Time for 'Glasnost' and
in Modern Science
Tearing Down Biotech's 'Berlin Wall'
The Fundamental Scientific Error
of Pursuing Transgenics Before Competency in Genomics
"General Secretary Gorbachev, if you
seek peace, if you seek prosperity .... if you seek liberalization: Come here to this
gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate
West Berlin, Germany, June 12, 1987
"The initial response [to the TV
broadcast regarding the work by Dr Pusztai on GM potatoes] was moderate praise for those
concerned but plaudits were soon to be replaced by a complete 'U turn'........The results
seemed to be treated as fraudulent enabling the Audit mechanism to be commenced under
Biotechnology and Biology Science Research Council rules. Four eminent persons were
selected without recourse to Dr Pusztai and he was left defenceless. He was immediately gagged and his
great reputation nullified at a stroke.... His friends and colleagues felt a real sense of
outrage that Dr Pusztai, a Hungarian refugee from KGB
dominated Hungary in 1956, had been treated in this
heavy handed manner."
Memorandum submitted by Dr Stanley William Barclay Ewen, Department of Pathology, University of Aberdeen
Select Committee on Science and Technology, House of Commons, 26 February 1999
Science V Conjecture
"We urge those
in favour of GM crops and those opposed to approach debate on
the subject in as responsible and open-minded a manner as possible. In particular we urge
them to base their arguments on rigorous science
rather than conjecture."
"It is certainly true that recombinant
DNA technology can be used to precisely extract a gene from a donor organism. However, at
that point no genetic modification has taken place.... At the point of gene insertion into
the recipient organism the precision of genetic engineering is completely destroyed. There
is little telling where the new genetic construct will lodge within one or more of the
target cell chromosomes... To state, therefore, that modern methods of genetic engineering
are 'precise' is about as meaningful as claiming that the German Democratic Republic (East
Germany) was 'democratic'.... The
cytogenetic work on the 'bombardment' generated transgenic oats at the University of
California illustrates the significance of this situation by further describing some of
the consequences of these methods in a variety of species. It describes the much higher
frequency of chromosomal abnormalities in transgenic plants compared with non-transgenic
lines......Why is this lack of scientific
rigour being allowed to arise in relation to new organisms destined for the marketplace?
Unfortunately, this is simply because most of the basic science has not been done. In the
overall scheme of things almost nothing is known about the structure and function of
existing plant genomes, even where the sequencing of the basic genetic code in those
organisms has already been completed....The
fundamental conceptual error made by large parts of the scientific community in this
situation is to try to attempt transgenics before achieving competency in genomics. The more genomics is understood the more science will
inevitably learn about why the short term excitement over the 'out-of-context'
methodologies of transgenics is a recipe for long-term regret. Until then the principal
foundation for transgenic technology will continue to be conjecture, not rigorous
Transgenics V Genomics
"....due to a lack of understanding of
the underlying molecular mechanisms of transgene introduction and integration, plant
transformation [by genetic engineering] 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.... As a result,
attempts have been made to develop a system for targeted transgene insertion, either
through the use of scaffold attachment sites or through the introduction of elements of a
homologous recombination system, such as the Cre/lox system. To date, however, these
efforts have yielded inconsistent results, making them unsuitable for commercial
TRANSGENESBY NO EASY MEANS
Information Systems for Biotechnology News Report, February 2002
"... much work is necessary to update
many of the basic technologies of transgene insertion and selection in plants in order to
create more predictable and more stable position-specific, single-insertion events with
the removal of all unnecessary DNA from the final plant."
Agricultural Biotechnology and oil crops: current uncertainties and future potential
Murphy, D: Applied Biotechnology, Food Science and Policy 2003: (1) (1)
abnormalities were observed in transgenic [genetically modified] oat (Avena sativa L.cv
GAF/Park-1) produced by microprojectile bombardment of mature seed-derived highly
regenerative tissues. Of the plants from 48 independent transgenic lines examined, plants
from only 20 lines (42%) were karyotypically normal (2N=6X=42) without detectable
chromosomal aberrations; plants from 28 lines (58%) had chromosomal variation, i.e.
aneuploids and structural changes.... Our data indicate that some stress(es) imposed by
the transformation [genetic modification] process, e.g. osmotic treatment, bombardment and
selection, leads to cytological variation in transgenic oat plants, an observation similar
to that observed in our recent studies with transgenic barley plants."
High frequency cytogenetic aberration in transgenic oat (Avena sativa L.) plants
Hae-Woon Choi, Peggy G. Lemaux, Myeong-Je Cho
Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA
Plant Science 160 (2001) 763772
"GM is only one
easily recognised byproduct of genetic research. The quiet revolution is happening in
gene mapping ['genomics'], helping us understand crops better. That is up and running and
could have a far greater impact on agriculture.... There
really are no downsides, particularly in terms of public perception... [By contrast in
the case of GMOs] there are public perception problems and the technology itself is still
not optimised, with antibiotic and herbicide resistance genes still needed and bits of
bacterial DNA hanging about. Whether that poses any danger is debatable, but it is not
Professor John Snape, John Innes Centre
'Gene mapping the friendly face of GM technology'
Farmers Weekly, 1 March 2002, p54
"The development and release of
commercial transgenic crops is the most widely publicised application of plant
biotechnology, but is arguably less significant than the deployment of molecular genetic
methods and tools for the recognition, selection and breeding of improved non-transgenic
crops.... In the longer term, there are many potential applications of synteny-based
genomic approaches to crop improvement. For example, they open up the prospect of being
able to manipulate some of the most basic features of crop plants without involving
transgenics..... Evidence is already emerging that it may be possible to use non-transgenic methods to alter some fundamental
aspects of plant growth and development, including salt tolerance in certain cereals,
quality traits like fatty acid quality in oil crops and even input traits like herbicide
Agricultural Biotechnology and oil crops: current uncertainties and future potential
Murphy, D: Applied Biotechnology, Food Science and Policy 2003: (1) (1)
"....genomics research has the
potential to define the total extent of the genetic variation for simple and complex
characters within our crop plants. This will allow our plant breeders, using
high-through-put molecular marker systems, to produce 'designer' varieties.... As well as
leading to economic prosperity, this research can also
make an important contribution to world food security through development of varieties
much more resistant to pest and diseases both in major crops, and in 'orphan' crops of the
less developing world through
comparative approaches. Clearly we have only just started to see the fruits of this
genomics revolution leading, hopefully, to the evolution of a new Green Revolution."
Arable Agriculture and the Genomics Revolution
Snape, J: Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, Volume 163, 2002 (p12-20)
"From a scientific perspective, the
public argument about genetically-modified organisms, I think, will soon be a thing of the
past. The science has moved on and we're now in the
Professor Bob Goodman
Former head of research and development at Calgene, creators of the flavr savr tomato, the world's first GM food
Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 18 February 2001
"A key aim of the Biotechnology
Strategy [for New Zealand] should be a long term strategy to educate the public of ......
what biotechnology constitutes outside of genetic
Neil Barton, Board Member of New Zealand Federated Farmers
AgraFood Biotech No 96, January 6, 2003
"If the most promising biotechnology is also one which is acceptable to society at large should that not be the area
where attention is focused rather than genetic engineering?"
Question by the Editor of NLPWessex GM News Bulletin
asked from the floor of the inaugural meeting of the World Food and Farming Congress
London, 25-26 November 2002
Click here for definitions of some of the technical terms used above and below as defined in: 'A History of Genetically Modified Plants', Paul.F. Lurquin, Columbia University Press 2001 and Henderson's Dictionary of Biological Terms
4 May 2003
The 'Science' of Plant Genetic Engineering
Frequently we hear the claim that genetic modification (i.e.'recombinant DNA' technology, sometimes known as 'transgenics') is simply an extension of conventional plant breeding. This is despite the obvious fact that the latter can be carried out by farmers whereas the former can only be carried out in the laboratory under highly artificial conditions. One of the methods used to create GM plants in this way is the technique of 'particle bombardment' or 'biolisitics'.
In this method segments of foreign DNA (often taken from completely unrelated organisms such as viruses and bacteria) are literally blasted into cells of the target organism using a gun (these days the gun is pneumatic, although originally shot-gun explosive cartridges were used).
Despite this primitive 'blunderbuss' approach we also frequently hear claims of how precise genetic engineering technology is. It is certainly true that recombinant DNA technology can be used to precisely extract a gene from a donor organism. However, at that point no genetic modification has taken place.
In the case of biolistics the selected gene or genes are coated onto tiny metal particles after having been placed within an artificial DNA 'cassette'. The cassette may incorporate a variety of other molecular elements, often including genetic sequences from viruses. The DNA coated metal particles are then fired into the target cells of the organism intended to be modified. This is how the 'insertion' process is launched.
At the point of gene insertion into the recipient organism the precision of genetic engineering is completely destroyed. There is little telling where the new genetic construct will lodge within one or more of the target cell chromosomes (the large individual molecules of DNA within each cell). This contrasts with conventional plant breeding where gene chromosome position is pre-established, a situation which allows genes to be mapped using the science of 'genomics', a discipline concerned with the study of complete genomes and discussed more below (there are some genetic elements that can be mobile within the genome, known as 'transposons'. However, these are often associated with mutations when they change chromosome location, indicating the importance of gene position in influencing gene function).
Professor Paul Lurquin of Washington State University points out in his recent book 'A History of Genetically Modified Plants' that "It is now known that the transforming genes are integrated randomly in the recipient chromosome". Not only does the genetic engineer have little control over this insertion process but many transgenic constructs, or fragments of them, may be inserted simultaneously into the same or different chromosomes (although greater control over transgene position may be applied in the future it is likely to be a long time before a proper understanding about which positions are appropriate for insertion is adequately developed).
Not surprisingly this chaotic situation routinely creates plants which are abnormal in comparison to their conventionally bred counterparts, a fact which is rarely discussed in public by the scientific community.
Clearly such genetic aberrations are not desirable. Because of their potentially unwelcome effects, the genetic engineer will then attempt to filter out those plants which are abnormal. Sometimes the abnormalities are visibly obvious. For example, the image below shows seedlings of transgenic tomato plants, where approximately a quarter have a lethal mutation in the form of bleached cotyledons - .
Seedlings of a transgenic tomato plant
Approximately a quarter of the population has bleached
cotyledons, a lethal mutation
Source: 'Does gene transfer harm the integrity of a plant?'
Michael Haring, Professor of Plant Physiology,
University of Amsterdam
'If gene' Workshop Proceedings, 9-11 May 2001
Such obvious adverse mutations can be easily 'weeded' out. But what about the abnormalities that cannot be seen by eye? Very often many of these will go undetected simply because little or no molecular research has been done as to their existence, nature and significance. As a recent paper by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, (Plant Science 160 (2001) 763772) points out "...no detailed cytogenetic analysis of transgenic oat plants has been reported. Only a few detailed reports on cytogenetic analysis of transgenic plants [of any kind] have been done..."
Cytogenetics is the study of the microscopic structure of chromosomes.
The above statement by the scientists at Berkeley represents one of the franker admissions in the published literature of the non-scientific nature of genetic engineering.
To take a collection of foreign DNA and to insert it into a structure of immense complexity in a random fashion is a major but rarely acknowledged concern.
To do so in a way which bypasses all the integrated regulatory mechanisms that apply during the process of sexual reproduction is another concern.
To then proceed with the environmental release of such novel (as confirmed by the commercial patents that attach to them) organisms with little or no analysis of the impact of this process on the integrity of the genome is a truly dubious, if not outrightly reckless act. It represents the end point of an intrinsically non-scientific process with potential consequences well beyond the control of the genetic 'engineer'.
To state, therefore, that modern methods of genetic engineering are 'precise' is about as meaningful as claiming that the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was 'democratic'.
The cytogenetic work on the 'particle bombardment' generated transgenic oats at the University of California illustrates the significance of this situation by further describing some of the consequences of these methods in a variety of species. It describes the much higher frequency of chromosomal abnormalities in transgenic plants compared with non-transgenic lines: "The most common chromosomal aberration in transgenic oat plants was aneuploidy, followed by chromosomal deletion(s) and structural changes with acentric fragments; a small number of plants had small telocentric-like chromosomes created by deletion. These observations are in contrast to those recently reported for transgenic diploid barley plants where there was also a high frequency of chromosomal variation...; but, all plants underwent a change in ploidy level before other abnormalities were observed.... We have also observed frequent aneuploidy without a change in ploidy level in transgenic plants from a hexaploid tall fescue species... the nature of chromosomal aberration appears to be dependent upon the particular plant species and its fundamental genomic state..."
However, even in this rare published study the authors confirm that their methodology only permits quantitation of "gross changes in chromosomal integrity" and that it is "also likely that other less visible changes in chromosomal fidelity occur e.g. mutation, methylation polymorphism".
Why is this lack of scientific rigour being allowed to arise in relation to new organisms destined for the marketplace?
