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Genetic Engineering: A Few Upsides And A Whole Heap Of Downsides

Compiled By
Richard Ebbs
July 4th 2001


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An Introduction

Biosafety And Regulation
Coming Soon
Genetic Engineering: Some Upsides
Genetic Engineering: Failures And Unexpected Results
Cross Pollination
Gene Transfer: Vectors
Gene Transfer: Horizontal Gene Transfer
Gene Transfer: DNA Shelflife
Independent Research
Pesticides And Herbicides
Law: Free Trade
Law: Gene Patents
Reductionism vs Holism



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An Introduction

'Genetic engineering' is not just about the esoteric techniques of molecular biology. It may not be possible to discuss the subject in any depth without reference to ethics, human and environmental health and safety, to politics and to trade. This site attempts to simplify some of the important science as well as clarifying some of the more important wider issues.

I was inspired to put this mini-site together after reading Dr Mae-Wan Ho's excellent (but now strangely hard-to-track-down) book 'Genetic Engineering -Dream Or Nightmare'. Dr Ho is quoted on a number of occasions, but responsibility for the content of the site rests wholly with me, Richard Ebbs. I am not molecular biologist, a genetic engineer, or even a biotechnologist. However, I do have some ability in the precising of complex material, and it would seem that this is one of the areas where there is a particular need for information that bridges the gap between scientist and person-in-the-street. Also, bearing in mind the budgets of the large corporations, and that almost nobody is paid to put across opposing points of view, without some attempt to publicise the potential dangers then there is bound to be something of an imbalance in the debate. The potential risks involved in these pursuits are so great that it would be the height of folly not to have a full and proper debate around the issues. There are many hotlinks here, to many other sources of information including sites run by people who do work in the field.

This is a complex subject. I have tried to take advantage of the medium of the web to embrace that complexity, with links to a broad range of other sites including links to original scientific papers themselves where appropriate. There are some apparent upsides to the business of transgenic manipulations, and it is important not to lose sight of that. No argument is furthered by mere ranting, so I have tried not to rant. However, at the same time it is clear which side of the 'fence' I am on. And I've found myself on this side of the fence after having made the effort to look at the issues objectively.


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Antibiotic chemicals are widely used across the world, mainly to stop, or slow down, the spread of a number of diseases where bacteria are responsible in some way. Humanity has had a lot of success with antibiotics in the past, and many millions of human lives have undoubtedly been saved. Increasingly though, the antibiotic chemicals that we are using just won't cut the mustard any more: increasingly the bacteria that we attempt to control are proving to be resistant. That is, they remain unaffected by most if not all of the things that we throw at them. This is turning into a major problem. Many hospitals now have thriving populations of 'superbugs', resistant to almost all (but not quite all, yet) antibiotics.

Have we been overusing antibiotics? In a word, yes. If we used antibiotics more sparingly then bacteria would not develop resistances so quickly. Antibiotics tend be almost ubiquitous in the environment these days, as they are also used in quantity in intensive livestock farming, to help 'fatten up' animals and also to help prolong the shelf-lives of meat products in shops. Bacteria are themselves pretty much ubiquitous in the environment, and since bacteria tend to be good at swapping genetic material, it follows that bacterial genes for antibiotic resistance will also tend to be passed around among populations of microbes fairly easily. Thus when one small population of bacteria successfully develops the resistance to some new antibiotic, that resistance tends to spread fairly rapidly to other populations of the same bacteria and to other species of bacteria via horizontal gene transfer. Ironically

rotating dot antibiotics create the conditions that facilitate the spread of antibiotic resistances in bacteria

Genetic engineering techniques are almost certainly adding to the problems of resistance to antibiotics, and this is why: the artificial vectors used by gene-manipulators to help splice genes from one organism into another are generally created quite deliberately to have genes for antibiotic resistance as part of their makeup. This allows genetic engineers to screen out the wanted vectors from unwanted material more easily in the development process. However. These artificial vector materials are frequently finding their way into the environment, thus adding to the supply of genes for antibiotic resistance (along with the genes for virulence that are also generally part of a vector's makeup) that may then be swapped around. Please refer also to DNA shelflife below.


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This section deals with the broad issues around biodiversity before homing in on the extent to which the use of transgenic crops will not encourage that diversity.

As far as many people are concerned those corners of the world that remain relatively 'unspoiled', as in untouched by the predations of modern man, have an intrinsic worth in themselves. But let's leave 'aesthetic', 'spiritual' and 'philosophical' concerns aside for the moment. More than half of all prescribed drugs have their origins in plant sources. More and more plant-sourced medicines are being discovered all the time, particularly from the rainforest habitats that are the richest (as in most diverse) ecologies on earth. At the same time the rate of destruction of rainforest areas is increasing all the time. Between 1980 and 1995 alone at least 200 million hectares of forests vanished. This area is bigger than the whole of Mexico. In this regard please see the WorldWatch Institute page Taking A Stand. The number of species in the world is now decreasing at an alarming rate, with around 1,000 species per year are currently being lost forever. This rate of extinctions is 100 to 1,000 times that rate that could be expected to pertain were it not for the influence of mankind. (For more information on this see the WorldWatch Institute page Losing Strands In The Web Of Life). There is a strong likelihood that at least some of the species that have now become extinct through past deforestation could have been widely useful to humanity in one way or another. By the same token, future deforestations are likely to wipe out species that could have had some important attribute to offer, were we to better understand the complex interactions, chemistries and genetics of those ecologies. Currently about 1.8 million species of animals, plants, fungi and bacteria (and other organisms) have been catalogued by scientists in an attempt to list the total number of species on the planet. Estimates of the number yet to be formally described range from 4 to 40 million. Please refer again to the WorldWatch Institute page Losing Strands In The Web Of Life. Bearing these figures in mind, and bearing in mind that most species live in rainforest habitats, it's clear that 'understanding' life in a rainforest, in all it's richness, from scientific, cultural and aesthetic perspectives is no small task. But might it not be a good idea to try and conserve those things that, from a broad perspective, are so clearly resources?

In the UK, most commercial forestry planting is undertaken by the UK forestry commission, who, over the last 50 years have been responsible for the planting of millions of acres of conifers. The main species in these forests is sitka spruce which is not native to the British Isles. The natural climax vegetation for most places in the UK, however, is oak woodland. Scientific studies have shown that in the UK context, a sitka spruce tree in Britain may have up to 37 insect species associated with it. An oak tree in a mature British forest, on the other hand, may have up to 284 associated insect species. Bearing in mind that similar ratios in the numbers are likely to apply in the relative species lists for mosses, ferns, lichens, fungi, birds and mammals then it is hardly surprising that UK forestry commisssion plantations generally seem to be eerily (and 'unnaturally') silent. (By the way, if anyone knows of a scientific study with accurate comparative data including 'species lists' for specific instances of oak forest and Forestry Commission planting in the UK I would be most grateful if you could point me in the right direction: you can email me here). For more information related to this area, you could do worse than refer to the Friends Of The Earth biodiversity page.

On intensive farms, where a large input of chemical fertilisers and insecticides may be used for many years without a break, the natural fertility of the soil tends to become depleted, with ever-larger quantities of chemicals (and water) needed to maintain the same levels of output. This means an effective reduction in the profitability of these farms over time. This is a problem that does not arise on farms practising good organic methods, where yields may actually be greater than those found on nearby chemically-intensive farms. Since the phosphate deposits used to make fertilisers are a scarce resource, use of chemical fertilisers has also incurred political problems, including the oppression of the Sahrawi people by the Moroccan government, and their subsequent betrayal by the international community.

In 1949 in China, farmers grew an estimated 10,000 wheat varieties. This figure had been reduced to a mere 1,000 by the 1970s. Mexican farmers are currently growing only 20 percent of the different varieties of corn that they grew in the 1930s. (See the WorldWatch Institute page Plant Losses Threaten Future Food Supplies And Health Care.

Fortunately, however, organic food is more and more in demand from consumers (mainly for health and environmental reasons) while agricultural scientists have increasingly come to question the efficiency of chemically intensive monoculture farming methods. For instance. A huge experiment was organised in China in 1999/2000 to compare monoculture rice production with traditional methods where a number of different breeds were planted in the same field. They found that the incidence of damaging rice blast fungus decreased by 94% (so that the application of the unpleasant antifungal chemicals used to treat against rice blast could be discontinued altogether) but not only that: it was also found that these mixed strain fields produced 18% more rice than the monoculture fields. (Source: Nature August 2000).

When farmers in India, Kenya, Brazil, Guatemala and Honduras were encouraged to switch to organic or semi-organic techniques, yields were doubled or tripled.

A Study of Energy Inputs and Outputs in 25 Rice Cultures

Location (Year)Input (GJ/ha)Output (GJ/ha)Labor/crop (days)% of Energy Inputs as Labor% Fossil Fuel Energy InputOutput/InputYield (kg/ha)
Dayak, Sarawak (1951) 0.302.4208.044.028.00163.3
Dayak, Sarawak (1951) 0.635.7271.051.029.05387.9
Iban, Sarawak (1951) 0.273.1148.036.0311.48210.9
Kilombero, Tanzania (1967)0.423.8170.039.029.05258.6
Kilombero, Tanzania (1967)1.449.9144.035.036.88673.6
Luts'un, Yunnan (1938) 8.04166.9882.070.0320.7611,356.5
Yits'un, Yunnan (1938) 10.66163.31,293.078.0215.3211,111.6
Yuts'un, Yunnan (1938) 5.12149.3462.053.0429.1610,159.0
Luts'un, Yunnan (1938) 8.0483.5441.070.0310.395,681.7
Yits'un, Yunnan (1938) 10.6681.6646.078.027.655,552.4
Yuts'un, Yunnan (1938) 5.1274.6231.053.0414.575,076.1
Mandya, Karnataka (1955) 3.3323.8309.046.0237.151,619.4
Mandya, Karnataka (1975) 16.7380.0317.016.0744.785,443.5
Philippines (1972) 12.3739.9102.05.3863.232,715
Philippines (1972) 16.0151.6102.04.1893.223,511.1
Japan (1963) 30.0473.7216.05.2902.455,014.8
Hong Kong (1971) 31.2764.8566.012.0832.074,409.3
Philippines (1965) 3.6125.072.013.0936.931,701.1
Philippines (1979) 5.4852.992.016.0339.653,599.5
Philippines (1979) 6.9052.984.011.0807.673,599.5
Philippines (1979) 8.7252.968.07.0866.073,599.5
Fully industrial
Surinam (1972) 45.9053.712.60.20951.173,654.0
USA (1974) 70.2088.23.80.02951.266,001.5
Sacramento, Calif. (1977) 45.9080.53.00.04951.755,477.5
Grand Prairie. Ark. (1977)52.5058.63.70.04951.123,987.4
Southwest Louisiana (1977)48.0050.83.10.04951.063,456.6
Mississippi Delta (1977) 53.8055.43.90.05951.033,769.6
Texas Gulf Coast (1977) 55.1074.43.10.04951.355,062.5

