-Mendelian way. But it does not
prove they are, which is what was claimed.
The way to decide if the antique
coin is biased is to toss it more times and see what happens. In the case of
the safety and stability of GM crops, more and better experiments should be
The Anti-Precautionary Principle
principle is so obviously common sense that we might expect it to be
universally adopted. That would still leave room for debate about how big the
risks and benefits are likely to be, especially when those who stand to gain if
things go right and those who stand to lose if they do not are not the same. It
is significant that the corporations are implacably opposed to proposals that
they should be liable for any damage caused by the products of GM technology.
They are demanding a one-way bet: they pocket any gains and someone else pays
for any losses. It also gives us an idea of how confident they are about the
safety of the technology.
What is harder to understand is why our
regulators are still so reluctant to adopt the precautionary principle. They
tend to rely instead on what we might call the anti-precautionary principle:
When a new technology is proposed, it must be approved unless it can be shown
conclusively to be dangerous. The burden of proof is not on the innovator; it
is on the rest of us.
The most enthusiastic supporter of the
anti-precautionary principle is the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the
international body whose task it is to promote free trade. A country that wants
to restrict or prohibit imports on grounds of safety has to provide definite
proof of hazard, or else be accused of erecting artificial trade barriers. A
recent example is the WTO's judgement that the European Union's ban on US
growth-hormone injected beef is illegal.
By applying the anti-precautionary
principle in the past, we have allowed corporations to damage our health and
our environment through cigarette smoking, lead in petrol, and high levels of
toxic and radioactive wastes that include hormone disrupters, carcinogens and
mutagens. The costs in human suffering and environmental degradation and in
resources to attempt to put these right have been very high indeed. Politicians
should bear this in mind.
There is nothing difficult
or arcane about the precautionary principle. It is the same reasoning that is
used every day in the courts and in statistics. More than that, it is just
common sense. If we have genuine doubts about whether something is safe, then
we should not use it until we are convinced it is. And how convinced we have to
be depends on how much we really need it.
As far as GM crops are concerned,
the situation is clear. The world is not short of food. Where people are going
hungry it is because of poverty. Hardly anyone believes that there will be a
real shortage within 25 years, and a recent FAO report predicts that
improvements in conventional agriculture and reductions in the rate of increase
of the world's population will mean we will continue to be able to feed
On the other side, there is both direct and
indirect evidence that gene biotechnology may not be safe for health and the
environment. The benefits of GM agriculture remain hypothetical.
easily afford a five-year moratorium to support further research into improving
the safety of gene biotechnology and making it more precise and more effective.
We should also use the time to develop better methods of sustainable farming,
organic or low-input, which do not have the same potentially disastrous risks.
1. See, for example, S. Holm and J. Harris (Nature, 400 (1999) 398).
Compare C.V. Howard & P.T. Saunders (Nature 401 (1999) 207) and C.
Rafffensburger et al. (Nature 401 (1999) 207-208).
2. We are now told that
in the case of tobacco and lead, many in the industry knew about the hazards
long before the public did. It is not always wise to accept broad and
unsupported assurances about safety from those who have a very strong interest
in continuing the technology.
3. A.R. Wraight et al (2000), Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences (early edition). Quite apart from the use of
statistics, it generally requires considerable skill to design and carry out an
experiment to provide a convincing demonstration that an effect does not occur.
It is all too easy to fail to find something even when it is there.
Cannell et al. Theoretical and applied Genetics 99 (1999) 772-784.
Human Gene Patenting Roundup
The patenting of the human genome threatens to put the future of
medicine in the hands of a few corporations. Despite the platitudes expressed
in Blair and Clinton's joint declaration and from the G8 leaders Summit in
Japan this July, human gene patenting has occurred extensively and is being
allowed to continue (See Human Genome, the Biggest Sellout in Human History,
this issue). Companies have been given Carte Blanche to capitalize on the human
genome without adequate public discussion on the moral and ethical issues
A leading genomics company, Incyte Genomics Inc and Motorola
Inc's 'Biochip Systems Unit' have entered a licensing agreement granting
Motorola rights to utilise Incyte's extensive portfolio of patented gene
sequences. Incyte will receive royalties on all manufactured gene expression
chips or bioarrays, developed under license to Motorola.
Incyte holds more
than 500 issued and allowed full-length gene patents and its sequence database
is the world's largest set of data on the human genome. The database features
120 000 gene transcripts, including more than 60 000 not commercially available
elsewhere. It is based on gene expression rather than prediction, and there are
nearly six million transcribed sequences derived from more than 1 200 different
tissue libraries, representing more than 90% of the genes of the human genome.
And 4.6 million of these are the property of Incyte.
Gene patents cover all
potential functions of a DNA sequence. Consequently, owners can demand license
fees for any utility as well as block any new discovered applications. A
growing number of vague and broad patents are being granted without a relevant
description of function. For example, Smithkline Beecham (now merging with
Welcome) holds a patent on the human 'psychosis gene'. This includes the actual
DNA sequence and extends to cover any cells and animals genetically engineered
with the gene and any 'medical' tests that would be developed. The company can
reap patent royalties from any discoveries and or creations that uses the
sequence. They claim the gene is involved in controlling a multitude of traits
and behaviours, from schizophrenia to manic depression.