Unfortunately, this is simply because most of the basic science has not been done. In the overall scheme of things almost nothing is known about the structure and function of existing plant genomes, even where the sequencing of the basic genetic code in those organisms has already been completed (all genomes are comprised of different sequences of the same four chemical 'letters' known as 'nucleotides' or 'bases', just as digital computer code at its most fundamental level comprises sequences of only two elements - 'zeros' and 'ones'. In the case of the rice genome, for example, there is a sequence of 430 million of the four bases).
Compromising the Reputation of Science
Unfortunately the significance of this context is lost on some of our most respected scientists. In the London Times 28 January Professor Richard Dawkins maintained that DNA gene splicing from one organism to another using genetic engineering is comparable to a situation where "a NASA programmer who wants a neat square-root routine for his rocket guidance system might import one from a financial spreadsheet. A square root is a square root is a square root. A program to compute it will serve as well in a space rocket as in a financial projection." For this reason Dawkins concludes that objections to genetic engineering are 'Luddism'.
What Professor Dawkins fails to point out is that the NASA programmer has comprehensive information about his rocket guidance programme in advance. In Dawkins' example the computer version of the 'genomics' for the rocket system has already been successfully completed. If the engineers have done their homework they are knowledgeable about the exact details of the system they are intending to modify. And when they do modify it they don't then simply chuck the spread sheet sub-routine into it at random. They know the appropriate place to insert it and the linkages that are required to avoid disruption to the original system.
That situation simply does not apply in current agricultural genetic engineering technology. This is both because of the nature of the methods used and also because of the almost total lack of information and understanding about the genetic system being modified. Dawkins' remarks are in effect a classic example of how even the most senior members of the scientific community can lose track of contextual thinking, or are willing to be 'economical with the truth' when addressing an often poorly informed general public unable to spot descriptive slights of hand. Somewhat alarmingly in this case Dawkins holds an academic post whose remit is 'the public understanding of science'.
Perhaps the real clue to Professor Dawking's approach, however, is his statement that: "It's hard to exaggerate the sheer intellectual excitement of genetics". Scientists simply don't want any constraints placed on them in this area, precisely because they find it so exciting. Creating new organisms that have never existed before makes a scientist feel powerful. With transgenics scientists are given a whiff of what they sense as the potential for absolute biological power. This is hugely seductive, as one comment made by a genetic engineer after a GM debate meeting in England illustrates. He characterised his enthusiasm for recombinant DNA technology as being like "a kid with a hot toy".
As in any seductive situation objectivity and sound judgement are easily prejudiced. The reality of all this, once recognised, is highly compromising for the reputation of modern science.
A report authored on behalf of the UK's Countryside Agency by a scientist who sits on a government committee with a key role in the commercial approval of GMOs in the UK (the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment - ACRE) describes the situation as follows: A significant danger is that scientists, together with farmers who produce the [GM] food, will lose the trust of citizens by being less than wholly honest about potential problems . It is this lack of responsibility that could irreparably damage science as a whole. Unfortunately those important comments are not included in the summary of the report that has been released to the general public by the Countryside Agency, the principal advisor to the UK government on countryside matters.
Biotechnology in the Kindergarten
Meanwhile there has been much talk about the advance in genetic science that is assumed to have been made through the recent completion of the 'sequencing' of both the human genome in medicine, and the rice genome in plant science. These achievements are certainly important but the information they provide at this stage is largely without meaning. The former in particular has exposed new extents to the depths of our ignorance. We are still stuck in the bio-science kindergarten.
Contrary to much popular belief, completion of genome sequencing (the genetic version of listing the sequence of 'zero' and 'ones' in a computer programme) is merely the equivalent of being able to open a book. It does not provide the means to read it - that requires an understanding of its 'vocabulary', 'grammar', 'syntax' and so on. It requires an understanding of relationships, not just components. Modern molecular biology has yet to achieve almost any of that.
Does that really matter? The Berkeley paper makes it clear that this basic genetic illiteracy can have important consequences: "In transgenic [oat] plants...overall fertility was dramatically reduced by the transformation [i.e. genetic modification] process... The phenomenon of reduced fertility or sterility has also been observed frequently in other transgenic cereals.... sterility and low fertility in abnormal plants are likely related to chromosomal damage or instability of chromosome number during abnormal meiosis..."
Plant breeders will claim that such difficulties can be filtered out by testing in the field. A paper published by scientists from the US Department of Agriculture and Monsanto in 1999 concerning transgenic potatoes gives an indication of the process involved in this: "... transformation often changes cultivar yield and quality characteristics that are agronomically important....The gene [introduced through genetic engineering] itself can affect the plant growth and type . Off-type plants can often be identified among new transformants in tissue culture media by their lack of vigor or by conformational aberrations . More subtle vigor and growth aberration defects that are not obvious at an earlier stage are often exhibited after plantlets are transferred from soil flats to the field In our experience with potatoes [although] growth aberration is usually associated with poor vigor, it does sometimes occur in vigorous lines......"
So obvious problems are filtered out. Unfortunately, the less obvious are not. This is already clear from the experience with the world's most widely planted GM crop, 'Roundup Ready' soya. Only after commercialisation was it discovered that additional DNA of unknown origin had been inadvertently incorporated within the genome of the new organism. More importantly it is now considered that the process of genetic modification in this case has lead to the disruption of other aspects of the soya plant's functioning resulting in reduced yields for farmers compared to conventionally bred sister lines.
Whilst this unwelcome effect may be primarily a problem for soya farmers, who is to say what the long term consequences of such genetic distortions may be in the future for human health in this or any other GM food? Unfortunately, as the Berkeley study indicates, the commercial interests now responsible for funding much of the development of transgenic technology do not have a strong inclination to carry out and publish even the most basic cytogenetic analysis.
There are two reasons for this. The first is cost. It takes large amounts of time and money. More importantly, however, biotechnologists as yet have little information on which to base the necessary judgements about such distortions should they take the trouble to investigate them. This is because the science of 'genomics' - the study of the structure and function of the genome, the totality of the DNA within the cell of an organism - is still in its infancy.
Under constant pressure from commerce to deliver valuable products as soon as possible the scientific community is carrying on with its 'blindfold' approach to genetic engineering regardless of these difficulties. Put at its simplest we find ourselves confronted with a classic case of 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing'.
The overriding imperative from biotech boardrooms is the financial results for the next year-end, not the logical and robust evolution of scientific discovery and the protection of molecular integrity in global biology.
'Molecular Integrity' and Fundamental Conceptual Errors
'Molecular integrity'? Is there such a thing?
Indeed, there is. And the Berkeley paper indicates such integrity is commonly compromised in transgenic plants: "In our study it is likely that the additional stresses imposed by the transformation process [i.e. genetic modification] exacerbated the stressess of in vitro growth causing increased chromosomal variation in transgenic oat plants...The DNA introduction process itself is potentially stressful since it involves osmotic treatment, exposure of cells to vacuum, cellular damage due to microprojectile impact and potential loss of cell turgor following particle impact...That the transformation process causes additional impact on the integrity of the chromosome is consistent with results reported in this study as well as conclusions from earlier studies showing increased cytological variation in transgenic, compared to regenerated, nontransgenic barley plants and a greater negative impact on agronomic performance in transgenic versus nontransgenic barley plants. In this study the changes observed in chromosomal number and integrity only permit quantitation of gross changes in chromosomal integrity. It is also likely that less visible changes in chromosomal fidelity occur e.g. mutation, methylation polymorphism; these changes likely also impair the ability of transgenic plants to grow and reproduce in a manner identical to the non-transgenic parental plants..."
It is these less visible changes beyond the current analytical capacity of science (or at least science as it is commonly practised), which pose the greatest threat to the long-term sustainability of food and agriculture; firstly because they are difficult to detect; and secondly because their meaning is not yet understood.
The fundamental conceptual error made by large parts of the scientific community in this situation is to try to attempt transgenics before achieving competency in genomics . The more genomics is understood the more science will inevitably learn about why the short term excitement over the 'out-of-context' methodologies of transgenics are a recipe for long-term regret. Until then the principal foundation for transgenic technology will continue to be conjecture, not rigorous science.
Acknowledging Scientific Reality
Fortunately there are some within the mainstream scientific establishment who are beginning to publicly acknowledge some of the potential dangers inherent in this situation. One of these appears to be Professor John Snape, head of the Department of Crop Genetics at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in the UK, Europe's leading plant biotechnology laboratory. He told a meeting reported by Farmers Weekly 1 March 2002 that "the technology is still not optimised, with antibiotic and herbicide resistance genes still needed and bits of bacterial DNA hanging about. Whether that poses any danger is debatable, but it is not desirable."
A former Sears Monsanto Visiting Professor at the University of Missouri, Dr Snape's position is that GM technology will have a role to play in the long term. However, he has made clear his view that the greatest dividends from modern biotechnology are likely to come from progress in genomics, and that this is the science whose application he favours at least in the shorter term.
During 2002 Dr Snape published a discussion paper in the journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England entitled 'Arable Agriculture and the Genomics Revolution'. Without ruling out a role for transgenics the overriding emphasis of his paper is on the development of genomics as the harbinger of a new 'Green Revolution'.
A growing number of scientists who recognise the advantages of this genomic revolution over the transgenic approach are gradually emerging from the woodwork. In terms of high profile figures these already include:
In a recent BBC web site discussion between molecular biologists and the general public following the 'Seeds of Trouble' TV broadcast on GM crops and food, Professor Murphy commented as follows: "As a researcher and advisor in agbiotech, I believe that GM crops have the potential to contribute to sustainable agriculture in the longer term. But I am less convinced about their role as panaceas to many of the immediate challenges faced by agriculture in developing countries.... one would council against a headlong rush into transgenic technologies. Huge yield gains can be obtained by improvement in plantation management and selection and cultivation of superior germplasm. Further gains will be possible by better knowledge of genetics (including genomics) and the use of mass-propagation techniques. In short, what is needed is a diverse and well-resourced infrastructure to support the better understanding of crop performance and the development of advanced breeding technologies, including marker-assisted selection and tissue culture. It is doubtless useful to develop the relevant expertise in gene transfer, but more immediate and dramatic crop improvements will probably be forthcoming by using the increasing arsenal of other (non-transgenic) biotech methods to facilitate advanced breeding programs."
The above suite of respected scientific names promoting the genomics paradigm is helpful but not enough, however. The ranks need to be swelled. This is only likely to happen when the current problem of institutional and political denial on the subject of the difficulties associated with recombinant DNA technology is overcome.
Biotech-Science Denial Syndrome
This denial syndrome has already become an epidemic stretching into the most senior echelons of the scientific community. Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis gave a lecture on biotechnology to the European Parliament's Scientific and Technological Options Assessment division (STOA) on 25 March 2003. Despite the fact that the first genetically modified plant did not exist in the laboratory until the 1980s, and despite the relentless and aggressive pursuit of patents relating to the creation of such novel organisms by the biotechnology industry ever since, Dr Mullis appeared to have no qualms about telling his audience that "Genetic modification is nothing new".
At a conference reported by the Canberra Times (Australia), 4 April 2003 Norman Borlaug, another Nobel Prize winner, is also found playing the same game. He states: "Neolithic humans domesticated virtually all of our food and livestock species over a relatively short period 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. Several hundred generations of farmer descendants were subsequently responsible for making enormous genetic modifications in all of our major crop and animal species."
What Borlaug is referring to here is the progressive improvement of varieties where the unit of genetic transfer is the chromosome, and where the means of transfer is subject to the sophisticated regulation inherent in the conventional breeding process arising from the sexual interaction of related organisms. It has absolutely nothing to do with the laboratory transfer of individual genes outside the chromosomal and sexual context of the organism, which is what the term 'genetic modification' refers to in the context of the current debate. Borlaug can hardly not know that.
Such misuse of language is moving far beyond the acceptable norms of scientific ethics and deep into 'German Democratic Republic' territory.
If those perceived to be at the top of the scientific mountain are going to resort to 'spin' in order to pull the wool over the eyes of sections of the public who may not understand such distinctions, then the reputation of modern science is in deep trouble. Unfortunately the problem is not confined to a few highly decorated figureheads.
One paper published in the high profile scientific journal Nature Biotechnology in June 2002 is co-authored by a leading plant biotechnologist from the John Innes Centre. The paper goes so far as to state: "We can find no compelling scientific arguments to demonstrate that GM crops are innately different from non-GM crops".
Unfortunately this assertion is in direct contradiction to some of the JIC's own work, including papers submitted to various less well known scientific journals before the current public controversy on genetic modification had become the serious problem to the biotechnology sector that it is now.
