(GM crops are a serious matter of debate. We cannot ignore the issues, concerns and threats highlighted by many scientists, environmentalist and activists worldwide about the growing trend of genetic modification for food. Here, we are publishing a very important and comprehensively accounted book written by senior journalist and environmentalist, Mr. Bharat Dogra. The book- 14 crucial question about GM crops- will appear on our website in parts for next few days. This is part two of the series. Thanks)
Q3.Why the scientific basis of genetic engineering is increasingly questioned?
Answer- Particularly in the context of agriculture and animal husbandry, this technology has far reaching implications as it allows the introduction into plants and animals of entirely new characteristics, including genes originally found in unrelated plants, animals or micro-organisms. This is very different from traditional breeding practices, and we need time to consider all its possible impacts. However the technology is spreading so fast that very adverse consequences can result even before we have the time to understand the implications. At a very early stage of its development this technology has got heavily concentrated in the hands of a few giant corporations which are interested in its quick commercial exploitation to recover their investments and reap profits. In the process, critics fear, very serious and irreversible damage can be caused to our environment, to our food system and to the health of millions of people.
In 1994 several scientists involved in studying the implications and impacts of genetic engineering got together at the International Conference on \\\’Redefining of Life Sciences\\\’ organized at Penang, Malaysia, by the Third World Network. They issued a statement (the Penang Statement, or PS) which questioned the scientific basis of genetic engineering. This statement said: "The new biotechnology based upon genetic engineering makes the assumption that each specific feature of an organism is encoded in one or a few specific, stable genes, so that the transfer of these genes results in the transfer of a discrete feature. This extreme form of genetic reductionism has already been rejected by the majority of biologists and many other members of the intellectual community because it fails to take into account the complex interactions between genes and their cellular, extracellular and external environments that are involved in the development of all traits.
"It has thus been impossible to predict the consequences of transferring a gene from one type of organism to another in a significant number of cases. The limited ability to transfer identifiable molecular characteristics between organisms through genetic engineering does not constitute the demonstration of any comprehensive or reliable system for predicting all the significant effects of transposing genes."
In a widely quoted paper titled \\\’The Biotechnology Bubble\\\’ Dr. Mae-Wan Ho (who heads Bio-Electrodynamics lab of the Open University in the UK), Joe Cummins (Professor Emeritus of Genetics in Canada) and Hartmut Meyer have summarised the results of several experiments, trials and commercial releases of GMOs. They write : "There are many signs of the problems caused in genetic engineering organisms. For every product that reaches the market, there are perhaps 20 or more that fail. It is particularly disastrous for animal welfare.
• The "superpig" engineered with human growth hormone gene turned out arthritic, ulcerous, blind and impotent.
• The \\\’supersalmon" engineered, again, to grow as fast as possible, with genes belonging to other fish, ended up with big monstrous heads and died from not being able to see, breathe or feed properly.
• The latest clones of the transgenic sheep Dolly are abnormal and eight times as likely to die at birth compared with ordinary lambs.
• Even products that reach the market are failing, including crops that have been widely planted.
The authors of this widely quoted paper (published in the Ecologist) concluded : "It is important to realise that the failures are not just teething problems. They are very much the result of a reductionist science and a hit or miss technology. The transgenic foods created are unwholesome, because they involve stressing the developmental and metabolic system of organisms out of balance. There are bound to be unintended effects including toxins and allergens, which current risk assessments are designed to conceal rather than reveal. The major problem is the instability of transgenic lines."
The Independent Science Panel (ISP) is a panel of scientists from many disciplines and countries, committed to the promotion of science for the public good. In a document titled \\\’The case for a GMO-free Sustainable World\\\’ the ISP has stated, "By far the most insidious dangers of genetic engineering are inherent to the process itself, which greatly enhances the scope and probability of horizontal gene transfer and recombination, the main route to creating viruses and bacteria that cause disease epidemics. This was highlighted, in 2001, by the \\\’accidental\\\’ creation of a killer mouse virus in the course of an apparently innocent genetic engineering experiment. Newer techniques, such as DNA shuffling, are allowing geneticists to create in a matter of minutes in the laboratory millions of recombinant viruses that have never existed in billions of years of evolution. Disease-causing viruses and bacteria and their genetic material are the predominant materials and tools for genetic engineering, as much as for the intentional creation of bio-weapons.
