GM Food Hazards and the Science War
Consumer Choice Council, Seattle
1 December, 1999
Thank you very much for inviting me here and thank you all for being
here. I am very honored, especially to be in a session moderated by
Senator Dennis Kucinich who has introduced such an important bill for
labeling genetic engineered foods to the US Congress. I am a senior
academic in the Open University in UK, a geneticist and a biophysicist,
also advisor to the TWN and other public interest organizations on
biotechnology and biosafety since 1994. I have debated biotech issues in
more than 20 countries and written a book, Genetic Engineering Dream
or Nightmare? The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business.
I am here on behalf of more than 140 scientists from 27 countries to
deliver an open letter to all government delegates at the WTO, calling for
a moratorium on genetic engineered crops and products because they are
dangerous, and for patents on life-forms and living processes to be
revoked and banned because they are deeply immoral. As you have already
heard, they give unaccountable corporations a monopoly on life and our
There is a lot of misinformation and dis-information put out by the
biotech industry and their suppporters including our governments. Only
yesterday, US Senator Kit Bond gave a press conference in which four
scientists, all biotechnologists and friendly to the industry, told
- We absolutely need genetic engineered crops to feed the world. (You
have just heard that myth soundly exploded by David Bryer of Oxfam.)
- The miracle crops are just around the corner. (We have been promised
miracle crops that fix nitrogen, resist drought, tolerate salt, increase
yield and so on for at least 30 years. They have not materialized. It
has been a series of broken promises.)
- There is no difference between genetic engineering crops and
conventional breeding, except it is much more precise. (That is not
true, and I shall deal with that in detail.)
- Genetic engineered crops offer no new risks. (Again I shall deal with
that in detail.)
- No one has died yet from eating genetic engineered foods. (Well,
there has been no segregation, no labelling and no one has been
- Genetic engineered food is the most tightly regulated and scrutinized
for safety than any other food. (Ill deal with that later too.)
Let me add that engineering crops to enhance nutrition ignores the root
cause of malnutrition, which is the industrial monoculture crops that have
led to a deterioration of the nutritional value of food within the past 50
years, and the destruction of natural and agricultural biodiversity on
which a healthy balanced diet depends. We dont need vitamin A
enhanced rice when we can eat carrots with our rice.
The latest surveys on genetic engineered crops in the US, the largest
grower by far, showed no significant benefit. On the contrary, the most
widely grown genetic engineered crops - herbicide-tolerant soya beans -
yielded on average 6.7% less and required two to five times more
herbicides than non-genetic engineered varieties.
Genetic engineering agriculture is a dangerous diversion and obstruction
to the real tasks of providing food and health around the world. To put it
bluntly: the existing technologies are crude, unreliable, uncontrollable
and unpredictable, they dont qualify as technologies, let alone
patentable inventions. And they are inherently hazardous. More so because
are misguided by a scientific paradigm that is fundamentally flawed, out
of date and in conflict with scientific findings. They call that sound
science. It is really the ultimate phony science.
This was the ruling paradigm before genetic engineering really got
underway 20 years ago. It offers a simplistic, reductionist view that
ignores interconnections and complexity of real processes. That has no
concept of the organism as a whole, nor of societies or ecosystems. Only
individuals as isolated atoms each competing against all the rest. The
organism is seen as a collection of traits each tied to specific genes
which do not, by and large, interact with one another, nor with the
environment, and these genes are passed on unchanged to the next
generation except for very rare random mutations. If this were true then,
genetic engineering would be as precise and effective as is claimed.
Unfortunately, scientific findings within the past 20 years reveal an
immense amount of cross-talk between genes which function in complex
networks. Genes are nothing if not sensitive, dynamic and responsive, to
other genes, to the cell or organism in which they find themselves and to
the external environment. They can mutate, multiply, rearrange and jump
around in responding. Genes may even jump out of one organism to infect
another one. This is called horizontal gene transfer, the
transfer of genetic material directly to unrelated species, to distinguish
it from the vertical gene transfer from parent to offspring which happens
in normal reproduction. (Horizontal gene transfer across species barriers
is the process exploited by geneticists in genetic engineering.) The
genetic material is so flexible and dynamic that geneticists have coined
the phrase "the fluid genome" to describe the situation.
Genetics has changed out of all recognition. It is more accurate to see
the genes as having a very complicated ecology, and that for genes and
genomes to remain constant, you need a balanced ecology. So the new
genetics is radically ecological and holistic.