One such paper (Transgenic Plant Research 1998, 277 - 285) specifically sets out the "essential differences between conventional breeding and transgenic modification". It highlights the fact that with the former "phenotypic variation usually falls within a familiar range" whilst with the latter there "is the potential to change plants fundamentally" and "to produce a plant phenotype of which there is little or no experience". The paper states that "it is important to consider the consequences of those differences for influencing biosafety assessments" and that "most [GM] constructs contains some sequences from plant pathogens ..." It adds that with genetic modification "it is possible to introduce alien gene sequences into random locations..." and that "transgenes do often display unusually high levels of expression and structural instability..." It comments that "The difficulties that have been experienced in developing transformation methods in many species over the past decade of research, illustrate that plants do not readily take up and incorporate 'invading DNA' into the genome.." It concludes that "It is possible that a rare event may have insignificant consequences when transgenic crops are grown on a small scale, but become important when transgenic crops are grown over thousands of hectares...."
Another JIC authored paper (1998 ACTA Horticulturae 459, 167-171) confirms that "In a recent survey of at least thirty companies developing transgenic plants for use in agriculture, all companies observed some transgene instability... In a recent study in our laboratory, one hundred Brassica napus [rape seed] transgenic lines were produced and half of them displayed unstable or unusual transgene behaviour.... It is common to observe substantial variation in transgene expression between independently transformed plants. The source of this variation is often attributed to transgene position or copy number effects. Structural rearrangements associated with the transformation process, including deletions, duplications and repeated areas of homology are likely to influence transgene stability and expression.... Evidence from our laboratory, following the transfer of a construct into a range of different spring and winter lines of Brassica napus has shown that in some cases the transgenes behaved normally, and in other cases abnormally... The precise cause of the interaction between transgenes and the background genotype is not known.... There are a number of cases where environmental stimuli affect transgene stability.... Recent research in our laboratory with Brassica napus plants containing the 35S promoter from the mosaic virus (CaMV) has shown that upon infection with the CaMV the driven transgene is silenced ... Intensive research at present is directed towards understanding this silencing mechanism and its significance. As the 35S promoter is widely used to regulate transgenics in brassicas, it is important that we strive to obtain a clear understanding of the mechanisms of this silencing and its significance. This is important for two reasons, for assessing the use of the 35S promoter in agriculture and also for assessing the significance of this effect for biosafety.... Many factors influence the ways in which transgenes express, but a factor of crucial importance is the effect of DNA sequences that are homologous to areas of transgene constructs. ..... the take home message from this paper is 'watch out for homology'..."
The JIC annual report of 1998/99 also states: "At present, the success of transgene expression is variable, and many transformation experiments have to be carried out in order to isolate a small number of useful lines. Many factors can influence the behaviour of foreign DNA when it integrates into the plant genome. Such factors include the position of integration, possible rearrangements of the exogenous DNA by recombination, and the activation of endogenous plant defence systems that have evolved to suppress the activity of 'invading' DNA.... Transgene rearrangements often occur at regions rich in DNA secondary structure, such as the CAMV 35S promoter [used in many GM crops], which can form the cruciform structure shown above. This allows recombination to occur, as shown by the green arrow."
Yet despite all these previous JIC papers, by the summer of 2002 - as a political decision on GM commercialisation in the UK appeared to be within striking distance - we were being encouraged by at least one scientist from the same research institute (who happens to be a co-author of some of the above papers) to accept that there are no "scientific arguments to demonstrate that GM crops are innately different from non-GM crops". Such is the claim made in the overview published in Nature Biotechnology in June last year.
The Iron Curtain - Censorship in Science
Knowing denial is a common phenomenon where admission of reality is seen as a threat to existing accepted paradigms, especially where there is substantial prior financial or political investment. The tobacco industry and the former governmental regimes of Eastern Europe have been past masters at it.
In a political context Michael Gorbachev was a shining example of the ability to recognise such a syndrome of denial and then to deal with it from within the system, initially by confronting his own cognitive dissonance (a situation where two relevant beliefs, opinions, or information held, are fundamentally opposed - e.g. command economy V market economy; or, more relevantly to this case, a components driven conceptual model of the genome V a relationships driven conceptual model of the genome).
In fact the process of denial in relation to the implications of the use of transgenic technology in modern molecular genetics has become so intense that the annual report of the John Innes Centre no longer discloses a listing of the research papers published by its scientists during the preceding year. Previous reports with full listings had allowed GM critics to access papers which identified concerns with the technology not highlighted in the public debate.
This concealment of research findings is despite the fact that large amounts of taxpayers' money goes into the John Innes Centre, as delivered through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The council is a government agency funded by both the Department of Trade and Industry, and one of its sub-units the Office of Science and Technology. The latter is supervised by DTI minister Lord Sainsbury, of whom more later.
The same deplorable situation has also been applied to the annual report of the Institute of Arable Crop Research (IACR), an establishment heavily criticised for its closeness to the biotechnology industry. Allowing its work to be used to support misleading claims by Monsanto concerning genetically modified sugar beet have been especially controversial.
Like the JIC, the IACR has also been part funded by the BBSRC, possibly suggesting a common denominator in the concealment of GM science from the public (most recently the IACR has been reorganised into 'Rothamstead Research'). Echoes of Iron Curtain era 'Pravda' reverberate. If this undermining of transparency in publicly funded transgenic research proves to be orchestrated then calls for a scientific debate on GM technology will ring especially hollow.
In August 1998 the public controversy over GM in the UK hit the headlines in dramatic fashion as a result of a documentary programme by Granada TV's 'World In Action'. It featured Dr Arpad Pusztai who told the programme of his concerns regarding the food safety of GM potatoes which he had been testing as part of a government contract. Shortly thereafter Dr Pusztai was suspended from his research post, despite (or perhaps because of) his reputation as a world authority in the research area being executed.
The man charged with sacking Dr Pusztai, the Director of the Rowett Research Institute Professor Phillip James, had previously been commissioned by Tony Blair to produce a paper on the then proposed Food Standards Agency. Ironically Professor James was quoted in a Scottish Newspaper six months before Pusztai's dismissal as saying: "The perception that everything is totally straightforward and safe [with GM food] is utterly naive. I don't think we fully understand the dimensions of what we're getting into." Given such views it begs the question as to what kind of external pressure he was placed under to dismiss Pusztai.
If elements of the governmental apparatus should be involved behind the scenes in discouraging an open scientific debate, then what does this situation say about the modern-day relationship between government, commerce and science?
The fact that the BBSRC operates under the auspices of the Department of Trade and Industry may provide a clue. Is it relevant that the Minister of Science in the DTI, Lord Sainsbury, is the largest single donor to the Labour party? Is it relevant that he holds major financial investments in plant genetic engineering? Is it relevant that his own charitable foundation (the Gatsby Foundation) funds a major part of the transgenic plant research at the Sainsbury Laboratory on the John Innes campus? Is it relevant that it is Lord Sainsbury who is a member of the Cabinet committee which advises the Prime Minister on GM related issues?
Even the Royal Society, science's most august institution in the UK at one time presided over by Sir Isaac Newton, now receives financial sponsorship from the ag-biotech company (Aventis) that has been responsible for most of the farm scale trials of GM crops at the heart of the national controversy. This is to say nothing of the funding the Society receives from Lord Sainsbury's Gatsby Foundation which pumps so much money into the JIC campus.
The Pusztai affair has raised a raft of questions about the impartiality of the Royal Society in the GM debate. It has most recently been criticised for its pro-active promotion of questionable research carried out by the IACR claiming potential environmental benefits from GM sugar beet through the use methods which are highly unlikely to be adopted by farmers. Even the IACR's own 2001/2 annual report concedes that for farmers to adopt such methods "grants similar to set-aside or countryside stewardship might need to be offered".
Continuing chicanery is also seemingly highlighted in a recent report in the Guardian 29 January which advises that there is "A curious development on GMs. The government was planning to publish the results of GM field trials in the Journal of Applied Ecology in the summer. As befits a reputable journal, the editors reserved the right to have the papers peer reviewed - in other words, if bits were not scientifically rigorous they would not be published. So now publication has shifted to the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, where, apparently, such stringent peer review will not be necessary." Curious or ominous?
The degree to which the Royal Society is willing to mislead the public on the subject of GM technology is further illustrated by the following words of its current President, and former Chief Scientific Adviser to the government, Sir Robert May. In an interview he gave to the BBC 9th March 2000 he stated: "...GM techniques which in the precise and targeted way bring in a couple of genes that you know what they do and you know where they are is vastly safer, vast, vastly more controlled than this so-called conventional breeding....".
A European Commission funded research paper on the genetic engineering of plants, completed September 2000, and carried out by three scientific institutes in Belgium, France, and Germany, describes the situation somewhat differently: "Biotechnology relies to a large extent on our ability to introduce foreign genes into cells. A major problem with present day technology is the non-predictability of the integration of such transgenes. DNA introduced into plant cells mostly integrates at random, i.e. at non-predetermined positions of the genome. The biological process ultimately responsible for random integration is known as illegitimate recombination. DNA integrated at random frequently contains multiple copies and often copies are scrambled. Multiple copies also often induce gene silencing and hence instability in the expression of the introduced genes. In addition, the DNA integrates at loci of unknown stability and capacity for expression and randomly integrated copies may induce unpredictable and undesirable mutations in the host genome..... Although our understanding of the general biology of recombination in plants is constantly improving, we still lack the knowledge for precision engineering of plants' genes."
The situation is clearly both scientifically and politically out of control.
Dr Pusztai and The Thought Police
Dr Pusztai published an account of his own experience of the politicisation of science in the journal 'Science as Culture' (Volume 11 Number 1 March 2002). The Royal Society was at the heart of the efforts to discredit him. According to Dr Pusztai attacks were made on the methodology of his GM potato work even though the design of the experiments had been subject to peer review by the BBSRC itself. He was successful in winning the research contract despite competition from no less than 28 other research teams also interested in carrying out the work. The same design and methodology had been used in some 40 of Dr Pusztai's previous papers published in peer reviewed journals without challenge. Once his potentially damaging GM research results were known, however, suddenly these designs were 'wrong'.
So determined was the Royal Society to bury Dr Pusztai's GM potato research that its Biological Secretary, Professor Peter Lachmann, telephoned the Editor of the Lancet and allegedly threatened him after learning that the paper was being considered for publication. According to the Editor he was told that if he published the Pusztai paper it would "have implications for his personal position".
In the event the Lancet had little option but to go ahead because the paper had been peer reviewed by six referees (an exceptionally high number) and five had accepted that the paper was suitable for publication. The Guardian later unearthed Professor Lachmann's involvement with the biotechnology industry including a consultancy to Geron Biomed, which markets the animal cloning technology behind 'Dolly the sheep'.
Lachman was also interviewed as recently as 31 January 2002 by the BBC and was quoted as saying: "I think that food, whether it's brought about by conventional plant breeding or by the insertion of genes is really very much the same". From a scientific point of view it is impossible to make such a generalised statement. Each GMO is a patented organism which has never existed before and has been created using methods which have only been in use for a relatively short while. There may be little difference in some cases (organisms said to be 'substantially equivalent'), but in other cases specific differences (e.g. changed nutritional composition or food containing vaccines) are deliberately engineered. Alternatively differences may come about unintentionally as Dr Pusztai claims with his GM potatoes.
Astonishingly, despite the highly embarrassing and revealing intervention of Lachman in the Lancet case, it appears some within the Royal Society are still telling the press that Pusztai's work has not been peer reviewed if a report in the Independent 31 January is anything to go by.
Pusztai's own commentary on the episode (which is well worth reading in full) draws attention to the lack of up to date scientific knowledge of many of those siting on the bodies responsible for approving GM foods such as the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP). According to Pusztai "Scientific administrators have no time to properly read anything. I personally know that all the papers and the submissions by the biotech companies to the ACNFP usually end up with people like us to read them. Unfortunately, most of the time the committee members cannot even wait to ask for our advice because they are so busy.... That is the reality of the situation, even though they may put a scientific gloss on it. This is what is meant when the ministers say, 'We get the best scientific advice'.... I told the Science and Technology Committee that these important committees must have proper working scientists as members, or they should contract out some matters to working scientists..... in some of the Rowett press releases, it was said that Dr Pusztai had this very important work and that his results had been passed onto the appropriate committees, such as the ACNFP. ..... But in fact my papers had never been passed onto any of the committees. Indeed, it became apparent that the members were totally unaware of our research."
He is even more frank about the institutional manipulation of science: "Far more serious is that the scientific establishment is going over the top. In some instances they are not just economical with the truth, but in fact they are lying......The scientific establishment is not willing to concede that there are points which need to be clarified, which could be done only by further research. There are many issues on which the scientific establishment says something which is manifestly untrue. This is not the way to conduct a serious scientific debate... It is often said, for example, 'Genetic engineering is just the same thing as was done in the past; its a faster and more precise method of conventional breeding.' They know perfectly well that this is not true..... These are very serious issues. No glossing over them, or being economical with the truth, or even lying, will make these issues go away. They will still be there. If you do science and you dont stick to the truth as you see it, then the whole business of science loses its main reason.... Even scepticism is not tolerated by them. For them this is almost like a religious crusade. The establishment must crush anyone who appears to be standing in their way. If this had happened 500 years ago, I would have probably been put to the stake and burnt. They did to me the equivalent - what they could do in our age."