More recently 17 distinguished scientists from Europe, USA, Canada and New Zealand wrote to the Prime Minister of India warning against “the unique risks (of GM crops) to food security, farming systems and bio-safety impacts which are ultimately irreversible.” This letter adds, “The GM transformation process is highly mutagenic leading to disruptions to host plant genetic structure and function, which in turn leads to disturbances in the biochemistry of the plant. This can lead to novel toxin and allergen production as well as reduced/altered nutrition quality.”
Marcello Buiatti (Plants Genetics Dept., University of Florence), has concluded in an essay, "GMOs-facts and Fiction, "Far from being the new science, which will solve all the problems of humanity in a short time, present day genetic engineering is based on obsolete knowledge and an equally obsolete and wrong conception of life."
Cesare Gessler, The ETH Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, says,“The products of genetic engineering today are still at the level of a dinosaur technology. We use genes, which are foreign to a species, not knowing where they are inserted or what else will change in the whole chain from gene to protein.”
Dr. Peter Wills, theoretical biologist, Auckland University, says,“By transferring genes across species barriers, which have existed for aeons between species like humans and sheep, we risk breaching natural thresholds against unexpected biological processes. For example, an incorrectly folded form of an ordinary cellular protein can under certain circumstances be replicative and give rise to infectious neurological disease.”
Robert Mann, biochemist, University of Auckland, says,“The gene-manipulators claim they can foresee the evolutionary results of their artificial transposings of human genes into sheep, bovine genes into tomatoes, altered bacterial genes into eggplant, etc. But such claims are a reflection more of arrogance than of scientific analysis.”
According to an article in Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Reviews, “Traditional breeding methods are based upon natural reproductive processes and involve selection at the level of the organism [breeders choose which plants to cross], the precise orchestration of thousands of genes, relatively infrequent mutations and products that have been selected for safe use over several thousand years. In contrast, GE crop technology abrogates natural reproductive processes, selection occurs at the single cell level [breeders choose which cell to clone], the procedure is highly mutagenic [causing DNA mutations] and routinely breaches genera barriers, and the technique has only been used commercially for 10 years. Furthermore, normal breeding never introduces a cassette of bacterial genes for drug resistance along with strong…. promoters to express foreign proteins at high levels in all parts of the plant.”
Q4.What is the contamination threat of GM crops and can normal crops co-exist with GM crops?
Answer. In the recent debate on GM crops, one factor that has not received adequate attention is that due to the threat of contamination, it is difficult for normal crops or organic crops to remain free from the impact of GM crops once these have been released. As worldwide concern for food safety grows, it is likely that there will be increasing demand for organically grown crops and crops which are not contaminated by GM crops. Therefore we will be surrendering premium world markets if we allow our crops to be contaminated. This is why organisations like those of rice exporters have also got involved in the campaigns against GM crops. Star Link (corn engineered to contain a Bt toxin pesticide) was planted on less than 0.5% of US corn acereage, but its recall cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and even then the recall was not entirely successful.
Several eminent scientists representing the Independent Science Panel have also warned against the serious threat of contamination by GM crops – "Extensive transgenic contamination has occurred in maize landraces growing in remote regions in Mexico despite an official moratorium that has been in place since 1998. High levels of contamination have since been found in Canada. In a test of 33 samples of certified canola (oilseed rape) seed stocks, 32 were found contaminated. New research shows that transgenic pollen, wind-blown and deposited elsewhere, or fallen directly to the ground, is a major source of transgenic contamination. Contamination is generally acknowledged to be unavoidable; hence there can be no co-existence of transgenic and non-transgenic crops.
Crops engineered with ‘suicide’ genes for male sterility have been promoted as a means of ‘containing’, i.e., preventing, the spread of trans-genes. In reality, the hybrid crops sold to farmers spread both male sterile suicide genes as well herbicide tolerance genes via pollen."
It is due to the serious threat of contamination that even trials of GM crops are considered unacceptably risky.