Heads of three
major science organisations in Germany, the Max Delbruck Centre for Molecular
Medicine, the Helmholtx Association of National Research Centres and Deutsche
Forschungsgemeinschaft, have all warned that the granting of broad patents on
gene sequences will stifle research. They urged the German Science Ministry to
explore ways of requiring patent rules that forbid patents covering all
The EU Life Patent Directive 98/44/EC allows patents
on genes, including human genes, plants and animals. It has been under intense
debate throughout Europe and in June the General Assembly of the Council of
Europe in Strasbourg adopted the Resolution "Biotechnologies" , calling for an
immediate moratorium on the patenting of genes and living organisms, which the
Council considers "inappropriate".
All EU-member states were supposed to
transform the Directive into national law by July 30th 2000, but only two have
done so, one of which is the UK. The large majority of countries have not
enacted it and some have stated they will not transform it, as it stands, the
most recent being German. The Governments of the Netherlands and Italy are
making a challenge against it at the European Court of Justice and France is
arguing that it contradicts French bio-ethics laws, which forbids the patenting
of any part of the human body.
The controversy stems from the fact that the
directive contradicts itself. On the one hand it states "the sequence or
partial sequence of a gene
cannot by patented." But then it goes on to
state that "an isolated element of the human body
produced by a technical
including a gene sequence
can be patented
even if the
structure of this element is identical to that of a natural element." The
council of Europe parliamentarians called on member states to renegotiate a
Directive that allows patenting of human genes.
This August, G8 Research
Ministers met in Bordeaux, on the initiative of France, Mexico, Brazil, [China]
and India to discuss the problem of patenting in genetics. All agreed that DNA
sequences - the fundamental data - must not be patented. They are discoveries
of objects, which exist in nature, not inventions. Despite all statements to
this effect from civil society and governments, companies engaged in
deciphering the human genome do not defend this principle, they continue to
lobby hard for gene patenting and continue support for the adoption of
Directive 98/44/EC. Sources: Press Release, Incyte Genomics, Inc, See
France protesting EU Directive allowing human gene patents. Science 23 June
2000 p2115 . German agencies sound alarm on risks of broad gene patents by
Quirin Schiermeier, Nature 406,111(2000) Green Peace welcomes Councils of
Europe's call for a moratorium on patents on life. Green Peace Press Release -
June 30 2000. The Minister of Research Rejects Patents on DNA sequences "No one
can own a gene". Interview by Corinne Bensimon. Biotech Activists July 20
posted by Genetics@gn.apc.org AR
USDA to Support Teminator Technology
The three terminator patents, awarded to the Agriculture Research
Service (ARS) and Delta and Pine Land Co (DPL), were discussed at USDA Biotech
Advisory Board Meeting - July 2000.
A number of nation states and
international organisations have condemned terminator technology, stating it
poses unacceptable environmental, social, and economic consequences that will
affect the world's poorest farmers. It has also been suggested that terminator
is being used as a tool for biological and economic warfare, designed to
influence economic decision-making in foreign markets.
The board was asked
to consider the socio-economic implications in the deployment of terminator.
These included how it would impact on the way farmers manage their crops from
year to year, especially in developing countries; how it may affect the
agricultural marketing chain and consumers; and whether there are any
scientific question pertaining to adverse environmental effects?
closing remarks in the USDA discussion paper on terminator notes; "A report
from the National Academy of Science recommends support of research
decrease the potential for the spread of transgenes into wild populations.
Might products resulting in sterile seed developed under the new terminator
patents accomplish this aim?
..Despite the controversy
consideration needs to be given to the potential benefits of supporting
licensure by Delta & Pine Land Co." In other words, never mind the
socio-economic considerations, let's use it anyway.
Last year Monsanto's
CEO, Bob Shapiro, vowed that Monsanto would never adopt terminator. But recent
reports in the New York Times reveal Monsanto and its partner Scotts are
adopting terminator to 'prevent GM grass pollen jumping from lawn to lawn'.
Field trials show that the pollen can migrate up to 3,000 feet and cannot be
RAFI's Pat Mooney says it's a classic fifth column strategy to
commercialise terminator technology. The technology is a hot potato and
politically risky for the Gene Giants to embrace openly, so USDA and other
scientific bodies are towing the industry line by championing so called
Gary Goldberg, CEO of the American Corn Growers
Association, agrees, "The use of taxpayers money to develop terminator is a
giant kick in the teeth to farmers everywhere. Terminator is designed to solely
maximise seed industry profits. In my opinion, the Biotech Advisory Board
should focus on one question; how fast can USDA ban the technology and abandon
its patents?" Sources: Discussion Paper on the "Control of Gene Expression"
Patents. USDA Advisory Committee Meeting Jul 26-27,2000.