At the time of Pusztai's work GM food products had already begun entering the global food chain. Yet according to evidence given to a House of Commons committee by Pusztai's co-author Dr Stanley Ewen, there was only one paper that had been published in the peer reviewed scientific literature on the safety of genetically modified food. That paper was by scientists at Monsanto.
Dr Ewen advised the committee that the paper "describes the feeding value of GM soybeans in rats, chickens, catfish and dairy cattle. This single paper refers to microscopy of rat pancreas but gut microscopy is not mentioned if performed. Scientific advice is not available for informed consideration and our studies [carried out by Dr Pusztai and myself] were designed to establish the normality of the target organ after feeding GM potatoes ... My report would be: after comparison of sections from rats fed genetically modified potatoes with sections from control rats, there are significant differences in crypt length that cannot be explained by the insertion of the Galanthus nivalis gene . This work has been submitted for publication in a peer reviewed journal...." . The paper was subsequently published in the highly respected medical journal, the 'Lancet'.
Pusztai's work was especially troubling to the scientific, commercial and political interests concerned because, in his view, it indicated that the adverse effects identified were not due to the foreign gene inserted into the potatoes, but rather to the process of genetic engineering itself. If that was the case then there were potentially serious implications for many GM crops and not just the potatoes in question. It is not difficult to see, therefore, why such powerful forces were mobilised to try and discredit the work.
However, with the row over this research creating divided opinion within the scientific community, ultimately the Royal Society was forced to fudge its final verdict by calling for the work to be redone, as confirmed in an email from the Royal Society 11 November 1999 to nlpwessex. The email states: "The article that you forwarded to Dr Bowden from the Natural Law Party accused the Royal Society of being critical of the methodology of Dr Pusztai's work while failing to call for his work to be repeated. On the contrary, the Society did in fact call for Dr Pusztai's work to be repeated, taking in to account the errors in the original work [as indicated in] our report, 'Review of data on possible toxicity of GM potatoes'..."
Significantly the British Government has declined to do so, even though it originally thought the work so important that it allocated £1.6 million of tax payers money to the project. At the outset Dr Pusztai and his team did not anticipate that any adverse effect would be found. As soon as Dr Pusztai reported findings to the contrary, however, the government immediately lost interest in the research thereby lending credence to suspicions of direct political influence over the attempts at scientific censorship that had begun.
Where is the Safety Testing?
Interestingly the Royal Society, in its own review of Pusztai's data and analysis, emphasises importance of peer review for such safety testing and that: "It would be necessary to carry out a large number of extremely complex tests on many different strains of GM and non-GM potatoes."
So where are all the examples of such complex tests in relation to any GM food, let alone potatoes, which the Royal Society apparently regards as necessary? A subsequent literature review by Pusztai himself in June 2001 makes fascinating reading. On the whole such tests for GM foods of any kind are rare, if they exist at all. An earlier literature review published in the journal Science June 2000 revealed at that time (i.e. several years after the introduction of GM foods into the global food chain) a general lack of proper experimental studies on GM food safety. The deficiency that was identified resulted in a title for the article of 'Health Risks of GM Foods: Many Opinions but Few Data'.
In his own literature review Dr Pusztai states that "In fact, no peer-reviewed publications of clinical studies on the human health effects of GM food exist". However, just a few weeks later the results of work carried out by scientists commissioned by the UK's Food Standard Agency were announced. The Guardian reported on these 17 July 2002 stating: "British scientific researchers have demonstrated for the first time that genetically modified DNA material from crops is finding its way into human gut bacteria, raising potentially serious health questions.... many of the controversial crops have antibiotic-resistant marker genes inserted into them at an early stage in development. If genetic material from these marker genes can also find its way into [bacteria in] the human stomach, as experiments at Newcastle University suggest is likely, then people's resistance to widely used antibiotics could be compromised. The research, commissioned by the Food Standards Agency, is the world's first known trial of GM foods on human volunteers".
Notably the uptake of GM DNA by gut bacteria discovered in this study was evident after volunteers had taken just one meal with GM soya in it (although the presence of bacteria containing GM material could have reflected previous exposure to GM food already consumed by the subjects).
More worryingly, however, the Food Standards Agency has tried to downplay the significance of the findings. It maintains that because no GM material was found in the stools of the subjects, the study "showed in real-life conditions with human volunteers, no GM material survived the passage through the entire human digestive tract". Clearly such an observation is not inconsistent with the take up of GM DNA material by gut bacteria as found in the study, yet the agency ducks the issue with its own irrelevant conclusion. This is a situation which smacks of 'Thought Police' style obfuscation on the part of the FSA, a body which has also tried to block EU proposals for more stringent GM food labelling.
The Dawn of 'Glasnost' and 'Perestroika'
Ironically Pusztai himself came to Britain after the failed Hungarian uprising of 1956, in order to escape the repression and dictatorship that resided behind the Iron Curtain. In August 1998 he was to abruptly encounter the less visible version of repression that now seems to lurk beneath the surface of the 'free' world. It descended upon him with its full force following his now notorious interview with Granda TV lasting all of 150 seconds.
However, a great deal of water has passed under the bridge since then and the rehabilitation of Dr Pusztai's reputation may not be so far off.
Just as Gorbachev dealt with some of the absurd political edifices and vested interests of his time, the moment has surely come for the great reforming scientists of the post cold war era (assuming there are some) to emerge and confront the entrenched nonsense and cognitive dissonance of modern biotechnology's own 'Berlin wall'. The basic problem is there for all to see. It is now simply a matter of tearing it down with an unchallengable combination of intellectual honesty and moral courage.
The time has come to rescue the 'life sciences' from the pariah of the obsolete genetic engineering paradigm before the reputation of science as a whole is irreversibly damaged. It is time for 'Glasnost' and 'Perestroika' in modern science.
In an even more crucial sense than that encountered by the former leader of the Soviet Union, perhaps some scientists within the biotechnology sector are beginning to reach the watershed moment of their own milieu. Just as Gorbachev pushed for reform in Eastern Europe, whilst continuing to use the language of the old paradigm in order to reassure those who might otherwise oppose and remove him, there are important voices at the heart of agricultural biotechnology research who now appear to some degree to be singing the virtues of a 'third way'.
Like a nervous report from Pravda in the 1980s Farmers Weekly 1 March 2002 relayed some of Dr Snape's cautiously expressed concerns on the genetic engineering paradigm, as referred to above. At the same time, however, it reports that Professor Snape also drew attention to the more acceptable alternative route based on the application of 'genomics' to conventional plant breeding: "GM is only one easily recognised byproduct of genetic research. The quiet revolution is happening in gene mapping ['genomics'], helping us understand crops better. That is up and running and could have a far greater impact on agriculture.... There really are no downsides, particularly in terms of public perception.."
Indeed it has been Dr Snape's own work which has demonstrated the instability of transgenes in some GM field crops, with variations in phenotypic characteristics arising several generations after the initial transgene insertion. Could his current emphasis on the importance of genomics be driven, at least in part, by what he knows about the distortions in genome function caused by genetic engineering?
Writing in its 1999/2000 annual report, and before the introduction of the JIC's de facto scientific censorship action in relation to the annual reporting of staff publications, Dr Snape and his team comment on this reality in relation to transgenic barley as follows: "... When we examined the next generation of the same transgenic line in the field during 1999, there was evidence that the transgenic plants were more variable compared to the controls than those in the 1998 field trial. This could be because somaclonal variation, resulting from the tissue culture and transformation procedures, was more obvious in later generations. These results show that transgenic lines need to be examined over a number of generations under field conditions to obtain the necessary data on transgene stability and agronomic performance. Further field trials of transgenic barley lines, combined with detailed molecular and genetic analysis will allow us to increase our understanding of the transformation process so that we are better able to assess the long term effects of genetic modification of the barley crop.
So we have three fundamental points arising here. Firstly the characteristics of the GM organisms are changing in subsequent generations. Secondly detailed molecular analysis is missing. Thirdly Dr Snape and his colleagues don't understand why this is happening, or what the long term implications are.
Dr Snape's more recent discussion paper published in the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England during 2002 provides some additional explicit or implicit pointers as to the context and reliability of this 'science' of genetic engineering, as well as to alternative options:
This latter point is perhaps the most interesting. In effect it is an acknowledgement that we are allowing the scientific equivalent of inviting novice technicians into our homes in order to rewire the electrics or add circuitry, 'safe' in the knowledge that these technicians know next to nothing about electrical wiring. This is a situation which would be an insurance company's nightmare, and it is no coincidence that few insurance companies will provide cover for risks associated with genetically modified organisms. They are well aware that this is technology built more upon guess work than it is upon scientific knowledge.
'Junk DNA' and 'Junk Science'
Sadly, all of this is the ignorant reality of what we have begun to do with our food, our plants and our animals - upon all of whose genetic integrity the survival and health of mankind depends.
And just how deep is this ignorance? A closer examination of the subject of 'junk DNA' is instructive. Whilst molecular scientists at the John Innes Centre might prefer to avoid the inconvenience of having to confront such difficult issues, their counterparts in human genetics are now starting to move beyond this 'head in the sand' intellectual culture. The latest discoveries in this area were published as recently as December 2002 in the prestigious scientific journal Nature.
The implications of these developments are as profound as they are disturbing given the primitive way in which genetically modified organisms are currently created, based on the forced and random introduction of foreign DNA into the host genome.
In an article entitled '' 'Junk DNA' Contains Essential Information" the Washington Post 4 December reflects on some of the latest work reported in Nature as follows: "The huge stretches of genetic material dismissed in biology classrooms for generations as 'junk DNA' actually contain instructions essential for the growth and survival of people and other organisms... Scientists have long known that genomes contain such instructions and that these are likely to be important in understanding disease and development. But the new analyses shocked them by revealing that the instruction set is at least as big as the gene set, and probably bigger. It's the scientific equivalent, perhaps, of a consumer buying a trim new gadget and opening the box to find a 300-page instruction manual.... Scientists have always known the instruction book would be important, but few of them imagined it would be so large a proportion of the genome -- the implication being that the instructions, and the machinery for interpreting them, may matter as much or more than the genes themselves. Key scientists said the new discoveries were likely to force them to abandon the term 'junk DNA' and send them back to the drawing board to come up with sweeping new models for how nature builds and maintains organisms."
So it turns that it is the science which is 'junk' not the DNA. To believe that you can build robust technology on a foundation of junk science represents a type of wishful thinking which is guaranteed to court misfortune at some point.
In commenting on the new discovery the Washington Post quotes Aravinda Chakravati, head of the Institute for Genetic Medicine at Johns Hopkins University: "We will have to develop a much more dynamic view of what a gene is, how it's controlled, how it's encoded. It's fun to find a whole new set of questions you could spend the rest of your life answering."
No doubt genetic science is 'fun'. But herein lies a danger with enormous implications.
Scientists relish the technical challenge modern molecular biology presents to them, but it is a hugely complex and expensive endeavour. Ever since the days of Margaret Thatcher and 'Reagonomics' basic scientific research has been increasingly funded by those with a direct commercial interest to be derived from it. Inevitably such players need products in the market as quickly as possible in order to satisfy shareholder demands. Corners are cut. Efforts are even made to bury evidence of problems, of which the Pusztai transgenic potato affair and Monsanto's genetically modified BST hormone (sometimes known as rBGH - 'recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone') used in US dairy production, are only two of the more reported examples.
Junk Science and Corporate Crime
This commercial pressure is one of the most important factors at play behind the regular denial of the basic difficulties associated with transgenic technology, and it is probably the most dangerous.
The net result of this disturbing scenario is that products are brought to the market without the necessary science having been done, and a pretence is instituted that the science developed so far is adequate. Just as has being going on in the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries for decades, the commercial interests concerned simply cannot afford to publicly acknowledge all the scientific realities. It is too destructive to share price - so modern science has its own version of the Iron Curtain.
According to one report from a meeting held jointly by the British Medical Journal and the Lancet published in the London Times, 1st October 1999 "Drugs companies hold back unfavourable results because they make their stock prices plummet" leading to "thousands of unnecessary deaths". If such industries have a known track record of concealing damaging research why should ag-biotech be any different?
As it happens Europe's largest ag-biotech company is drug-chemical giant Bayer, the recent purchaser of Aventis. It is worth remembering that it is the GM corporations themselves that usually do the safety tests on transgenic foods, not the regulatory authorities. Some recent press reports give an insight into the culture of 'corporate responsibility' which appears to operate at companies like Bayer. On 16 April 2003 Bayer and another pharmaceutical company were required to pay $344 million in a US Medicaid fraud case, the largest ever such settlement. The settlement included a criminal fine and an agreement by Bayer to "admit that it engaged in this conduct with the intent to defraud or mislead".
