Science in Society Archive

SiS obituary

Prof Joe Cummins

Standing up for Science to Save the World

Fearless science warrior for planet Earth

Joseph Edward Cummins, Emeritus Professor of Genetics, died on 8 January 2016 at the age of 82 after a long battle with cancer. We have lost a great friend and colleague, a kind, gentle, and generous man with a quirky sense of humour, helpful to a fault; and above all, a scientist who fought fearlessly and effectively against the corruption of science in order to save the world. He was beloved and admired by all, not least by fellow science activists.

Joe obtained an undergraduate degree in Horticulture at Washington State University and a Ph. D in Cell Biology at University of Wisconsin Madison. He did postdoctoral research at University of Edinburgh Scotland, University of Palermo Catania, the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and the Macardle Laboratory for Cancer Research at University of Wisconsin. He then taught genetics at Rutgers University and University of Washington before settling down to a permanent post at the University of Western Ontario in 1972.

Joe became involved in environmental issues from 1968, including mercury, asbestos, PCB, and pesticide pollution along waste sites and incinerators. The London Ontario press remembers him fondly [1]:“The London environmentalist waged countless high-profile battles over the decades, taking aim at everything from genetically modified crops and water fluoridation to chemical contamination of lakes and rivers...Cummins rose to prominence in London during the 1980s, sounding the alarm on contamination at Pottersburg Creek, Ontario’s largest PCB dump site.”

Joe was indeed one of the earliest critics of genetic modification. It began in 1988 when he encountered the power of multinational corporations over the Canadian federal government, and their refusal to face serious risk assessments.

Joe published more than 200 scientific and popular articles, among the latest are those in Nature Biotechnology, The Ecologist, and Biotechnology and Development Review.

A pillar of Science in Society

Since 1999, Joe joined the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) and co-authored three now classic scientific papers warning of serious hazards of the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) promoter a widely used control element in commercially grown genetically modified (GM) crops because it was thought to be active only in plants; but is in fact active in species of all kingdoms including human cells [2-5] (Cauliflower Mosaic Viral Promoter - A Recipe for Disaster?, Hazards of Transgenic Plants Containing the Cauliflower Mosaic Viral Promoter and CaMV 35S promoter fragmentation hotspot confirmed, and it is active in animals ). Our predictions proved correct [6-8] (New Evidence Links CaMV 35S Promoter to HIV Transcription, Hazardous Virus Gene Discovered in GM Crops after 20 Years, SiS 57; CaMV 35S Promoter in GM Feed that Sickened Rats Transferred into Rat Blood, Liver, and Brain Cells, SiS 65).  Joe and I have co-authored many further scientific papers together, which were published in Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease; but that is dwarfed by the hundreds of papers he wrote for our quarterly magazine, Science in Society. He was the first to point to the threat of neonicotinoid insecticides widely used in seed dressing and sprays to the honeybee [9] (Requiem for the Honeybee, SiS 34) that eventually led to its ban in Europe. He also first alerted us to the sub-lethal effects on the honeybee from both Bt-crops glyphosate-tolerant GM crops that could contribute to their demise [10] (Mystery of Disappearing Honeybees, SiS 34).

In the course of 15 years, Joe became a thorn on the side of the US regulatory bodies Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA); he wrote dozens of detailed submissions on behalf of ISIS, admonishing against the releases of various genetically modified organisms including GM trees, GM salmon, GM crops engineered with drugs, etc.; and must have been largely responsible for any good these agencies have ever done. He was truly a pillar of Science in Society.

A lively and effective speaker

Joe was a lively and effective speaker and has taken part in all our campaigns, as well as some of our major conferences and briefings. He was among the first to join the Independent Science Panel in 2003, responsible for the report, The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World [11], calling for a ban on GM crops and a comprehensive shift to sustainable agriculture, which was presented in the UK Parliament and European Parliament, circulated worldwide, and translated into 5 or more languages. He was a speaker at a two-and-a-half hour briefing in the Greater London Assembly with the Green Party [12] (Approving GM Crops is Abusing Science, SiS 21), and interviewed by the BBC afterwards.

