A 1 Introduction to the Campaign

In this section...

A 1.1 The effects and implications of genetically modified plants

"History celebrates the battlefields whereon we meet our death, but scorns to speak of the ploughed fields whereby we thrive; it knows the names of king's bastards, but cannot tell us the origin of wheat. That is the way of human folly."

Jean Henri Fabre

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.

A1.1.1 The unpredictable effects of genetic modification

The proponents of genetic modification of food crops claim that it is safe, more precise and a natural extension of traditional cross-breeding methods and that all they are doing is giving nature a helping hand.

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

A1.1.2 Risks of genetically modified foods to human health

Although there has so far been limited exposure of humans to GM foods there is already evidence of risks to human health.

A1.1.2.1 Toxic and allergenic effects

Due to the unpredictable pattern of gene expression and function there is the potential for the production of unexpected proteins and novel toxins in GM food crops.

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.

A1.1.2.2 New and more virulent viruses

Genetic modification of food crops involves the transfer of a foreign gene into the host plant cell by a carrier, known as a vector, such as a virus or bacteria. While natural vectors generally respect species barriers, the artificial vectors made by genetic engineers are designed to break through these barriers, thus greatly enhancing the potential for creating new and possibly more virulent viral and bacterial pathogens which can in turn infect humans and animals.

A1.1.2.3 Resistance to antibiotics

As the process for adding new genes to host plant cells is random, genetic engineers add "marker" genes at the same time so that they can tell which plant cells have been genetically modified. The commonest marker gene used is an antibiotic resistance gene. Instead of removing the gene after the research stage the scientists have left it in the host plant cells and a number of GM crops currently on trial contain the antibiotic resistance gene. There is growing concern that the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM crops will exacerbate the already serious problem of antibiotic resistant infectious disease, for example by the spread of antibiotic resistance to human and animal gut microorganisms after eating GM crops.

A1.1.3 Risks to the environment and the effect on biodiversity

A1.1.3.1 Increasing use of pesticides

The main focus of the biotechnology companies so far has been on the creation of crops resistant to herbicides, particularly glyphosate (e.g. Monsanto's Round-up Ready Soya) and glufosinate (e.g. AgrEvo's glufosinate resistant oil seed rape). This approach is flawed at a fundamental level as the production of herbicide resistant GM crops encourages farmers to look upon the use of herbicides as the first choice for weed control, rather than as one of a number of options. Monsanto has applied in several countries for a relaxation in environmental legislation to allow a 200 fold increase in glyphosate residues in soya, an indication that Monsanto acknowledge, contrary to their recent advertising campaign, that the use of GM crops will increase herbicide usage. Increased use of herbicides will mean not only higher residues in food but also serious losses of weeds within crops, around field edges and in hedgerows, all very important food sources for wildlife. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, together with other conservation bodies, is calling for a moratorium on commercial growing of GM herbicide tolerant crops because of their concerns about the effects of increased herbicide usage on food sources for birds.

A1.1.3.2 Gene pollution and super weeds

Genes move between plants by cross-pollination - a process known as horizontal gene transfer. GM oil seed rape has been shown to cross-pollinate with ordinary oil seed rape growing 2.5 km away from the GM crop. It is highly likely then, that when GM oil seed rape is planted on a large scale all oil seed rape will rapidly become contaminated with the modified genes. Organic standards do not allow GM materials in organic produce and so farmers will be unable to grow organic oil seed rape. Oil seed rape, including GM oil seed rape, also cross-pollinates very easily with wild relatives such as wild turnip and wild radish. These wild relatives will become herbicide resistant where they cross- pollinate with GM oil seed rape with a herbicide resistance gene, creating "super weeds".