According to a report by Associated Press/ABC News 7 March 2003 "A $100 million lawsuit against Bayer Corp has yielded e-mails and internal documents that suggest the drug company let marketing and PR concerns trump safety, disregarding disturbing research on the cholesterol drug Baycol before it was pulled off the market because of dozens of deaths.... Internal documents and e-mails released by the plaintiff's lawyers show executives discussing potential dangers long before sales were halted.... Other documents show that Bayer executives worried about studying possible side effects of the drug because any results would have to be reported to the FDA. In June 2000, an e-mail to a vice president noted that 'there have been some deaths related to Baycol,' and that people at its marketing partner, SmithKline Beecham, knew it. 'So much for keeping this quiet,' the e-mail said. 'How will marketing spin this?' another e-mail wondered."
Most of the GM crop trials in the UK are by Bayer Cropscience. Under their earlier management by Aventis these crops were found to include unauthorised transgenic material. On another occasion contractors were caught falsifying data from agronomic trials of Aventis's GM maize. The data was being collected for British seed authorities as part of the official approval process.
Just how comfortable do we feel with the biotechnology industry itself being responsible for carrying out the testing of its own GM crops and foods, especially when it comes to safety issues? Such a leap of faith runs contrary to longstanding previous experience with life-sciences companies if the British Medical Journal and the Lancet are to be believed. As one editorial in the Lancet in 2000 states: "All policymakers must be vigilant to the possibility of research data being manipulated by corporate bodies and of scientific colleagues being seduced by the material charms of industry. Trust is no defence against an aggressively deceptive corporate sector."
Not surprisingly in this 'real world' context of human error or fraud, many people have become deeply concerned about the shaky science and business ethics surrounding GM technology. Those concerned include some of the more forward thinking and responsible members of the scientific community even if many still choose to keep their heads below the parapet.
These individuals are the much needed scientific 'dissidents' of the early 21st century. They are urgently required perhaps in something of the tradition of Barbara McLintock who was one of the most notable figures in the biological sciences of the last century to swim against the established academic tide of her time. Ironically it was she who demonstrated the role played by chromosome position in gene function in 1951, only to be greeted with derision from the scientific establishment. It was not until 1983 that she was awarded a Nobel Prize for this discovery after the rest of the scientific community had finally accepted the validity of her understanding.
Restoring the Voice of Reason in Modern Science
The voice of scientists concerned about the long term implications of proceeding with transgenic technology when even the basics of genomic science are not in place is not yet the loudest. But it may well become so. Twenty years ago those scientists who were concerned about the impact of carbon emissions on global warming were also in a rebuffed minority. Since then the science of climate change has moved on and now they are in the majority.
Once released into the environment recombinant DNA is not recoverable. We cannot afford the luxury of permitting releases now, only to change our minds on the wisdom of such a decision at some later point when more of the science has been done. The urgency to hear the voices of dissenting scientists is therefore immediate.
Fortunately growing preference for the genomics paradigm appears to be becoming more prominent in the major scientific journals. Earlier this year a piece in 'Nature' observed that: "Looking to the future, it's unclear whether complex traits, which are thought to involve multiple genes, will be amenable to manipulation through genetic engineering... By contrast, practical experience has shown that conventional breeding can be used to improve a suite of subtle traits simultaneously.... some experts suggest that the future lies in boosting the power of conventional breeding by marrying it to genomic and other molecular-genetic techniques...This technique, enthusiasts claim, could offer to plant breeding what the jet engine has brought to air travel....".
As the science of genomics develops, and the more we understand the background genetics to which recombinant DNA is already being applied, the more we will inevitably discover the limitations on how and where it can be intelligently and responsibly deployed. It is more than possible, however, that we will even discover why it may not be appropriate to apply it at all. Whether or not that proves to be the case can only be known by future generations of scientists.
What is already certain, however, is that the biological sciences do not yet have the maturity to substantially eliminate that possibility or to pass any kind of reliable judgement on the matter.
Meanwhile the reason we are already deploying recombinant DNA is firstly because we can, not because we know that we should; and secondly because of the perceived strategic business advantages that the copyright law relating to such organisms provides. It is the ease with which such novel organisms can be patented and therefore commercial returns from them maximised, which lies at the heart of this high risk 'goldrush' . Or at least that was the prevailing situation prior to the advent of public resistance to the use of GM technology in food and agriculture.
This is inevitably a scenario where shorterm shareholder interests take precedence over robust science and the long term public good. Scientists go along with this because they have to. Just like everyone else they have mortgages to pay and children to feed. Few are going to survive the next staffing or promotion review by challenging those who hold the cheque book. Even the general public knows this after the Pusztai episode. Most scientists knew well before.
Avoiding Sakharov's Regret
So, in short, where does this leave the rest of us? Unless we take some fairly rapid measures then the culture of privatised research introduced by Mrs Thatcher and further encouraged by all administrations in the UK since (and copied in much of the rest of the world) is likely to result in the wholesale destruction of the reputation of science.
More importantly, however, the process which is already underway is dramatically increasing the prospect of irreversible disruptions to the integrated functioning of the biological systems which support life on earth.
It may not be so long before this prospect becomes clear to all. However, if too much irretrievable damage is to be avoided the general realisation needs to come quickly. The danger is, however, that we will repeat a similar experience to that of Andrei Sakharov with his development of the Soviet atom bomb. Even some of the poorest nations in the world have since developed nuclear weapons and may one day use them now that the principle of pre-emptive nuclear strikes has been endorsed by those who lead the 'civilised' world. Already India's Defence Minister has stated that it has "a much better case to go for pre-emptive action against Pakistan than the United States has in Iraq.". Both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons.
Just like Sakharov the modern day recombinant DNA scientists may well discover that by the time they fully understand the real nature of the trajectory upon which they have already embarked it will be too late to return
The following word's of Sakharov during his first visit to the USA in 1998 poignantly express his regret in this respect: "I and the people who worked with me at the time were completely convinced that this work was essential, that it was vitally important.... In the United States, independently, the same kind of work was being carried out. The American scientists in their work were guided by the same feelings of this work being vital for the interests of the country.... But.... [now] I think that what we were doing at that time was a great tragedy."
As Sakharov's comments indicate scientists cannot divorce themselves from the wider social and environmental consequences of their work. The more fundamental the intervention of their work the more fundamental those consequences. Genetic science is to biology, what nuclear science is to physics - fundamental. In a post Chernobyl world both sciences open the opportunity for errors made in their technological application to create damage on an uncontainably grand scale. There are already at least two reported cases of deadly new pathogens being created by mistake through genetic engineering applications, the most recent as a result of trying to develop a new pig vaccine for farmers.
Such problematic scenarios are not lost on the UK's Astronomer Royal and Royal Society Research Professor at Cambridge University, Sir Martin Rees. Some of his views were relayed by the BBC 25 April as follows: "In an eloquent and tightly argued book .... Sir Martin ponders the threats which face, or could face, humankind during the 21st Century.... He asks whether .... there should be a moratorium, voluntary or otherwise, on certain types of scientific research, most notably genetics and biotechnology."
In introducing Sir Martin's new book 'Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind's Future In This Century' one reviewer states "Bioterrorists are the most widely publicized threat at the moment, but well-intentioned scientists, Rees says, are capable of accidentally wiping out mankind via genetically engineered superpathogens... Rees poses some hard questions about scientists' responsibility to forsake research that might lead to a malevolent genie being let out of its bottle".
Such issues are not simply confined to lab generated micro-organisms. Most GM crops contain genetic sequences taken from viral or bacterial pathogens. A paper published by scientists from the US Department of Agriculture and Monsanto in 1999 concerning transgenic potatoes containing a viral gene identified some potential hazards. It states "... Gene stability through successive [transgenic] plant generations is a major concern expression of a transgene could induce susceptibility in the transgenic plant to new viruses if the expressed gene provided an essential function which the new virus could not itself provide If a virus infecting a transgenic plant were encapsulated with coat protein produced by the transgene, the infecting virus could acquire the transmission characteristics and seriological properties of the transgene virus. A new hybrid virus could be created by genomic recombination between the genome of a virus infecting a transgenic plant and the transgene or its mRNA. Sedimentation characteristics of the new hybrid would probably be different from the original virus, and its occurrence might be indicated by production of symptoms unusual for any of the viruses that infect the crop species "
One John Innes Centre paper published the previous year states "....The area of concern specific to viral transgenes [in GM crops] is the potential risks on any interactions between the viral or virus-related sequences being expressed from the transgene and another virus superinfecting that plant. Three main scenarios are usually considered: synergism, recombination and heteroencapsidation..... It is generally considered that recombination plays an important role in the evolution of RNA viruses. Evidence is now forthcoming of recombination between superinfecting viral RNA and RNA expressed from a transgene through the aberrant homologous recombination mechanism...... It is difficult to devise detailed protocols for the detection of recombinants produced in the field.....There are several examples of heteroencapsidation in transgenic plants, both between viruses of the same group, and between unrelated viruses ..... For small-scale releases, it is relatively easy to design monitoring procedures .... for detecting heteroencapsidants or recombinants. This will be much more difficult, if not impossible, for large-scale releases, in which the approach should be to educate farmers and extension service personnel to identify any unusual event that might be associated with transgenic plants. This will be the challenge for the future.....".
The future? Having looked at the technology-driven mishap scenarios outlined in Sir Martin's Rees cautionary book another reviewer adds "So is there any hope for humanity? Rees is vaguely optimistic on this point, offering solutions that would require a level of worldwide cooperation humans have yet to exhibit."
Safeguarding the Reputation of 'Biotechnology'
So it seems clear that the future reputation of the scientific community and the integrity of the earth's biosystems are now very much in the hands of those scientists who are able to think most broadly and deeply, and who are prepared to confront the long term public responsibilities of their profession. It is not sufficient to leave the responsibility to politicians. Politicians usually have little grasp of the technical realities of such developments which are in any case frequently hidden from public view.
In the field of food and agriculture the safeguarding of the reputation of biotechnology is especially dependent on those scientists whose work increasingly emphasises the importance of genomics ahead of transgenics. This emphasis offers a more rational and responsible path which gives priority to pursuing an approach which works within, rather than outside, molecular, environmental and evolutionary context. With living systems such context is crucial. Yet modern science has become so specialised that it often fosters a culture which does not find it easy to see 'the wood for the trees'.
So the key question is - 'Will the quiet voice of those scientist who are still able to see the bigger picture offered by the more integrated approach of genomics become loud enough in sufficient time to avoid the arrival of irreversible damage?' From both a technological point of view, and from the point of view of the public good, there is everything to gain and little to lose if they can find the courage to shout louder.
As Farmer's Weekly put it 1 March 2002 when commenting on Dr Snape's current analysis of the situation: "Genetically modified crops may dominate the headlines. But a quieter genetic revolution [in genomics] could do far more to boost the fortunes of Britain's farmers....Indeed, Greenpeace is investigating the potential for such marker-assisted technology to replace GM."
Or to quote the words of Professor Bob Goodman, former head of research and development at Calgene, the developers of the world's first GM food: "From a scientific perspective, the public argument about genetically-modified organisms, I think, will soon be a thing of the past. The science has moved on and we're now in the genomics era."
A More Responsible Vision for Modern Plant Breeding and World Agriculture
In the summer of 2000 the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations published a report entitled "Agriculture: Towards 2015/30" which examines the future relationship between global food production and demand. It concludes: "Concerning the future, a number of projection studies have addressed and largely answered in the positive the issue whether the resource base of world agriculture, including its land component, can continue to evolve in a flexible and adaptable manner as it did in the past, and also whether it can continue to exert downward pressure on the real price of food ...... The largely positive answers mean essentially that for the world as a whole there is enough, or more than enough, food production potential to meet the growth of effective demand...."
The FAO projections are restricted to being based on the use in world agriculture of 'present-day' technical knowledge only. The report specifically ignores theoretical contributions from any future developments in genetic engineering because of the technical and social uncertainties associated with them. Despite this the report confirms for the period to 2030 that:
Whilst the FAO's quantitative projections discount the GM factor altogether, it is also worth noting that a report by the US Department of Agriculture published 2002 confirms that in America (where most of the pressure to adopt GM technology is coming from) such crops frequently perform no better for farmers, or perform even worse, than conventional crops. So prevalent is this situation that the USDA report concludes from its own economic analysis that: "Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative."
So the obvious remaining question is - 'Why are we taking unnecessary risks with global food security and the environment by introducing GM crops incorporating recombinant DNA?' To reply that 'we shouldn't be' does not mean that modern and innovative technological progress has to be abandoned. It is simply a case of identifying which technologies are appropriate at this stage in the evolution of our scientific knowledge.
