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Turning the Tide on the Brave New World
Institute of Science in Society and Biology Dept. Open University, Walton
Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA, U.K.
(An edited version translated into Dutch and published in NordZuid
Cahier, Blauen bananen gemanipuleerd voedset, pp.45-62, Brussels,
This paper explains the science and technology of genetic engineering to
expose the misinformation and disinformation put out by the industry and
their supporters, including many of the scientists researching and
exploiting the technology. the existing genetic engineering technologies
are crude, unreliable, uncontrollable and unpredictable; and they are
inherently hazardous. More so because they are misguided by a scientific
paradigm that is fundamentally flawed, out of date and in conflict with
scientific findings. That is what they are calling 'sound science'.
A campaign of mis-information and dis-information
During the summer of 1998, the biotech giant Monsanto tried to sell GM
food to Europe with the slogan, Food, Health and Hope, in a
series of advertisements filling full pages of our top newsprints. GM
crops are needed to feed the world, and they benefit consumers and the
environment, so the advertisements claim; furthermore, Monsanto has
conducted "rigorous tests" throughout its 20 year biotech
history to ensure their food crops are "as safe and nutritious as the
standard alternatives". Many complaints were filed by campaigning
groups with the UK Advertising Standards Authority, which subsequently
condemned those advertisements for making claims that were "confusing,
misleading, unproven and wrong". (1)
In the same summer, eminent scientist Dr. Arpad Pusztai, of the
Government-funded Rowett Institute in Scotland, revealed findings in a
brief TV interview which suggested that GM potatoes were toxic to young
rats. A few days later, he was removed from his job, denied access to his
own data, and forbidden to speak on the subject. But 20 scientists spoke
up for him in February, 1999. (2)
By that time, public acceptance of GM foods has plummeted. Eventually,
all major wholesalers and supermarkets announced they would not deal in GM
products. This sent shock waves of resistance around the world, from
Europe to India, Brazil, Japan, Southeast Asia, and a year later, to the
heartland of GM crops, the United States(3). World market for GM produce
has collapsed. Monsantos stock-market rating dropped so low that the
corporation is to spin off its agricultural biotech business,
which was valued at zero, to merge with the pharmaceutical company
Pharmacia & Upjohn.(4)
Sound science to the rescue
The misinformation and dis-information that led to Monsantos
downfall are being perpetrated under the banner of sound science,
starting with no less than the UK Royal Society, the core of the
scientific establishment. Nineteen Fellows of the Society wrote to the
papers accusing Pusztai of endangering sound science in making
public findings which have not been peer-reviewed and published in a
scientific journal. The Royal Society then set up its own official review
of Pusztai's unpublished work, declared it flawed, and warned that no
conclusions should be drawn. The Society's Report(5) found no evidence of
adverse effects from GM potatoes (but fell short of saying the GM potatoes
were safe). And even if Pusztais experiments had been properly done,
it stated that the results were only relevant to rats and potatoes, and it
would be unjustifiable to draw conclusions on whether genetically modified
foods in general are harmful to human beings. If animal testing is deemed
to have no relevance for human beings, that would invalidate much of
standard toxicological testing!
Pusztais findings were not the first to suggest GM foods might not
be safe. Many scientists have been warning of different hazards inherent
to the genetic engineering technology(6). Even the British Medical
Association issued its own Interim Report in May, 1999, calling for an
indefinite moratorium on GM crops and products, and for research to be
done on the hazards of GM foods including new allergies, spread of
antibiotic resistance genes and effects of the genetically modifed DNA in
the GM crops (see later). The UK Governments Chief Scientific
Advisor agreed with a demand for a moratorium on commercial release until
at least 2003(7). To top all that, research at Cornell University in the
United States found that milk-weed leaves dusted with GM-maize pollen
engineered with a bt-toxin from the soil bacterium, Bacillus
thuringiensis, killed 44% of the larvae of the Monarch butterfly after
4 days, whereas no mortality occurred in larvae fed non-GM pollen(8). The
public have good reasons to reject GM foods.
The industry is looking to our Governments and friendly scientists to
bail them out, and the latter have obliged. During the recent World Trade
Organization (WTO) Conference in Seattle (Nov. 29 to December 3, 1999), US
Senator Kit Bond gave a press conference launching an open letter
addressed to him from more than 300 scientists. These scientists stated
their support for agricultural biotechnology in food production and "strongly
advocate the use of sound science as the basis for regulatory and
political decisions pertaining to biotechnology"(9). Kit Bond is
Senator for Missouri, home of Monsanto. One third of the scientists
signing the letter are from Monsanto, Novartis or other biotech companies;
and most of the rest are from universities and research institutions
receiving substantial industrial support. In the press conference, four
scientists spoke in turn, telling reporters that,
We absolutely need genetic engineered crops to feed the world.
The miracle crops are just around the corner; the latest being
genetic engineered rice with enhanced vitamin A.
There is no difference between genetic engineering crops and
conventional breeding, except the former is much more precise.
Genetic engineered crops pose no new hazards.
Genetic engineered food is the most tightly regulated and scrutinized
for safety of all foods.
No one has yet died from eating genetic engineered foods, which has
been available in the United States for several years.
It is remarkable how the same messages are repeated by scientists within
the UK and elsewhere who are defending the industry(10).
The last point betrays this supposedly sound science. There
has been no segregation of the GM from non-GM products nor labeling; and
no one has been monitoring for post-market health impacts. No proper
scientist would, or should make such an obviously unscientific claim.