Source: Shiva, V. (1991), p.80-81
1kcal = 4187 J
rice 1g = 3.51 kcal

So what exactly has been going on here? Why have chemically-intensive monoculture farming practises been pushed so hard when at the end of the day they don't actually deliver more food for less money? The British journalist George Monbiot sums it up pretty well:

"We have been deceived. Traditional farming has been stamped out all over the world not because it is less productive than monoculture, but because it is, in some respects, more productive. Organic cultivation has been characterised as an enemy of progress for the simple reason that it cannot be monopolised: it can be adopted by any farmer anywhere, without the help of multinational companies. Though it is more productive to grow several species or several varieties of crops in one field, the biotech companies must reduce diversity in order to make money, leaving farmers with no choice but to purchase their most profitable seeds. This is why they have spent the last 10 years buying up seed breeding institutes and lobbying governments to do what ours has done: banning the sale of any seed which has not been officially -and expensively- registered and approved.
All this requires an unrelenting propaganda war against the tried and tested techniques of traditional farming, as the big companies and their scientists dismiss them as unproductive, unsophisticated and unsafe. The truth, so effectively suppressed that it is now almost impossible to believe, is that organic farming is the key to feeding the world".

The Guardian 24/07/2000.

The large areas of monoculture crops that tend to be planted when intensive farming methods are applied are notoriously prone to disease and pests, and the huge mechanised inputs of fertilisers, water and pesticides required are often themselves the cause of serious environmental damage (-qv the 'dead zone' in the sea in the Gulf of Mexico due to agricultural run-off from the southern US states, for instance). The lack of a holistic perspective means that agribusiness companies are often involved in some merry and expensive dances. By way of example, a new variety of rice called IR-36 was introduced in 1977, having been developed to be resistant to 8 of the worst pests or diseases. It was soon attacked by two new viruses ('ragged stunt' and 'wilted stunt') however, such that within a few years some other wonder-solution (patented of course) had to be wheeled in. Conversely

rotating dot diversity forms the basis of ecological stability.

Over 50,000 varieties of rice have been grown over the centuries since humankind first 'domesticated' the wild Oryza sativa plant. Even today in India a village may grow as many as 70 different varieties, chosen for a number of different reasons such as resistance to disease, resistance to drought, resistance to flood, flavour, colouring and yield. This diversity represents a great resource that it would be unwise to undervalue.

Genetically engineered crops tend to be grown in a way that aims to reduce the number of species present. A good example of this is the way a number of the transgenic crops developed by Monsanto have been engineered to be resistant to Roundup weedkiller: Roundup is also known as 'glyphosphate': -it is a chemical that is deadly to the majority of plant species, as well as being pretty bad news for many microorganisms in the soil (especially many of important nitrogen-fixing ones). As a consequence, fields where 'Roundup-Ready' crops are grown are largely devoid of life, except of course for the one cash crop upon which the enterprise is focussed. In the long term such 'efficiencies' may have dubious merit, when all significant parts of the holistic equation are factored in. There are many reasons why encouraging biodiversity is, in general, a 'good thing'. None of these reasons are totally simple to explain, however. For a really useful, somewhat more in-depth explanation of the issues around biodiversity (and why it is something to be encouraged, please see Biodiversity and Conservation: A Hypertext Book by Peter J. Bryant.
See also this page for information on herbicide tolerance. There have been numerous conflicting claims as to the effectiveness of Roundup, and the relative yields of 'Roundup-ready' crops and their more natural counterparts. Click here for a A Critique Of The Monsanto Briefing Notes: 'Roundup Ready Soyabean System: Sustainability And Herbicide Use'.

As George Monbiot has pointed out above, agribusiness companies retain control where monocultured, patented, genetically altered crops are grown. This also makes them the enemies of biological diversity, and diversity forms the basis of ecological stability.


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Biosafety And Regulation

The biotech industry has often sought to justify itself with the claim that, to paraphrase: 'human beings have been engaged in genetic engineering practises for thousands of years', as though there is no fundamental difference between current genetic engineering techniques and traditional plant breeding methods, for instance. (Another example sometimes quoted is the way human beings generally tend to choose mates endowed with certain 'attractive' qualities). The claim of 'equivalence' in this context is disingenuous, to say the least, however, to the extent that to make such a claim is actually to tell porkies. Why? Mainly because of the way current genetic engineering techniques quite deliberately use virulent engineered vectors as way to gain access to cells so that the genetic material riding piggy-back on the vector can then be spliced into the target cell's DNA. The vectors are chosen for their effectiveness in circumventing a target cell's natural defense mechanisms, and frequently, these vectors are particularly good at helping to splice genetic material from one species, into the DNA of another. As a consequence these techniques have been responsible for introducing into the environment the means by which pathogenic materials can cross species barriers with far more efficiency than has ever been the case before. (See also horizontal gene transfer below). For the biotech industry to play down the potential risks involved in all of this is irresponsible, to say the least.

One of the most important things to bear in mind, when considering how best to carry out safety tests on genetically engineered materials of any sort, is that you must look for the unexpected, as well as the expected, consequences. The short history of genetic engineering over the last 30 years has clearly demonstrated that there will, often be consequences that the designers of a trial have no inkling of before the trial takes place. So are we looking for the unexpected, when the unexpected is likely to happen, and when the potential risks are so horrendous? No.

" should be taken in citing the field test record as strong evidence for the safety of genetically engineered crops. It is not. Unless they are redesigned to collect environmental data, the field tests do not produce a track record of safety, but a case of 'don't look, don't find'"
Margaret Mellon and Jane Rissler, Statement From The The Union Of Concerned Scientists, 1995.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. GM field trials in the last 10 years have generally been constructed in such a way that people running the test look for changes in a mere handful of potential indicators. In other words, out of the tens of thousands, or more, of possible unforseen side-effects that might result from a GM trial, the test designers have tended to look at only a few, deciding beforehand on the things that they should look at, and ignoring everything else. Clearly this is not good science.

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One particular concern is the risk to soil ecologies. A handful of good topsoil contains literally billions of microbes of many different species, and though most of us rarely think about these tiny life-forms populating the fields in which our crops grow, a healthy soil microbe ecology is essential to healthy soil and (thus) healthy plants. If some pathogenic genie were to be released as an accidental result of a GM trial, that was to seriously and adversely affect microbes in the soil, then this could spread, with truly catastrophic consequences. For more in-depth information on the risks to soil ecologies, check out here and here.

The genetic engineering industry has been growing since the 1970s. Since that time, across the world, many committees have met to draft rules of regulation for the industry, where it was thought that their actions might pose a risk. However many of the assumptions on which assessments of risk were made have since been shown to be false. It is very important that governments 'catch up' with this situation. Here is a list of four important industry claims, that have undoubtedly influenced the people concerned with safety issues and the drafting of safety regulations. Next, the more current, and contradictory research is described.

Claim One. 'Crippled' viruses and bacteria that have been developed in the laboratory do not survive when released into the environment.

Claim Two. DNA is easily broken down in the environment.

Claim Three. DNA is easily broken down and digested in the human gut, such that it does not pass into the body through the wall of the digestive tract.

Claim Four. Horizontal gene transfer only takes place between one bacterium and another.

When in fact...

rotating dot Crippled viruses and bacteria that have been developed in the laboratory can and do survive when released into the environment.

rotating dot DNA may persist in the environment. See DNA Shelflife.

rotating dot DNA can pass through the gut. DNA can also pass through the wall of the human gut into the bloodstream, from where it can find it's way into different varieties of cell. (Source: New Scientist 04/01/1997). Once inside the cell it is possible for this DNA to become integrated into cellular DNA.

rotating dot Horizontal gene transfer is not limited to bacteria. It is now suspected that any gene of any species can spread to any other species via the mechanism of horizontal gene transfer, especially if the gene is carried on genetically engineered gene-transfer vectors.

Is it the case that some of the very virulent diseases that have emerged in the last ten years, (or which have become more virulent in that time) such as monkeypox, hantavirus, IBDV and new strains of distemper and rabies (for instance) are a result of the horizontal gene transfer of released engineered materials being recombined into existing pathogens to make them more pathogenic? The sad fact is that we can't be sure either way, yet. It may be the case that this is what is going on, but the mechanisms, and the potential transfer routes are so complex that what research there is out there as yet is only scratching the surface. Shouldn't we then apply the precautionary principle here and be very very careful about what we release into the environment until we know what the consequences will be? Of course. Is this what we are doing? No. And once the genie is out of the bottle...

animated genie lamp

For a good synopsis of these and other issues, see Beatrix Tappeser's Genetic Engineering And The Production Of Food Stuffs: Biosafety Aspects.


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Coming Soon

The first release of a genetically modified insect is expected to take place in the United States this summer. (2001).
(Source: BBC News Online).

A moth responsible for damage to cotton crops has been engineered to contain a gene taken from a jellyfish. This will be the first stage of an experiment designed to eradicate it from the wild completely. Assuming that US regulators give the green light to this project, a total of 3,600 pink bollworm moths will be set free under a cage within a one-hectare (three-acre) cotton field in Arizona. In the first trial the moths will be sterilised, although this may not be the case in subsequent tests.
(Source: BBC News Online).

Researchers from the US and Taiwan have modified the yellow fever mosquito to make it produce a powerful antibacterial protein, thus apparently 'limiting its ability to transmit disease'.
(Source: BBC News Online).

Major efforts are currently under way in many countries to 'enhance' fish farming by means of genetic modifications. The species of fish being engineered in this effort include salmon, carp, tilapia, channel catfish and hybrid striped bass.
(Source: BBC News Online).

Chinese scientists have been experimenting with splicing spider genes into silk worms for the past four years in the hope that it will be possible to mass-produce jackets, and parachutes, for example, that are strong enough to be bullet-proof.
(Source: The Electronic Telegraph, 08/11/00)

Arabidopsis thaliana, otherwise known as thale cress, is now the first plant to have its genome fully sequenced. See Plant Biology Is About To Change Gear New Scientist magazine, 16/12/00.