The encouraging non-GM based FAO prognosis to 2030 is based in part on a projection that the growth rate in yields for conventional cereal crops will fall to 1.0 % per annum from the 2.5% per achieved during recent decades in developing countries, and to 0.8% from 2.1% for the world as a whole. Even at these reduced levels the FAO forecasts an overall satisfactory outcome for global food needs. It anticipates that crop production increases using existing technology will continue to exceed population growth.
Yet even this favourable prognosis greatly underestimates the scope for increases in productivity available from those biotechnologies which are acceptable to the public. One of these approaches is 'marker assisted selection' (MAS) driven by gene mapping developments in genomics. It is an approach which undoubtedly has special potential for agriculture in developing countries as well as elsewhere.
The September 2002 edition of 'ARIA' (the newsletter of the UK's Arable Research Institute Association ) highlights the work currently being done in conjunction with Syngenta on developing drought tolerance in sugar beet using MAS. This is a much more important area of plant breeding than the relatively trivial, and increasingly self-defeating, issue of herbicide resistance - the principal output of GM crop technology to date which many consider global agriculture can easily live without.
Current MAS drought resistance work at ARIA's Broom's Barn research station is "directed towards locating molecular markers that identify regions in the chromosomes that control drought resistance. With marker assisted selection, environmental conditions during the breeding process are not important. Only at the final stages of variety development does the material need to be tested in the field under drought conditions.... drought tolerance is determined by the combination of many morpho-physiological traits, and each trait is probably determined by several genes...".
These are the types of multi-gene driven characteristics which the report in Nature cited above doubts can be successfully dealt with through genetic engineering. Increasingly traits previously considered to relatively simple are being discovered to be driven much larger numbers of genes than previously thought (as demonstrated for example in recent work on lipid production in oilseeds). In these circumstances the promise of genetic engineering is suddenly starting to look somewhat emasculated.
By contrast 'MAS' is capable of coherently managing large numbers of genes simultaneously. Very significantly, a report in the UK's Farming News 10 May 2001 confirms impressive developments in marker assisted selection applied to conventional plant breeding which is taking place at Monsanto. These developments are expected to generate annual growth rates in wheat yields of more than double those used to generate the already encouraging FAO projections for global food security to 2030. Moreover, it is fully expected that this work on wheat will simultaneously provide spin-off applications for conventional breeding programmes in other major staple crops.
Such potential was recently acknowledged by the Assistant Director General of the Agriculture Department of the FAO, Professor Louise Fresco, at an EU sponsored conference in Brussels in January 2003 when she stated: "Perhaps the greatest potential of biotechnologies does not come from GMOs but from genetic markers, genomics and proteomics which can complement conventional breeding strategies and enhance their efficiency".
Just as importantly, however, (also echoed in a later FAO press release) Dr Fresco says: "Which options will be best suited to address specific production bottle necks in developing countries needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis, taking into account economic, technical, social, trade and safety considerations. For instance, for pest control - by using practices such as crop rotation, soil fertility improvement, biological control and traditional selection techniques. The Integrated Pest Management approach has provided a very successful model for integrating local knowledge with new technologies to tackle local problems.... I am most concerned that agronomic research is becoming increasingly specialized and exclusively focused on the plant or cellular levels. Pressures on research institutes to obtain external funding may lead to over-emphasizing biotech-related research. Already, the perceived profit potential of GMOs has changed the direction of investment away from systems-based approaches to pest management and toward a greater reliance on monocultures: the possible long-term environmental and economic costs of such strategies should not be overlooked. I would like to call urgently for reversing the decline in funding to public research, and creating incentives to harness private/public sector partnerships."
The point is well made. It is abundantly clear that the greatest challenges and opportunities facing global agriculture and food production are not generally related to developments in modern molecular biology or even plant breeding of any kind. They must, therefore, not be allowed to dominate if the greater public good is prevail.
Nonetheless, there is little doubt that molecular approaches to plant breeding will continue to play a supporting role in the future of world agriculture.
'Public Good' and the 'Obvious' Conclusion
So given the general circumstances in relation to the potential of genomics and projected global food production (as both identified by the FAO), isn't the policy decision to drop transgenics - at least for the moment - such an obvious one?
The answer is only 'yes' if you believe that government policy thinking is driven by science and 'public good', and not by its relationship with vested interests.
The outstanding societal and political issue is therefore simply: which of these elements is going to be allowed to prevail? If the case of Canada is anything to go by (see: 'The Real Board of Directors: The Construction of Biotechnology Policy in Canada, 1980-2002' ), to say nothing of that of the United States, then the outlook may not be encouraging.
Since its 2000 report the FAO has become a target of huge pressure from the US government and the biotechnology corporate interests that it favours. According to the Guardian 14 June 2002 : "A [UN FAO] world food summit ended in recrimination yesterday when it was branded a waste of time for everyone except the United States, which successfully sold genetically modified crops as a solution to famine". One member of the US delegation led by Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman made clear what the main US interest in the UN summit was: "We're here to sell biotech, and that's what we've done."
'Biotech' when uttered from American lips, of course, usually means 'GM' and little else. A recent article in Farmers Weekly (4 April 2003) entitled 'Growing credibility gap for US ag secretary Veneman' makes its clear that Ann Veneman's own priority is the promotion of the Bush agenda, and not the interests of US farmers - let alone of those abroad.
Citing a variety of examples (including a surreptitious attempt behind the back of the chairman of the National Organics Standards Board to change US rules to allow non-organic livestock feed in organic agriculture) the magazine's US correspondent, himself an American, states: "A lawyer by training, Veneman has served her main client, President George W Bush, faithfully. She...pushes biotechnology like a used car salesman... [Farmers] are under the impression she works for them. She does not; she has only one boss, George W Bush, and he thinks she's doing a grand job".
Before Veneman became Agriculture Secretary she served on the board of Calgene, the first company to bring a genetically-engineered food, the Flavr Savr tomato, to supermarket shelves. Calgene was subsequently bought out by Monsanto.
It would be a mistake to believe that modern biotechnology is driven by scientific imperative. In his book 'A History of Genetically Modified Plants', Paul Lurquin, Professor of genetics at Washington State University, explains that: "...[by the late 1980s] the field of plant transgenesis had started to drift away from basic science to become resolutely mission oriented and patent driven, as evidenced by the increasing number of publications with authors who were employed by biotechnology companies...". This drift has taken place despite the fact that most of the basic science has not be done.
A more recent report by a US financial risk assessor, Innovest, provides some interesting observations on the industrial-political interface for GM biotechnology in America. It states: "It is understandable that the US Government has essentially taken the industry position on GE safety and labelling.... US Government support for GE crops appears to stem from the fact that the crops are mostly US-developed and that GE companies have made substantial financial contributions to US politicians and political parties. This is not said as a criticism of politicians but rather of the campaign finance system which allows politicians to accept money from the firms they are supposed to regulate. Money flowing from GE companies to politicians as well as the frequency with which GE company employees take jobs with US regulatory agencies (and vice versa) creates large bias potential and reduces the ability of investors to rely on safety claims made by the US Government. It also helps to clarify why the US Government has not taken a precautionary approach to GE and continues to suppress GE labelling in the face of overwhelming public support for it."
Actions Speak Louder Than Rhetoric
So if this political system results in the furtherance of biotech commerce rather than the general 'public good' as the actual policy priority, then in practice how much confidence does the biotechnology sector itself, together with the wider commercial world, have in the basic science? Actions always speak louder than rhetoric.
Firstly, the biotechnology industry is resisting attempts wherever they occur to introduce liability legislation that would make it responsible for any hazards that may arise in due course from GM crops and food. The industry is quite happy to take the financial benefits of patented novel organisms, but not it seems any corresponding financial liabilities arising from such novelty. Why not, if it is so confident in the science?
Actually, if the remarks by Monsanto's Director of Corporate Communications, Phil Angel, to the New York Times magazine 25 October 1998 are anything to go on it doesn't need to be confident - at least in America: "Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the F.D.A's [Food and Drug Administration] job."
Once you can get government to approve a GMO you're off the hook; or at least that seems to be the name of the game. The fact that in the US the FDA doesn't have any obligation to carry out any testing of its own, or any obligation to require labelling or monitoring to help identify problems that might arise once GM food products are in consumer circulation, doesn't appear to come into the reckoning. Oh, boy.
The situation in Europe may be better, but still hardly robust. Current official European Commission research being carried out is based on the concern that "In vivo and in vitro validated nutritional-toxicological testing procedures are urgently required. .....if the testing procedure investigated in this project does not allow assessment of the toxicity of the gene products introduced into the food product via the GM plants, the whole strategy for the safety assessment of novel foods from GM plants will need to be revised".
This is hardly encouraging given that GM foods are already in circulation. In an article in Nature 22 April 1999 it is stated that "Ben Miflin, former director of the Institute of Arable Crops at Rothamsted, near London, who is a proponent of the potential benefits of genetic modification of crops.... argues that, under current monitoring conditions, any unanticipated health impact of such foods would need to be a 'monumental disaster' to be detectable."
Is Miflin suggesting that only if there were BSE style fatalities, for example, would we be any the wiser about any adverse health effects that might arise? As it happens reported food related illnesses in the US have more than doubled since the introduction of GM foods, although no epidemiological studies appear to have been done to establish whether there is any connection. That would be virtually impossible in a country where there is no GM food labelling or consumption monitoring.
The practical realities out in the field make the situation even more complex. A further report carried out on behalf of the European Environment Agency by scientists at the UK's highly regarded National Institute for Agricultural Botany in 2002 confirms that even with the tight controls expected in the EU, crop cross contamination will be inevitable following any widespread commercialisation of GM crops. The report concludes that "At farm and regional scale gene flow can occur over long distances and therefore complete genetic purity will be difficult to maintain within the official isolation distances, for crops such as oilseed rape, maize and sugar beet."
GM DNA has already got into maize crops in Mexico - and it's not even permitted to grow GM varieties there. One of the scientists whose work confirmed this contamination, Dr Ignacio Chapela, was subject to an orchestrated campaign of intimidation in an attempt to prevent dissemination of his findings after he informed the government of Mexico . This appalling treatment was described by the BBC's flagship current affairs programme Newsnight as "a true story of conspiracy and concealment". Chapella is now in danger of losing his post at the University of California where his department has a relationship with the agricultural biotechnology company Syngenta which has been providing large amounts of funding.
The growing spread of transgenes in the environment is especially problematic for organic growers. Whilst no such restriction applies to DNA presence from crops bred using MAS, under EU regulations organic farmers are allowed no element of GM DNA in their produce. In these circumstances the presence of GM DNA on a farm will threaten the rights of the grower to continue farming organically.
Previously the UK Minister for Food Safety at the Ministry of Agriculture Jeff Rooker had promised that organic growers would be protected from GM contamination. In the House of Commons 30 July 1998 he stated: "I want to make it absolutely clear that my Ministry and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will be working with the farming community and representatives of organic farming to ensure that the expansion of organic farming is not compromised by the introduction of genetically modified crops. .... I want to make it clear that that is the most important sentence that I shall say this evening. I genuinely mean that - those are not words to be put in Hansard and forgotten about; I shall follow through .. Given the extremely tight public expenditure restrictions to which we are subject as part of our contract with the electorate, it would be stupid for the Government to push more money into converting to organic farming while allowing the farmers who take that brave step to be damaged by other actions within the process that I have described .."
Secondly (returning to the views of non-farming commerce) the insurance industry is reluctant to write cover for GM related risks. Insurance policies issued by NFU Mutual, the UK's largest agricultural insurer, specifically exclude cover for "any liability arising from the production, supply, or presence on the premises of any genetically modified crop, where liability may be attributed directly or indirectly to the genetic characteristics of such crop".
Proponents of GM crops claim that public fears over GM risks are exaggerated and way beyond what is justified by 'scientific' risk assessments. But that is exactly the type of situation where attractive highly profitable insurance business can be done. Yet the insurance sector is deliberately avoiding such business. Why? It seems clear that they are well aware that the science is immature and that the assessment of GM related risks may be operating well beyond the capacity of science to identify them in advance of their widespread use.
It is that scientific immaturity which goes to the heart of the debate and concern about GMOs. Why are we unwilling to recognise that reality politically when the de facto actions of commerce and industry confirm that internally they recognise it economically?
Who is Briefing the Prime Minister?
So where does all this leave the British government? As the country embarks on its national GM debate the time has come for the British Prime Minister to make the most important choice of his tenure. Right down to the molecular level, is he for the protection of the integrated nature of life or is he against it?
And who is briefing him? If Lord Sainsbury and NFU leader Ben Gill (now a member of the JIC governing council) are at the front of the lobbying queue then the picture Mr Blair is getting is unlikely to be focused on the downside of the technology. And does the Prime Minister in any case really have the time to develop a proper understanding of such vital issues?