Actually, there was a batch of genetic engineered tryptophan
that killed 37 and made 1500 people ill back in 1989, which was attributed
to a trace contaminant(11). Another recognized hazard is the availability
of large amounts of genetically engineered hormones which are being abused
and misused. Genetic engineered bovine growth hormone, for example, is
sold to farmers to be injected into cows to increase milk yield. This not
only causes excessive suffering and illnesses for the cows but increases
IGF-1 in their milk, which is linked to breast and prostate cancers in
humans(12). Moreover, soya food allergy among the British public has
unexpectedly risen 50% between 1998 and 1999, jumping from 14th
to 9 th place on the list of the top allergenic foods(13).
This finding coincides with the large increase in imported foods from the
US containing GM soya.
A coalition of US public interest organisations have mounted a lawsuit
against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which stands accused of
not carrying out proper safety tests before approving GM food, and not
requiring labeling. Internal memoranda from the FDA revealed it had
ignored warnings from its own scientists that GM food could pose
unforeseen health threats, and that there is a profound difference between
the types of risks from GM crops compared with those obtained from
Broken promises and corporate monopoly
The promises to genetic engineer crops to fix nitrogen, resist drought,
improve yield and to feed the world have been around for at
least 30 years. Such promises have built up a multibillion-dollar industry
now controlled by a mere handful of corporate giants.
But the miracle crops have not materialised. Instead, two simple
characteristics account for all the GM crops in the world(15). More than
70% are tolerant to broad-spectrum herbicides, with companies engineering
plants to be tolerant to their own brand of herbicide, while the rest are
engineered with bt-toxins to kill insect pests. A total of 65 million
acres were planted in 1998 within the US, Argentina and Canada(16). The
latest surveys on GM crops in the US, the largest grower by far, showed no
significant benefit. On the contrary, the most widely grown GM crops -
herbicide-tolerant soya beans - yielded on average 6.7% less and
required two to five times more herbicides than non-GM
And what about genetic engineering crops to enhance nutrition? That
simply does not address the root cause of malnutrition worldwide, which is
the substitution of industrial monocultures for the varied diet provided
by traditional farming/ foraging systems. Moreover, intensive agricultural
practices accompanying industrial monocultures deplete and leach nutrients
from the soil, thereby changing the nutritional values of all food crops
for the worse within the past 50 years(18). No amount of genetic
engineering can reverse this trend, which can be achieved only by
re-introducing sustainable farming methods and recovering agricultural
Corporate agriculture, GM seed patents and hunger
According to the United Nations food programme, there is enough food to
feed the world one and a half times over. World cereal yields have
consistently outstripped population growth since 1980, but one billion are
hungry(19). It is on account of corporate monopoly operating under the
globalised economy that the poor are getting poorer and hungrier. Family
farmers all over the world have been driven to destitution and suicide,
and for the same reasons. Between 1993 and 1997 the number of
mid-sized farms in the US dropped by 74,440(20), and farmers are now
receiving below the average cost of production for their produce(21). Four
corporations currently control 85% of the world trade in cereals(22).
The new patents which are awarded on GM seeds (as well as other
life-forms and living processes) will intensify corporate monopoly by
preventing farmers from saving and replanting seeds, which is what most
farmers still do in the Third World. Christian Aid, a major charity
working with the Third World, concludes that GM crops will cause
unemployment, exacerbate Third World debt, threaten sustainable farming
systems and damage the environment. It predicts famine for the poorest
Hazards of GM crops now acknowledged
The hazards of GM crops are now becoming apparent, and some of them even
acknowledged by sources within the UK and US Governments. For example, the
UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has admitted that
the transfer of GM crops and pollen beyond the planted fields is
unavoidable(24), and this has already resulted in herbicide-tolerant
weeds(25). Bt-resistant insect pests have evolved in response to the
continuous presence of the toxins in GM plants throughout the growing
season, and the US Environment Protection Agency is recommending farmers
to plant up to 40% non-GM crops in order to create refugia for
non-resistant insect pests(26). The broad-spectrum herbicides used with
herbicide-tolerant GM crops not only decimate wild species
indiscriminately, but are toxic to animals. One of them, glufosinate,
causes birth defects in mammals(27), A Swedish study now links the
top-selling herbicide, glyphosate, to non-Hodgkin lymphoma(28). GM crops
with bt-toxins kill beneficial insects such as bees(29) and lacewings(30),
and, as mentioned earlier, pollen from bt-maize is lethal to monarch
butterflies. GM potatoes with snowdrop lectin, previously found to harm
ladybirds(31), are now confirmed to be unsafe for young rats: Pusztai and
his collaborator, Stanley Ewen, have published part of their results amid
a fresh storm of attack (see later)(32). Genetic engineering agriculture
is a dangerous diversion and obstruction to the real tasks of providing
food and health around the world.
The technology is crude and inherently hazardous, the science
To put it bluntly: the existing genetic engineering technologies are
crude, unreliable, uncontrollable and unpredictable; and they are
inherently hazardous. More so because they are misguided by a scientific
paradigm that is fundamentally flawed, out of date and in conflict with
scientific findings. That is what they are calling sound science.
Genome and Genes
A genome is the totality of all the genetic material in an
organism, which is organised into linear structures called chromosomes.
Each chromosome is really a very long DNA molecule. Each DNA molecule
consists of two chains wound around each other. Each chain is made up
of millions of simple units linked end to end. The units are
distinguished by the base they contain. There are only four different
bases, represented by the alphabets, A,T,C, G. The DNA molecules are
distinguished by the sequence in which the bases occur along the
chain. Bacteria like E. coli which live in the gut of human
beings and other mammals have one chromosome. Humans have two sets of
23 chromosomes (or 23 pairs of chromosomes) one set from each of our
parents. Each chromosome resembles its partner (or homologue) in the
pair and differs in size, shape and structure from all others.
Just as the sequence of alphabets in our language makes words and
combination of words make messages, so each linear DNA molecule
(chromosome) exists as stretches corresponding to genes, which are
also combined into more complicated messages.
