Tuesday, 12 August 2008 By Evaggelos Vallianatos http://www.sciencealert.com.au/opinions/20081208-17781.html
Atomic science gave birth to weapons civilised people wish never existed. Now agricultural genetic engineering is on the verge of bringing into being another monster future generations will face with the same perplexity and anguish we feel about our nuclear bombs.
Genetic engineers made DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) a long molecule wrapped tightly within the nucleus of every living cell, the king of their realm, the oracle whose message might even lead bioengineers to make men.
Genetic engineering claims that DNA alone is the key to inheritance, with each DNA segment, gene, developing a protein for a specific trait. Yet one gene may produce hundreds and thousands of different proteins. The Human Genome Project discovered that humans have about 30,000 genes but 100,000 proteins. Also, it’s not DNA alone but DNA genes and protein-based processes working together that pass on traits of inheritance.
However, starting from the “central dogma” of genetic science, which says more precisely that a DNA gene controls no more than a unique inheritance trait, genetic engineers moved aggressively to test their theory at the farm by altering food crops.
They assumed, for example, that the DNA bacterial gene, Bt, which they inserted into corn, would produce nothing but a poison for the insects feeding on corn. However, by moving the Bt gene into the alien environment of corn, in addition to the insect-killing protein, the Bt gene could give birth, and often does give birth, to dozens of other proteins with unpredictable behaviours and possibly toxic effects on human health and nature.
A group of international scientists, working under Joint Actions of Information on GMOs, signed a letter dated April 8, 2006 in which they said that Bt toxins:
… caused powerful immune responses and abnormal and excessive cell growth in the intestine of mice … Filipinos living next to Bt cornfields developed symptoms during pollination and blood tests also showed an immune response to Bt. Indian workers handling Bt cotton developed allergic responses … we must … find out if Bt genes transfer to gut bacteria like soya genes do. They could turn our internal flora into living pesticide factories.
We suspect that genetic engineering is causing trouble not because we have results from studies, which barely exist, but from the failures of experiments. Clones are not doing well. Kidney and brain malformations often kill the cloned animal. Bioengineered pigs, about to be remade into a fish delicacy, suffer from arthritis, enlarged hearts, renal disease and dermatitis. All this spoils the bioengineers’ idea that each DNA gene, like each biotech boss, orders things to be done alone without interference from anybody or anything.
But in real life, often and almost inevitably, with countless numbers of transgenic crop plants, errors crop up, causing chaos in an otherwise elegant plan or experiment. Without careful studies of those plants, we are headed for big trouble.
Genetic engineers show perfect contempt for nature, their hubris knows no bounds. They willfully ignore the fact that, in nature, genetic material moves freely only within a single species. Butterflies don’t mate with fish.
Barry Commoner, a distinguished biologist and philosopher of science at Queens College in New York, is right to warn us about the premature licensing of agricultural genetic engineering in the United States. We don’t know anything about the presumed safety of the genetically modified (GM) food.
“The genetically engineered crops now being grown,” he says, “represent a massive uncontrolled experiment whose outcome is inherently unpredictable. The results could be catastrophic”.
Commoner is not exaggerating. The hazardous nature and global spread of agricultural biotechnology constitutes another attack against the fragile food security of the world and the integrity of traditional food systems which feed about three billion human beings at the dawn of the 21st century.
In July 2002 Zimbabwe, for example, on the brink of famine, said “no” to thousands of tons of free, gene-altered corn from the United States. Zimbabwe rejected the humanitarian food from the US probably because of the near certainty that such GM corn, if planted, would contaminate its own corn with undesirable traits and which would have long-term dangerous consequences for food security.
On August 8, 2002, the British science journal, Nature, explained that the policy of some nations in Africa, hungry for food and on the verge of famine, to reject international donations of GM food was not as bizarre and irresponsible as one might think. Rather, their decision to go hungry or buy non-GM food goes to the heart of “a chasm of misunderstanding [between them and countries like the United States trying to have them eat GM corn]”. Such misunderstanding “is only exacerbated by exaggerated claims for the benefits of the [GM] technology”.
Yet despite the threat posed by the inoculation of food crops with alien DNA genes, five genetic engineering companies (Pharmacia/ Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, Syngenta and Dow) and four countries (the United States, Argentina, Canada and China) are moving the genetically modified or “transgenic” crops all over the world - fast.
From 1996 to 2001 the global amount of land growing GM crops increased more than 30-fold, from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 52.6 million hectares in 2001. About 91 per cent of the 52.6 million hectares of GM crops in 2001 came from the GM seeds of Monsanto. More than a fourth of that GM land in 2001, about 13.5 million hectares, was in the Third World growing transgenic crops.
In 2001 soybean was the global king of GM crops, taking up 33.3 million hectares or 63 per cent of the land growing GM crops. In addition, the transgenic soybean of 2001 was providing stiff competition to the “regular”, non-manipulated, soybean. It represented 46 per cent of the 72 million hectares of soybeans planted around the world. In 2001 GM corn grew in 9.8 million hectares (19 per cent), cotton in 6.8 million hectares (13 per cent), and canola in 2.7 million hectares (5 per cen)t of the total GM land in 2001.