As prominent environmentalist Sailendra Nath Ghosh has written, – In view of the virtual impossibility of preventing contamination, even the open-field trials ought not to have been permitted. According to independent geneticists, the isolation distance needed to be both in time and space. The land on which the GM crop is to be grown should not sow a crop in the previous or the succeeding year. Cross-pollinating crops, unlike the self-pollinating ones, require isolation distance of three to four kms. The implementation of these requirements is impossible under Indian conditions. Farmers would not keep their lands fallow. Crops in adjoining fields are almost always planted up to the boundaries. The trials needed to be in greenhouses controlled by independent institutions.
Several of these threats were examined at an international conference of scientists involved in studying the implication and impacts of genetic engineering. This conference on \\\’Redefining the Life Sciences\\\’ was organised at Penang, Malaysia, by the Third World Network. These scientists and experts issued a statement called the Penang Statement (PS).
This statement listed a wide range of potential adverse effects of genetic engineering. Of particular concern is the difficulty or impossibility of recalling GEOs which have been released into the environment, or which have escaped from containment and later found to have adverse effects.
The potential ecological risks of applying genetic engineering to agriculture include the possibility that some transgenic crops could become noxious weeds, and others could become a conduit through which new genes may move to wild plants which themselves could then become weeds. The new weeds could adversely affect farm crops as well as wild ecosystems. Similarly, genetically engineered fish, shellfish and insects could become pests under certain conditions.
Plants are presently being engineered to contain parts of a virus in order to become virus-resistant. Some scientists have raised the possibility that widespread use of transgenic virus-resistant plants in agriculture may lead to new strains of viruses or allow a virus to infect a new host. There are concerns that the creation of new viral strains and the broadening of the virus\\\’s host may increase the risks of new viral diseases that adversely affect crops and other plants. Mechanisms have been described whereby genetically engineered plants could plausibly give rise to new plant diseases.
In addition this statement warns that the rapid spread of transgenic crops poses a threat to traditional crop varieties and wild plants that are the major sources of crop genetic diversity.
Some traits of organisms may take decades or even longer to manifest themselves. An organism declared \\\’safe\\\’ in the short term could eventually prove to be dangerous.
Another ecological risk is the possibility that field or forestry plants engineered to express toxic substances like pesticides and pharmaceutical drugs may poison certain nontarget organisms. Transgenes for insecticidal or fugicidal compounds that are introduced into crops to inhibit pests may unintentionally kill non-target and beneficial insects and fungi. Transgenic crops used to manufacture drugs or industrial oils and chemicals could potentially harm animals, insects and soil microorganisms.
The possible chemical contamination of surface-water and ground-water by microorganisms or plants with unusual or accelerated metabolic processes is a special concern because of the crucial importance of water for all life. It may be impossible to recall and difficult to control harmful GEOs, especially those that may contaminate ground-water.
This statement adds that developing countries in particular face special risks: "Third World countries face even greater environmental risks than countries of the North because, in contrast, they have many wild relatives of many crops and thus there are more opportunities for various kinds of rogue species to be created."
Moreover, most Third World countries currently have less scientific expertise and legal or regulatory capacity to monitor, assess and control activities involving genetically engineered organisms, and are thus even more vulnerable to adverse impacts.
This issue should also be examined in the context of what has been called the \\\’terminator technology\\\’. In widely discussed paper (published in the Ecologist, Sept/Oct 1998) Ricarda A Steinbrecker (Science Director of the Genetics Forum UK) and Pat Roy Mooney (widely acclaimed winner of the Right to Livelihood Award) summarise the implications of this most controversial use of generic engineering,
On March 3rd 1998 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a little-known cotton-seed enterprise called Delta and Pine Land Company, acquired US patent 5,723,765 – or the Technology Protection System (TPS). Within days, the rest of the world knew TPS as Terminator Technology. Its declared goal is to promulgate plants that will produce self terminating offspring – suicide seeds. Terminator Technology epitomises what the genetic engineering of food crops is all about and gives an insight into the driving forces behind the corporate campaign to control and own life.
Further this paper says, "Most alarming through is the possibility that the Terminator genes themselves could infect the agricultural gene pool of the neighbour\\\’s crops and of wild and weedy relatives, placing a time bomb. Temporary ‘gene silencing’ of the poison gene or failed activation of the Terminator countdown enables such infection."