But there the analogy ends, because genes function in vastly
complicated, parallel networks with lots of cross-talk between the
networks as well as feedback from the internal environment of the body
and the external environment. Geneticists have discovered within the
past 20 years that feedback from the internal and external
environments not only changes the function of genes, but also the
structure (or base sequence) of the genes and the organisation of the
A gene is a stretch of DNA with a defined function in the
organism or cell. It usually codes for a protein. There are many genes
on each chromosome. For example, the human genome is estimated to
contain 100 000 genes. Each gene exists in hundreds of different
variants (called alleles) each differing slightly in the base
sequence. For this reason, each individual is genetically unique, and
has a distinctive combination of alleles. Furthermore, each individual
has two alleles of every gene, one on each of a pair of homologous
Genes are passed on from parents to offspring through the germ cells
(egg and sperm) at reproduction. A special kind of cell division takes
place in making germ cells, called meiosis. First, the
homologous chromosomes pair up and exchange parts by the two DNA
molecules breaking and rejoining with each other. This is the process
of recombination, which results in chromosomes with different
combinations of alleles from the originals. Second, the chromosomes
duplicate only once while the cell divides twice; consequently, the
germ cell ends up with only one set of chromosomes. When egg and sperm
unite at fertilization, each contributes one set of chromosomes to
restore the 23 pairs in the offspring.
The scientific paradigm I am referring to is genetic determinism, which
ruled biology as well as the popular culture at large before genetic
engineering really got underway 25 years ago. It offers a simplistic,
reductionist view that ignores interconnections and complexity of real
ecosystems. It has no concept of the organism as a whole, nor societies or
ecosystems. Instead, there are only selfish individuals, each competing
against all the rest. The organism is seen as nothing more than a
collection of traits, each mechanically tied to specific genes
which do not, by and large, interact with one another, nor with the
environment. And these genes are passed on unchanged to the next
generation except for very rare random mutations. If all that were true,
genetic engineering would be as precise and effective as is claimed.
Genetic engineering is being driven and promoted by a
discredited genetic determinist science
"Research scientists can now precisely identify the individual
gene that governs a desired trait, extract it, copy it and insert the
copy into another organism. That organism (and its offspring) will
then have the desired trait.."(33)
" The key to these new biotechnologies is the ability to
identify, isolate and manipulate the individual genes that govern
specific characteristics or traits in plants, animals and
microorganisms. We can alter genes and so adjust the characteristics
they code for, and we can move specific genes from one organism to
another in a very precise manner. As a result, specific
characteristics can be transferred from one individual to another with
a level of control not imaginable a few decades ago."
These claims are based on the genetic determinist science which has
been discredited by scientific findings at least 15 years ago. Genetic
determinist science assumes,
Genes determine characters in linear causal chains, one gene
determining one character,
Genes are not subject to influence from the environment,
Genes remain stable and constant, and
Genes remain in organisms and stay where they are put.
Unfortunately, scientific findings over the past 25 years reveal an
immense amount of cross-talk between genes, which function in complex,
entangled networks. 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 environment. They can mutate, multiply,
rearrange and jump around in responding. Genes may even jump out of one
organism to infect another one. This is called horizontal gene
transfer, the transfer of genetic material directly to unrelated
species, to distinguish it from the vertical gene transfer from parent to
offspring which happens in normal reproduction. (Horizontal gene transfer
across species barriers is the process exploited by geneticists in genetic
engineering.) The genetic material is so flexible and dynamic that
geneticists have coined the phrase, "the fluid genome", to
describe the situation back in the 1980s.
Genetics has changed out of all recognition. It is more accurate to see
the genes as having a very complicated ecology, and that for genes and
genomes to remain constant, we need a balanced ecology. The new
genetics is radically ecological, organic and holistic, it is
diametrically opposed to the mechanical conception of reality that has
dominated the west for hundreds, if not thousands of years(35).
What do you get when you cross a spider with a goat?
What is genetic engineering? Remember 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 allows one to cross closely related
species, such as horse and donkey. There are good reasons for keeping
species distinct, which have to do with the balance of the ecosystem. Each
species has a distinctive role, a different way of life that fits in with
the whole of the ecosystem. Furthermore, when viruses cross species
barriers, for example, we have outbreaks of infectious diseases. Genetic
engineering bypasses all species barriers, and it is not a joke anymore.
Genes are being transferred in the laboratory between any and every
species, many of which would never interbreed in nature. Indeed, spider
genes have been transferred into goats in an attempt to make the poor
female goats produce silk in their milk. And human genes have been
transferred into cows, sheep, mice, fish and bacteria.
The most immediate dangers are random and unpredictable. That is because
the genetic engineer cannot control where and how the foreign genes are
inserted into the genetic material of the organism. Genetic engineering
animals are acts of cruelty, there are high failure rates and even the
so-called successes are often monstrously deformed(36). Genetic engineered
plants may end up having new toxins and allergens, as in the batch of
tryptophan mentioned earlier.
A more insidious danger is horizontal gene transfer. The genetic
material, the DNA, can survive indefinitely in all environments, after the
organisms are dead. It can be taken up by other organisms and become
incorporated into their genetic material. This has the potential to create
new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases. Why?
In genetic engineering, new genes, many from viruses and bacteria,
including antibiotic resistance genes that make infectious diseases
untreatable, are introduced into our crops and livestock. They are
combined in new combinations that have never existed, and introduced into
organisms by invasive methods that make the foreign genes (or transgenic
DNA) more unstable and more prone to transfer horizontally than the
organisms own genes which have been adapted to stay together for
hundreds of millions of years(37).