Joe was also a speaker when ISIS was invited by Members of the European Parliament for a GM-free Europe [13] (Scientists and MEPs for a GM free Europe, SiS 35). He concluded with three succinct points for the future survival of humanity: the first is to eliminate systemic neonicotinoid pesticides, the second to eliminate Bt crops, and the third raised a hearty laugh: replacing all the bureaucrats that turn a blind eye to the plight of nature in favour of the biotech and the agrochemical industry.

Joe was a major contributor to one of our most important and popular special reports [14] (Food Futures Now *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free , ISIS/TWN publication), and was a speaker at the launch conference in UK Parliament [15] (Full House for Food Futures Now, SiS 38). At the end of the launch conference, we sprang a surprise on Joe. Peter Saunders (co-Director of ISIS), who had been chairing the conference, praised Joe for his valuable expertise and diligence in keeping track of the scientific literature crucial to the work of ISIS, and his efforts in producing reports countering the claims of the pro-GM lobby that GMOs are safe for health and the environment. Joe has been working assiduously with environment and citizen groups since the early 1980s and has won many awards including the Certificate of Merit from the Minster of the Environment in Ontario. Peter then called on Mae-Wan to present Joe with the new award especially created for him: ‘Distinguished Fellow of ISIS’. Mae-Wan presented the award with the word: “Joe has been the main star in preventing the world from being invaded by GM crops. Thank you so much.”

Already frail by then, Joe enthusiastically and gallantly came to our Colours of Water science/art/music festival in London UK held in March 2013 [16], to present a talk on the widespread pollution of our drinking water with pharmaceuticals as well as pesticides and other toxic substance [17, 18] (Pharmaceutical Cocktails Anyone, Si S 56; Water Not Fit to Drink, SiS 57).

What make Joe unique and irreplaceable are his decades of experience on environmental issues and extraordinarily wide-ranging knowledge, his humanity, and overriding passion for what is right and just.

Article first published 18/01/16


  1. “Renowned London environmentalist Joe Cummins dies from cancer at age 82”, Dale Carruthers, The London Free Press,, 11 January 2016,
  2. Ho MW, Ryan A and CumminsJ. The cauliflower mosaic viral promoter – a recipe for disaster? Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 1999, 11, 194-197.
  3. Ho MW, Ryan A and CumminsJ. The hazards of transgenic plants with the cauliflower mosaic viral promoter. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 2000, 12, 6-11.
  4. Ho MW, Ryan A and CumminsJ. The CaMV 35S promoter fragmentation hotspot confirmed and it is active in animal systems. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 2000, 12, 127.
  5. Cummins J, Ho MW and Ryan A. The hazards of CaMV promoter. Nature Biotechnology 2000, 18, 363.
  6. Ho MW and Cummins J. New evidence links CaMV 35S promoter to HIV transcription. Microb Ecol Health Dis 2009, 21, 172-4.
  7. Ho MW. Hazardous virus gene discovered in GM crops after 20 years. Editorial. Science in Society 57, 2-3, 2013.
  8. Ho MW. CaMV 35S promoter that sickened rats transferred into rat blood, liver, and brain cells. Science in Society 65, 32-33+37, 2015.
  9. Cummins J. Requiem for the honeybee. Science in Society 34, 37-38, 2007.
  10. Ho MW and Cummins J. Mystery of disappearing honeybees. Science in Society 34, 35-36, 2007.
  11. Ho MW, Lim LC et al. The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World, Independent Science Panel Report, Institute of Science in Society and Third World Network, London and Penang, 2003; republished GM-Free, Exposing the Hazards of Biotechnology to Ensure the Integrity of Our Food Supply, Vitalhealth Publishing, Ridgefield, Ct., 2004 (both available from ISIS online bookstore
  12. Ho MW. Approving GM crops is abusing science. Science in Society 21, 21-22+24.
  13. Burcher S and Ho MW. Scientists and MEPs for a GM free Europe. Science in Society 35, 21-25, 2007.
  14. Ho MW, Burcher S, Lim LC, Cummins J. et al. Food Futures Now, Organic, Sustainable, Fossil Fuel Free, ISIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2008.
  15. Burcher S. Full house for Food Futures Now. Science in Society 38, 4-7, 2008.
  16. Colours of Water, A festival of art, science, and music inspired by water.
  17. Cummins J. Pharmaceutical cocktails anyone? Science in Society 56, 44-47, 2012.
  18. Cummins J. Water not fit to drink. Science in Society 57, 8-9, 2013.