In 2001 the herbicide trait in soybeans, cotton, and corn was present in 77 per cent or 40.6 million hectares of the GM crops. This trait made the seeds and mature plants immune to designer weed killers. The Bt gene was used in 7.8 million hectares or 15 per cent of the GM crops. The Bt gene made the seeds and plants toxic to insects. About 8 per cent of the planted area included crops that had both the herbicide and the Bt traits.
These GM crops have had two commercial purposes:
First, to sell farmers seeds of soybeans, cotton, and corn that would be unaffected by weed killers. The farmer would purchase his herbicide from the same company that engineered his seeds.
Second, the farmer would buy more expensive seed corn and cotton inoculated with the Bt gene that makes corn and cotton resistant and lethal to insects.
In both cases, herbicide-resistant seeds and Bt seeds resistant to insects, are matters of convenience to the farmers. The traits of the seeds have nothing to do with feeding the world or making agriculture less toxic.
In fact genetic engineering at the farm is becoming an almost transparent “science fiction” experiment - with straightforward political effects, concentrating a great deal of power into a handful of corporations and, as a consequence, resurrecting feudalism.
Biotech companies are getting so bold, shameless, dangerous and unethical that they are shuffling genes between unrelated species to manufacture drugs, infant formula, and, perhaps, human breast milk, right within the milk of cows, goats, and sheep.
They are also using the cells of corn, tobacco, soybeans and rice for the production of drugs. After all, who would suspect that essential food crops might be growing in the field for purposes other than giving us food? Can we suspect corn living a double life? Or, is it human to even imagine in our most frightened dreams that food crops would be secret factories for vaccines, contraceptives, growth hormones and other designer drugs? Or that pigs and other animals may be converted to convenient refrigerators for spare organs for humans?
Yet, according to Friends of the Earth, field trials for the production of drugs through food are going on in farms of Nebraska, Texas, Illinois, Puerto Rico, Maryland, Kentucky, Indiana, California, and Florida. And just like with the Bt corn, pollen from corn, tobacco, rice and soybeans pregnant with the genetic stuff of drugs is bound to fly in the wind, contaminating food crops and nature. In 2002, the US National Academy of Sciences warned of the hazards of this experiment in nature and society.
To criticise this immoral policy is to be branded an enemy by those selling genetic engineering in the United States.
One such a propagandist, Hembree Brandon, denounced the “anti-biotech radicals” as if they are the enemy of the state. These “anti-biotech radicals,” he wrote in the Delta Farm Press (August 30, 2002) “are a lot like Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida loonies: they want to take the world back to the Stone Age. Regardless of the consequences to humanity as a whole, they want to dictate the pace of scientific progress according to their own messianic insight into what is right for the world.”
Of course, this is nonsense. It is not the biotech critics who are taking the world to the Stone Age, but those who misuse science for personal gain.
Rachel Carson spoke about the “Stone Age of science” in order to help us understand the harm done to science by the developers and proponents of pesticides who do everything - so they keep saying - in the name of science. These people, says Carson in her 1962 book, Silent Spring, kill insects so that they control nature. They arm themselves with weapons, which are self-defeating, because each time they point them against the insects, they point them against the earth.”
We need vigorous critics and good scientists with the public good in mind to study biotechnology and give us honest answers about its effects on nature and humans. It is the immoral policies of biotech companies, which corrupt science and violate the integrity of nature, man, and civilisation. If such unethical practices continue, it is possible that humanity may plunge into the Brave New World of Aldous Huxley.
This sort of thing, cloning of animals for human spare parts, and the surreptitious use of genetic engineering to produce pharmaceutical proteins and chemicals in farmers’ fields, dubbed “biopharming,” has no place in a civilised society.
It is no longer agriculture or drug manufacturing. It is, instead, a political movement adding biological weapons to the mechanical and chemical armory of plants, broadly defined to include pharmaceutical conglomerates. It is agribusiness’ new “green revolution” (assisted by genetic engineering companies) manufactured to bury the peasant and the family farmer.
This is particularly true in the genetic engineers’ production of sterile seeds, which, should they ever reach the market, would force both the farmers and peasants to buy new seeds every growing season. This immoral technology is married to chemicals. The sown seeds will express one or more traits only with the assistance of sprays. What this means is that the farmer’s seeds will thrive or die based on the presence of a chemical, which will trigger or abort their fertility. In this way genetic engineering shows its true colors - the best friend of giant corporations and large farmers, the worst enemy of family farmers and peasants, and pure poison for nature.
This green giant of high tech (genetic engineering) will very likely stumble and fall primarily because it is an immoral intervention in agriculture, without doubt the most sacred of all life-giving traditions.
Evaggelos Vallianatos is a Greek writer living in the US and writing on Greek history and ecopolitical issues. He is the author of This Land is Their Land and The Passion of the Greeks and This Land is Their Land: How Corporate Farms Threaten the World.