Science in Society Archive

I-SIS Consultation to the Highlands and Islands Council

The Highlands and Islands Council in Inverness, Scotland, is formulating its policy to GM crops. Angela Ryan of I-SIS was invited to present evidence.

Thank you ladies and gentlemen for inviting me. I have been assured that you are all independent thinkers and it is with great honour and privilege that I take the witness stand here today. I am a molecular biologist who has been engaged in the GM debate for the past two years. I have prepared a ‘state of the debate’ paper, giving you important insights into the GM debate, so as you can best form the right policy for the Highlands.

State of the Debate

Despite the fact that the biotechnology industry has enjoyed considerable support from government and policy makers, and managed to rush a primitive technology to market without proper safety assessments being done, GMOs are dead! As stated by the New York Times Feb. 2001.

GMOs are genetically unstable organisms and this instability worsens over time, to the point that many GM seeds now sold in the United States don’t do what they are supposed to do. They become sick and die when sprayed with herbicide. This renders them an economic liability and lawsuits abound.

The reason for this is well documented in the scientific literature and it is known as ‘transgene silencing’. The process of genetic modification effectively amounts to a ‘genetic infection’ and the plant being modified or infected mounts an immune response to the transgene, as it would similarly do to a viral infection. It silences or shuts up the transgene expression. Hence GM herbicide resistant crops become herbicide susceptible.

Scientists involved in GM have openly acknowledged this phenomenon. Monsanto scientists are now saying that the future of biotechnology lies in genomics coupled to traditional plant breeding or marker assisted breeding. This approach does not involve GM at all. It relies on natural traits, like herbicide resistance or increased vitamin content, which can be tagged or tracked through breeding programmes. Genomics will revolutionise plant breeding, speeding the whole process up. It is traditional plant breeding with the lights on. New varieties can be brought on within 3-5 years as opposed to 10 – 15 years with the present system. This is the future of plant biotechnology and this is the good news. Genetic maps have to be completed yet but this is achievable within time.

Scientists conducting the farm scale trials admitted this week that preliminary results show GM herbicide resistant crops do damage the environment. This news comes as no surprise as spraying a broad-spectrum herbicide that kills all plants indiscriminately and kills soil bacteria and fungus too - effectively sterilising the soil - is going to do considerable damage to the environment.

The AEBC admitted that the science behind the farm scale trials was framed by industry and hence biased towards a positive result for industry. The trials are comparing like with like – conventional intensive agriculture with GM crops. Both are harmful, which is worse? That is what the farm scale trials are asking.

Britain is in the midst of a biodiversity crisis due to conventional intensive agricultural practices. Most farmland birds are in decline and some are seriously endangered. In 1998 the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) published a report that reviewed the evidence of comparative studies between organic and intensive farming. These were long term scientific studies funded by MAFF, English Nature, World Wildlife Fund and alike. In every instance organic came out on top. MAFF stated in its report;

"Organic regimes have the greatest benefit for biodiversity at the farm level. [...] Both in terms of their agricultural practices and the extent and management of uncropped land, organic regimes [...] exert a positive effect on the biodiversity of arable land. The effect derives from the lack of synthetic input, the occurrence of post cropping planting practices that benefit several organism groups and the widespread occurrence and sympathetic management of uncropped elements present with in the regime. This combination of agricultural and structural elements is clearly one that can act to enhance the biodiversity of arable land."

Organic farming and sustainable farming systems offer very promising market futures for farmers. It could solve the farming crisis in Britain and all over the world, where small family farmers are being foisted into bankruptcy by the corporate take over of our food chain.

Organic farming and GM crops are mutually exclusive. They cannot co-exist for organic crops will become contaminated with GM pollen. Even the Department of the Environment Transport and Regions (DETR) state this is unavoidable.

In the United States and Canada contamination is a huge problem. Farmers can no longer guarantee GM free produce. There are added costs too, for segregating GM from non-GM in food processing plants and US farmers are loosing millions in export sales.

The highlands is a relatively GM free zone at the moment and has a reputation for being a clean environment. Should you allow GM crops to grow here you will become contaminated and won’t be able to return to a GM free status. Genetic pollution is not like chemical pollution that dilutes out over time. Transgenes are biological entities that may multiply and spread in the environment.