Clearly the threat from GM crops to natural farming systems and environment is so serious that any commercial release cannot be allowed. Even any experimental trials should be asked to wait till definite ways to avoid hazards can be found.
Q5.How serious are the health hazards of genetically engineered food?
Answer- All over the world the controversy over genetically engineered (GE) food and genetically modified (GM) crops, also called genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is heating up as more and more evidence becomes available on their extremely serious hazards and threats. What needs to be emphasised is that these warnings have the support of some of the world\\\’s most eminent and well-qualified independent scientists and experts in the field.
Recently seventeen distinguished scientists from Europe, USA, Canada and New Zealand wrote in a letter to the Prime Minister of India, “GM transformation can produce novel biochemical processes that are unpredictable and for which there is no natural history to assume are safe.
The GM transformation process is highly mutagenic leading to disruptions to host plant genetic structure and function, which in turn leads to disturbances in the biochemistry of the plant. This can lead to novel toxin and allergen production as well as reduced/altered nutritional quality.
It is not a question of if there are disturbances to gene function and biochemistry but to what degree they will be present within any given GM plant. For example, the levels of more than 40 proteins are altered significantly in the commercialised GM MON810 corn compared to equivalent non-GM corn, which included production of a new allergenic protein.
Numerous animal feeding studies demonstrate negative health impacts of GM feed on kidney, liver, gut, blood cells, blood biochemistry and the immune system.
Of greatest concern is that studies show negative health effects with GM crops that have already been approved and which have been grown commercially for 10-13 years. This highlights the inadequacy of the original criteria and set of data on the basis of which marketing approval was and is still being granted.”
In the more specific context of Bt brinjal this letter says, “Bt toxin is a proven potent immunogen raising justifiable concerns that it can give rise to allergic reactions.
Animals fed diets containing Bt corn have shown signs of direct toxicity.
Independent re-evaluation of Monsanto’s own research on their Bt corn crops shows negative health effects even in short-term (90-day) animal feeding studies.
The Mahyco-Monsanto dossier of the raw experimental data of animal feeding studies with Bt brinjal shows highly statistically significant negative signs of toxicity on the functioning of multiple organ systems such as liver, kidney, blood and pancreas in all animals tested (especially rats, rabbits and goats). It is very important to note that these adverse effects were observed after only at most, a 90-day feeding time, which raises serious concerns about the safety of consuming this product over an entire lifetime. Long-term (at least 2-year) animal feeding studies were not done and are stated as not required by the apex regulator, contrary to the science, which requires these studies to detect chronic slow-onset toxicity and cancer.
There is therefore, no scientific justification for the safety claim of Bt brinjal by India’s regulators, which are based on an uncritical acceptance of the interpretation of the data submitted by Mahyco-Monsanto. This has been heavily criticised by eminent scientists of international standing.
In 2003 the Independent Science Panel, which consists of eminent scientists from many countries covering a wide range of relevant disciplines reviewed the evidence on the hazards of GMOs. This review concluded that many GM crops contain gene products known to be harmful. For example, the Bt proteins that kill pests include potent immunogens and allergens. Food crops are increasingly being engineered to produce pharmaceuticals, drugs and vaccines in the open environment, exposing people to the danger of inappropriate medication and their harmful side effects. Herbicides tolerant crops – accounting for a majority of all GM crops worldwide – are tied to the broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate and glufosinate ammonium. These have been linked to spontaneous abortions, birth defects and other serious health problems for human beings, animals and soil-organisms. GM varieties are unstable, with the potential to create new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases, and to disrupt gene function in animal and human cells.
This report also said that there have been very few credible studies on GM food safety. Nevertheless, the available findings already give cause for concern. In the still only systematic investigation on GM food ever carried out in the world, ‘growth factor-like’ effects were found in the stomach and small intestine of young rats that were not fully accounted for by the transgene product, and were hence attributable to the transgenic process or the transgenic construct, and may hence be general to all GM food. There have been at least two other, more limited, studies that also raised serious safety concerns.
There is already experimental evidence that transgenic DNA from plants has been taken up by bacteria in the soil and in the gut of human volunteers. Antibiotic resistance marker genes can spread from transgenic food to pathogenic bacteria, making infections very difficult to treat.