The horizontal transfer of transgenic DNA from GM crops to soil fungi
and bacteria has been demonstrated in the laboratory(38), Furthermore,
there is overwhelming evidence that horizontal gene transfer and
recombination have generated the new drug and antibiotic resistant viruses
and bacteria. These viruses and bacteria are associated with the recent
resurgence of infectious diseases which has precipitated a public health
crisis worldwide(39). Has commercial-scale genetic engineering
contributed to creating the new pathogens? This was the urgent question
posed by a number of scientists demanding a public enquiry(40). Another
danger is that the transgenic DNA may jump into the genetic material of
our cells and cause damages including cancer.
Let us look at the findings of Pusztai and his coworkers in the light of
these potential hazards that are inherent to the genetic engineering
technology, and then examine how current risk assessment fails to address
The genetic material DNA and how it is replicated and recombined
DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the genetic material of all
organisms, including some viruses. In other viruses, the genetic
material is RNA (ribonucleic acid), which is chemically similar to
DNA, but does not have the latters double-helical structure (see
DNA is a long molecule consisting of two strands wound around each
other, like an electric flex, in a double helix. Each strand is a
linear sequence of many thousands to millions of units linked
together. There are four different units, each identified by an
alphabet, A, T, C and G representing the organic base contained in the
unit, adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine. (In RNA, U for uracil
replaces T.) An example of a DNA sequence is as follows:
The sequence of one thread determines that of its partner or
complement in the double helix, because there is a precise pairing
relationship between the units: A pairs with T, and C pairs with G.
So, the complement of the above sequence is:
And the complete, double-stranded DNA molecule is hence,
The length of a DNA molecule is expressed as number of base-pairs,
bp for short. DNA molecules can be thousands, hundreds or thousands or
millions of base-pairs long.
The precise base-pairing between the strands enables the DNA
molecule to be replicated. During DNA replication, the two strands
separate, and each acts as the template for making the other, rather
in the way that a positive image can be printed from its negative. So,
when each cell divides into two daughter cells, its entire complement
of genetic material is also duplicated. Enzymes involved in
duplicating the genetic material polymerases have been
isolated, enabling genetic engineers to make many copies of specific
DNA molecules in the test-tube.
Duplication is often inexact, mistakes are corrected by
proof-reading enzymes in the cell under normal conditions. But under
stress, the mistakes are not corrected, and it is one way of creating
new mutations (changes in the DNA base sequence) rapidly which
may enable the organism to overcome the stress. In the test-tube, no
such proof-reading is available, hence copies made by genetic
engineers often have mistakes.
Breaks can also occur in the DNA molecule to allow different DNA
molecules to exchange parts. This is referred to as recombination,
and gives rise to new combinations of genes. Special enzymes are
involved in breaking and joining DNA. These enzymes have also been
isolated and enable new combination of genes to be created in the
laboratory by genetic engineers.
The Pusztai affair and risk assessment based on sound science
A fresh storm of attack greeted the publication of Pusztais work,
and even reported threats to the Editor of the Journal publishing the
paper(41). Why is the work so controversial?
Pusztai and his coworkers created GM potatoes expressing a snowdrop
lectin (GNA) to increase resistance to insects and nematodes. GNA was
chosen because previous studies showed that the effects of the lectin have
been minimal, at least when rats were fed on large amounts of
the lectin for ten days or less. Pusztais collaborator, Stanley
Ewen, undertook to examine the microscopic structure of the lining of
different parts of the rat gut in groups of young animals fed for ten
days, respectively, on non-GM potatoes, GM-potatoes and non-GM potatoes
spiked with the GNA protein. All the diets had the same protein and energy
Variable effects were found in different parts of the gut. In the
stomach, a highly significant thickening of the lining was found in both
rats fed GM potatoes and those fed non-GM potatoes spiked with lectin. It
was reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the effect on the stomach
lining was mainly due to the GNA protein. However, significant changes in
the lining of the small intestine and parts of the large intestine were
found only in the group of rats fed GM potatoes. Ewen and Pusztai conclude
that "other parts of the construct or the genetic transformation (or
both) could also have contributed to the overall biological effects of the
GNA-GM potatoes." In addition, rats fed GM potatoes also had
significantly increased lymphocytes (white blood cells) in the gut lining,
which indicates damage to the intestine(42).
The explosive claim is that "other parts of the construct or the
genetic transformation process" may be toxic. If that is the case,
all GM crops may not be safe. Elsewhere, Pusztai has questioned
the safety of the promoter from the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV), a
piece of genetic material isolated from the virus, which is stitched next
to a gene to enable the gene to be switched on. The CaMV promoter is in
the GM potatoes fed to the rats, as well as in practically all current GM
crops. Could the signs of damage to the intestine be due to viral
infection? That was a claim made in Pusztais earlier
communications(43), though not in the present publication. If so, might
the cauliflower mosaic viral promoter have anything to do with it?
The CaMV promoter is known to have a recombination hotspot
a site at which it is prone to break and join up with other DNA(44). We
have reviewed all the relevant scientific findings, which suggest that the
CaMV promoter will enhance the horizontal spread of transgenic DNA to
unrelated species, and that the CaMV promoter may recombine with dormant
viruses - present in all genomes - to generate infectious, disease-causing
viruses(45). On that basis, and in accordance with the precautionary
principle, we recommend that all GM plants containing CaMV promoter and
products with incompletely degraded DNA should be immediately withdrawn
Neither Pusztai nor Ewen regards their research as definitive proof that
GM potatoes, or GM food in general is harmful. Pusztai has
repeatedly stressed the need for further research. However, the results do
throw into serious doubt the claim of the biotech industry and regulatory
authorities that GM food is safe. A leading British statistician
had said privately that one should be worried if even a single rat had
The attacks on Pusztai say more about the sound science his
critics are defending, that lies behind current risk assessment, whether
it be for radioactive discharge, industrial chemicals, toxic wastes or
GMO. As is made clear above, it is a reductionist, mechanistic science
that ignores the complexity and interdependence of living systems, that
has, furthermore, been thoroughly discredited by recent scientific
findings. More importantly, it is directly in conflict with the
precautionary principle that has been accepted in several international
conventions including the Convention of Biological Diversity and the
As applied to GMOs, the principle may be stated as follows: where there
is scientific evidence to suspect serious irreversible harm, lack of
scientific certainty or consensus should not be used as justification for
not taking preventative measures. This is based on that offered by
Norwegian virologist Terje Traavik who advises his government,(47) and in
line with that adopted by Swedish law for hazardous and chemical
Risk assessment based on so-called sound science not only
ignores the complexity and interdependence of real living systems and
reasonable suspicion of harm based on scientific evidence, it also places
the onus on regulators and civil society to demonstrate that something is
definitely harmful before it can be refused approval, withdrawn or banned.
