In this section...
A1.1.1 The unpredictable effects of GM
A1.1.2 Risks of GM foods to human health
A126.96.36.199 Toxic and allergenic effects
A188.8.131.52 New and more virulent viruses
A184.108.40.206 Resistance to antibiotics
A1.1.3 Risks to the environment and biodiversity
A220.127.116.11 Increasing use of pesticides
A18.104.22.168 Gene pollution and super weeds
A22.214.171.124 Plants with built-in insecticide
A126.96.36.199 Bees and polluted honey
A188.8.131.52 Soil bacteria and horizontal gene transfer
A1.1.4 Food security and hunger
A1.1.5 Patents and biopiracy
A1.1.6 Ethics and morals
A1.1.6 Further reading
This appendix gives a brief introduction to the genetic modification of food crops. For further information please refer to the reading list at the end of this appendix.
This is not the case - genetic engineering permits the transfer of genes between totally unrelated organisms, circumventing natural species barriers e.g. the introduction of a fish gene, the "antifreeze" gene of the arctic flounder, into tomatoes and strawberries. This crossing of species barriers is something that would never happen by traditional breeding methods.
The method of introduction of the new gene is not at all precise. The new gene is randomly incorporated (spliced) into the plant's own DNA, it could end up anywhere, next to any gene or even within one of the plant's own genes. Genes do not work in isolation and the activity of each gene is affected by its neighbours. The random splicing of the new gene into the plant may then cause a totally unpredictable disturbance to the normal function and regulation of the plant's own genes. For example in an experiment to turn white flowering petunias red, a gene for the colour red, together with an antibiotic resistance gene, was transferred from maize to the petunia. The petunia turned red but also grew more leaves and shoots, had lower fertility and was more resistant to fungi. None of these additional effects was predictable. Further the introduced gene may not work in the same way in its new host. The antifreeze gene in the arctic flounder has evolved to work with the other genes in that fish - there is no way to predict whether it will work in exactly the same way with no unwanted side effects in the tomato or strawberry where it will be in a new environment surrounded by the plant's genes.
There are many unanswered questions about the basic science behind the technology of genetic engineering and many believe that until we have answers to these questions genetic engineering should be kept in the laboratory. Others, principally the biotechnology companies and the government are anxious to push the technology forward before these questions are answered, paying no heed to the fact that once released into the environment, genetic mistakes cannot be recalled, cleaned up or allowed to decay but will be passed on to future generations indefinitely.
"What makes genetic engineering biotechnology dangerous, in the first instance, is that it is an unprecedented, close alliance between two great powers that can make or break the world; science and commerce." Dr Mae-Wan Ho, geneticist
For example, when a gene from the brazil nut was introduced into the soybean, people allergic to brazil nuts were also found to be allergic to the GM soya. Fortunately allergies to brazil nut proteins were well known and were tested for leading to the swift withdrawal of the GM soya. It is however possible that unknown allergens could be developed unintentionally in GM foods as tests for allergenicity are targeted at known allergens and are not designed to reveal new allergens. Food allergies are increasing, the development of GM foods with the potential for the presence of novel proteins will only exacerbate the problem.
In 1989 there was an epidemic of a new disease, eosinophilia myalgia syndrome. The disease was traced to the consumption of a food supplement derived from bacteria genetically engineered to overproduce the aminoacid, L-tryptophan. The excessive amounts of L-tryptophan in the bacterial cells led to the formation of a novel toxin, which contaminated the final product. Of 5,000 people who contracted the disease, 37 died and 1,500 are permanently disabled.
A GM yeast engineered for better fermentation of beer and bread was found to have abnormally high levels of a metabolite, methyl glyoxal, a chemical known to cause damage to DNA. The scientists who carried out this work believe that the risk assessments required by the present regulatory system, which are based on the principle of substantial equivalence (i.e. that the new food, even though it is GM, is substantially the same as foods already available for consumption), would not have required testing for the DNA damaging chemical, even though it has the potential to cause cancers.
"The unexpected production of toxic substances has now been observed in genetically engineered bacteria, yeast, plants, and animals with the problem remaining undetected until a major health hazard has arisen. Moreover, genetically engineered foods may produce an immediate effect or it could take years for full toxicity to come to light." Dr Michael Antoniou MA,PhD. Senior Lecturer in Molecular Pathology, London.
Proponents of genetic modification argue that it will allow us to feed the world's hungry. This is not only misleading but also ignores some of the disastrous effects which may arise from widespread reliance on GM. Malnutrition and hunger are caused by complex political and economic factors around access to food: GM is more likely to exacerbate these than alleviate them. The introduction of GM crop monocultures, with their genetic uniformity are vulnerable to pests and disease outbreaks: genetically diverse crops contain a proportion of plants that are likely to have some degree of resistance. Many countries' agricultural systems recognise this and already possess the genetic resources to guarantee a sustainable food supply.