A1.1.3.3 Plants with built-in insecticide

Some crops have been designed to be resistant to pests by the incorporation of genes which produce proteins which are toxic to insects. For example Novartis have produced a GM maize plant with genes for the production of Bt toxin. Bt toxin is a very effective bio-pesticide used by organic farmers on a "one-off" basis to kill insect pests. In GM crops with the Bt gene, the gene is never switched off and so the plant produces low levels of Bt continuously. This is a very effective way to put an adaptive pressure on the insect pests to become resistant to Bt, thereby creating "super bugs" and removing from organic farmers the use of a very effective pesticide. In addition, the newly incorporated toxins may be harmful to beneficial insects either directly or indirectly. For example, green lacewings, beneficial predators that fed on cornborers which had in turn fed on Novartis' Bt maize, showed increased mortality when compared to cornborers that had fed on conventional maize. Trials for GM potatoes modified with a gene from snowdrops which produced a toxin against greenflies were stopped when it was found that when the poisoned greenflies were fed to beneficial ladybirds: the female ladybirds laid up to 30 per cent less eggs than usual and died after only half of their normal life expectancy.

A1.1.3.4 Bees and polluted honey

Honey bees are the primary pollinators of oil seed rape and it is likely that honey from a hive close to a GM oil seed rape field will contain large amounts of GM pollen. This GM pollen may introduce into the honey as yet unknown proteins that could have toxic or allergenic effects on humans and bees. Beekeepers producing honey from a hive close to a GM crop field will not be able to claim that their honey is organic because of the high risk that it will contain GM pollen. It has been shown that bees feeding on GM pest resistant crops have their life-span reduced.

A1.1.3.5 Soil bacteria and horizontal gene transfer

Natural transformation, the ability of bacteria to actively take up free DNA, is a method by which plant DNA can be transferred to bacteria. Around 40 species of bacteria, some of which are soil or water borne, are known to have the ability for natural transformation. It has been shown in scientific experiments that horizontal gene transfer from GM plants (in that case GM sugarbeet) to bacteria can occur. It is likely then that gene pollution will spread for many miles around GM crop fields, carried by soil and water borne bacteria.

A1.1.4 Food security and hunger

"Ironically while the poor go hungry, it is the hunger of the poor which is used to justify the agricultural strategies which deepen their hunger" Vandana Shiva

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.

A1.1.5 Patents and biopiracy

Current forecasts suggest that in less than two years' time the market for genetically modified foods in the UK alone will be worth around 9billion. In the area of food production, the main profits for biotechnology companies are generated from the sale of patented GM seed.

Undermining autonomy
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.

A1.1.6 Ethics and morals

Stephen Nottingham's book 'Eat Your Genes' identifies three key issues around the ethics and morality of GM foods. These are (i) ethical concerns about the transfer of particular genes (ii) whether genetic modification increases the suffering of animals and (iii) whether life can be owned.

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 committee):

"[Consumers] do not even know what a gene is... Often my young son wants to cross the road when it is dangerous. Sometimes you just have to tell people what is best for them."

Further reading

A1.2 Inspirations

The original Snowball campaign took place in the mid 80s and involved nearly 3000 people at over 42 different places in Britain. All participants agreed to a nonviolence code, wrote a personal statement and contacted the relevant authorities before cutting a single strand of perimeter fence wire, in the presence of police.

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:

"They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4).

To date there have been over 60 ploughshare actions, which take nonviolence to mean the careful disarming of weapons, being accountable for the action taken and accepting the consequences of their action; consequently they are arrested and imprisoned. The actions usually arise out of community and also aspire to openness, democracy, and to moving through fear and challenging obedience. There is usually a strong sense of spirituality; not all activists are Christian (although many are) but have also been buddhist, jewish, pantheistic, etc., and plenty have been atheists. Actions have taken place in the USA, Australia, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain.

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.

The beginning of the first Snowball
at USAF Sculthorpe on 1st October 1994

Further reading: motivations and inspirations

The following books are available from the Quaker Bookshop, Friends House, 173 to 177 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BJ.

Inspirational viewing by video