For an excellent long essay by Jeremy Rifkin on some of the very dark future scenarios that genetic engineering technologies have the potential to create, please read
The Biotech Century -A Second Opinion: The Marriage of the Genetic Sciences and the Technologies Reshaping Our World.


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The World Trade Organisation

It may not even be possible to discuss the subject of genetic engineering in any depth, or do it justice, without reference to ethics, human and environmental health and safety, to politics and to trade. And if one is to look at trade issues relating to biotechnology, then one has to look at the The World Trade Organisation.

The WTO is an international body set up ostensibly to encourage fair and open trade across the world. A brief look at the WTO website reveals lofty principles: supposedly the way it operates is in the long-term interests of everyone. Whereas in fact the way the WTO operates is all too often not at all in the best interests of all concerned. Frequently the WTO, and the international conventions administered by the WTO, are a means by which the richest countries (and the biggest multinational companies) gain at the expense of the poor countries.

While in theory most countries in the world are members of the World Trade Organisation, in practise the decision-making process is dominated by a small group of countries, in particular the 'quad' countries of America, Britain, Japan and Canada. America has over 250 staff permanently employed at the WTO, whereas around 30 countries have no permanent representatives at all. Perhaps the astronomical cost of living in Geneva is a factor? (Last time I was in Geneva I could barely afford an ice-cream!). Decision-making within the WTO is not transparent, with the public given almost no insight into when, how and why decisions are made. Why be secretive if you've got nothing to hide?

The TRIPS agreement, administered by the WTO, is particularly relevant here as it is the means by which countries (generally the big, rich ones) or companies (generally the big, rich ones) claim patent rights on genetic materials, among other things. As the gene patents section here makes clear, many examples over the few years that the WTO has been in existence demonstrate the extent to which it all too often serves the interests of the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and the weak. Here are some more examples, less strictly related to genetic engineering, but which nonetheless somewhat undermine the lofty ideals that the WTO claims for itself. These examples are taken from a book called "Whose Trade Organisation? Corporate Globalization and the Erosion of Democracy" by Lori Wallach and Michelle Sforza. (For detail on the examples given you'll have to track down the book I'm afraid!).

A big corporation 'renting' a small WTO member nation to pursue its special interests.

A WTO panel ruling that a country's law to protect endangered sea turtles poses an illegal barrier to trade.

A country weakening a clean air regulation designed to reduce gasoline emissions after the WTO has claimed the regulation may be against the interests of foreign gas producers.

The WTO pressuring Japan to weaken a clean air law adopted under the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change (and thus defending the interests of Daimler-Chrysler and the Ford Motor Company?).

The WTO pressuring small countries to stop producing generic drugs that would save many lives.

The WTO pressuring Guatemala to drop its infant health law enacting the WHO/UNICEF Code on Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes.

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Here is a more detailed example. Within the European Union, beef from cattle treated with hormones has been banned for over ten years because of human health concerns. The EU's Scientific Committee identified a number of potential health risks, including the fact that one of the hormones used was a known carcinogen. The US and Canada challenged the ban through the WTO, which then ruled in their favour, concluding that arguments on the harmfulness of hormone residues in meat were not sufficient. The EU, however, continued to impose the ban, whereupon the US and Canada responded by imposing tariffs on goods from the EU, and the WTO awarded the US and Canada a total of US$124 million.

As can be seen from these examples, the workings of the WTO appear to be quite some distance from the likes of you and I: that is, although WTO decisions may affect the lives of you and I, the WTO tends to represent the interests of producers, not consumers (or environmentalists). As far as consumers are concerned, the WTO is like some hazy castle seen from a distance, in which unknown decision-makers make rulings affecting all our our lives in ways over which we have no control. For some good background information on the WTO and global trade issues in general, check out the Corporate Watch site. Also at the Corporate Watch site there is a particularly good piece entitled Multinationals and the World Trade Organisation. There has been a growing movement over the last few years, sponsored by many of the less-powerful countries plus hundreds of concerned organisations across the world (for instance Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association in the UK) to encourage the WTO to adopt a Biosafety Protocol that would include, among other things

adoption of the precautionary principle when making safety assessments

making biotechnology companies legally liable for any damage to health or the environment caused by the release of transgenic organisms

insistence on the labelling and segregation of all genetically engineered products

This protocol has not yet been adopted, although there are various campaigns across the world that share this one aim and which are still in progress. Use the net to find out the best way that you can get involved in your area.


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Genetic Engineering: Some Upsides

There have been some successes in the field of genetic engineering. Among the most significant are

rotating dot Interferons.
Interferons are a group of substances produced in the cells of the body as part of the battle against viral infection. Interferons also help protect the body against cancer. There are more than 50 varieties, with different varieties specialising in defending against different forms of attack on the cells of the body. Interferons were discovered in the 1950s, since when it was possible to produce small amounts at great cost to help treat patients. It was not until the discovery and use of recombinant DNA techniques, however, that it has been possible to mass produce these complex chemicals, and treat many more patients than before at considerably less cost. Interferons are now produced using bacterial 'factories': cell cultures where the bacterial cells have had human interferon-producing genes spliced into them so that they can then produce great quantities of the required chemicals on demand. It should be said however, that side-effects following on from the use of these artificially produced bio-drugs, including flulike symptoms, lethargy, and depression, may be severe.
Genetic engineering technologies may also be helping to speed up the identification and isolation of cancer- producing genes (onco-genes) in general, which may result in future cures for some of these conditions being found more quickly than would otherwise have been the case.

rotating dot Alpha-interferons.
Alpha-interferons are found in the white blood cells of the human body. The pharmacuetical company Roche pioneered the production of human interferon alpha-2a in the bacterium Escherichia coli, and today this bio-engineered interferon is used against a number of cancers of the blood including leukemia, Kaposi's sarcoma and malignant melanoma. It is also a treatment for chronic hepatitis.

rotating dot Beta-interferons.
Beta-interferons are found in the fibroblast cells of the human body. In the early 1990s Schering the company pioneered a production process for interferon-beta-1b, again using the bacterium Escherichia coli. Since the completion of the first set of clinical trials many patients suffering from MS have been treated with this beta-interferon, such that treated patients have fewer and less severe attacks and a delay in the progression of the disease. Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a progressive, disabling disease of the nervous system, in which the normal transmission of nerve impulses is compromised because of inflammation and destruction of the myelin sheats that protect nerve fibers. The basic cause of the disease is still unknown. Until genetic engineering techniques became available, no treatment for MS was available.

rotating dot Gamma-interferons.
Gamma-interferons are found in the lymphocyte cells of the human body. Artificial gamma-interferon, again produced by the route of engineering E. coli bacteria to become a 'chemical-factory', is used in the treatment of chronic granulomatous disease.

rotating dot Insulin.
Diabetes occurs in humn beings when the pancreas fails to synthesize insulin properly. Insulin is required by the body to digest certain substances, such that diabetics must therefore obtain an external supply of insulin in order to avoid serious health damage. Again, the E. coli bacterium has been 'engineered' to become an insulin factory, helping to produce insulin more cheaply and in greater quantity than before.

rotating dot Rennin.
Rennin is the active part of rennet, which is used in the manufacture of cheese (helping milk to clot). Rennet used to be taken exclusively from the stomachs of a calf. Now rennin too can be made using bacterium 'factories' where the bacteria (E. coli again) have had a rennin-producing gene spliced into them to enable them to produce rennin cheaply without harming a mammal.

rotating dot Prenatal Diagnosis.
Techniques developed in the context of genetic engineering are now being used in the prenatal diagnosis of inherited diseases. That is, genetic material from a (potentially very young) fetus can be tested using techniques derived from 'biotechnology', to ascertain if the fetus will suffer from one or more of a set of possible adversities, such as thalassemias, Huntington's disease, cystic fibrosis, and Duchenne's muscular dystrophy. Many parents would prefer to be privy to this kind of information as soon as possible. Genetic engineering technologies are used in other forms of diagnosis, for instance modern pregnancy-testing kits and a diagnostic test for HIV.

rotating dot Other drugs.
The biotech industry has made many claims for itelf over the last twenty years. Many of these claims, however, have since turned out to be more advertising hype than science, designed to attract investors and confound critics of the industry. Not all of the claims for 'in-progress' developments turn out to be quite as marvellous as the initial hype would have had us believe. (For that reason it may be wise to be cautious about 'gene therapy' in general for instance. -Gene therapy is the altering of existing genes within the body of a living human being for one reason or another. Notwithstanding the hype, gene therapy technologies have yet to demonstrate significant overall benefits). When the industry says that it will soon be a source of genetically engineered microorganisms that will break down glass, garbage, toxic substances, and other wastes then it may be wise to be sceptical. The following is a list of medicinal drugs (that came from industry sources) that have been produced using 'genetic-engineering-type' technologies. And in a similar way, it may be a good idea to treat some items on this list with caution. All of these drugs have been approved in the US since 1980, but not all are massive success stories: some of the listed drugs have significant and unpleasant side-effects, and some are so new that it is too early to give them a cast-iron 'all-clear' guarantee.