To what degree is the Prime Minister aware that pursuing the path of 'genomics' offers him an alternative third way which addresses the key issue of the maintenance of chromosomal integrity and is a route which is based on robust, not compromised, science?
Unfortunately for the rest of us at this critical juncture, the subject of compromised 'chromosomal integrity' seems unlikely to be high on Mr Blair's list of bed time reading as he contemplates dealing with the aftermath of disorder of a more familiar kind in the Persian Gulf.
In this context it is clear that the Prime Minister has never had less time to consider such matters. But they are issues the consequences of which humanity will have to live with long after the effects of the modern world's first 'pre-emptive' war have run their course.
One irony is that whilst we pursue our concerns about the proliferation of modern weapons of mass destruction little attention is drawn to the fact that the same recombinant DNA technology which is used to make some of the most feared biological munitions is also used to create GM crops. And yet the scientific community is happy to keep on telling us that these crops are just 'an extension' of traditional plant breeding.
The cognitive dissonance is striking. Ultimately these problems are not founded in science itself, but in the way science is funded, understood and applied. Ultimately they are issues of individual and collective consciousness, and of the failure of our educational and social systems to ensure their coherence.
Despite the clear opportunities to address those human fundamentals, little progress has been made since the cataclysmic days of Hiroshima. The era of pre-emptive nuclear strikes has now become official policy in Washington, as indeed is the development of the Pentagon's own covert bioweapons genetic engineering programme as reported in the London Times just a few days before the terrorist attacks of September 11.
Nothing can be solved through these destructive developments and in the long term they will become ultimately self-defeating. As Albert Einstein once put it: "Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them." Even the peaceful use of such fundamental technology in the form of nuclear power, once considered so promising that it was thought electricity would become too cheap to meter, has proved to be a huge financial and environmental liability. It has become impossible to privatise the nuclear power sector without large government subsidy.
Today, many extravagant unproven, or even disproven, claims are likewise made for genetic engineering. Will the retreat from the simplistic 'excitement' over this even newer and similarly fundamental technology prove to be as expensive, or more expensive, as it has been in the case of nuclear power? The longer we leave the retreat, the more expensive it is going to be.
With the advent of environmental releases of large numbers of transgenic organisms (including viruses, bacteria, plants and animals) it is easy to imagine that Andrei Sakharov must now be constantly turning in his grave. The destination to which the inherently dis-integrating introduction of recombinant DNA into the world's biological systems must eventually lead is profoundly ugly. If we are to avoid repeating the 'regret' syndrome of Sakharov on an even grander non-retrievable scale, then the moment has come for those scientists who understand the ultimate consequences of this path to stand up and be counted.
To otherwise continue to pursue the incoherent ambitions of this supposed technical 'progress' is to threaten the sustainability of both modern and traditional civilisations alike, both of whom will run the risk of being no longer supported by a coherent biological environment. The very economic growth which is being so vigorously pursued through these means is at risk of being deeply undermined, as well as so much more besides.
The Way Forward for Biotechnology and Sustainable Agriculture? - A Proposal
One of the most prominent internet forums for discussion of agricultural biotechnology issues has been 'AgBioWorld' run by Professor C.S Prakash of Tuskegee University, Alabama. Amongst many others its biotech declaration has been signed by over twenty Nobel Prize winners including Norman Borlaug. The declaration states that the genetic modification of plants "is neither new nor dangerous" and that "The risks posed by foods are a function of the biological characteristics of those foods and the specific genes that have been used, not of the processes employed in their development".
This is simply untrue. As can be seen from the work carried out on transgenic oats at Berkeley (as just one example), the biological characteristics of organisms may themselves be profoundly influenced, not simply by the specific genes introduced, but by the nature of the processes employed in their development. To profess a contrary position represents a profound denial of scientific knowledge. It is almost akin to claiming that the risks associated with wind power are the same as those associated with nuclear power simply because both produce electricity as the end product. Process is closely correlated to risk in many fields of activity.
It is truly alarming that so many scientists, including Nobel Prize winners, should be willing to sign such a declaration.
The purpose of AgBioWorld forum's has been to vigorously promote the use of genetic engineering in world agriculture and Professor Prakash himself has been regularly sponsored by the US government to travel the globe to make the case for it. However, the forum has been well-known for its aggressive, and sometimes abusive, treatment of contributors who have tried to challenge the wisdom of this vision for the future of global agriculture. More recently the forum has been converted to a largely non-interactive email newsletter in an apparent effort to reign in this unseemly type of behaviour.
Before this change, however, Professor Prakash posted the majority of a letter he had received from a critic of GM technology whom he had met at an event at the Royal Agricultural College in the United Kingdom in the summer of 2000. The letter was entitled 'The Way Forward For Biotechnology and Sustainable Agriculture? - A Proposal'. Quoting directly from that letter the proposal was as follows:
The author then suggested the convening of an international conference from a wide range of biological and land management disciplines to explore such issues further.
Professor Prakash responded warmly, thanking the author "for your very thoughtful comments" and advising that he was posting them to the AgBioView discussion forum at his own initiative. The author prepared to be on the receiving end of a lot of reactionary cross fire.
However, with one relatively modest exception there was no attempt by members of the normally 'trigger happy' forum, subscribed to by large numbers of biotechnology academics, to challenge the proposal and the analysis which accompanied it. The proposal was effectively greeted with near total silence, a most unusual circumstance. Did this represent a reluctant recognition of its inherent logic by default? It certainly seemed like it.
This silence has largely continued over the three years which have since elapsed, although it is worth repeating some of Professor Murphy's comments made earlier this year as part of the BBC web discussion on the national GM debate: "It is doubtless useful to develop the relevant expertise in gene transfer, but more immediate and dramatic crop improvements will probably be forthcoming by using the increasing arsenal of other (non-transgenic) biotech methods to facilitate advanced breeding programs."
Ironically the failure of the wider biotechnology community to confront these issues is occurring just at the very point when the new discipline of quantum biology in modern science (of which most genetic engineers have little or no experience) is beginning to transform our understanding of the holistic nature of the genome and our ability to pursue the development of a truly sustainable future for global agriculture and medicine.
In the context of the widespread neglect of this bigger picture profound reform of the outdated and fragmented paradigms of 'modern' biotechnology is urgently required. It is a reform which needs to be driven by the more integrated and transforming understanding of natural law which is now emerging. In part this is arising from the work of those at the cutting edge of the elucidation of those laws of nature which govern the relationship between the sub-atomic quantum mechanical universe and the molecular world of DNA and genomics.
It is also a reform which needs to be driven by the introduction of a new culture of 'glasnost' and 'perestroika' within the scientific community to ensure that the constructs of its own denial and intellectual confinement are well and truly demolished. It is time to break out from behind biotech's 'Berlin wall'.
Prime Minister Blair "if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity... if you seek liberalization... tear down this wall!"
NATURAL LAW PARTY WESSEX
The GM Debate
"The policy issue is not
'how can we best address the problems of world agriculture with genetic engineering?'. The
policy issue is 'what are the problems we face in world agriculture; what are all the
options available to us to deal with them; and which of those options offer the best risk-benefit ratios?'. Few, if any, of the governments in the world have yet been
through that basic thought process in a considered manner."
NLPWessex, 17 November 2002
"The COI [Central Office of
Information], which runs Whitehall's public relations, also fears the [national GM debate] is in danger of ending up as a
meaningless exercise that could further undermine confidence in GM foods. It has urged
Ministers to come clean on how the debate will actually influence GM policy amid growing
suspicion it is merely a propaganda tool."
Advisers brand Blair's GM debate a sham
Observer, 10 November 2002
key scientific adviser to Tony Blair has launched the most damaging attack yet on the
Prime Minister's attempts to persuade the public to accept genetically modified crops. Sir
Tom Blundell, a Labour supporter appointed by Blair to chair the Royal Commission on
Environmental Pollution in 1998, has effectively accused ministers of a fix. In a
three-page letter leaked to the Observer, Blundell condemns ministerial efforts to have an
independent scientific review of GM technology as 'artificial'. He warns that this will be
completed before a public debate has even started....In a strongly-worded letter to
Professor David King, the government's chief scientific adviser who is heading the
scientific review, Blundell, professor of biochemistry at Cambridge University, casts
doubt on the whole process."
Blair adviser attacks Labour GM crops 'fix'
Guardian, 13 April 2003
"[An anonymous government
minister] said Downing Street had already made up its mind on the GM issue and the
consultation would be a public relations offensive for the biotechnology industry.
'They're calling it a consultation, but don't be in any doubt, the decision is already
Public consultation on GM crops 'just PR'
Financial Times, 8 July 2002
|More On The Role Of Genomics In Agriculture|
|The Acceptable Face Of Ag-biotech|
|Soil Association Policy Paper on The Use of Genomics in Organic Agriculture|
"Novartis has already had doubts
(New Scientist, 18 December 1999, p 5) and now Monsanto's patents (W002/28184/5) admit
even more frankly that transgenic pest control 'may not be desirable in the long term'
because it produces resistant strains and 'numerous problems remain... under actual field
GM plants no panacea
New Scientist August 17, 2002 Vol. 175; Pg. 22
"It sounds like an
environmentalist's dream. Low-tech 'sustainable agriculture', shunning chemicals in favour
of natural pest control and fertiliser, is pushing up crop yields on poor farms across the
world, often by 70 per cent or more. But it's no dream. That's the claim being made in the
biggest ever survey of green-minded farming (see p 16). The
findings will make sobering reading for people convinced that only genetically modified
crops can feed the planet's hungry in the 21st century. ..The survey shows there is a
better way. A new science-based revolution is gaining strength built on real research into
what works best on the small farms where a billion or more of the world's hungry live and
work. For some, talk of 'sustainable agriculture' sounds like a luxury the poor can ill
afford. But in truth it is good science, addressing real needs and delivering real
results. For too long it has been the preserve of environmentalists and a few aid
charities. It is time for the major agricultural research centres and their funding
agencies to join the revolution."
'The Greener Revolution'
New Scientist, February 3, 2001
"Professor Richard Dawkinss
assertion that genes are a 'software subroutine', which can therefore be moved with
precision by genetic engineering between totally unrelated organisms (T2, January 28),
reflects the naivety of individuals who theorise about genetics rather than those working
with it first-hand. Genetic engineering, either in an animal or plant context, always has
unpredictable outcomes and they are frequently greater than the intended change. This is
because it is wrong to consider genes as independent units of information, which can be
accurately slotted into the genetic code of any organism. Genes have evolved within a
given organism to work in combinations in the context of an immensely complex genetic,
biochemical and ecological environment. The 'Luddism' of the Prince of Wales and Peter
Melchett in objecting to GM food on this occasion is supported by empirical scientific
The Dawkins approach to scientific fact and fiction
Dr Michael Antoniou, Letter, London Times, 1 February 2003
"I accept the argument that
genetic modification is not simply speeding up the natural process. It cannot be when
genes are mixed from different species. There is some comfort in the regulatory
process for medicine which, I admit, is not
in place for food and agriculture ....."
Jeff Rooker, Minister of State for Food Safety, House of Commons, July 30 1998
"Health Canada has decided not to
approve the use of a controversial [genetically engineered] hormone that boosts milk
production in cows, because of a new report that finds the drug may hurt the health of
animals injected with it. The announcement on bovine growth hormone to be made tomorrow is
the latest development in a controversy that dates back almost a decade.The hormone,
manufactured by Monsanto Corp., has been approved in the United States since 1993...
[Canadian Government] scientists have pushed internally for more study on the growth
hormone, although documents show that several years ago their managers had decided it was
safe. Six scientists alleged they were pressed to approve the drug despite their fears
that it wasn't safe, although their complaint was recently dismissed by a labour board.
One of the scientists told a Senate committee that Monsanto had
offered government scientists a bribe of research money
if they approved the drug, an allegation the company has denied."
Ottawa Refuses to Approve Bovine Growth Hormone
Toronto Globe and Mail, Thursday, January 14, 1999
"A genetically engineered
drug called bovine growth hormone (BGH) has been given to 30 percent of U.S. dairy cows over the last five years to make them produce more milk. There has
been indirect evidence that BGH might contribute to breast and prostate cancer in humans,
and today a consumer group called the Center for Food Safety began legal action to have
the hormone pulled off the market. CFS is charging that the Food and Drug
Administration has ignored evidence of potential health hazards from BGH. Twice a
month, genetically engineered BGH is injected into 3 million dairy cows in the United
States. The milk these cows produce is then shipped throughout the country as milk, cream,
cheese and yogurt, and in baked and other goods. Products from cows that receive BGH are
almost never labeled as such. The FDA concluded that milk from these hormone-treated
cows is 'safe for human consumption.' But a recent review of the evidence challenges the
FDA's conclusion. 'It was their job to take a careful look at every study,' says
Andy Kimbrell from the Center for Food Safety. 'We now know they did not do so.' When the
FDA approved bovine growth hormone, it relied in part on an unpublished animal study done
by the Monsanto Corp., the same company that wanted to sell the hormone. The FDA
publicly reported the study's results, saying that rats fed high doses of the hormone over
a 90-day period showed no evidence they had absorbed the hormone. In Canada, where
the use of BGH is now being hotly debated, government scientists recently reviewed all the
data from the Monsanto study, and came up with startlingly different conclusions.