There are other forms of genetic pollution other than out crossing, which the farm scale trials are completely ignoring, despite repeated warning from independent scientists such as myself and others.

I’m not going to get too technical on you here but I would appreciate if you could listen very carefully to what I am about to say as it is very important and you should be aware of these risks involved with GM crops.

There was once a time when biologists thought the only route of genetic exchange was vertical from parent to offspring during sexual reproduction, as is the case with cross-pollination. We now know that genes or genetic material – DNA –moves horizontally across species barriers. This is known as ‘horizontal gene transfer’. Indeed the act of GM itself attempts to mimic this process in which genes from one species are transferred horizontally to another species, across a species barrier.

Genetic engineers had to work very hard developing gene carriers that would efficiently break down species barriers and carry foreign DNA into crop plants. This was achieved by taking bits and pieces of naturally occurring invasive genetic elements, such as viruses, and recombining them into new configurations that are highly infectious. These gene carriers are foreign to nature, nature has never seen the likes of them before now. Moreover, they are unstable and do not stay put, they move around, inside the GMO and beyond into other organisms.

Independent studies have shown that transgenes can move horizontally into soil microorganisms, into microorganisms of bee larvae and furthermore they join up with wild infectious agents, like viruses. There are a number of examples of viruses picking up transgenic DNA from GM crop plants, and in some cases more virulent strains of virus have emerged. The characteristic of ‘infectiousness’, which has been designed and built into these gene carriers, is going to leak and spread in the environment. Furthermore, the GM crops that industry want to trial here in the highlands are first generation and even more worrying. They contain what is known as ‘recombination hotspots’ which are places in DNA that break and join up with other DNA. The CaMV promoter and plasmid backbone both contain these break points, giving them a greater propensity to transfer horizontally.

The consequences of this are very serious indeed as GM crops carry antibiotic resistance genes and some also contain a universal toxin known as ‘barnase’, which is a component of terminator technology, used to kill pollen. Barnase is toxic to all cells.

Adding billions of copies of these genes into gene carriers that are unstable and leaky poses enormous risks to human health, animal health and the environment. The hazards include the emergence of new types of pathogens and viruses, the spread of antibiotic resistance and various other genetic disturbances, some of which may lead to cancer.

Biosafety alerts are already happening in the United States and elsewhere;

Corn growers in the United States are faced with two new corn viruses, one of which is a complete mystery as it is transmitted via the soil. Plant virologists are baffled as plant viruses are usually transmitted by insect vectors. GM corn is under suspicion as the new viral strains are related to viruses known to recombine with transgenes.

Beekeepers in the United States, Canada and Argentina are concerned as antibiotic resistance has soared in their bee populations over the past two years, in line with widespread planting of GM rape across the two continents. They have been using antibiotics successfully for the past forty years to treat a common disease in bees and are very suspect that GM may be involved.

Last month New Scientist reported how cheap and easy it is to make bioweapons. Researchers in Australia reported a genetic accident in their laboratory in which a killer virus emerged during routine genetic engineering experiments. It transpires this is not the first time this has happened, several other groups have published similar findings.

Picking and mixing infectious genetic elements can be a very dangerous business. Species barriers are there for a very good reason. Breaking them down can lead to pandemics, such as Spanish flu, BSE/CJD and AIDS.

The risks posed by GM far out weight the benefits. In fact there are no benefits to speak of. 8,000 independent university based trials in the United States revealed that herbicide resistant GM crops suffer a yield drag and actually require 2-5 times more herbicide. This begs the question of who stands to reap the most benefit from GM crops?

Our government is impaled on the GM debate due to bad science and rushed decisions taken early in the process.

I urge you to invoke the precautionary principle and call for the Highlands to become a GM free zone. The biotech industry has the alternative of genomics, which doesn’t carry the same risks. They must be sent back to the drawing board before it is too late. Protect your farming community, spare them the nightmare of GM legal battles and GM pollution, destroying all hope of future prosperity.

Article first published 20/02/01

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