relapsing forms of multiple sclerosis
Abbott HTLV-I/HTLV-II EIA EIA for detection of HTLV-I/HTLV-II antibodies in serum or plasma
Abelcet® (amphotericin B lipid complex injection) treatment of invasive fungal infections in patients who are refractory to or intolerant of conventional amphotericin B (lipid-complex drug delivery system)
Activase® (Alteplase recombinant) acute myocardial infarction/ acute massive pulmonary embolism/acute ischemic stroke within first three hours of symptom onset
Adagen® (adenosine deaminase) treatment of severe combined immunodeficiency disease (SCID)
Albutein® (human albumin) treatment of hypovolmeic shock; an adjunct in hemodialysis; in cardiopulmonary bypass procedures
Alphanate® (human antihemophilic factor) treatment of hemophilia A or acquired Factor VII deficiency
AlphaNine® SD (virus-filtered human coagulation Factor IX) to prevent and control bleeding in patients with Factor IX deficiency due to hemophilia B
AmBisome® (liposomal amphoteri B) primary treatment for presumed fungal infections in patients with depressed immune function and fevers of unknown origin (FUO)
AMPHOTEC® (lipid-based colloidal dispersion of amphotericin B) second-line treatment of invasive aspergillosis infections
Apligraf® graftskin) for treatment of venous leg ulcers
BeneFixTM Coagulation Factor IX (recombinant) treatment of hemophilia B
BioclateTM/ Helixate® (recombinant antihemophilic factor) blood-clotting factor VIII for the treatment of hemophilia A
BioTropinTM human growth hormone deficiency in children
CarticelTM (autologous cultured chondrocytes) knee cartilage damage
Ceredase®/ Cerezyme® (alglucerase/ recombinant alglucerase) type 1 Gaucher's disease
CytoGam® (CMV immune globulin IV) prevention of cytomegalovirus (CMV) in kidney transplant patients/for prophylaxis against CMV disease associated with kidney, lung, liver, pancreas and heart transplants
DaunoXome® (liposomal form of the chemotherapeutic agent daunorubicin) first-line treatment for HIV- related Kaposi's sarcoma (liposomal drug delivery system)
DOXIL® (STEALTH® [pegylated] liposomal formulation of doxorubicin hydrochloride) second-line therapy for Kaposi's sarcoma in AIDS patients (liposomal drug delivery system)
Enbrel® (etanercept) reduction in signs and symptoms of moderately to severely active rheumatoid arthiritis in patients who have had an inadequate response to one or more disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDS)
Engerix-B® (recombinant Hepatitis B vaccine) hepatitis B vaccine/adults with chronic Hepatitis C infection
Epogen® (epoetin alfa) treatment of anemia associated with chronic renal failure and anemia in Retrovir®-treated HIV-infected patients
FertinexTM female infertility to stimulate ovulation in women with ovulatory disorders and in women undergoing assisted reproductive technologies treatment
FollistimTM (follitropin beta f injection) recombinant follicle-stimulating hormone for treatment of infertility
Geref® growth hormone deficiency in children with growth failure
GenoTropin® human growth hormone deficiency in children/human growth hormone deficiency in adults
Gonal-F (follitropin alfa) functional infertility not due to primary ovarian failure. treatment of patients with metastatic breast cancer whose tumors over express the HER2 protein
Herceptin® (trastuzumab) treatment of patients with metastatic breast cancer whose tumors over express the HER2 protein
Humalog® (recombinant insulin) diabetes
Humatrope® human growth hormone deficiency in children/ somatotropin deficiency syndrome in adults
Humulin® (recombinant human insulin) diabetes
Integrelin (eptifibatide for injection) treatment of patients with acute coronary syndrome and angioplasty
Kogenate® (recombinant antihemophilic factor) replaces blood-clotting factor VIII for the treatment of hemophilia A
Leukine® (yeast-derived GM-CSF)/Leukine Liquid autologous bone marrow transplantation/to treat white blood cell toxicities following induction chemotherapy in older patients with acute myelogenous leukemia/for use following allogenic bone marrow transplantation from HLA- matched related donors/ for use mobilizing peripheral blood progenitor cells
Luestatin (cladribine or 2-CDA) first-line treatment of hairy cell leukemia
LYMErix (recombinant OspaA) prevention of Lyme disease
Neupogen® (Filgrastim) chemotherapy-induced neutropenia/bone marrow transplant accompanied neutropenia/ severe chronic neutropenia/ autologous bone marrow transplant engraftment or failure/mobilization of autologous PBPCs post-chemotherapy
Neumega® (Oprelvekin) prevention of severe chemotherapy-induced thrombocytopenia in cancer patients
Norditropin® human growth hormone deficiency in children
Novolin® (recombinant human insulin) diabetes
Nutropin®/ Nutropin AQ® (somatropin rDNA) growth hormone deficiency in children/growth hormone deficiency in adults/growth failure associated with chronic renal insufficiency prior to kidney transplantation/short stature associated with Turner Syndrome
Oncaspar® (pegaspargase) acute lymphoblastic leukemia
Orthoclone OKT3® (Muromonab-CD3) reversal of acute kidney transplant rejection
Photofrin® (Porfimer sodium) palliative treatment of totally and partially obstructing cancers of esophagus PrandinTM (repaglinide) anti-diabetic agent for treatment of Type 2 diabetes
Procrit® treatment of anemia in AZT- treated HIV-infected patients/anemia in cancer patients on chemotherapy/for use in anemic patients scheduled to undergo elective noncardiac, nonvascular surgery
Proleukin, IL-2® (Aldesleukin) treatment of kidney (renal) carcinoma/treatment of metastatic melanoma
Protropin® (somatrem) growth hormone deficiency in children
PROVIGIL® (modafinil) to improve wakefulness in patients with excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) associated with narcolepsy
Pulmozyme® (dornase, alfa recombinant) mild to moderate cystic fibrosis/ advanced cystic fibrosis/pediatric use in infants 3 months to 2 years and children 2 to 4 years old
Rebetron® combination therapy for treatment of chronic hepatitis C in patients with compensated liver disease who have relapsed following alpha-interferon treatment/treatment of chronic hepatitis C in patients with compensated liver disease previously untreated with alpha interferon therapy
Recombinate® rAHF/(recombinant antihemophilic factor) blood-clotting Factor VIII for the treatment of hemophilia A
Recombivax-HB® (recombinant hepatitis B vaccine) hepatitis B vaccine for adolescents and high-risk infants/adults/dialysis/pediatrics
Refludan® (lepirudin (rDNA) for injection) for anticoagulation in patients with heparin-induced thrombocytopenia and associated thromboembolic disease in order to prevent further thromboembolic complications
Regranex® Gel (gel becaplermin) platelet-derived growth factor treatment of diabetic foot ulcers
Remicade® (infliximab) short-term management of moderately to severely active Crohn's disease including those patients with fistula
Renagel® Capsules (sevelamer hydrochloride) reduction of serum phosphorus in patients with end-stage renal disease
ReoProTM (Abciximab) reduce acute blood clot-related complications for high-risk angioplasty patients/reduce acute blood clot complications for all patients undergoing any coronary intervention/treatment of unstable angina not responding to conventional medical therapy when percutaneous coronary intervention is planned within 24 hours
RetavaseTM (reteplase recombinant plasminogen activator) management of acute myocardial infarction in adults
RespiGam® (immune globulin enriched in antibodies against respiratory synctytial virus [RSV]) prevention of respiratory synctytial virus in infants under 2 with bronchopulmonary dysplasia or history of prematurity
Rituxan (Rituximab) relapsed or refractory low-grade or follicular, CD20-positive B-cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
Saizen® (recombinant human growth hormone) qv note 1 growth hormone deficiency in children
Serostim® cachexia (AIDS-wasting)
Simulect (basiliximab) for the prevention of acute rejection episodes in kidney transplant recipients
SYNAGIS (palivizumab) prevention of serious lower respiratory tract disease caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in pediatric patients at high risk of RSV disease
Thyrogen® (thyrotropin alfa for injection) adjunctive diagnostic tool for serum thyroglobulin (Tg) testing with or without radioiodine imaging in the follow-up of patients with thyroid cancer
Tripedia® vaccination of infants 2, 4 and 6 months of age and first booster at 15-18 months/primarily for whooping cough
TriHIBitTM childhood immunization between 15-18 months for acellular pertussis, diphtheria, tetanus and HIB disease
Venoglobulin®-S (human immune globulin intravenous 5% and 10% solutions) primary immunodeficiencies; idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpurea (ITP); kawasaki disease
VISTIDE® (cidofovir injection) treatment of cytomegalovirus (CMV) retinitis in AIDS patients
Vitravene (fomivirsen sodium, injectable) treatment of cytomegalovirus (CMV) retinitis in patients with AIDS
WinRho SDF® prevention of Rh isoimmunization in pregnant women and the treatment of thrombocytopenic purpurea (TP) (a platelet disorder that can cause uncontrolled bleeding)
Zenapax (Daclizumab) humanized monoclonal antibody for prevention of kidney transplant rejection

Note 1. On the subject of human growth hormones, scientific data suggests more and more up that the levels of another human growth hormone factor, IGF-1, in genetically engineered milk and dairy products (that in general, are increasing all the time) may constitute a human health risk of increased breast and colon cancer. Studies are also beginning to suggest that injecting mammals with genetically engineered human growth hormones are likely to increase their susceptibility to brain-wasting diseases such as BSE, Mad Cow Disease, or its human variant, CJD.


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Genetic Engineering: Failures And Unexpected Results

This is what a leading financial commentator had to say in 1997 about the biotech industry's lack of tangible success:

"overall the industry has been so consistently disappointing that laymen should stay away lest they get fleeced ... and until the gene-bending gods can separate the hype from the glory, they're not getting any of my savings"
Danial Kadlec: Time Magazine. 10/03/1997.

Since the biotech industry began promising the public (and investors) great things thirty years ago, many genetically engineered organisms have been introduced with a good deal of fanfare, only to be quietly withdrawn a short time later when problems have become apparent. Perhaps if the biotech industry and it's salespeople did not cling to such a reductionist, over-simplified view of what goes on, then they would be far more cautious about making rash claims in the first place. Also, how convenient it is, that after massive lobbying, generally the biotech companies can not be held liable for any claim for damages resulting from adverse effects on human health or the environment of their products. Here is a small list of 'unexpected' consequences discovered since 1989 that may help to explain this reluctance to take responsibility.

rotating dot In 1989 a Japanese biotech company used a transgenic microorganism to produce quantities of the amino-acid trypophan. Later, it was realised that trace contaminants in the tryptophan were implicated in the outbreak of a mysterious illness that killed 37 people. A further 2,000 were permanently disabled or afflicted with a potentially fatal and painful blood disorder, eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS), before it was recalled by the US Food and Drug Administration. This product was manufactured by Showa Denko, Japan's third largest chemical company, who in 1988-89 had for the first time used GE bacteria to produce an over-the-counter supplement. It is believed that the bacteria somehow became contaminated during the recombinant DNA process. Showa Denko has already paid out over $2 billion in damages to EMS victims.

rotating dot In mid-1996 Calgene's much-proclaimed "Flavr Savr" tomato, that among other things had a gene to delay ripening spliced into it, was taken off the market. Serious problems were experienced with attempts to grow a commercial crop of this 'product'. The main reason seems to be that the organism turned out to be far more sensitive to the variables of location than had been suspected when it was under development. (The same also turned out to be true of Monsanto's Bt-cotton, see below). Another less-reported but perhaps equally significant verdict on the Flavr Savr tomato comes from rodents: Scientist Roger Salquist, who was involved in creating the Flavr Savr, said 'you can be Chef Boyardee [some famous chef, I guess? Ed] and mice are still not going to like them.' Calgene tried force-feeding the animals through gastric tubes and stomach washes. This only made the rodents sick, revealing nothing about the tomato's safety. (And despite all of these things the American Food and Drug Administration still granted approval to the Flavr Savr). See the Washington Post report 15 Aug 1999.

