Science in Society Archive

What do you get when you cross a spider with a goat?

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Santa Barbara Town Hall, 26 October, 1999

I joined the biotechnology debate in 1994, partly because my friends from the Third World Network inspired me with their ideals of restoring to the world equity, justice, and all other qualities that make us human, and partly because I felt something had to be done to overcome the misinformation and disinformation put out by the biotech industry and their supporters.

The situation is this: the existing technologies for genetic engineering organisms are crude, unreliable, uncontrollable and unpredictable, and they are inherently hazardous. Furthermore, these technologies are misguided by a science which is fundamentally flawed, out of date and in conflict with scientific findings. Let me explain what I mean.

The public are told that genetic engineering organisms is no different from conventional breeding, only more precise, faster and safer. All of which is untrue.

You know the children's joke of what do you get when you cross impossible things like a spider with a goat? Part of the joke is knowing you can't because there are biological barriers between species which only allow one to cross closely related species such as horse and donkey, for example. Genetic engineering bypasses all these barriers, so that joke is obsolete. Genetic engineering is a set of techniques which enables genes to be transferred in the laboratory between any and every species. Indeed, spider genes have been transferred into goats to make the poor female goats produce silk in their milk, and human genes have been transferred into cows, sheep, mice, fish and bacteria.

New genes are also transferred into our crops, many of them from viruses and bacteria that cause diseases, including genes that make bacteria resistant to antibiotics so infections can't be treated. These genes are joined together in combinations that have never existed in nature, and are then introduced into host species using invasive gene-carriers made of bits of the most infectious viruses and other genetic parasites that have the ability to jump into the genome of the host. The genome is just the totality of all the genetic material organised into structures called chromosomes. Unfortunately, the genetic engineer has no control whatever as to where in the genome the foreign genes end up. This random insertion of foreign genes is accompanied by a whole range of collateral damages and unpredictable effects, including cancer in animals and toxins and allergens in plants.

More dangerous still, the foreign genes and gene-constructs may spread out of control not only to related species by cross-pollination, but also to unrelated species, by the genetic material itself being taken up. Because the constructs have been designed to jump into genomes, they are more likely to jump out again. Because they have been designed to cross species barriers, they are more likely to do so again. In the course of jumping species, they may pick up other genes to generate new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases, and spread drug and antibiotic resistance genes.

The first genetic engineers called for a moratorium in the Asilomar Declaration of the 1970s precisely because they saw the potential of creating new viral and bacterial pathogens. But commercial pressures intervened and they set up guidelines based largely on assumptions, everyone of which has been proved wrong by scientific findings. Since then, drug and antibiotic resistance diseases have also come back with a vengeance. I have written a detailed report together with a number of colleagues questioning the links between commercial genetic engineering and the resurgence of infectious diseases, and demanding an urgent enquiry. It was included in the top ten project censored stories of 1998. The present regulatory system is seriously out of date. It does not recognize, for example, that the genetic material survives in the environment and remains infectious long after the organism is dead, that's why you can get DNA from fossils.

Unless it changes direction, the whole biotechnology enterprise has little chance of success, not the least among the reasons being that the scientific paradigm promoting and misguiding the technology has been thoroughly discredited at least ten years before. Genetic has changed out of all recognition, and yet the old paradigm is still dominating the scene. The old paradigm offers a simplistic view that the characteristics or traits of organisms are each tied to specific genes, which are unaffected by one another or by the environment. And that, except for very rare random mutations, the genes are passed on unchanged to the next generation.

The biotechnologists failed to take proper account of the plethora of scientific findings within the past 20 years revealing an immense amount of cross-talk between genes. Genes are nothing if not sensitive, dynamic and responsive, to other genes, to the cell or organism in which they find themselves and to the external envrionment. The layer upon layer of feedback between genes and environment, not only determine whether genes are active or not, but what function and structure they have. Genes can mutate, multiply, rearrange and jump around in response to the environment. They may even jump out of the genome of one organism to infect another one. Geneticists have coined the phrase "the fluid genome" to describe the situation. It is more accurate to see the genes as having a very complicated ecology, and that for genes and genomes to remain constant, you need a balanced ecology. So the new genetics is radically ecological and holistic.