July 2000. & Snakes in the GM grass: Scott says GM grass could be Greener
with Terminator. USDA's Biotech Advisory Board Ruminates on Terminator. RAFI
News Release - July 2000. www.rafi.org AR
Monsanto's Patent Waiver: One Down Thirty-one to
In a bid to improve its image, Monsanto Co announced it would grant free
patent licenses to the developers of Golden Rice. Ingo Potrykus the Swiss
Professor who developed the rice was said to be delighted. Now all he has to do
is persuade the other 31 patentees, holding 70 patents in total, to join
Monsanto and forgo their patent rights too.
Potrykus hopes to send-breeding
stock to agriculture institutes later this year, to be crossed with local
varieties and planted in paddies by 2004. But Gary Toenniessen, Director of
Food Security at the Rockerfeller Foundation said that even if all the patent
problems are resolved, there would still be serious barriers to deploying
golden rice around the world. Notable countries have to be convinced that it
poses no treat to their ecology or to human health.
Plans to Offer Rights to its Altered-Rice Technology" By Christopher Marquis,
The New York Times, 4 Aug 2000. & "Monsonto Offer Patent Waiver" By Justin
Gillis, Washington Post, 4 Aug 2000. AR
Canadian Court Rules Mammals Can be Patented
In a spit 2-1 decision, the Canadian Federal Court of Appeal ruled in
favour of granting a patent to Harvard Medical School for the oncomouse,
genetically engineered to carry a cancer-causing gene. A 15 year old court
battle has raged over whether mother nature or a Harvard scientist invented the
mouse and its offspring. The trial judge in the earlier decision ruled Harvard
invented the process for inserting a gene into a mouse; they did not invent the
mouse. The decision to grant a patent on a higher life form opens the door to
patenting any non-human life form. The patent extends to all non-human mammals
that might be similarly genetically engineered, even though Harvard has not
performed these modifications.
The implications for this change in Canadian
patent law are profound. Many nation states opposed to the patenting of life
were hoping this case could strengthen their position at the World Trade
Organisation. Allowing animal patents means that corporations can impose the
same kinds of conditions on livestock farming as they have on plant
There are approximately 250 animal patent applications pending
in the Canadian Intellectual Property Office. RAFI asked Murray Wilson a
spokesperson for the patent commissioner to divulge the nature of these
patents. He said, " Let your mind run wild with what people could dream up for
getting the body of an animal to do." However, the history of the oncomouse
demonstrates that patents stifle rather than encourage research. Restrictions
have become so limiting on downstream revenues that few scientists are
purchasing or using the oncomouse in their research. Source: RAFI Aug 10th
2000. The mouse that roared on animal pharm: Canadian court ruled that mammals
can be a patented invention.http://www.rafi.org AR
TRIPS Violate Human Rights - UN Declares
The UN Sub-Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights
unanimously adopted a resolution calling into question the impact of the World
Trade Organization's (WTO) Agreement on Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) on
the human rights of peoples and communities, including indigenous communities.
There is growing concern that TRIPS is an industry-driven intellectual property
agreement, protecting corporate patents at the expense of national economic and
health concerns. The Commission notes dire consequences for human rights to
food, health and self-determination if the TRIPS Agreement is implemented in
its current form. The resolution is based on the provisions of both the UN
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UN Convention on
The TRIPS Agreement, as it stands, violates farmers
rights to save, exchange, re-use and sell seed from their own harvests. Already
in the US Monsanto has employed detectives to find and prosecute farmers who
are harvesting seed from its patented crops. If such enforcement spreads
throughout the world, it would violate the human rights of millions of farmers
who depend on seed recycling for survival. The TRIPS agreement has shifted the
balance of intellectual property rights away from public interest and in favour
of patent holders. But patent holders rights must be subordinate to human
rights and TRIPS directly violates Article 1 of the Covenant on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights that stipulates;" In no case may a people be
deprived of its own means of subsistence."
Furthermore, TRIPS also requires
that all WTO members patent pharmaceuticals. For countries with a high level of
HIV, malaria and tuberculosis infection and who have not yet developed a
pharmaceutical research base, access to drugs is imperative. Given the link
between patent protection and higher prices for pharmaceuticals the TRIPS
agreement can only be detrimental to public health and development in general.
This resolution comes at a time of intense questioning by developing country
governments on the interpretation and implementation of the TRIPS agreement.
Furthermore, there have been numerous national and international civil society
alliances calling for TRIPS to be brought into line with human rights and
environmental imperatives, so as to protect the social function of intellectual
property. Sources: Press Release, The International NGO Committee on Human
Rights in Trade and Investment (INCHRITI) & Institute of Agriculture and
Trade Policy, August 22, 2000; Human Rights Resolution, Commission on Human
Rights, Sub-Commission on the promotion and protection of human rights,
fifty-second session, Agenda item 4. The realisation of economic, social and
cultural rights. Intellectual property rights and human rights.