rotating dot Prior to this, the DNAP corporation's bio-engineered "Endless Summer" tomato didn't even make it through its test marketing phase.

rotating dot After selling 60,000 bags of canola seed containing transgenic varieties, in Canada in 1997, Monsanto withdrew the product from the market after testing had (somewhat belatedly) revealed an 'unexpected' gene.

rotating dot Soya beans engineered to contain a gene taken from brazil nuts were subsequently found to cause brazil nut allergy in people allergic to brazil nuts. For people with a nut allergy, this can be a life and death issue.

rotating dot A transgenic soil bacterium that was considered to be harmless turned out to drastically inhibit the growth of wheat seedlings.

rotating dot A study by the UK's York Nutritional Laboratory (specialists on food sensitivity) found that health complaints caused by soya increased by 50% in 1998. In the 1990s more and more GM soya form the US was mixed with non-GM soya, this pretty much 'behind the backs' of the European public (until EU consumers finally said 'no way' in 1999, much to the chagrin of the US government and the US GM lobby -ha!). The researchers at the YNL said their findings provided real evidence that GE food could well have a tangible, harmful impact on the human body, since this is the first time in 17 years of testing that soya has crept into the laboratory's top 10 foods responsible for causing allergic reaction in consumers. (Souce: UK Daily Express, 12 March 1999). There is increasing concern that GM substances may be responsible for triggering many more allergies in human beings than had hitherto been suspected. If true, the likelihood is that the altered genes in the GM substances appear 'alien' to the human immune system, and intuitively this would appear make sense since part of 'the point' from a biotechnological perspective is to jigsaw genes together in ways that do not appear naturally. For more information on this see Washington Post, 15 Aug 1999.

rotating dot Dolly the sheep was produced after more than 275 other attempts ended in miscarriage. While on the subject of Dolly it is worth pointing out that although Dolly was cloned in July of 1996, the public didn't hear about this work until October of 1997, as the scientists who 'created' her wanted to be sure they had secured patents before they went public. Such patents would of course mean that (potentially a lot of) money could be made from other people using these techniques. Similarly, the genetically engineered 'super pigs' that are 'in development' are sick animals. They are given an artificial form of human growth hormone (to 'fatten them up') and must endure crippling arthritis as well as visual impairments caused by the human growth genes they have which make them cross-eyed. Besides all of the other arguments made here, do we have the right to deliberately inflict this kind of suffering on animals?

rotating dot Scientists in Oregon found that a genetically engineered soil microorganism, Klebsiella planticola, completely killed essential soil nutrients. Staff at the Environmental Protection Agency in the UK issued similar warnings in 1997 when they questioned UK government approval for a GE soil bacterium called Rhizobium melitoli.

rotating dot Researchers at the University of Arkansas found in 1997 that net income from land in Arkansas planted with Bt cotton (genetically engineered to produce its own pest-killing toxin) was often less than the net income from land planted with conventional cotton. According to their research, the cultivation of non-Bt cotton was more profitable by an average of $25 per acre. (Source: PANUPS Pesticide Action Network of North America Updates Service. April 24, 1998). If that was not enough, up to a million acres (or 50%) of Monsanto's Bt Cotton crop in the U.S. were attacked by bollworms in 1996, prompting outrage (and lawsuits) by cotton growers who claim that Monsanto had effectively defrauded them.

rotating dot Similarly, American Cyanamid, a U.S. multi-national agrochemical company (and one of Monsanto's main competitors, it has to be said) carried out a 1997 study that found that farmers could experience yield losses up to $43 per acre when planting Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans (genetically engineered to be resistant to Monsanto's "Roundup" glyphosate herbicide) relative to unmodified crops. Monsanto disputes these findings.

rotating dot Seed crops of Monsanto's Bt-spliced "NatureGuard" potatoes suffered from severe plant virus damage in 1996.

rotating dot Research is under way to determine whether soybean plants sprayed with Roundup may have disruptive effects on the human endocrine system. The concern follows the finding that dairy cows eating "Roundup Ready" soybeans are producing milk with different chemical characteristics (in particular, higher fat levels) than cows who are eating regular soybeans.

rotating dot Irish authorities have made U.S. EPA documents public in which it is revealed that Monsanto's "Roundup-resistant" sugar beet plants were dying in alarming numbers after having been sprayed with the chemical.

rotating dot Here is some of the anecdotal evidence that clearly suggests animals reject the notion of substantial equivalence. One farmer reported that his hogs would not eat their feed when GMO crops were included. Another farmer said 'if you want your cattle to go off their feed, just switch them out to a GMO silage.' The cattle of another farmer would not touch the Roundup Ready corn in the field they had been herded into: they then broke through an old fence to get at the non-GMO varieties. One farmer reported that the weight-gain of his cattle fell off when he switched them to GM feed. An organic farmer who had a problem with wild deer eating his soybeans, said that one night when he drove out into the fields 40 deer were eating non-GE tofu beans while across the road not one of the animals had touched the Roundup Readies. Similarly raccoons have been seen to go for organic maize in the way that they always did, while not touching fields of Bt-maize. This is emphatically not a bonus, by the way. It is an enexpected result which flies in the face of industry claims and which suggests that we should NOT blithely accept the idea that genetically modified varieties in human food appear to be exactly the same, to us humans, as the non-GE varieties. It suggests that there could quite easily be problems with these things: we just don't know yet. See also the paragraph on the Flavr Savr tomoto, above, the Washington Post report 15 Aug 1999. and the excellent online discussion paper The Genetic Engineering Debate compiled by Roberto Verzola for more information on this and other related issues.
In March 1998 a a letter to the UK's Farmers Weekly reported that livestock on farms from Nebraska to Iowa were not grazing in fields of Bt corn, as they were expected to do, having grazed non-Bt-corn fields prior to that. Unpalatability of the Bt stalks was suspected. The issues raised here cut deep. The industry frequently attempts to justify it's products, and have them accepted by both the public and the regulators, by claiming 'substantial equivalence' between their genetically-altered materials and the preexistent unaltered, non-GE ones. Such an argument can only hold water, however, if the people and animals for whom these new products have been designed react in exactly the same way to both the GE and non-GE versions. There is widespread anecdotal evidence that animals, at least can tell the difference. -So why has this not led to a plethora of scientific studies to look into the notion of "substantial equivalence"? Because firstly the industry is reluctant to do the proper science when it is suspected that the results may compromise the claims of the advertising people, and secondly, because governments and regulators tend to have insufficient teeth, insufficient funds, and insufficient scepticism regarding what the industry tells them. Indeed, in the States one has to ask whether government and the regulators have sufficient independence from the companies they are supposed to regulate, considering the massive contributions made to the political parties by these compainies. Who was it who described American government as 'the best democracy that money can buy'..?

Furthermore, one of the most important 'morals' that can be drawn from the 'unforeseen problems' encountered in these examples, and one of the most important morals that can be drawn from the disjunction between the hyped-up claims of the industry and the reality in general, would seem to be that we must be very careful to avoid making predictions based on reductionist views of genetics. Put another way, all of these 'failures' would seem to underline the need to think in holistic terms. But once we start to do that, the chances are that sooner or later we will start to question the need for such things as monoculture, genetically engineered agriculture (etc) in the first place. (See, for instance, the rice yield figures in the section on biodiversity here...).


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Gene Transfer: Vectors

Since the early 1980's, when when even relatively modest laboratories have been able to practise DNA sequencing techniques, geneticists have been developing ever more effective artificial vectors to help them transfer genes from one organism to another.

The vectors used tend to be created by cutting up and rejoining sections of the DNA of viruses, plasmids and 'mobile genetic elements'. All of these bits and pieces are essentially parasitic: that is, they are capable of bypassing cell defenses and infecting them. Once inside the cell, these cellular parasites may multiply inside the cell or else they may insert themselves into the cell's DNA, effectively hijacking the cell's reproductive processes in order to reproduce themselves. Other techniques are available to the genetic engineer (eg recombination, chemical synthesis of DNA, polymerase chain reaction, and so on) but the use of vectors is the most common, as well as being the riskiest, of all the techniques. Click here for more information on how genes are engineered.

By way of example, the vector most commonly used in the genetic engineering of plants is created by going to the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens, and taking genetic material from the plasmid carried by the bacterium. This plasmid is itself a plant cancer-causing agent -which is why it is chosen- so that the resulting vector is very efficient at making a bee-line for the DNA in plant cells.

By way of a second example, a vector currently used in the genetic engineering of fish uses material from viruses that cause cancers in mice and chickens along with other viruses responsible for diseases in cattle, horses, pigs and humans.

"Unlike natural parasitic genetic elements which have varying degrees of host specificity, vectors used in genetic engineering ... have the ability to overcome species barriers, and infect a wide range of species".
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho: Genetic Engineering -Dream Or Nightmare. p44.

Another cause for concern is the extent to which these artificial vectors are (deliberately) created to carry genes that confer resistance to antibiotics. Resistance to antibiotics in organisms in general is an increasingly serious problem in the world today, and the increased presence in the environment of artificial vectors carrying antibiotic-resistance-genes will not help solve the problem. Why do the vectors carry these genes? Because they help make the production of the vectors more efficient: antibiotics can thus be used to 'screen out' non-vector material...

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Cross Pollination

In the UK, many trial GM crops have been planted a few metres away from non-GM varieties of the same crop. This in spite of research showing that pollen can easily travel at least 4 kilometres from one site to another, thus risking the contamination of non-GM varieties through contact with pollen from GM varieties. This also in spite of the common-sense awareness that when new volcanic islands appear in the middle of the ocean they tend to be colonised by plants within a very short short space of time due to seeds and pollen being carried to them over long distances: perhaps by birds, water, insects and the wind.

Studies have also demonstrated that the pollen from transgenic varieties of crop-plants can and will tend to pollinate the wild relatives of these species, thus creating super-weeds. This has been shown to occur between the transgenic Brassica napa and these relatives: Brassica campestris, Hirschfeldia incana and Raphanus raphanistrum, with the herbicide-resistant qualities of the Brassica napa being passed on to the wild relatives.