I referred to genetic engineering biotechnology as a hoax in 1995. This hoax is perpetrated by an unholy alliance between corporate capitalism and the discredited scientific paradigm, which threatens to control every aspect of our lives from the food we eat to the babies we can conceive and give birth to, and humans beings we can clone. All done in the name of scientific progress and free enterprise, but without doubt part of a corporate feudalism that has taken over the world within the past 50 years.

Fortunately, the game is up, the bubble has burst. The biotechnology debate has turned into the biggest, most inclusive civil rights movement against the corporate empire. It has united the world, and citizens of the United States are waking up.

Farmers across the world are rejecting GM crops: India, Brazil, The Philippines, Thailand, the whole of South Asia and Africa, farmers in France, Belgium and most recently in the United States.

There's a farming crisis in the United States, and family farmers are both desperate and angry. Like those in the UK, Belgium, Germany, Italy, in fact all over Europe and in the Third World, they are being driven to destitution and suicide by corporate monopoly.

A coalition of family farming groups have issued a strong declaration, demanding an end to GM crops and a ban on patent of life forms and seeds. They are also demanding a moratorium on corporate mergers and acquisitions and an end to legislation that benefit corporations at the expense of farmers, consumers and taxpayers.

Farming groups from 30 countries are taking the corporations to court over GM crops - the seed monopoly they bring and the attendant risks to health and agriculture.

Worldwide, consumers are saying No to GM crops and products because of valid concerns over safety. Corporate scientists may go on repeating the mantra that there is no evidence of harm, but no one believes them anymore.

There's volumes of evidence of harm that all real scientists take seriously, including those advising our own Governments, but are not free to speak out. Look what happened to Dr. Arpad Pusztai, who was sacked from his job and vilified for trying to tell the truth of what he found. Part of their findings has now appeared in The Lancet, bearing out his original claim that the GM potatoes investigated were toxic to young rats, and that a significant part of the toxicity is in the genetic engineering process itself.

In a letter written by UK MAFF to the US FDA commenting on the latter's draft guideline to industry on the use of antibiotic resistance genes, the UK scientists are warning of genes spreading not just by ordinary cross-pollination to related species, but by the genetic material itself spreading to unrelated species, like I said earlier.

These same scientists are pointing out that genetically modified DNA can spread from GM plants, not only to soil bacteria, but by dust and pollen to bacteria in our mouth, our gut and respiratory tracts. They point out that transgenic DNA may even spread to our cells. This can cause genetic damage including cancer.

They advised against using GM crops as animal feed because DNA is not readily broken down during processing, nor in the silage.

Christian Aid concludes that GM crops and patent protection on seeds will cause unemployment, increase Third World debt, threaten sustainable farming systems and damage the environment. It predicts famine for the poorest countries. The coalition of family farming groups in the United States are warning that the entire agricultural base of the world may collapse.

The British Medical Association called for an indefinite moratorium on GM crops pending further studies on new allergies, on the spread of antibiotic resistances and on the effects of transgenic DNA.

These concerns over safety and food monopoly are shared by more than 142 scientists from 27 countries who have signed a World Scientists' Statement and written an open letter to all governments calling for a 5 year moratorium and a ban on patents of life-forms.

While the 'benefits' from GM crops remain illusory and hypothetical, the successes of sustainable, organic farming are well-documented, in the Third World, in Latin America, in Europe and North America. There is also an enormous 'health bonus' in phasing out agrochemicals which are linked to many forms of cancer, to reproductive abnormalities and degenerative diseases. An organic revolution in farming is underway all over the world.

What excites me most as a scientist is that there is also an organic revolution going on in western science, which restores and reaffirms the holistic, ecological perspectives that many traditional indigenous cultures have never lost touch with. I'll be talking about that at the Bioneers Conference in San Francisco later this week. This organic revolution in western science will put an end to the dominant culture that treats organisms as machines and life and life-necessities as commodities, that glorifies competition and sanctions exploition in the name of the struggle for survival of the fittest. Instead, we begin to appreciate the universal entanglement of all nature, which will transform the very meaning and texture of our lives. The future looks great. Let's go for it.

Article first published 1999

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