Phasing Out Antibiotics Will Not Reduce Antibiotic
Resistance - The Irrelevance of Natural Selection
The biotech industry have defended their use of antibiotic resistance
marker genes by claiming that the widespread evolution of antibiotic resistance
is due to the overuse of antibiotics and that the horizontal transfer of marker
genes will not contribute significantly if both agricultural and medical uses
of antibiotics were curtailed. The story goes that as 'selection pressure' for
antibiotic resistance disappears, so will the antibiotic resistance genes
because it 'costs' the bacteria to maintain a useless gene.
Now, a growing
body of evidence is proving them wrong. Although the overuse and abuse of
antibiotic may have contributed to the evolution of high levels of resistance
among bacteria associated with disease, phasing out antibiotics or reducing
their usage will not necessarily reverse the situation.
review published in May (1) presents evidence on how the functional complexity
of the genes frustrates any attempt to make predictions based on the simplistic
assumption that one gene is responsible for one function. In essence, an
antibiotic resistance gene often serves multiple functions, while many
different genes may contribute to resistance against a single antibiotic. For
example, the gene recA was discovered at least six times, first as a
recombinase, then an inducer of the lambda virus, a gene regulator, a DNA
repair enzyme, a membrane-binding protein, and finally a mitomycin C resistance
gene. Each activity had to be independently discovered because the unknown
activities could not be deduced from the known.
are due to both single enzymes with multiple resistances as well as multiple
enzymes with overlapping resistances. Among the 17 different classes of
aminoglycoside modifying enzynmes are those that inactivate just 2 antibiotics
(ef, gentamycin and fortimicin by class I (3)-acetyltransferases) to those that
inactivate as many as four (eg, gentamycin, tobramycin, netilmicin and
kanamycin by (6')acetyl transferases, or kanamycin, neomycin, amikacin and
isepamicin by (3')-phosphoryl-transferases.)
The authors recommend radical
change in drug design which do not depend on killing the bacteria so much as
physiologically taming them to stop doing harm.
Is this a prelude to an
even more radical re-think which involves restoring ecological balance without
the use of drugs at all, so that the bacteria may revert to a non-virulent,
non-proliferative phase (2)?
- Heinemann, J.A., Ankerbaner, R.G. and Amabile-Cuevas, C.F. (2000). Do
antibiotics maintain antibiotic resistance? Drug Discovery Today 5, 195-204.
- See Ho, M.W. (1999). Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare? 2nd ed.
Turning the Tide on The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business,
Chapter 13, Gateway, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin.
Terminator Gene Product Alert
So far, attention has focussed on the terminator technology without
considering the extremely toxic gene product, barnase, which could be a major
Barnase is the gene product in terminator technology which
prevents harvested seeds from germinating. It is a ribonuclease (RNAse), an
enzyme that breaks down RNA indiscriminately, isolated from the soil bacterium,
Bacillus amyloliquefaciens. The enzyme is normally lethal in the living cell,
but is produced in the bacterium together with an inhibitor. This inhibitor is
separated from the enzyme when it is excreted. Traces of barnase are toxic to
the rat kidney (1) and to human cell lines (2).
In some terminator
constructs, Barnase is linked to a plant promoter active only in the cells of
the tapetum ( the sac from which pollen cells are generated). The pollen cannot
develop when the barnase gene is active ( Us patent 5,723,765 is jointly held
by the United States Department of Agriculture(USDA) and Delta and Pine
Company, which for a time considered joining Monsanto). The terminator
technology was designed to control seed production to benefit seed companies by
preventing seed saving. The system has also been studied for use in seedless
fruit production (3).
The barnase component of terminator is also being
used to produce male sterile lines in wheat by introducing promoters from corn
or rice linked to barnase gene (4). Male sterile lines are used to produce
hybrids which are more uniform than inbred lines and may also show heterosis
(hybrid vigor). Hybrids also benefit seed producers because saved seeds
segregate undesirable progeny. Several methods have been studied for producing
hybrid canola including the use of barnase.
The most significant question
about use of barnase is: do the crops bearing barnase gene pose any threat to
humans or animals? This question does not seem to have been addressed by those
developing or testing the crops. During seed production, barnase may be present
in dust and debris from the crop and surfaces, along with groundwater may be
contaminated with the toxin. Humans or animals breathing the plant material may
experience severe toxicity. Normally, for crop generation both the barnase gene
and the gene for a barnase inhibitor are required. It seems likely that mitotic
recombination could easily separate barnase gene from barnase inhibitor gene.
Such complications should not be ignored.
Assuming that commercial hybrids
are created , say for example, in canola, the hybrid crops are likely to
produce viable pollen. The pollen would likely segregate active tapetal barnase
producing some male sterility in weedy relatives and neighboring canola
producers fields. In a sense the hybrid producers would pollute the crops of
neighbors in a severe manner, much like the pollution of conventional canola
from GM pollen in Saskatchewan. Except that the barnase gene produces a well
known toxin active against humans and animals.