How convenient, then, if some biotech company says, 'after the fact', when transgenic materials used in a GM trial of some kind have been shown to have contaminated the environment, that this contamination is 'unexpected'. How convenient also, when the same company has designed the trial and chosen to look at only a small subset of the possible consequences of the release of these transgenes into the environment. How convenient also, when this company has lobbied it's government (and through their government international organisations such as the WTO) that no way should they ever be liable for any claim for damages resulting from adverse effects on human health or the environment.

rotating dot If genetic engineering was as risk-free as the biotech companies have claimed all along, why is it that they have resisted all attempts to make them liable for damages that may result from the release of transgenic organisms?
Around the world, when trials of genetically modified crops have been due to take place, the response of biotech companies to the question 'won't unmodified crops become contaminated through pollen being distributed' has all too often been 'it won't be a problem' or 'OK let's separate the modified and unmodified crops by a buffer zone of a few metres, then'...

All too often it is quite clear that scientifically, they are not interested in the question 'how far can genetically modified pollen travel, and what is the "safe distance", if any, after which we can be certain that unmodified crops will not be affected?'. Add to that the apparent lack of ethical concern about the possibility of cross-contamination (an apparent total disregard for the worries of organic farmers who would lose their accreditiation if contamination had been found to have taken place), and to me at least it seems that the credibility of these are people is seriously undermined when, in effect, they then say 'trust us'.
In the 90's in the UK modified trial crops were often planted a few metres away from unmodified crops, when it was clear that there was a high chance of contamination of the unmodified crop. Rules regarding recommended planting distances (that were laready way too lax) were frequently flouted. There was only a very small team of over-worked government officials repsonsible for monitoring these things, and when they did chance upon disregard for the rules, what sanctions did they have? Almost none.

rotating dot At present (year 2001) the safe "buffer zone" around GM oil seed rape or fodder maize in the UK has gone up to around 200 metres. For sugar beet the recommended safe distance is 600 metres. However, late in the year 2000, a study by the UK National Pollen Research Unit, commissioned by the Soil Association, claimed that GM pollen could contaminate crops many miles away.

Intuitively this would seem to be fairly obvious when you think about it, bearing in mind all of the ways that pollen can be carried over large distances. Sure enough, research investigated in this same report showed that more than 80% of rape seed pollen was carried by bees, and bees could fly more than three miles. Wind could transport it considerably further, the report also maintained.

rotating dot Mexico is the 'home' of most if not all of the varieties of maize grown throughout the world. In spite of a country-wide ban on GM crops in place since 1998, scientists recently found (qv UK Guardian news report) that four of six samples of native criollo corn, one of the world's oldest varieties, in the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca region of Mexico were contaminated with genes from GM maize varieties. 'This is very serious' said Ignacio Chapela, assistant professor of microbial ecology at Berkeley's College of Natural Resources, 'because the regions where our samples were taken are known for their diverse varieties of native corn, which is something that absolutely needs to be protected. We can't afford to lose that resource'.


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Gene Transfer: Horizontal Gene Transfer

The term 'horizontal gene transfer' refers to the movement (and reuse) of a gene or genes from an organism of one species to an organism of another unrelated species. The mechanisms by which this can occur include

rotating dot viruses that affect unrelated species being responsible for carrying genetic material from one species to another
rotating dot organisms simply absorbing genetic material from the environment See DNA Shelflife
rotating dot unusual matings occuring between unrelated species

In the early 1990s the general consensus among molecular biologists was that while it was recognised that horizontal gene transfer did take place, and that this mechanism was probably a significant evolutionary factor (as far as bacteria were concerned) it was thought that HGT did not happen frequently. Current evidence suggests otherwise. By way of example, Michael W. Gray of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research said in a recent paper:

"the results make it clear that plants acquire foreign DNA by lateral transfer considerably more frequently in nature than we might have suspected".

It appears that horizontal gene transfer occurs not only far more frequently than had been thought, but also that it may occur between widely different organisms, not just between one species of bacterium and another.

During the course of the 90's it also became clear that horizontal gene transfer was primarily responsible for the movement of genetic materials between the pathogenic bacteria that generated a number of serious outbreaks of infectious disease at that time: for example Cholera, India, 1992. Streptococcus, Scotland, 1993. E. Coli 157, Scotland, 1997.

It is important to bear in mind that horizontal gene transfer has occured naturally for millenia. However genetic engineering vectors are specifically designed to transfer genes between widely different species, using unnatural 'recombined' materials from a variety of virulent pathogenic sources, chosen because these various pathogens are good at getting past cellular defenses. And the contention among an increasing number of concerned scientists is that

rotating dot the release into the environment of genetically engineered materials such as the vectors used to transfer genes from one organism to another is likely to lead to increased virulence among existing disease-causing organisms. It is also likely to lead to a situation where existing organisms are able to recombine these newly-released materials into their own DNA structures to give rise to completely new forms of pathogen.

Since this issue is a fairly crucial one, more technical references are provided here than you will tend to find elsewhere on the site. The interested reader is invited chase these references up, but it should be noted that generally only the abstracts of the relevant technical papers are found at the end of the links below. It may be necessary to go through your national library or similar to obtain complete copies.

The following papers and articles relate to the issue of horizontal gene transfer, and, in general, the research described confirms the contentions above.
Horizontal Gene Transfer, DNA in Soil AgBioView Post, May 15, 2001. Kaare M. Nielsen, Ph.D. Dept. of Evolutionary and Organismic Biology, Harvard University.
Horizontal Gene Transfer Happens - II I-SIS Press Release, May 4, 2001.
Gene Transfer to Gut Microbes AgBio View Posting, October 13, 2000. Roger Morton.
Can Such Rampant Unregulated Gene Shuffling Be Safe?" ISIS News, Issue 4, April 2000.
Natural Transformation of Acinetobacter sp. Strain BD413 with Cell Lysates of Acinetobacter sp., Pseudomonas fluorescens, and Burkholderia cepacia in Soil Microcosms Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 66(1):206-212, January 2000.
Evidence That a Plant Virus Switched Hosts to Infect a Vertebrate and then Recombined with a Vertebrate-Infecting Virus Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 96(14):8022-8027, July 6, 1999.
Technical article examining stealth viruses as a vector for the transfer of genetic information to bacteria Experimental and Molecular Pathology, 66(1):8-14, April 1999.
Promiscuity in Transgenic Plants Nature, September 3, 1998. Joy Bergelson, Colin B. Purrington and Gale Wichmann.
Reducing Transgene Escape Routes Alan J. Gray and Alan F. Raybould, Institute of Terrestrial Ecology.


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Gene Transfer: DNA Shelflife

Far from being the delicate, short-lived, and 'hard to pass around' substance that it was thought to be, the realisation now is that DNA can survive boiling, and can be taken up and integrated into bacterial genomes far more easily than was realised 30, or even 20 years ago. In fact

"microbial populations in the environment serve as the gene-transfer highway and reservior, supporting the replication of the genes and allowing them to spread and recombine with other genes to generate new pathogens".
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho: Genetic Engineering -Dream Or Nightmare. p14.

Research by a team led by Professor Walter Doerfler at the University of Cologne has demonstrated that pieces of viral DNA large enough to contain a gene (1000 base pairs) may survive digestion so that they may then be taken up by body cells. Those inclined to track down further references should look at W. Doerfler, R. Schubbert, H. Heller, C. Kaumlimmer, K. Hilger-Eversheim, M. Knoblauch, and R. Remus. Integration of foreign DNA in mammalian systems and its consequences. Review. Trends in Biotechnology. 15, 297-301, 1997.

It is only recently that we have been able to track the spread of individual genes in the environment, and as yet scientists have only looked at a few of many thousands that they might have looked at in this respect. But, by way of example, the 'P-element' in Drosophilia fruit flies has been found to have spread to all of the species of fruit fly that there are in the world within a period of 50 years. (Source: DNA's New Twists. Rennie, J. Scientific American March 1993).

A recent report published in Nature magazine shows that active Bt toxins are liable to ooze into soil from the roots of engineered Bt-corn. According to the Union Of Concerned Scientists:

"The paper deepens worries about the possible effects of Bt crops on soil ecosystems. Soil-inhabiting insects, which are valuable for a variety of functions such as aeration and breaking down dead plants and animals, may be exposed to Bt toxins with unknown impacts. This work builds on earlier studies from Stotzky's lab that Bt toxins can bind to soil particles and remain active for at least seven months. With the publication of this report, there are now three known avenues by which Bt toxins from engineered crops may reach the soil: farmers' plowing under plant debris after harvest, toxic pollen falling to the ground during pollination, and exudates from roots. As far as we know, there are no published studies detailing the impacts of Bt-crop toxins on communities of insects that live in the soil".


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Independent Research

Once upon a time scientific discovery was once fueled by altruism or the search for knowledge. In the UK, as in many other countries, central government was responsible for funding both 'blue-sky' and practical research. Now, in this new, fully privatised and commercial age scientific research is driven relentlessly and exclusively by money and profits. It is also (therefore) increasingly more difficult for scientists to question the most basic aspects of the uses to which their scientific developments are put. Thus marketing people will increasingly set the agenda, glossing over the less wonderful aspects of a development, and talking up the any perceived good side. This is a recipe for bad science, unless goverments take a very very robust attitude in terms of putting effective checks and balances in place, whereby the large corporations are closely monitored and the interests of the consumer put first. Can this happen in the States (for instance) when large corporations bankroll (all) the major political parties to such a big extent? The question is rhetorical. Of course it can't happen. Somebody once said 'America is the best democracy money can buy'. Somebody else also said 'people get the kind of democracy that they deserve'. I'm not sure that I agree with whoever said this 100%, but maybe the point here is that 'ruthless and unethical politicians in democratic countries (and their backers) will get away with about as much as the people of those countries let them get away with' and, sadly, this would appear to be the case. So it's up to you to get involved (with more rationality, democracy and respect for human [and other] life, not less...). Rant over.


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Pesticides And Herbicides

A very obvious point which nonetheless often gets overlooked in the 'GM debate' is this: if we eat plant products that have been genetically engineered to be resistant to one or another pesticide or herbicide, the chances are that we will end up eating more pesticide/herbicide than we would otherwise have done. These chemicals tend not to be good for the human body. Generally, in fact, both pesticides and herbicides are very bad for the human body. AND their use in the past has sometimes been responsible for great damage to ecosystems, along with damage to the health of agricultural workers. The 'pre-GM' evidence for the dangers associated with pesticides and herbicides is vast, and space does not permit me to go into that here. Post-GM, however, it's a similar story.