It is such systematic misuse and abuse of scientific evidence that has
continued to allow corporations to endanger human health, destroy
wild-life and our planet with impunity. No wonder there is a debate on
whether risk assessment should be science-based at all.
I believe that risk-assessment should be science-based, but it
should be based on honest, reliable science whose goal is to enable us to
live sustainably with nature(49). It goes without saying that this
science also obliges us to act in accordance with the precautionary
The dangers of horizontal gene transfer are now acknowledged by sources
within our governments, but regulation is still entrenched in the
The possibility for naked or free DNA to be
taken up by mammalian cells is explicitly mentioned in the US Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) draft guidance to industry on antibiotic
resistance marker genes(50). In commenting on the FDA's document, the UK
MAFF pointed out that transgenic DNA may be transferred not just by
ingestion, but by contact with air-borne pollen and plant dust during farm
work and food processing(51). The general public too, could become exposed
to such dangers of horizontal gene transfer.
Thus, plant DNA is not readily degraded during most commercial food
processing(52). Procedures such as grinding and milling left grain DNA
largely intact, as did heat-treatment at 90oC.
Plants placed in silage showed little degradation of DNA, and a UK
MAFF-commissioned report advises against using GM plants or plant waste in
animal feed. The letter from UK MAFF to US FDA also mentions new findings
that the human mouth contains bacteria capable of taking up and expressing
naked DNA containing antibiotic resistance marker genes, and similar
transformable bacteria are also present in the respiratory tracts(53).
Despite all that, our regulatory system is still firmly entrenched
in the old reductionist paradigm(54).
The regulations do not take account of the evidence accumulated over
the past ten years that DNA survives in all environments and can be
taken up by all cells. The UK Health and Safety Executive, in line with
the EU Directives, still regards DNA as a chemical, and as it is in all
organisms, it is not considered a hazardous chemical and therefore not
subject to regulation(55). One of the scientists in Kit Bonds
press conference (see above) even referred to genetic engineered crops
as the ultimate organic crops, because they involve manipulating "the
totally organic substance DNA".
The reductionist paradigm of regulation concentrates on the gene(s)
and gene product(s) introduced into the GMO and on known toxins and
allergens. Insufficient attention is paid to unintended, unexpected
Because they assume there is no difference between genetic engineered
crops and those obtained from traditional breeding, regulation is
largely based on no need to look, so dont look,
and you dont see anything.
The principle of substantial equivalence, on which risk
assessment is based, is farcical. Everything passed as substantially
equivalent is supposed to be safe. But the genetic engineered variety
can be compared with any and every variety within the species, it can
even be compared to a collection of unrelated species. It is like
regarding someone who does theoretic physics like Einstein and plays
football like Pele as substantially equivalent to another who plays
football like Einstein and does theoretical physics like Pele.
Turning the tide on the brave new world
Genetic engineering biotechnology is not just about food production. It
is about any and every way of exploiting life and our life-support system
for profit. It is the ultimate in the dominant way of life that knows the
monetary cost of everything and the value of nothing(56).
Apart from the existing herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant GM crops
which are already known to pose serious threats to biodiversity, crops are
also being engineered to produce textiles, industrial chemicals, and
pharmaceuticals that will contaminate our food supply. More dangerous terminator
crops that threaten the natural fertility of living organisms are also in
the pipelines(57). Trees are engineered to be more readily pulped for
paper, that may wipe out our forests. Livestock and other animals are
engineered to produce pharmaceuticals and drugs in their milk or spare
body parts for transplanting into human beings. Even human embryos are
being cloned to produce cells, tissues and spare body parts. The science
driving the industry is devoid of moral values because it is based on
denying and explaining them away in the first place.
A science which claims to be objective, neutral and value free
falls easy prey to commercial motives(58). It then becomes all too easy
for scientists to misread, misuse and abuse scientific evidence, and to
ignore the grave dangers posed by the technology. This bad science has
become both master and handmaiden to unaccountable business corporations
driven solely by profit. Together, they will effectively control every
aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to the healthcare we can have,
the babies we can conceive and give birth to, the human beings we can
clone. In the process, they may ruin our food supply, destroy biodiversity
and unleash pandemics of drug and antibiotic resistant infectious
diseases. They will also undermine every single moral value and ideal that
makes us human.
The genetic engineering debate has concentrated the global mind on how
the corporate agenda has dominated the world and worked against people and
against our planet. At the recent WTO Conference in Seattle, the
superpowers tried to promote the corporate agenda behind closed doors,
which would sacrifice environmental protection, labour standards, food
safety and basic human rights to trade and financial imperatives. The
talks collapsed as Third World countries united in saying "No!"
inside the conference hall, while 50 000 held peaceful protests in the
streets. Seattle showed us that things could be different. We need not be
ruled by corporations and global financiers.