The actual types of food being grown by the biotechnology companies demonstrate that increasing food availability is not high on their agenda. Most of the food products from transgenic crops have been marketed to consumers in affluent industrialised countries, eg, Monsanto's high-starch 'quick fry' potato for the fast food market. These crops rarely fit in with traditional local diets or the plans of local farmers. GM applications are also spreading the cultivation of non-food crops such as cotton or tobacco. More of these will not increase food availability or alleviate starvation in the Third World.
The technological shifts which biotechnology implies will further bring economic losses and resultant food insecurity for many Third World countries as agricultural production is transferred into laboratories and factories in the industrialised world. The story of vanilla demonstrates this. Vanilla is a major export crop for Madagascar, the Comoro Islands and Reunion which between them account for over 98% of the world's vanilla production. In Madagascar, over 70 000 small holders are involved in the growing of vanilla and the crop accounts for 10% of the country's export earnings. This trade is threatened, as vanilla can now be produced by taking plant tissue and growing it under tissue culture conditions. Ultimately, food insecurity and hunger will not be solved by gene technology whilst structural, cultural and political factors around food production and distribution remain unresolved.
Traditional farming practices involve farmers retaining seeds from the harvest of one year's crop for planting in the following year. However, with GM seed, farmers have to make substantial royalty payments to multinational companies if they keep seed for replanting, even if the crop happens to be native to their particular country. This sytem of patents undermines the autonomy of Third World farmers whilst imposing monopoly control over some of the world's most important food crops.
From common to corporate ownership
Patent legislation could severely restrict the traditional uses of plants in the Third World. The neem tree, for example, has been used for centuries in India as a source of insecticide, providing an economically and environmentally friendly form of crop protection. Chemical companies in theUSA have taken out a series of patents on neem based products effectively taking ownership out of the common sphere and into the corporate.
The world's poorest nations account for around 95.7% of the world's genetic resources. Many of the biotech 'inventions' which patents claim are not inventions at all but are based on locally developed biodiversity and knowledge. This biopiracy has been compared to colonialism, "Corporations continue to practice the colonialism on which they were founded. This time it is directed, not at distant countries, but at life itself. They have found rich new worlds to raid: the genetic wealth of diverse species, the work of farmers and indigenous people and the intellectual wealth that they have accumulated and handed down over millenia" Helena Paul. Ismail Serageldin, chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, speaking at the World Food Summit in November 1996, feared that biotechnology patents, largely owned by industrialised nations, could create a 'scientific apartheid' which locks 80% of people in the developing world out of scientific advances.
The first of these raises questions around the transfer of human genes to animals raised as food; the transfer of genes from animals whose flesh is forbidden to certain religious groups to animals that are permitted as food;and the transfer of animal genes to crop plants.
On the second, genetic modification extends current arguments around traditional livestock breeding. These are that changes in food production are detrimental to animal welfare and animals are being treated as profit inducing commodities.
The third issue, whether life can be owned, raises several profound questions. Can life be treated merely as a commodity? Can it be reduced to strings of DNA with industrial applications? Should unaccountable corporations, whose existence is based on the profit motive not social concern, own the biological underpinnings of life? And anyway, what is wrong with life and nature as we know it?
Science is not neutral and value-free: the direction in which it is driven depends upon conscious choice.
Janet Bainbridge, chair of the Advisory Committee on
Novel Foods and Processes (Britain's GMO regulation
This symbolic action led to over 2000 arrests and minor court cases in which the defendents explained their actions to court officials, magistrates, the press and members of the general public. Some 1000 participants chose to refused to pay their fines imposed for their actions and served short prison sentences. The activists came from a broad cross-section of society including vicars, ex-RAF servicemen, sunday school teachers, health authority workers, mothers and fathers - ordinary people taking extraordinary action. After their action each person tried to find two or three more people who could take part, and so the snowball grew large enough to achieve its aims.
The Swords into Ploughshares tradition began in the US in 1980 when eight people who used hammers to disarm nuclear warheads. They were inspired by an Old Testament prophecy:
In Britain there have been three ploughshare actions of which Seeds of Hope Ploughshares is the latest; and there is a fourth - Trident Ploughshares 2000 - currently under way.Perhaps the most "well-known" action took place in Britain in 1996. This was the Seeds of Hope - East Timor Ploughshares in which four women used hammers to disarm a Hawk warplane which was to be exported to Indonesia. The four women were acquitted in a landmark trial by a jury who recognised that the women had good reason to take such drastic action - the warplanes were to be used in genocidal attacks against the people of East Timor.
We are especially moved by the Ploughshares people's commitment to nonviolence and democracy; the humility in their readiness to invite judgement and to be continuously self-critical; and their courage to take action as a witness in a world which is largely sterile in spiritual terms.
Thus we have spent several months studying and evaluating Ploughshares philosophy and the methods they use and have drawn heavily from them. The key difference between our methods and Ploughshares methods is that we do not intend to cause large amounts of "damage" by a small group of people. Rather we want to involve large numbers of people in doing small amounts of the work needed to make Britain GM free.