Transgenic DNA is known to survive digestion in the gut and to jump into the genome of mammalian cells, raising the possibility for triggering cancer. The possibility cannot be excluded that feeding GM products such as maize to animals also carries risks, not just for the animals but also for human beings consuming the animal products.
Evidence suggests that transgenic constructs with the CaMV 35S promoter might be especially unstable and prone to horizontal gene transfer and recombination, with all the attendant hazards: gene mutations due to random insertion, cancer, reactivation of dormant viruses and generation of new viruses. This promoter is present in most GM crops being grown commercially today.
A four-part series of experiments conducted over 3 years by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Lancaster (United Kingdom)\\\’ (see The Independent dated March 22, 2005 reporting the findings of this study) concluded that GM crops could be more harmful to many groups of wild life than their conventional equivalents. According to these studies, Bt proteins, incorporated into a significant part of all GM crops, have been found to be harmful to many non-target insects, worms and amphibians. The serious threat to amphibians was also confirmed in research at Pitt\\\’s Pymaturing Laboratory of Ecology.
Many scientists have been concerned with the risk of greatly increased resistance of antibiotics linked to GMOs.
Several scientists involved in studying the implication and impacts of genetic engineering got together at the International Conference on \\\’Redefining of Life Sciences\\\’ organised at Penang, Malaysia, by the Third World Network. They issued the Penang Statement (PS) which stated: Some GEOs (Genetically Engineered Organisms) have been made with virus or transposon vectors that have been artificially enhanced to become less species-specific. Since viruses and transposons can cause or induce mutations, there is the concern that enhanced vectors could be carcinogenic to humans, domestic animals and wild animals.
Persons with allergies may have legitimate concerns that with genetic engineering, once-familiar foods may be made allergenic. Furthermore, they will not be able to protect themselves if the foods are not labelled to state that they have been produced from genetically engineered organisms. Allergenic effects could be carried with the transgene or be stimulated by imbalances in the chemistry of the host plant or organism.
Another problem is that field workers or neighbours may develop allergies to insecticidal transgenic crops. For example, a spider venom expressed in sugarcane might block a metabolic pathway only in insects and not in humans, but humans can nevertheless develop serious allergies to some venoms.
With genetic engineering, familiar foods could become metabiotically dangerous or even toxic. Even if the transgene itself is not dangerous or toxic, it could upset complex biochemical network and create new bioactive compounds or change the concentrations of those normally present. In addition, the properties in proteins may change in a new chemical environment because they may fold in new ways.
Sometime back Greenpeace, Germany highlighted the results of a study from the Research Centre for Milk and Foodstuffs in Bavaria which is reported to have been "kept under lock and key for three years." This study is important as it confirms the possibility of contamination of milk due to GMOs which exists in all countries where cattle-feed GM crops are being grown (including India).
In addition to all this there is the ethical dilemma faced by vegetarians who may find it difficult to select food when animal genes are introduced into plant genes. The choice becomes even more difficult (and not just for vegetarians) when even human genes are introduced into food crops (even rice). This dilemma is most difficult to resolve when GM foods are not specifically labelled, and in fact GM food companies try their best to avoid any legal requirement of specific labelling of GM food.
Environmentalist Sailendra Nath Ghosh has raised the very valid question whether GMO companies will compensate people for the damage caused to their health. He writes, "The UK-based science journal Science in Society has reported that globally, cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMv) was the first plant virus found suitable to drive the expression of foreign genes in transgenic plants so much so that it is present in all genetically modified (GM) crops commercially grown today. It has also reported that this virus is hazardous for its relationship to hepatitis-B virus and the even more dreaded HIV. If this CaMv finds its way to the human cell, it multiplies and activates a number of common viruses that cause diseases including cancer. Would the corporate bodies propagating GMO, then, be liable for compensating the victims of such pandemics and mass-scale malignancies caused by deliberately engineered poisoned foods?"
(To be continued in next few parts. To know more about the writer and his work, please visit his website- www.bharatdogra.in. If you want to get a hardcopy and/or Hindi translation this book, please contact- Bharat Dogra, C-27, Raksha Kunj, Paschim Vihar, New Delhi-110063 Ph.: 25255303)