Let's take Rhone-Poulenc's Buctril (bromoxynil) and Monsanto's Roundup (glyphosate) as examples. Both of these herbicidal chemicals are toxic to humans, and both have been shown to be carcinogenic (cancer-forming). Since the use of herbicide-resistant GM crops tends to lead to greater herbicide use, there is therefore bound to be a concomitant increased risk of cancer. Writers Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey warned in their book (Against the Grain, 1998) that bromoxynil bioaccumulates, because it is fat-soluble, and that rat and rabbit studies have shown developmental disorders in fetuses, tumors, and carcinomas when the chemical is present at levels ranging from 20 to 300 parts per million. Similarly cancer specialists Dr Lennart Hardell and Dr Mikael Eriksson of Sweden's Orebro Hospital found in a study that low levels of glyphosate exposure can triple the risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. This study was published by the American Cancer Society in the journal 'Cancer' on 3/15/99.


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In the late 1990's in Europe, issues around soy products imported from the US hit the headlines bigstyle. Unfortunately for them, however, US agribusiness shot themselves in the foot here, as the whole very public debate that ensued around the issues of unsegregated and unlabelled soy and soy products, helped make European consumers much more aware than ever before of the issues at stake. And this was one battle that US agribusiness, for all their bluster, came to lose hands down. Round one to the Greens...

Before the public debacle, and in order to try and give the US administration some 'muscle' prior to a meeting of G8 nations in 1997, here's what the US biotech industry had to say to the US government:

"It is critical the EU understand at the highest level that the US would consider any trade barrier of genetically modified agricultural products, be it discriminatory labelling or segregation, unacceptable and subject to challenge in the World Trade Organisation".
Letter to President Clinton, dated 18/06/1997, from 40 organisations including biotech companies, food growers and farmers.

The bullying tone of this letter is interesting, as is the content. Why was the biotech industry so keen to deny consumers the right to choose? Well- if they had won this skirmish and ensured that genetically engineered soy and non-genetically-engineered soy were irrevocably mixed up with one another, then it would have been far more difficult for anyone, from supermarket shopper, to government official, to avoid GM soy in food anywhere in the EU: the industry would have achieved a fait accompli, in other words. At this time the industry was also lobbying EU governments very intensively indeed, with a first line of argument that said 'there is no evidence that GM foodstuffs pose any risk at all to human health'. Whilst this may have been true then, it is not true now. How hard was the industry looking for possible health risks? More than this, though, the line of argument employed by the industry completely disregarded all of the wider issues that this site attempts to elucidate.

While in 1997 European governments allowed themselves to be cautiously persuaded by the lobbying arguments of the biotech industries, the public's reaction against lack of segregation between GM and non-GM soy products from the US, and the widespread lack of labelling telling consumers whether or not GM products were present in foods, became more and more vociferous. Tony Blair in England seemed relatively pro-GM. The British Government used the possibility of a WTO challenge as an excuse for not at first imposing a moratorium on the commercial planting of GM crops (although expert legal opinion commissioned by the UK Friends of the Earth and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds concluded that there were good legal arguments in the other direction). However. As the debate raged across Europe into 1998, many hundreds of would-be GM trial sites were destroyed, and more and more scientists came to question the industry's line.

Shortly before a meeting of European environment ministers in Brussels in June 1998, a study carried out by Cornell University was published, where it was found that the pollen produced by GM corn was lethal to the caterpillar of the Monarch butterfly. This was the first evidence that GM crops could have any kind of long-term impact on biodiversity. (But don't forget the industry hadn't exactly been bending over backwards looking for such things...). Publication of these findings had a serious impact on the debate.

France was determined to achieve a moratorium on new GM applications. Britain objected, arguing (dubiously?) that such a moratorium would be illegal. Thus Britain effectively succeeded in scuppering the chances of the French proposal becoming EU law. However France, Italy, Denmark, Greece and Luxembourg then responded by saying they would block the issue of any further licenses until new regulations were in place -in practice for at least two years, such that in effect a de facto blockade was set up that had immediate knock-on effects around the world. Cargill Inc in the US announced it would pay a premium for corn and soya which could be guaranteed non-GM. Archer Daniels Midland, also called for grain silos to be segregated between GM and non-GM crops. American farmers complained they had been misled.

rotating dot From a Wall Street peak of $62, Monsanto stock had sunk to $38 by October 1999.

This partial European blockade against US biotech interests put the precautionary principle and the interests of consumers before the interests of the big corporations, and this was the situation here in Europe until quite recently.

The current situation is that the de facto moratorium on granting licences for the commercial development of GM foods in Europe ended with the passing of new EU laws in February 2001, welcoming new applications. Hence the new spate of GM crop trials in the UK this summer (2001). But the feelings of the UK public (for instance) are illustrated by the decisions of Tesco, Asda, Iceland, Marks & Spencer, McDonald's and Burger King to backtrack away from the use of GM products. The government of France is still determined to bring GM development pretty much to a standstill. The skirmish that started with labelling can end with labelling: given the choice, enough European consumers would say 'no' to GM products in their food to make manufacturers and retailers avoid GM completely. And where governments show a lack of respect for consumers in attempting to deny them the right to choose (through accurate labelling of products, among other things) then consumers will surely demonstrate their lack of respect for their elected 'representatives'...

Even though here in the EU (and especially here in the UK) we as consumers need more label information, the US has made it clear that it regards the EU system of labelling GM ingredients as a barrier to trade. Thus if the US was to have had it's way (again) new WTO negotiations in 2001 could well have further undermined an existing, flawed, EU labelling system, rather than improve it. Fortunately for the consumer this was not the case both within the EU as a whole, and within the borders of member countries, with the UK for instance apparently resolving (we have yet to see evidence of this) to provide consumers with considerably more information via product labelling.

rotating dot US soya exports to Europe fell from 9.85m to 6.75m tonnes between 1995 -1999, following concern about GM crops.

rotating dot Brazilian soya exports to the EU have risen from 2.99m tonnes in 1996 to 6.87m in 1999, following the decisions by Tesco and Asda to buy animal feed from a country (Brazil) where GM plantings are illegal.

Another skirmish to the consumer!


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Genetic Modification. Early on in the genetic engineering saga (in the 1970s when sequencing and gene transfer techniques became 'widely available') the biotechnology industry sought to take control of the language that was (and is) used to describe 'what goes on'. By encouraging the use of a phrase like genetic modification in preference to genetic engineering, for instance, the aim was to play down any perceivable 'Frankenstein' overtones that people might have picked up on. Here's a few more examples.

Bioprospecting. The process of looking for 'new' exploitable genetic materials from traditional, generally indigenous, sources. This is the polite name for it. But bearing in mind the exploitative nature of the relationship here, however, the word biopiracy will generally tend to be more apt.

Free Trade. The term free trade may also have a very euphemistic usage. When a rich country talks about the desirability of 'gaining access to the markets' of some poorer country, the notion of free trade may be invoked with reference to some idealised economic theory, where the free passage of goods and services across national boundaries, with the standardising of the details for carrying out trade activities, being supposedly 'in everyone's interests'. Quite often however, what it means in practise is that hard-nosed moneymen (and women) from the rich country then have a chance to produce goods where labour protection laws are slacker (ie for less money) and where their money counts for more (so they can buy up existing local businesses to do with what they will, to the exclusion of local investors, etc etc). So it's not difficult to see that this glorious notion of 'free trade' is not always the wondrous invention it's cracked up to be. Generally it all too often works in favour of those who currently have the most wealth and power, at the expense of those who have the least wealth and power.


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Law: Free Trade

When governments (notably the US) talk about 'free trade' what do they mean exactly? Are they interested in a totally 'level playing field', where no one nation or group of nations is given unfair advantage over any another? Or are they actually interested in rigging the game in their favour? Unfortunately, as these examples, and other examples in the gene patents section demonstrate, in the realm of genetic engineering it is all too often the latter...

In 1997 the Thai government was drafting legislation that would enable Thai doctors to register traditional medicines. In order to preempt the possibility of those local doctors acquiring intellectual property rights to such medicines, however, the US State Department wrote to Thailand, saying that "Washington believes that such a registration system could constitute a possible violation of TRIPS [ToDo: link to online copy of TRIPS] and hamper medical research into these compounds". Just who exactly is meant by 'Washington' here? Not lobbyists or corporate interests, surely? At that point Thailand was not even under any obligation to comply with TRIPS until at least 3 years later.

rotating dot International law relating to the patenting of genes is covered by the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) treaty, administered by the World Trade Organisation.

Also in 1997, the US unilaterally cancelled half of Argentina's trade benefits, valued at $260M, because in the view of the American government, Argentina's intellectual property laws did not comply with 'international standards'. As illustrated in the gene patents section here, TRIPS is particularly skewed in favour of Northern corporate interests when it comes to genetic materials. Trade sanctions similar to those imposed on Argentina were threatened that year against Ecuador and India by the US unless those countries ratified bilateral agreements or amended their laws on intellectual property rights in accordance with American wishes, and also that year the US complained to the WTO about the patent laws regarding pharmaceutical and agricultural products in a number of countries, including Denmark. Later in 1997 the European parliament voted to accept revisions to EU patenting law that were more in tune with what the US had in mind.

Clearly the US was exerting a great deal of pressure, from a number of different directions, in support of a global framework for intellectual property rights. But was it the case (or is it the case) that this global framework exists for the benefit of everyone? The short answer is 'no'. The TRIPS treaty has been worded in such a way that it effectively excludes all traditional forms of knowledge, and all traditional forms of discovery existing outside of the framework of western science. This, along with the prodigeous further difficulties associated with poverty makes it more difficult for local people from developing countries to retain the rights to their own natural heritage. Or, to put it another way, TRIPS encourages biopiracy by rich companies from developed countries.


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Law: Gene Patents

Since 1980 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 decision, decided that life forms could be patented, international law has allowed, nay encouraged, the patenting of natural genetic material by individuals or companies. By 1998, 79 other animal patents had been awarded and 1,800 patents had been granted for genes and lines of cultured cells, including human ones. The thing that is most peculiar about these gene patents is that not only is it possible to patent the method by which one can isolate and characterise some natural material -it is also possible to patent the material itself. As has been pointed out on numerous occasions before now, if this principle had been applied in the realm of chemistry, then the chemical elements would have been patented. One of the outcomes of the legal situation regarding gene patents is the unpleasant, no let me rephrase that, obscene spectacle of individuals and companies attempting to patent genetic material from one or another indigenous human community (with or without the consent of those people).