Now, what is genetic engineering? You know the children's joke of what
do you get when you cross impossible things like a spider with a goat?
Part of the joke is knowing you can't because there are biological
barriers between species which only allows one to cross closely related
species, such as horse and donkey. There are good reasons for keeping
species distinct, they have to do with the balance of the ecosystem. When
viruses cross species barriers, for example, we have outbreaks of
infectious diseases. Genetic engineering bypasses all species barriers,
and it is not a joke anymore. Genes are being transferred in the
laboratory between any and every species many of which would never
interbreed in nature. Indeed, spider genes have been transferred into
goats in an attempt to make the poor female goats produce silk in their
milk, and human genes have been transferred into cows, sheep, mice, fish
The most immediate dangers are random and unpredictable, basically
because the genetic engineer cannot control where and how the foreign
genes are integrated into the genetic material of the organism. Genetic
engineering animals are acts of cruelty, there are high failure rates and
even the so-called successes are often monstrously deformed. Genetic
engineered plants may end up having new toxins and allergens. Dr. Arpad
Pusztai, an eminent scientist in the Rowett Institute of Scotland, lost
his job when he released findings showing that two GM potato lines were
unexpectedly toxic to young rats.
A more insidious danger is horizontal gene transfer. The genetic
material, the DNA, can survive indefinitely in all environments after the
organisms are dead. It can be taken up by other organisms and become
incorporated into their genetic material. This has the potential to create
new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases. Why?
In genetic engineering, new genes, many from viruses and bacteria,
including antibiotic resistance genes that make infectious diseases
untreatable, are introduced into our crops and livestock. They are
combined in new combinations that have never existed, and introduced into
organisms by invasive methods that make the foreign genes (or transgenic
DNA) more unstable and more prone to transfer horizontally than the
organisms own genes which have been adapted to stay together for
hundreds of millions of years.
Another danger is that the transgenic DNA can jump into the genetic
material of our cells and cause damages including cancer.
In its interim report (May 1999), the British Medical Association
called for an indefinite moratorium on the release of GM crops pending
further studies on new allergies, on the spread of antibiotic resistances
and on the effects of transgenic DNA.
These hazards are acknowledged by sources within our Governments. UK
scientists advising the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food are now
calling attention to the same dangers.
Our regulatory system is still based on the old reductionist paradigm.
- They are in denial on the evidence accumulated over the past ten
years that DNA suvives in the environment and can be taken up by all
cells. The UK Health and Safety Executive regards DNA as a chemical, and
as it is in all organisms, it is not considered a hazardous chemical and
therefore not subject to regulation. One of the scientists in Kit Bonds
press conference yesterday even referred to genetic engineered crops as
the ultimate organic crops, because it involves manipulating "the
totally organic substance DNA".
- The reductionist paradigm of regulation means that insufficient
attention is paid to unintended, unexpected effects.
- Because they assume there is no difference between genetic engineered
crops and those obtained from traditional breeding, regulation is
largely based on no need to look, so dont look, and you dont
- The principle of substantial equivalence on which risk assessment is
based is a farce. Anything passed as substantially equivalent is
supposed to be safe. But the genetic engineered variety can be compared
with any and every variety within the species, it can even be compared
to a collection of unrelated species. It is like saying that someone who
does theoretic physics like Einstein and plays baseball like Mark
Macguire is substantially equivalent to another who plays baseball like
Einstein and does theoretic physics like Mark Macguire.
There is a science war on. It is between a reductionist, mechanistic
science and an emerging holistic, organic science which is reaffirming and
restoring the deep ecological perspectives of indigenous sciences around
the world. Contrary to reductionist western science, these indigenous
sciences have enabled people to live sustainably with nature for tens of
thousands of years, but they are being destroyed and marginalized.
Intensive mechanised agriculture has taken the soul out of farming. It
has turned farmers into tractor-drivers. Food is more than just the
combination of proteins, carbohydrates and fats, or vitamins and other
micronutrients. It is an emotional, aesthetic experience.
To really do us good, we have to know that our food is produced, not
just without agrochemicals, but also without exploiting our fellow human
beings, without cruelty to animals and without destroying the earth. Most
of all, we want to know that it is produced with love and creativity of
farmers who are poets and artists at heart, who know how to work with
nature to make both human beings and nature prosper. That is the real
agenda for civil society.