What I find most encouraging is the high degree of convergence of all
sectors of civil society in envisioning the sort of life they want that
would benefit everyone. Above all, people want democracy and
equity, and they want to protect and regenerate the earth. They are
sickened by the rapidly widening gap between rich and poor. The richest
20% in the world make 150 times what the poorest 20% are forced to live
on(59). People are sickened by the accelerating rate of extinction, now
estimated at up to 200 species per day(60). Genetic engineering, in
targeting the integrity of life itself, is in danger of destroying the
last resort we have to save ourselves and our planet.
The way forward
While the benefits of 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(61). Jules Pretty presents a powerful case for a more sustainable
and community-led approach to rural economic development in both the Third
World and in industrialized nations. 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(62). The
success of organic agriculture is part of a larger paradigm shift that has
come from the grassroots all over the world.
It is an organic uprising, a movement towards a way of being that
celebrates the interdependence and richness of biodiverse nature. This has
spread to western science. Jim Lovelocks Gaia theory invites us to
see the earth as one super-organism(63). Even more remarkable is the
message from quantum theory: we are intimately entangled with one another
and with all nature, which we participate in co-creating(64). This
restores and reaffirms the holistic perspectives that many indigenous
communities worldwide have never lost touch with.
The mechanistic paradigm that has dominated mainstream politics and
misguided government policies for centuries has failed the reality test in
the real world as well as within science. It presents a travesty of
organic reality in its Hobbesian-Darwinian view of isolated, selfish
atoms, all jostling and competing against one another in the struggle for
survival of the fittest. It has created and reinforced an oppressive,
social reality through a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is also
destroying our planet.
When we really pay attention to nature, we find it is the symbiotic,
mutualistic relationships that sustain ecosystems and make all life
prosper, each in its own way, including the human beings who are
active, sensitive participants in the ecosystem as a whole. The reciprocal
relationship of human beings with fellow species in the ecosystem is so
strongly felt among indigenous Peruvian farmers that they adopt plants
into their gardens as members of their own family. Every year, they have a
potato ceremony in which the old potato hands over to the new seed
potatoes the responsibility for breeding the human beings(65).
Conservation policies that exclude human beings are pernicious, and so are
proposed solutions which place population control above all else. China
has 22 percent of the worlds population on only seven percent of the
earths arable land. Most of the farms use intensive organic methods
so sound that the fields are still fertile after two thousand years(66).
When land is well used and managed, wild and domesticated species can
co-exist, and the carrying capacity increased (see below).
Many exceptional individuals are changing their own lives and the world
around them. They all do so by learning from nature. For example,
industrial processes are being redesigned to resemble balanced ecosystems,
towards zero waste-emission and maximum productivity(67). Nancy and John
Todds ecological design depends on assembling
self-contained ecosystems for projects ranging from organic farming to
water purification and building eco-cities(68). Their motto is: "Waste
is a resource out of place". Waste and pest for one organism is food
There is coherent, regenerative energy in living organisms(70),
especially in human beings who know how to work with nature and within
nature. I have met organic farmers in India who reclaimed land laid waste
by industrial chemicals and given up for good, and they did it in two or
three years. Within the United States, cattle ranchers are restoring the
prairies destroyed by overgrazing with the help of the cattle themselves.
By skillfully herding the cattle on the land, they brought the prairies
back, resplendent with indigenous species and wild life which have been
lost for decades(71) At the same time, the carrying capacity of the land
is increased up to 6-fold; so instead of supporting 50 cattle, it now
supports 300, in addition to the wild elk and deer which have returned.
The ranchers are even recovering land completely destroyed by mining. They
spread straw and grass seeds over the barren land, then herd the cattle in
to feed on the straw and fertilize the ground. Next year, grass began to
germinate, presaging the return of the working wilderness.
Progressive thinkers across the disciplines are pointing the way
forward. Pioneers like Edward Goldsmith(72), Hazel Henderson(73), Jerry
Mander(74) and Herman Daly(75) who have been telling us that economics and
ecology must go together since the 1970s and 1980s, are spelling out the
steps to shift from a money-centred, destructive economy to a
people-centred regenerative economy(76). In the business world, people
like Paul Hawken are advocating, and putting into practice, the ecological
principle, which says it is not enough to do no harm; business must
contribute positively to restoring and healing the planet(77).
National governments have a very important role to play in this paradigm
shift. They must legislate at the global level to safeguard democracy,
basic human rights and the environment. At the same time, they must
protect and encourage local creativity and enterprise, to enable the local
to flourish, to celebrate diversity and complexity, and to ensure maximum
participation of people in a regenerative, life-enhancing economy.
"Monsanto ads condemned" Sarah Hall, The Guardian,
1 March, 1999.
"This scientist revealed the perils of GM food. Now he has been
gagged for life" John Ingham and Lorna Duckworth, The Express 13
See Ho, M.W. (1998, 1999a). Genetic Engineering Dream or
Nightmare? Turning the Tide on the Brave New World of Bad Science and
Big Business, Third World Network, Penang, Gateway, Gill &
"Monsanto pressured to sell of GM assets" Jane Martinson,
The Guardian, 22 October, 1999; Monsanto has been bought by
Upjohn and Pharmacia, BBC Radio 4, Today, 20 December, 1999; "Monsanto
pays GM price" Jane Martinson, The Guardian, 21 December, 1999.
Review of data on possible toxicity of GM potatoes, The Royal
Society, June 1999.
See for example , Mayeno, A.N. and Gleich, G.J. (1994).
Eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome and tryptophan production : a cautionary
tale. Tibtech 12, 346-352; Inose, T. and Kousaku, M. (1995).
Enhanced accumulation of toxic compounds in yeast cells having high
glycolytic activity: a case study on the safety of genetically
engineered yeast. Int. J. Food Science Tech. 30, 141-146; Ho,
M.W. (1995). Unraveling gene biotechnology, Soundings 1,
77-98, and references therein; Ho, 1998,1999a (note 3); Nordlee, J.A.,
Taylor, S.L., Townsend, JA., Thomas, L.A. and Bush, R.K. (1996).