A number of human gene-patenting lawsuits hit the headlines in the mid-1990s, generating a good deal of adverse publicity for the would-be patenters. One example of many was in 1995 when the US Center For Disease Control attempted to patent a cell line taken from a Panamanian Guyami woman, only to drop the claim after vocal protests from the Guyami General Congress and the World Council Of Indigenous Peoples. The would-be human gene patenters have backed off a little since that time, but the law remains essentially the same.

Many traditional plant medicines have also been patented under this legal framework. An example of this is the neem plant in India, that has whole range of uses and which has been widely used for millenia, by doctors and ordinary people alike. As soon as it was 'discovered' by the US company WR Grace, the plant became expensive and hard to come by (the price increasing a hundred-fold within two years) thus putting it beyond the reach of many ordinary people. This too has a deeply unpleasant smell about it.

It is the hope of the US government that the World Trade Organisation's position on patents becomes even more congruent with US patent law. If this occurs, multinational companies like Monsanto will be able to to take farmers in developing countries to court for saving seeds. This would of course be devastating to people who have relied on the practice of seed saving for generations. Currently about 80% of crops in the poorer countries of the world are grown using seed saved from previous crops.

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Most, if not all, of the big pharmaceutical companies these days employ people to go out into relatively remote parts of the world (to the rainforests, for instance) in order to try and learn which plants are considered useful by local people, and to learn the ways in which they are used. The polite name for this is bioprospecting although, bearing in mind the exploitative nature of the relationship here, the word biopiracy would seem to be more apt. 'But', one might say 'a shamanic healer from deep in the Amazon rainforest could get in there first and patent all of the natural materials that have been used in their culture for generations, thus stopping some big corporation from doing it, right?'. Wrong. The TRIPS treaty has been worded in such a way that it effectively (and no doubt quite deliberately) excludes all traditional forms of knowledge, and all traditional forms of discovery existing outside of the framework of western science. So if the shaman tells you about such and such a miraculous plant, then all you need do to get your patent is contrive some kind of simple, but essentially spurious at this stage laboratory procedure to give you a chemical ingredients list, before filling in the forms. (Whereas the shaman him- or herself, without access to a laboratory, has no chance).

Similarly, for the last ten years 'bioprospectors' from many of the the big companies, and bioprospectors from the ostensibly ethically irreproachable Human Genome Project have been seeking out human individuals from the world's 5,000 linguistically distinct populations, taking blood samples and cheek scrapings from them (at times under false pretences) that then (with minimal effort) produce unique genetic data that can be modified and patented. It is estimated that within another ten years from now (2000) the 100,000 or so genes that make up the genetic legacy of the human race will all be mapped out and patented, making them the exclusive property of global biotech, chemical, pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations.

Thus superficially we have a situation that can be described in terms of those lofty words 'science', and 'law'. Scratch under the surface just a little bit, however, and you find that the 'science' is spurious, designed to exclude, and the 'law' is deeply unjust, with both 'science' and the 'law' working purely in the service of one group of people at the expense of another.

Another, similar, example of the way international 'law' can be used to serve the interests of the developed world at the expense of the undeveloped world is the Union For The Protection Of New Plants convention, drafted in the early 1960s. This gives property rights to plant breeders where the varieties they produce are deemed to be as a result of human 'innovation'. In practise, even cultivated varieties obtained from the South tend to be categorised as 'common heritage' (and thus not subject to private ownership) whereas, using often arbitrary, and often spurious claims to 'innovation' companies from the North and their highly-paid lawyers tend to succeed in obtaining property rights to the varieties that have, in effect, been pirated from growers in the South who have been responsible for pretty much all of the significant development work.

In the 1980's Alaskan businessman John Moore, after being treated at U.C.L.A. for a rare form of cancer, discovered that one of his body parts had been patented without his permission. A doctor and a researcher looking after Mr Moore discovered that his spleen tissue was producing a blood protein that helped facilitate the growth of the white blood cells that are effective against cancer. The university created a cell line from Moore's spleen tissue and then obtained a patent on its 'invention' in 1984. (15 years later the cell line was estimated to be worth more than $3 billion). Moore tried to sue the University of California, claiming a property right over his own tissue, but in 1990 the California Supreme Court ruled against Moore, saying in effect that he had no property right over his own body tissue. We live in strange times.

On September 2, 1997 the American Company RiceTec Inc was issued Patent number 5663484 which granted the company intellectual property rights over 'Basmati' rice lines and grains. As you may know, 'Basmati' rice grown in India has been sold, and eaten, in many counties across the world for many many years, without, until now, this rice 'belonging' to any one in particular. Here is what the director of a Delhi-based research foundation which monitors issues involving patents and biopiracy, had to say about the granting of this patent:

"[the] theft involved in the Basmati patent is, therefore, threefold: a theft of collective intellectual and biodiversity heritage on Indian farmers, a theft from Indian traders and exporters whose markets are being stolen by RiceTec Inc., and finally a deception of consumers since RiceTec is using a stolen name Basmati for rice which are derived from Indian rice but not grown in India, and hence are not the same quality"
Dr Vandana Shiva

For more information on the Basmati rice patent click here. Taking examples like this into acccount, it is clear that gene patenting in general, and the TRIPS treaty, and other similar conventions in particular, should be seen as global development, North-South issues. [ToDo: research the Human Diversity Project and the taking of indigenous peoples' DNA without consent]

In 1992 the 'Onco-Mouse' was the first ever complete animal to be patented. This was a line of mice that were genetically engineered to be particularly 'useful' in cancer research. More animal patents will surely follow. (See 'coming soon' below for further details).

On April 2nd, 1998 Nature magazine reported that New York Medical College cellular biologist Dr Stuart Newman had applied for a patent on a hybrid human-animal creature. Dr Newman has never created the creature he called a "Chimera" (from the fabulous monster of Greek mythology) claiming that he was seeking the patent in order purely to prevent other people from creating such a creature. (The patent would normally last for 20 years). It remains to be seen if such a 'blocking' patent will be granted, however. It would be possible to cross human beings and monkeys using current genetic engineering techniques. Creatures called "geeps" (sheep crossed with goats) have already been produced.


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Reductionism vs Holism

Reductionism, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, is the tendency to analyse complex things into simple constituents or the doctrine that a system can be fully understood in terms of it's isolated parts.

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In genetics, there was a tendency to take a reductionist view of many aspects of gene expression. Geneticists tended to lose sight of the organism while looking at the 'selfish gene'. This led to a number of specific errors. Where, for example, one-to-one mappings were thought to exist between certain behaviour traits (such as 'a predilection to addiction') and a corresponding gene or small group of genes, this was a 'reductionist' viewpoint insofar as it did not take account of the potential complexity of the system as a whole. It has increasingly become clear that 'character traits' such as this tend to be the result of a range of many disparate factors, not the least of which are factors in the external environment.

In terms of physical things the correspondences between genes and proteins have been found to be frequently extremely complicated. Even defining what a gene is turns out to be a lot more tricky than was thought 30 years ago. If we consider the gene to be the molecular 'blueprint' associated with some particular 'result' such as a protein, then it turns out that not only must we look at one or more 'chunks' of the DNA sequence (which was more or less the old-style definition) we must look at how that chunk or chunks of DNA relates to i) other genes with whom it may work in concert ii) messenger-RNA iii) the greater 'epigenetic' and 'metabolic' chemistry of the organism, such that at the end of the day it may be hard to delimit something existing in isolation from the fairly large set of relationships that surround it. The point is that even when trying to understand the molecular chemistry it is generally necessary to take a 'systemic' or 'holistic' view in order to gain any sort of realistic understanding of what 'a gene' is about.

rotating dot it has been found that only 2% or less of human diseases can be linked to a single gene.

Another legacy of the reductionist view would appear to be the idea that genes are constant and unchanging entities that remain stable throughout the life of an organism. Now it has become clear that genes are far less stable than was thought 30 years ago: it has instead become increasingly clear that what could be called the 'organic stability' of a genome in the context of a living system is really only the appearance of stability. This apparent stability is not an unchanging 'mechanical' stability, it's more of a dynamic equilibrium where fluctuations are happening all the time. This fluidity and movement applies down to the level of DNA.

"Base sequences can mutate, stretches of DNA can be inserted, deleted, or amplified, thousands and tens of thousands of times. The sequences can be rearranged or recombined with other sequences, genes can jump around from one site to another in the genome, and some genes can convert other genes to their own DNA sequences".
Dr Mae-Wan Ho. The Fluid Genome of the New Genetics, in Genetic Engineering -Dream or Nightmare.

The 'new genetics' has had to jettison the old over-simple reductionist ideas one by one, as science has shown them to be false. Unfortunately, however, it seems that the 'old genetics' mindset still underpins much of the thinking around genetic engineering. There are dangers inherent in continuing to cling to these ideas.

One final controversial point. Whilst it has been an important part of neo-Darwinian theory for a long time to deny that an organism's genes may change in one lifetime in adaptive response to it's environment (a view known as Lamarckism) some recent research has suggested that Lamarck may not have been completely wrong after all. For a quick overview of this, see Lamarck Revisited, The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics Gains Attention. Readers may also want to check out a brief review of the work of immunologist Ted Steele in this context, along with a page entitled Purposeful Evolution? Yet more complexity!


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Gene Genes are blue prints composed of thousands of genetic codes. They carry information for the proteins that make up the structure, function and outward traits that constitute the individual organism. DNA ultimately dictates the distinctive qualities of a species, from microorganism to insect, plant, animal and human being. The genetic codes in DNA determine physical forms, skin color, size of fruits, sensory structures of animals, types of trees, specific times for flowers to blossom, and billions of other features and functions.

Genetic engineering. Genetic engineering (or bioengineering) is a technique to splice, delete, add, isolate, recombine or transfer genes from one organism to another that may be totally unrelated. Alteration in genes and chromosomes causes disruption and disturbance in the biochemical structure of species and can result in species mutation. It is a kind of artificially programmed evolution (or devolution) changing the individual organism as its starting point, in contrast to natural evolution in which changes occur among diverse populations through natural selection.

Transgenic: having genetic material introduced from another species

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