1. Ilinskaya,O and
Vamvakas,S (1997). Nephrotic effect of bacterial ribonucleases in the isolated
and perfused rat kidney. Toxicology 120, 55-63
2. Prior,T, Kunwar,S and
Pastan,I (1996). Studies on the activity of barnase toxins in vitro and in
vivo. Biocong Chem7,23-9
3. Varoquaux,F, Blanvillain,R, Delseny,M and
Gallois,P (2000). Less is better: new approaches for seedless fruit production.
4. DeBlock,M,Debrouwer,D and Moens,T. (1997). The
development of a nuclear male sterility system in wheat. Theor and Appl Gen
More on Instability of Transgenic Lines
Somaclonal variation (SCV) in transgenic plants may slow incorporation
of introduced genes into commercially competitive cultivars, researchers warn
(1). Somaclonal variation in transgenic barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) was
assessed by comparing the agronomic characteristics of 44 transgenic lines in
the T2 generation to their non-transformed parent (`Golden Promise'). A second
experiment examined the agronomic characteristics of seven transgenic-derived,
'null' lines - those which were not transformed - in the T2 and T4 generations.
Compared to their nontransgenic, noncultured parent, Golden Promise, most
of transgenic lines were shorter, lower yielding, and had smaller seed, and the
variability among individual plants was higher. The frequency and severity of
the observed SCV was unexpectedly high, and the transformation procedure
appeared to induce greater SCV than tissue culture in the absence of
transformation. Attempts to understand the sources of SCV, and to modify
transformation procedures to reduce the generation of SCV, should be made, the
The publication above deals with a fundamental problem with
genetically modified (GM) crops. In order to make a GM crop for commercial use,
the GM tissue cells are grown up in tissue culture, from which whole plants are
regenerated. During the culture process and during later generations of
selected plants, genetic variability is rife. Both gene mutation and chromosome
alteration are rampant. There seems to be something about the laboratory
technique and the introduction of transgenes that causes gene and chromosome
instability. The best available evidence suggest that the technology activates
retrotransposons (retrovirus like gene clusters) that replicate copies that
jump into other chromosomes or regions of a chromosome.
make up from a few percent to 85% of the genome of a higher plant. However, it
only takes a few retrotransposons activated from their normally dormant state
to cause gene mutation by insertion or chromosome rearrangement by re-
combination between retrotransposons.
Our comments: Somaclonal
variation in transgenic lines is shown to be due to both tissue culture and the
transformation process. It confirms the inherent instability and
unpredictability of transgenic lines that we have drawn attention to (2), which
has significant implications for the safety of GM crops. As they are grown in
the field, a range of hidden defects may continue to be generated that lead to
toxicities and other untoward, unexpected side effects. The phenomenon has
largely been overlooked in regulation on the safety of GM crops (3).
Bregitzer, P, Halbert ,SE, P. G. Lemaux, PG (1998). Somaclonal variation in the
progeny of transgenic barley. Theoretical and Applied Genetics 96, 421-425.
2. See Ho, M.W. (1999). Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare? 2nd
ed., Gateway, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin.
3. See Ho, M.W. (1999). Biosafety
Alert: submission to TEP on the molecular genetic characterization required for
commercial approval of transgenic lines www.i-sis.org JC & MWH
More Trouble for Transgenic Lines
Transgenes are found to be poorly expressed due to premature
poly-adenylation (adding a poly-A tail) to the messenger RNA. The cry genes
that code for the insecticidal crystal proteins of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)
have been widely used to develop insect-resistant transgenic plants. The
cry3Ca1 gene has been reported to code for a crystal protein which is
particularly potent against the Colorado potato beetle (CPB). To explore the
biotechnological potential of cry3Ca1 protein, researchers introduced this gene
into transgenic potato plants under the control of the CaMV 35S promoter
In the resulting transformants, the cry3Ca1 gene was very poorly
expressed. In fact, no full-length transcript (2300 nt) could be detected.
Instead, only short transcripts of approximately 1100 nt were observed.
Analysis of these short transcripts by Northern hybridization, RT-PCR (reverse
transcription followed by polymerase chain reaction) as well as by cloning and
sequencing showed that they resulted from premature polyadenylation.
processing events occurred at four sites within the cry3Ca1 coding region (at
positions 652, 669, 914 and 981 relative to the translation start site). The
sites at which premature polyadenylation took place were not those that showed
the highest degree of identity to the canonical AAUAAA motif. Together with
other recent data, these findings suggest that premature polyadenylation is an
important mechanism which can contribute to the poor expression of transgenes
in a foreign hosts.
Premature polyadenylation occurs when the RNA message
is terminated short of the stop signal, and is then polyadenylated. A
prematurely poly A message without a stop signal might result in the polyA tail
being translated as a string of the amino acid lysine added to the growing
peptide. Such products have problems being released from ribosomes, and once
released, tends to be destroyed by the final protein processing system.
However, unnatural peptides may also be produced and cause untoward problems.
Our Comments: Many important findings seem to be ignored in
regulation of GM crops and swept under the carpet in the debate over GM foods.
