A guide to both the science and implications of commercialisation of genetically modified crops.
Under huge pressure from the multinational biotechnology companies and seed merchants, attempts are being made all over the world to plant genetically modified varieties of many food crops on as large a scale as possible. Many of these crops are engineered to be resistant to specific chemicals, patented and manufactured by Monsanto, Aventis and other large companies. These multinationals suggest that their new crops will "feed the world" by providing greater yields and that they will help the environment by reducing the need for herbicides and pesticides in farm management. However there is now mounting evidence that yields are often no greater than for conventional crops. There is also abundant evidence that as weeds develop herbicide resistance, over the course of a few years, chemical use on farms actually goes up instead of down. These varieties have alien genetic materials inserted into them. We are told that they are "substantially equivalent" to non-GM crops, but they are inherently unstable and have not been shown to be safe and healthy either for human or animal consumption.
(from ‘Genetic Engineering, Food, and our Environment’ by Luke Anderson)
‘A biochemical process is used to cut the strings of DNA in different places and select the required genes. These genes are usually then inserted into circular pieces of DNA (plasmids) found in bacteria. Because the bacteria reproduce rapidly, within a short time thousands of identical copies (clones) can be made of the ‘new’ gene. Two principal methods can then be used to insert a ‘new’ gene into the DNA of a plant that is to be engineered.
1. A ferry is made with a piece of genetic material taken from a virus or bacterium. This is used to infect the plant and in so doing to smuggle the ‘new’ gene into the plant’s own DNA.
2. Or, the genes are coated onto large numbers of tiny pellets of gold or tungsten, which are fired with a special gun into a layer of cells taken from the recipient plant. Some of these pellets may pass through the nucleus of a cell and deposit their package of genes, which in certain cases may be integrated into the cell’s own DNA.
Because the techniques used to transfer genes have an extremely low success rate, the scientists need to be able to find out which of the cells have taken up the new DNA. So, before the gene is transferred, a ‘marker gene’ is attached, which codes for resistance to an antibiotic. Plant cells which have been engineered are then grown in a medium containing this antibiotic, and the only ones able to survive are those which have taken up the ‘new’ genes with the antibiotic resistance marker attached. These cells are then cultured and grown into mature plants. A piece of DNA taken from a virus or bacterium (called a ‘promoter’) is also inserted along with the ‘new’ gene in order to ‘switch it on’ in its new host. Promoters, which often force genes to express their traits at very high levels, also have the potential to influence neighbouring genes. The promoter may, for example, stimulate a plant to produce higher levels of a substance which is harmless at low levels but which becomes toxic when present in higher concentrations. As it is not possible to insert a new gene with any accuracy, the gene transfer may also disrupt the tightly controlled network of DNA in the organism. Current understanding of the way in which genes are regulated is extremely limited, and any change to the DNA of an organism at any point may well have knock-on effects that are impossible to predict or control.’
It is interesting to see this last point being made in the Feb 2002 issue of ISB News, a pro-biotechnology news bulletin for the scientific community.
".... due to a lack of understanding of the underlying molecular mechanisms of transgene introduction and integration, plant transformation remains more an art than a science. All of the three main techniques used for plant transformation, Agrobacterium-mediated, protoplast, and particle bombardment transformation, result in unpredictable integration of transgenes. This has led to concerns that transformation might indirectly alter the expression of other genes, resulting in a toxic or allergenic phenotype.... Frequently, many transgenic plants will contain multiple copies of the transgene, either in the form of tandem repeats at a single locus, or scattered throughout the genome of the plant.... Currently, transgene integration into the host genome is essentially random, regardless of the method used to perform the transformation."
U.S. Newswire January 15, 2002
NEW YORK -- A study released today reveals a critical, long-over looked flaw in the science behind the multibillion dollar genetic engineering industry, raising serious questions about the safety of genetically engineered foods. In a new review of scientific literature reported in the February issue of Harper's Magazine, Dr. Barry Commoner, a prominent biologist, demonstrates that the bioengineering industry, which now accounts for 25-50 percent of the U.S. corn and soybean crop, relies on a 40-year-old theory that DNA genes are in total control of inheritance in all forms of life. According to this theory -- the "central dogma" – the outcome of transferring a gene from one organism to another is always "specific, precise and predictable," and therefore safe.
Taking issue with this view, Commoner summarises a series of scientific reports that directly contradict the established theory. For example, last year the $3 billion Human Genome Project found there are too few human genes to account for the vast inherited differences between people and lower animals or plants, indicating that agents other than DNA must contribute to genetic complexity. The central dogma claims a one-to-one correspondence between a gene's chemical composition and the structure of the particular protein that engenders an inherited trait. But Dr. Commoner notes that under the influence of specialized proteins that carry out "alternative splicing," a single gene can give rise to a variety of different proteins, resulting in more than a single inherited trait per gene. As a result, the gene's effect on inheritance cannot be predicted simply from its chemical composition -- frustrating one of the main purposes of both the Human Genome Project and biotechnology.