The Health Protection Branch of the Canadian government says the Monsanto study actually
provided evidence that 20 to 30 percent of the rats did absorb the hormone into their
bloodstream. The Canadian scientists say that the data also showed that some male
rats developed cysts in the thyroid, and that higher levels of the hormone were detected
in the prostate. Five government scientists in Canada had enough questions about the
safety of BGH that they recently took the unprecedented step of making their
concerns known to the public.... The FDA declined ABCNEWS requests for an interview."
Is Cow's Milk Additive Safe?
ABC News, 15 December 1998
A significant danger is that
scientists, together with farmers who produce the [GM] food, will lose the trust of
citizens by being less than wholly honest about potential problems
. It is this lack
of responsibility that could irreparably damage science as a whole.
The potential effects of Genetically-Modified (GM) crops on the countryside and rural economy
Countryside Agency Report, August 2002
"There is no doubt that there is
potential for harm, both in terms of human safety and in the diversity of our environment,
from GM foods and crops"
Tony Blair, UK Prime Minister, Independent on Sunday, 27 February 2000
"Perhaps the greatest potential of biotechnologies does
not come from GMOs but from genetic markers, genomics and proteomics which can complement
conventional breeding strategies and enhance their efficiency".
Professor Louise O Fresco, Assistant Director of Agriculture of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations
EU Discussion Forum
'Towards Sustainable Agriculture for Developing Countries: Options from Life Sciences and
Biotechnologies', Brussels, 30-31 January 2003
"Looking to the future, it's unclear whether complex
traits, which are thought to involve multiple genes, will be amenable to manipulation
through genetic engineering... By contrast, practical experience has shown that
conventional breeding can be used to improve a suite of subtle traits simultaneously....
some experts suggest that the future lies in boosting the power of conventional breeding
by marrying it to genomic and other molecular-genetic techniques... One beacon of hope
comes from a consortium of researchers at 12 institutions headed by Jorge Dubcovsky, a
wheat molecular geneticist at the University of California, Davis. Its primary tool is
'marker assisted selection' (MAS). This technique, enthusiasts claim, could offer to plant
breeding what the jet engine has brought to air travel.... MASwheat, as the consortium is
known, aims to select for 23 separate traits in wheat, conferring resistance to fungi,
viruses and insect pests. Its members also hope to breed the grain to produce bread and
pasta of superior quality. Notably, the consortium is making all of its marker sequences
and research protocols freely available."
Crop Improvement: A Dying Breed
Nature 421, 568 - 570 (2003)
"All policy makers must be
vigilant to the possibility of research data being manipulated by corporate bodies and of
scientific colleagues being seduced by the material charms of industry. Trust is no
defence against an aggressively deceptive corporate sector."
THE LANCET, April 2000
Modern Science's Iron Curtain
|Evidence of aggressive corporate deception involving government,
researchers and the media - click here and here
|Evidence of misrepresentation of research to the public and the media
to suit commercial objectives - click here and here
|Evidence of widespread industry pressure on scientists to tailor their
research findings and advice to suit sponsors - click here
|Evidence of the falsification of data to suit commercial objectives - click here|
|Evidence that even indirect industry-linked funding can critically
distort researchers' findings and published opinions on issues relevant
to public safety - click here and here
|Evidence of government coordination of scientists' contributions to
the media to support its pro-biotech line and rebut scientific and
political criticism - click here and here and here
|Evidence of pressure to suppress publication of unfavourable research
evidence - click here
|Evidence of pressure on journalists to under-report unfavourable
research evidence - click here
|Evidence of the use of silencing agreements to gag scientists - click here|
|Evidence of scientists' self-censorship and of the direct suppression
of dissenting scientists - click here
|Evidence of corporate bias in the science base of
regulatory bodies charged with protecting the public interest - click here and here
|Evidence that patents and other financial interests may be influencing
researchers' behaviour in ways which could place the public at risk - click here
|Evidence of suppression of unfavourable research evidence into product
safety - click here
|Evidence that the withholding of unfavourable research evidence into
product performance may have led to thousands of deaths - click here
"Well I think there is a very
real problem from the point of view of university research in the way that private
companies have entered the university, both with direct companies in the universities and
with contracts to university researchers. So that in fact the whole climate of what might
be open and independent scientific research has disappeared, the old idea that
universities were a place of independence has gone. Instead of which one's got secrecy,
one's got patents, one's got contracts and one's got shareholders."
Professor Steven Rose of the Open University Biology Dept
Science Fact or Fraud?
BBC World Service, 15 September 2000
All of these companies have a
piece of me. I'm getting checks waved at me from Monsanto and American Cyanamid and Dow,
and it's hard to balance the public interest with the private interest. It's a very
difficult juggling act, and sometimes I don't know how to juggle it all.
John Benedict, former Texas AW University entomologist
A Growing Concern
Mother Jones, January/February 1997
"[The government is ] very, very
close to a number of the companies that are involved... We now have information that
Monsanto has hired people who were working very closely with
Labour both before and during the last election. There's a danger that commercial
pressures on the government are going to influence the decision rather than the overriding
need, which is to protect the consumer."
Tim Yeo, UK shadow Agriculture Minister
BBC Online, 14 February 1999
Science as Culture, Volume 11 Number 1 March
'GM FOOD SAFETY: Scientific and Institutional Issues'
"You've probably heard of a molecule called DNA,
otherwise known as 'The Blueprint Of Life'. Molecular biologists have been examining and
mapping the DNA for a few decades now. But as they've looked more closely at the DNA,
they've been getting increasingly bothered by one inconvenient little fact - the fact that
97% of the DNA is junk, and it has no known use or function! But, an usual collaboration
between molecular biologists, cryptoanalysists (people who break secret codes), linguists
(people who study languages) and physicists, has found strange hints of a hidden language
in this so- called 'junk DNA'.... Only about 3% of the DNA
actually codes for amino acids, which in turn make proteins, and eventually, little
babies. The remaining 97% of the DNA is, according to conventional wisdom, not gems, but
junk. The molecular biologists call this junk DNA, introns... So now, around the edge of
the new millennium, we have a reasonable understanding of the 3% of the DNA that makes
amino acids, proteins and babies. And the remaining 97% - well, we're pretty sure that
there is some language buried there, even if we don't yet know what it says."
Language in junk DNA
Dr Kruszelnicki, The Science Foundation for Physics, University of Sydney
"One of the most intriguing observations in the process
of making transgenic plants is the high percentage of failures. While the plant is trying
to re-organize itself from scratch, many forces are at work: plant hormones that stimulate
plant growth and development; antibiotics that kill the cell unless it takes up the gene
fragment offered. The plant is disoriented and therefore it is a miracle that it can
eventually restore its form and can cope with the new properties that have been forced
upon it. Not rarely, this results in metabolic changes that are totally unexpected. Every
transgenic plant line is a new individual, which has responded differently to the
challenge of transgenesis. Therefore one should ask the
question what does the whole process of genetic manipulation mean to the essence of a
Plant molecular biologist, and Professor of Plant Physiology, University of Amsterdam
Ifgene Workshop 2001: Intrinsic Value and Integrity of Plants in the Context of Genetic Engineering
To obtain a copy of the proceedings of this and other important ' If gene' workshops - click here
"... some genes are
epistatic to others, meaning that they control the expression of other genes. These
regulatory genes complicate things even further... scrambling, duplication, integration of
concatemers, and integration at multiple independent loci have been demonstrated in direct gene transfer experiments, regardless of the uptake technique used... the
mechanism by which DNA becomes integrated after direct gene transfer is still unknown...
[by the late 1980s] the field of plant transgenesis had started to drift away from basic
science to become resolutely mission oriented and patent driven, as evidenced by the
increasing number of publications with authors who were employed by biotechnology
companies... a [new] methodology (that some claim could have been invented only in the
United States) was born in 1987. It involved the use of modified firearms aimed at whole
cells... The technique became known as biolistics, particle bombardment, or the gene
gun... the velocity beads had to be just right: Too much power and the plant cell was
splattered all over the shooting chamber..."
Paul Lurquin, Professor of genetics, Washington State University
'A History of Genetically Modified Plants', Columbia University Press 2001
technical dossier submitted for commercial approval claimed that RR soya had a single
insert with the intended order of genes. It turns out not to be the case. Not only is the
gene order of the insert itself scrambled, the plant DNA at the site of insertion is also
scrambled, and there is a large 534 bp fragment of unknown origin in there as well".
ISIS News No 9/10 July 2001
"In a recent survey of at least thirty
companies developing transgenic plants for use in agriculture, all companies observed some transgene instability ... Many
research laboratories have also reported difficulties in obtaining sufficiently high
expression of certain transgenes or in stabilising transgene expression of an introduced
gene. In a recent study in our
laboratory, one hundred Brassica napus [oil seed rape] transgenic lines were produced and
half of them displayed unstable or unusual transgene behaviour.... Any areas of internal homology or of inverted DNA sequence
repeats may potentially increase the likelihood of instability and unusual transgene
expression....It is common to observe substantial
variation in transgene expression between independently transformed plants......Recent research in our laboratory with Brassica napus plants containing the 35S promoter from
the mosaic virus (CaMV) has shown that upon
infection with the CaMV the driven transgene is silenced (Al-Kaff et al unpublished).
Intensive research at present is directed towards understanding this silencing mechanism
and its significance. As the 35S promoter is widely
used to regulate transgenics in brassicas, it is important that we strive to obtain a
clear understanding of the mechanisms of this silencing and its significance. This is important for two reasons, for assessing the use of the
35S promoter in agriculture and also for assessing the
significance of this effect for biosafety. ... Many
factors influence the ways in which transgenes express, but a factor of crucial importance
is the effect of DNA sequences that are homologous to areas of transgene constructs. .....the take home message from this paper is 'watch out for homology'..."
Dale (John Innes Centre) et al,
1998 ACTA Horticulturae 459, 167-171
"Because we rely largely
on our knowledge of classical genetics to inform biosafety assessment, it is important to determine whether transgenes are the same as resident
genes in every respect. As there are some differences, it is important to consider
the consequences of those differences for influencing biosafety
assessments.... By [GM recombinant DNA] transformation it is possible to introduce
genes into plants from any class of organism and therefore it is considered potentially
possible to produce a plant phenotype of which there is little or no
experience ....For biosafety assessment purposes the essential differences between conventional breeding and
transgenic modification are summarised in Table 17.1... "
Dale (John Innes Centre) et al
Transgenic Plant Research 1998, 277 - 285
"We can find no compelling scientific
arguments to demonstrate that GM crops are innately different from non-GM crops"
Dale (John Innes Centre) et al
Nature Biotechnology, June 2002, 20 Number 6 pp567 - 574
"Cognitive dissonance is a psychiatric condition in
which the patient finds it absolutely impossible to accept a reality which conflicts with
Denis Healey, MP and former Chancellor, on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
House of Commons, 25 November 1988 (Hansard))
perception that everything is totally straightforward and safe [with GM food] is utterly
naive. I don't think we fully understand the dimensions of what we're getting into."
Professor Philip James (author of the 'James' report commissioned by Tony Blair on the structure and functions of the UK Food Standards Agency ), Director of the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen, speaking on genetically engineered food risks
Scottish Daily Record, 3 February 1998
Miflin, former director of the Institute of Arable Crops at Rothamsted, near London, who
is a proponent of the potential benefits of genetic modification of crops.... argues that,
under current monitoring conditions, any unanticipated health impact of such foods would
need to be a 'monumental disaster' to be detectable."
Nature, Volume 398:651, April 22, 1999
Taking A Look At The Future Of World Agriculture
|How much do we actually need GMOs in world agriculture? - Meeting of Assn of Formulation Chemists|
|Why GMOs are not needed to eradicate world hunger|
|Why GM crops are not needed for sustainable industrial products|
|'An ordinary miracle' - sustainable agriculture without GMOs - 'New Scientist'|
|Genetic diversity and disease control in rice - 'Nature'|
|Integrated Pest Management pays off - 'Cotton World'|
|'Magic bean' transforms agriculture in Central America|
|Monsanto 'MAB' progress reinforces positive FAO world food forecast|
|NLPWessex Sustainable Agriculture Web Links|
|Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World?|
|Solar Energy, Agriculture and World Peace|
|Quantum bio-physics in living organisms|
|Lifesciences breakthrough for Sustainable Health and Agriculture - 'Frontiers in Bioscience'|
|Solution to the GM debate? - The Acceptable Face Of Ag-biotech|
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