This paper documents yet another mechanism that makes transgenic crops
unreliable and economically non-viable.
1. Haffani, YZ, Overney, S. Yelle,
S, Bellemare, G, and Belzile, FJ (2000). Premature polyadenylation contributes
to the poor expression of theBacillus thuringiensis cry3Ca1 gene in transgenic
potato plants, Mol Gen Genet, Published online: 17 June 2000. JC
Bt Pollen Lethal to Monarch Butterflies - Confirmed
A new study from Iowa State University shows Bt corn pollen naturally
deposited on common milkweed in a corn field causes significant mortality to
monarch butterfly larvae (1).
Larvae fed on milkweed plants naturally
dusted with Bt pollen suffered significant higher rates of mortality after 48
hours exposure compared to larvae fed on leaves with no pollen, or on leaves
with non-Bt pollen.
The highest mortality rates occur on milkweed plants in
corn-fields or within 3 meters of the edge. But quantification of wind
dispersal beyond the edge of fields predicts mortality may be observed at least
10 meters from Bt corn field borders.
The study also investigated
sub-lethal effects and found continuous exposure to Bt toxin influences
developmental time and adult characteristics to various degrees. The study
found sub-lethal ingestion of Bt toxins caused reduction in adult lipid levels
and may indicate that larva fed less, or did not digest nutrients efficiently.
Migratory adult monarchs rely on lipids for energy and a lower level of lipids,
carried over from the larval stage, could reduce their ability to reach Mexico.
Reduced adult weight and smaller wing lengths was also observed and similarly
could decrease the ability of adults to complete migration.
of over-wintering adults in Mexico originate from central US, an area of
concentrated corn production. In 1998, approximately 3.6 million hectares of Bt
corn were planted and predictions are that by 2003, this area will have
extended to 12 million hectares (1/3 of total US corn acreage).
concludes that because monarch larvae, milkweeds and transgenic pollen overlap
spatially and temporally in the central US, Bt corn pollen will have a negative
effect on monarch larvae. Larvae developing in late summer will be exposed to
Bt pollen for most of their development and cumulative exposure to Bt toxin
could raise mortality rates even further by preventing successful migration.
These findings indicate that Bt crops can have adverse effects on food webs
that are not corn and the widespread planting of transgenic corn represents a
significant mortality factor for non-target species. Ecological impact
assessments must be evaluated more fully before Bt crops are planted over
extensive areas. The US EPA has convened an independent review board to assess
the ecological impact of Bt crops. But they have also extended licence for
plantings until 2002, despite calls for a ban. 1. Hansen L. C., Obrycki J.J.
(2000) Field deposition of Bt transgenic corn pollen: lethal effects on the
monarch butterfly, Oecologia, published online. AR
Alas Poor Darwin (eds Hilary Rose & Stephen
Rose). London, Jonathan Cape, 2000. ISBN 0-224-06030-9.
Whatever you read, whether it's the scientific literature, popular
science journals or the daily papers, you are bound to have seen a lot of
articles confidently explaining yet another feature of human behaviour -- male
promiscuity, rape, the fact (if it is one) that women will go for a man with
money and power over one with youth and good looks, and so on.
articles are all based on the new scientific discipline known as evolutionary
psychology. It holds that human behaviour can be decomposed into individual
traits and that each of these has evolved by the natural selection of genetic
mutations. If we want to know why women are more patient than men and less
likely to succeed in business, we have to find the adaptive significance of
these traits, i.e. we have to imagine why they would help women (but not men)
to survive and leave more offspring. More precisely, because biological
evolution is too slow for there to have been any significant changes over the
last few millennia, we have to make up a story of why these traits would have
been advantageous in the Pleistocene era.
The idea that human behaviour can
be explained by natural selection is very old; in fact, social Darwinism is
actually older than Darwinism. But it became much more influential about 25
years ago, with the publication of E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology. Evolutionary
psychology purports to be different from sociobiology (and some of its critics,
including the editors of this volume, agree) but it is really very much the
same. The difference is largely that sociobiologists write of genes for
behavioural traits whereas the evolutionary psychologists generally refer to
mechanisms. Since, however, the mechanisms are assumed to be determined by
genes and since all we are told about them is that they somehow transmit the
influence of the genes to create behavioural traits, for all practical purposes
there is no difference.
It's not hard to see why evolutionary psychology is
so fashionable. It makes excellent material for the Sunday papers, who
naturally prefer a complete and easily understood story. It's also very good
professionally for its proponents because it is relatively easy to produce a
large number of papers and to turn very ordinary work into something that looks
very significant. Only a very few biologists would read a paper on the mating
behaviour of the scorpion fly, but turn the work into a "generalised rape
hypothesis" and it's bound to attract a lot of attention.