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There are 11 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Lili Cummins Comment left 25th January 2016 19:07:50
Hi Mae-Wan, thank you for your wonderful tribute. Joe has always been a big fan of yours, and working with you and Peter Saunders and the rest of the members of i-sis has been a very positive experience for him. Thank you for providing such a welcoming scientific home for Joe, and appreciating his many contributions. Joe's daughter, Lili Cummins.

Todd Millions Comment left 27th January 2016 18:06:37
You seem to be the only memorial of Prof. Cummins Honouring his many insights and achievements. This is appropriate but a sad commentary on Canada as a whole. Ontario-about what you would expect. What a loss to us all. gods speed him.

Jerome Ravetz Comment left 19th January 2016 04:04:29
A great man has passed. We shall keep up his good work. Jerry Ravetz

Rory Short Comment left 19th January 2016 06:06:37
We desperately need more scientists like Joe.

Comment left 19th January 2016 06:06:23
Joe's unflagging commitment remains alive and intact - he has bequeathed it to all of us. When the obstacles pile up, forge ahead and deal with them. Joe's example marks the way, and thanks to Mae and the Institute for Science in Society for commemorating his work. A GMO Free World is ours to construct. Joe did what he could, let's finish the job!

Douglas Hinds Comment left 19th January 2016 19:07:49
I posted the unsigned comment above regarding Joe's sad but not unexpected departure, and share his commitment (as should we all, until the end).

Rosemary Mason Comment left 20th January 2016 02:02:29
I was moved to read the I-SiS obituary of Prof Cummins. I too remember corresponding with him about Dicamba, 2-4D and other herbicides and he was very generous with his information. Peter May, the crime writer, also acknowledged help from Joe Cummins in his latest book Coffin Road. Thanks to Prof Chris Connolly I was sent a publisher's copy in November. Hardback came out Jan 14th and Paper back July 2015. It's a very credible crime story involving the Agrochemical Industry....mostly about neonics and honeybees (with a reference to GM crops from Jeff Ruch on the frontispiece) and set in the Outer Hebrides. He had his advice about neonics from Chris Connolly and that on GMOs from Joe Cummins. Rosemary

algimantas k bronisas Comment left 20th January 2016 02:02:16
a real scientist and lover of life who knew the greatest dangers to life lie at the cellular level as well as the philosophical levels of an Orwellian military industrial complex.....I hope all the valuable,influential,and life loving "free scientists" at the Institute of Science in Society, are cultivating and enlisting understudies to continue the defense of the miraculous biosphere that sustains us......thanks for your work

Edward C. Corrigan Comment left 20th January 2016 18:06:37
Joe was a pioneer in the study of hazardous chemicals and biological agents. He was not just an arm chair academci but a true activists. He us a role model for us all. He participated in many environmental issues in London, Ontario and in Canada and the World beyond. He will be missed but remembered and hopefully emulated.

Don Peter Comment left 21st January 2016 03:03:07
I knew Joe was a scientist and a very special activist, but to me he was a good neighbor, friend and simply a kind man. RIP Joe

Sharlene Neal Comment left 10th February 2016 19:07:15
I reached out to Dr. Cummins and he extended his hand in return. What an amazing man he was! What a tremendous loss for our planet and its people! My sincere condolences to his family and those who loved him!