Identification of a brazil-nut allergen in transgenic soybeans. The
New England Journal of Medicine March 14, 688-728; Ho, M.W.,
Traavik, T., Olsvik, R., Tappeser, B., Howard, V., von Weizsacker, C.
and McGavin, G. (1998b). Gene Technology and Gene Ecology of Infectious
Diseases. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 10, 33-59;
Traavik, T. (1999a). Too early may be too late, Ecological risks
associated with the use of naked DNA as a biological tool for research,
production and therapy, Research report for Directorate for Nature
Management, Trondheim, Norway
"Less spin, more science" urges the Independent on Sunday
in its Editorial on 23 May, 1999. Next to it is a cartoon of a man in a
white-coat with a potato head, rushing out of a room with a door
labelled The spin-doctor, holding a document entitled Voluntary
code and about to step on a butterfly. The bubbles read, "Its
all about sound science..." and "...in Rigorous Tests, The
Rats...Ahem! ...I Mean The Public, Will Be Fed Strictly Limited Portions
of Truth Until We Break Down Their Resistance to GM Food!"
The letter to Senator Bond, dated November 14, 1999, was included in
a press release from his office, November 30, 1999.
I have come across them with monotonous regularity during debates in
more than 20 countries within the past two years. See for example,
Miflin, B. versus Ho, M.W. (1999). Head to head, Sovereign 27,
Mayeno, A.N. and Gleich, G.J. (1994). Eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome
and tryptophan production : a cautionary tale. Tibtech 12,
Epstein, E. (1998). Bovine growth hormone and prostate cancer;
Bovine growth hormone and breast cancer. The Ecologist 28(5),
Mark Varey, York Nutritional Laboratories, ISIS NEWS (Issue #3),
"GM food: special report" Julian Borger, The Guardian,
1 December, 1999.
James, C. (1998). Global Status of Transgenic Crops in 1998,
ISAAA Briefs, New York.
See ISAAA Report, 1998.
Benbrook, C. (1999). Evidence of the Magnitude and Consequences
of the Roundup Ready Soybean Yield Drag from University-Based Varietal
Trials in 1998, Ag BioTech InfoNet Technical Paper No. 1, Idaho.
See McCanceR.A. and Widdowson, E.M. (1991). The Composition of
Foods, Fifth Edition, Royal Society of Chemistry, MAFF, Cambridge.
See Watkins, K. (1999). Free trade and farm fallacies. Third
World Resurgence 100/101, 33-37.
Farm and Land in Farms, Final Estimates 1993-1997, USDA National
Agricultural Statistics Service.
See Griffin, D. (1999). Agricultural globalization. A threat to food
security? Third World Resurgence 100/101, 38-40.
Farm Aid fact sheet: The Farm Crisis Deepens, Cambridge, Mass, 1999.
Simms, A. (1999). Selling Suicide, farming, false promises and
genetic engineering in developing countries, Christian Aid, London.
MAFF Fact Sheet: Genetic modification of crops and food, June, 1999.
See Ho, M.W. and Tappeser, B. (1997). Potential contributions of
horizontal gene transfer to the transboundary movement of living
modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology. Proceedings
of Workshop on Transboundary Movement of Living Modified Organisms
resulting from Modern biotechnology : Issues and Opportunities for
Policy-makers (K.J. Mulongoy, ed.), pp. 171-193, International
Academy of the Environment, Geneva.
Mellon, M. and Rissler, J. (1998). Now or Never. Serious New
Plans to Save a Natural Pest Control, Union of Conerned Scientists,
Garcia,A.,Benavides,F.,Fletcher,T. and Orts,E. (1998). Paternal
exposure to pesticides and congenital malformations. Scand J Work
Environ Health 24, 473-80.
Hardell, H. & Eriksson, M. (1999). A Case-Control
Study of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and Exposure to Pesticides. Cancer85,
"Cotton used in medicine poses threat: genetically-altered
cotton may not be safe" Bangkok Post, November 17, 1997.
Hilbeck, A., Baumgartner, M., Fried, P.M. and Bigler, F. (1998).
Effects of transgenic Bacillus thuringiensis-corn-fed prey on
mortality and development time of immature Chrysoperla carnea
(Neuroptera: Chrysopidae). Environmental Entomology 27, 480-96.
Birch, A.N.E., Geoghegan, I.I., Majerus, M.E.N., Hackett, C. and
Allen, J. (1997). Interaction between plant resistance genes, pest
aphid-population and beneficial aphid predators. Soft Fruit and
Pernial Crops. October, 68-79.
Ewen, S.W.B. and Pusztai, A. (1999). Effect of diets containing
genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat
small intestine. The Lancet 354, 1353-1354.
Food for Our Future, Food and Biotechnology, Food and Drink
Federation, London, 1995, p.5
The new biotechnologies, opportunity and challenges, a starting
point for discussion, bbsrc, 1996, p.1.
See Ho, 1999a (note3).
See Ho, M.W., Meyer, H. and Cummins, J. (1998a). The biotechnology
bubble. The Ecologist 28(3), 146-153, and references therein.
See Ho, M.W. (1999b). Viral gene switch a recipe for
disaster? ISIS NEWS, issue #3, December, 1999.
See Ho, 1998, 1999a, (note 3) Chapter 8.
See Ho, 1998, 1999a (note 3) Chapter 9.
Ho, M.W., Traavik, T., Olsvik, R., Tappeser, B., Howard, V., von
Weizsacker, C. and McGavin, G. (1998). Gene Technology and Gene Ecology
of Infectious Diseases. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 10,
Leake, C. and Fraser, L. (1999). Scientst in Frankenstein food alert
is proved right. UK Mail on Sunday, 31 Jan. ; Goodwin, B.C. (1999).