The only trouble
is that the theory doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Actually, we might have
expected that. In science as in politics we can be sure that every complicated
question has a simple answer -- and that the simple answer is almost always
wrong. But to see that the theory doesn't work we have to look carefully at it,
to see whether its assumptions are correct, or at least plausible, or in some
cases whether they even make any sense at all. We have to compare its
predictions with what we actually observe, not when we glance quickly at the
phenomena but when we look at them closely and with the eyes of experts
accustomed to studying human and animal behaviour.
That was why Charles
Jencks, himself well known as an architect and a commentator on post modernism,
organised the seminar from which this volume is taken. He brought together
workers in many disciplines, each bringing a different expertise to the issue.
The result is a powerful critique in which the assumptions and claims of
evolutionary psychology are studied one by one and refuted.
biologist Gabriel Dover describes how the modern genetics demolishes the
simplistic picture of the gene and its functioning which evolutionary
psychologists assume. The philosopher Mary Midgely explains that because
thought and culture are patterns, not stuff, they cannot be granular, i.e. not
only do memes (the supposed unit of culture) not exist, they are not even the
sort of thing that could exist. The psychologist Annette Karmiloff-Smith shows
how the "Swiss Army Knife" view of the mind (that it consists of a very large
number of distinct modules, each suited to its particular task) is contradicted
by studies of infant and child development. The ethologist Patrick Bateson
describes how evolutionary psychology has fallen into the same sort of trap
that ethology was caught in -- and extricated itself from -- years ago. And so
In the introduction, Hilary and Stephen Rose point out that
evolutionary psychology is just one of a number of examples of what they call a
present-day intellectual myth. There are also evolutionary medicine,
psychology, economics, psychiatry, ... even physics. And of course there is the
parent subject, evolutionary (i.e. neo-Darwinist) biology. Their supporters see
them as linked, each gaining strength from the successes (as they see them) of
the others. As Daniel Dennett has put it in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea,
natural selection is like a universal solvent, applicable to all subjects and
cutting through the misconceptions in each.
But if this theory is supposed
to have the same sort of effect on every subject it touches, then if it fails
in one we may expect it to fail in the others as well. And sure enough, when
you look closely at any of them, evolutionary biology included, you see the
same shortcomings. The same simplistic arguments, the same unjustified
assumptions, the same willingness to accept Just So Stories as though they were
rigorous arguments backed up by solid evidence. The courtiers' new clothes are
no more substantial than the emperor's.
This is only hinted at in the book,
which may leave the reader with the impression that evolutionary psychology is
the one unsatisfactory application of a basically sound theory. If that were
so, we might expect that some day its shortcomings will be rectified and there
will be a legitimate evolutionary psychology with natural selection at its
core, just as some critics of sociobiology reject what they call 'pop
sociobiology' while holding that the enterprise itself is valid. Only when we
recognise the defects in the project as a whole will we accept that there is no
way forward for evolutionary psychology.
That doesn't apply only to
subjects that have the word 'evolutionary' in their titles. Genetic engineering
also depends on the assumption that an organism can be decomposed into separate
traits, each determined by a single gene. If that were true, could we identify
and locate the gene for a desired trait and transfer it to another organism,
and be confident that when we have done this we will have transferred the trait
and nothing more. Because it is not true, the whole enterprise is more
complicated and more hazardous than its proponents admit. Alas Poor Darwin
provides further evidence for this, even if neither the editors nor the authors
appear to be aware of it.
Where Next - Reflections on the Human Future
Duncan Poore, ed. Royal Botanical Gardens Kew, 2000. ISBN 1-84246-000-5
This book is a collection of thought provoking
essays written by a group of scholars going by the name of 'The New Renaissance
Group' which include many eminent people. It elaborates on the general theme
that our global ecological pandominance has created a growing imbalance with
nature, and our present attitudes and institutions are ill-suited to deal with
the nature and scale of the problems.
'Where Next?' provides a
comprehensive discussion of the urgent issues of our time in relation to human
potential and the options available to us. It draws widely from philosophy,
science, economics, ecology, sociology, law, entrepreneurial skills and
The book is a valuable study of the connections
and interdependencies between different disciplines. It documents a lot of
evidence showing that although 'sustainable development' has been the guiding
principle of environmental policy for the last quarter of the 20th century,
much 'development' has been going on with very little 'sustainability'. It
focuses on solutions and follows through with well-developed ideas for
sustainable development. The reader is constantly reminded that this is a
matter of human will, and in this sense, the book is a powerful intellectual
catalyst for action.
One half of the world's population - 3 billion people
- are stuck in a cycle of poverty, deprivation, marginalization and exclusion,
especially from the global economy. We still have major conflicts over land and
water, especially in parts of the tropics. Frequent environmental disasters
caused by climate change have given rise to a steady increase in the numbers of
environmental refugees the world over. Our 'high-tech' culture promotes the
continuing replacement of artefacts with the 'latest' model regardless of need.
The numerous and costly environmental side effects have been left out of the
equation, "externalising" the costs to be borne by society at large or by
future generations. We are presently throwing away our natural capital by
allowing so many biological species to become extinct.