Commoner's research sounds a public alarm concerning the processes by which agricultural biotechnology companies genetically modify food crops. Scientists simply assume the genes they insert into these plants always produce only the desired effect with no other impact on the plant's genetics. However, recent studies show that the plant's own genes can be disrupted in transgenic plants. Such outcomes are undetected because there is little or no governmental regulation of the industry. "Genetically engineered crops represent a huge uncontrolled experiment whose outcome is inherently unpredictable," Commoner concludes. "The results could be catastrophic."
Dr. Commoner cites a number of recent studies that have broken the DNA gene's exclusive franchise on the molecular explanation of inheritance. He warns that "experimental data, shorn of dogmatic theories, point to the irreducible complexity of the living cell, which suggests that any artificially altered genetic system must sooner or later give rise to unintended, potentially disastrous consequences." Commoner charges that the central dogma, a seductively simple explanation of heredity, has led most molecular geneticists to believe it was "too good not to be true." As a result, the central dogma has been immune to the revisions called for by the growing array of contradictory data, allowing the biotechnology industry to unwittingly impose massive, scientifically unsound practices on agriculture.
"Dr. Commoner's work challenges the legitimacy of the agricultural biotechnology industry," said Andrew Kimbrell, Director of the Center on Food Safety. "For years, multibillion dollar biotech companies have been selling the American people and our government on the safety of their products. We now see their claims of safety are based on faulty assumptions that don't hold up to rigorous scientific review." The study reported in Harper's Magazine is the initial publication of a new initiative called The Critical Genetics Project directed by Dr. Commoner in collaboration with molecular geneticist Dr. Andreas Athanasiou, at the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, Queens College, City University of New York. Contact: Dr. Barry Commoner of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, 718-670-4182
Demand Surges for Non-GMO Animal Feed in Europe
From ‘animalfeed.org.uk’, October 2001
European demand for animal feed guaranteed to be free of genetically modified organisms (GMO) has soared this year after supermarkets agreed to pay more to satisfy worried consumers, say the certifiers Cert ID. British supermarket chains such as Tesco and Asda are trailblazers in selling meat raised without GMOs, but the trend is rapidly spreading to the continent.
About four million tonnes of non-biotech soymeal, mostly from Brazil, was guaranteed this year by certification firm Cert ID (www.cert-id.com), up from 700,000 tonnes in 2000, President Jochen Koester told Reuters.
The amount could more than double next year if buyers were willing to pay the higher prices for certified material, he added in a telephone interview. "If the demand would be there, I think we can easily crank up the certified amount from Brazil to 10 million tonnes and more annually," Koester said.
Soymeal is a major ingredient in animal feed and increasing soy supplies are from GM crops. Many consumers are worried that GMOs might damage their health or the environment. GMOs erupted as a major issue in Europe in 1998 and several UK retailers promised to sell non-GM meat. They had failed, however, to realise the complex arrangements needed for certification and balked at paying higher prices. Several UK retailers agreed late last year to pay extra, opening the way for the big increase in supplies of certified non-GMO soymeal, Koester said.
Total demand in the European Union for soymeal certified as non-GMO was unclear, but a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this year estimated it at 20-25 percent of the roughly 28 million tonnes used annually.
BRAZIL MAJOR SOURCE
Since about 70 percent of the U.S. soybean crop is planted with GM Roundup Ready soybeans, Brazil, which bans GMO crops, has become the major source of non-biotech soymeal. Some industry players have been wary about how many Brazilian farmers have illegally planted GMO crops to boost yields, especially in the south which borders Argentina, where 90-95 percent of soybeans are from genetic crops. But Koester said the worries were overdone. "There is a big myth about that. All of Brazil has on average contamination from illegal GMOs of about 6-8 percent, and that is mostly in the extreme south where some regions have perhaps up to 35 percent," he said. Even in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, where contamination is highest, Cert ID has granted non-GMO certification to some smaller cooperatives. Most certified output is from the central states.
Brazil is the second biggest soybean producer after the United States,responsible for about a fifth of global output. Last week, a Brazilian trade group estimated production in the 2001/02 season at a record 38.4 million tonnes, up 12.5 percent from 2000/01.
Of the four million tonnes of soymeal certified this year, all was from Brazil except 500,000 tonnes from India, which also bans GMO crops and has the potential to boost its certified supplies of non-GMO soymeal, Koester said. It was unclear how many Brazilian suppliers would be certified in time for the next harvest that begins in February.
Some buyers were still reluctant to pay a premium, so some of this year's four million tonnes from certified farms was sold as standard soymeal. Koester declined to discuss the level of premiums, but the USDA report pegged them at $1.50 to $4.00 per tonne.