Report on SOAEFD Flesible Fund Project RO818, Jan. 23, 1999.
Kohli, A., Griffiths, S., Palacios, N., Twyman, R.M., Vain, P.,
Laurie, D.A. and Christou, P. (1999). Molecular characterization of
transforming plasmid rearrangements in transgenic rice reveals a
recombination hotspot in the CaMV 35S promoter and confirms the
predominance of microhomology mediated recombination. The Plant
Journal 17, 591-601.
Ho, M.W., Ryan, A. and Cummins, J. (1999). The cauliflower mosaic
viral promoter a recipe for disaster? Microbial Ecology in
Health and Disease (in press); see also Authors
reply to critics on Institute of Science in Society website: Ho,
1999 (note 37).
Raggensperger, C. and Tickner, J. ed. (1999).Protecting Public
Health & the Environment, Implementing the Precautionary Principle
, Island Press, Washington, D.C., 1999.
Traavik, T. (1999b). An Orphan in Science: Ecological Risks of
Genetically Engineered Vaccines, Report to Directorate of Nature
Management, Trondheim, Norway.
See Raggensperger and Tickner, 1999 (note 34).
See Ho, 1998, 1999a (note 3).
Draft Guidance for Industry: Use of Antibiotic Resistance Marker
Genes in Transgenic Plants, US FDA, September 4, 1998.
See Letter from N. Tomlinson, Joint Food Safety and Standards Group,
MAFF, to US FDA, 4 December, 1998.
Forbes, J.M., Blair, D.E., Chiter, A., and Perks, S. (1998). Effect
of Feed Processing Conditions on DNA Fragmentation Section 5 -
Scientific Report, MAFF.
Mercer, D.K., Scott, K.P., Bruce-Johnson, W.A. Glover, L.A. and
Flint, H.J. (1999). Fate of free DNA and transformation of the oral
bacterium Streptococcus gordonii DL1 by plasmid DNA in human saliva.
Applied and Environmental Microbiology 65, 6-10.
The current regulatory regime has been subjected to thorough
criticism by Ho, M.W. and Steinbrecher, R. (1998).Fatal Flaws
in Food Safety Assessment: Critique of The Joint FAO/WHO Biotechnology
and Food Safety Report, Environmental and Nutritional Interactions
Personal communication by spokesperson of HSE over the telephone,
See Ho, 1998, 1999a (note 3).
See Ho, M.W. (1999c). Terminator in new guises. ISIS NEWS #
3, December, 1999.
See Ho, 1998, 1999a (note 3) Chapters 1-3.
See Dillon, J. (1997). Turning the Tide, Confronting the Money
Traders, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Ottawa.
See Taking Action: An Environmental Guide for You and Your
Community, UNEP, 1996, Chapter 10.
Pretty, J. (1995). Regenerating Agriculture: Policies and
Practice for Sustainability and Self-Reliance, Earthscan, London;
Pretty, J. (1998). The Living Land, Earthscan, London.
See many excellent articles in Cancer: Are the experts lying?special
issue of The Ecologist 28(2), 1998.
See Lovelock, J. (1979). A New Look at Gaia, Oxford
University Press, Oxford.
See Ho, M.W. (1993) (1998, 2nd ed.) The Rainbow and
The Worm, The Physics of Organisms, World Scientific, Singapore.
Vasquez, G.R. (1997). Presentation in Workshop on "Protecting
peoples rights to productive resources 22nd
World Conference, SID, May, 1997.
See Barker and Mander (1999). Invisible Government, The World
Trade Organization: Global Government for the New Millenium?
International Forum for Globalisation, San Francisco.
Mshigeni, K. and Pauli, G. (1997). Brewing and future, Yes! A
Journal of Positive Futures, Spring, 41-43.
Todd, N.J. and Todd, J. (1994). From Eco-Cities to Living
Machines, Principles of Ecological Design, North Atlantis Books,
This is well demonstrated in the organic rice-paddy farming
ecosystem perfected by Takeo Furano, in which pests and weeds are
transformed into a resource for feeding the ducklings released into the
paddy fields, See Ho, M.W. (1999). One bird ten thousand
treasures, The Ecologist 29 (6) 339-340.
See Ho, 1993, 1998 (note 51).
Dan Dagett, presentation at the Bioneers Conference, October
29-31, 1999, Marin Center, San Rafael.
See Goldsmith, E. (1996) The Way, An Ecological world-View, Themis
Henderson, H. (1996). Creating Alternative Futures, the End of
Economics, Kumarian Press, West Hartford, CT.
Mander, J. and Goldsmith, E. (1995). The Case Against
Globalisation, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.
Daly, H.E. (1996). Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable
Development, Beacon, Boston.
Many different solutions are offered by the individual authos which
differ more in detail than in substance. See also the excellent
collection of essays in Mander and Goldsmith, 1995 (note 62) and Korten,
D.C. (1999). The post-Corporate World, Kumarian Press, West
Hawken, P. (1983). The Next Economy, Holt, Rinehart and
Winston, New York.
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, senior academic and researcher in the Open University,
UK, is a geneticist and a biophysicist with more than 200 publications
across many disciplines, including 10 books. Since 1994, she is also
advisor to the Third World Network and other public interest organizations
on biotechnology and biosafety, and has debated biotech issues in more
than 20 countries worldwide. She is a popular public lecturer and
broadcaster. Her most recent books are Genetic Engineering Dream or
Nightmare? 2nd ed., Gateway, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin,
1999 and The Rainbow and the Worm, The Physics of Organisms. 2nd
ed., World Scientific, Singapore, 1998.