E M Nicholson
explains what the New Renaissance Group stands for and the four areas for
action that they consider of paramount importance for the decades to come.
These are: knowing and understanding the natural world; achieving full harmony
between people and nature; achieving harmony among all members of the human
species, and all human communities worldwide; and achieving a transcendent
harmony with the eternal realm beyond us, both philosophic and religious.
They argue for a new agenda for the 21st century that embraces all these areas
and works within the framework of evolutionary humanism. In other words, an
agenda that works for both humanity and nature.
The intellectual capacity
of the human mind is marveled at by a number of authors and one cannot deny
that science has given us great insights into nature. However, we do seem
unable to safeguard our biological future and are taking huge risks with our
basic life support systems. At least over climate and ecology, there is no
doubt that we are witnessing the consequence of massive and potentially
dangerous human interference. The most daunting question is: Will science
This book is optimistic, in part, and there is a strong belief in
the scientific skills of humanity which could resolve many of our dire
ecological problems. The way ahead is to apply the knowledge of ecology to the
conservation of natural resources. However, as our problems are world-scale, it
is suggested that this should be the job of a new international professional
science body. It goes on to stress that the right sorts of scientists have to
be sought and brought together to make such a body, and moreover they must be
empowered and allowed to hold positions of great influence, especially in the
realms of world governance.
Powerful financial and commercial interests
have escaped control in many parts of the world and have shown no appreciation
or understanding for the biosphere. Intensive agriculture, forestry,
hydro-power schemes and the expansion of cities have all ridden rough shod over
the scientific and academic establishment, who have been largely powerless to
stop such abuses. The deep educational and cultural gulf between science and
other subjects has remained unbridged, despite all prior warnings, and this
must change immediately.
David Flemming argues for the lean economy and how
economics as a discipline needs transforming if it is to contribute towards a
new sustainable world economy, regulated by an honest and sound global
house-keeping of real resources. What is needed is an urgent rethink of the
relationship between the market economy and its environment. Strong political
leadership is required that has a clear vision and knows what it is trying to
Robert Goodland compares environmental sustainability with human,
social and economic sustainability and explains why it must be first on the
list of priorities. Environmental sustainability concerns the maintenance of
natural capital and can provide us with strong sustainability, as opposed to
weak, and there is a big difference between the two.
Ashok Koasla argues
that sustainable livelihoods must be the single most important point of the new
millennium. It is the central issue facing society, North and South, East and
West. By creating large numbers of sustainable livelihoods the world over, the
extremes of wealth and poverty that are having a massive effect on the
development of sustainability can be addressed. He rightly argues that for any
human developmental process to be sustainable, it must be equitable, efficient,
ecological and empowering for all.
David Goode points out that it might be
possible for the development of Cities to act as a measure of sustainability.
Growing cities in the south must develop in ways that demand less from global
resources and yet can still provide a high quality of life. This would also
give a valuable lead to the north in the search for solutions.
consideration of contemporary order, peace and conflict is given ample room in
this book. Sir Shridath Ramphal discusses how the advance of a sole superpower
- American capitalism and American media - has had a major influence on world
governance at the end of the 20th Century. In fact, the pre-eminence of the
United States is a defining characteristic of our times. An isolationist US
that shuns global involvement harms the functioning of the world community as a
A sense of shared values on the global stage - a global
neighbourhood ethic - to which everyone can comfortably subscribe, is what's
needed. But such a pluralistic vision necessitates a central role for law, and
N E Simmonds writes a very interesting chapter on the dissolution of law. Law
is defined as being a product of human authority and will, it is poised between
reason and willingness and also exists in the tensions between past and future.
A not so obvious feature of modern society is that our law - rather than being
a framework of rules within which social life is conducted and the limits to
competitive self seeking are set - has become a resource over which contending
parties struggle. Moreover, there is no willingness at present to face up to
the political landscape that this problem presents, and this will stunt the
growth of new ecological initiatives.
Now is the time for a re-launch of
ecology and for moving towards a universal ecology, grounded in widely held
philosophical principles. A new universal ecology could provide people
everywhere with a framework in which to fulfil themselves in new ways, opening
the door to 'The New Renaissance'.
Towards the end of this exceptional
book, Martin Palmer writes on the practice of conservation by religions. The
hope is that we can journey together towards a world in which the whole of life
is loved, respected and appreciated.
New Postings on ISIS Website
ISIS Sustainable Science Audit #2
Xenotransplantation: How bad science and big business put the world at risk
from viral pandemics, by Mae-Wan Ho and Joe Cummins
The scientific advice that the FDA ignored - a
compilation, by Angela Ryan
Human genome - The biggest sellout in human history, by Mae-Wan Ho
Horizontal gene transfer - hidden hazards
of genetic engineering, by Mae-Wan Ho
CaMV promoter fragmentation hotspot confirmed and it is active in
animals, by Mae-Wan Ho, Angela Ryan and Joe Cummins
The organic revolution in science and
implications for science and spirituality, by Mae-Wan Ho
World Scientists' Open Letter and full list of
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