Britain - Genetically engineered food - inedible arguments

Jul/Aug 1998

At the beginning of June this year, the giant chemical multinational, Monsanto, launched a £1m advertising campaign in Britain aimed at promoting the advantages of genetic engineering of plants. This provoked Prince Charles, the most famous (and probably the richest) organic farmer in the country, to declare in an article to the Daily Telegraph, that genetic modification of plants "takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and God alone."

Of course, Monsanto's vested interests are utterly transparent, as are those of its five main co-competitors, who are all in this for the potential profits. In fact, when it comes to vested interests, and the majority view on the monarchy, perhaps Charles is just looking to his own future, which may be that of a mere farmer, rather than a king. However Charles does voice an increasingly common prejudice against "tampering with nature" and "playing god" if not a prejudice against science itself.

As a result, the real issue, that of social responsibility and control is obscured by a debate on moral rights and wrongs. This stance, while seeming to take up cudgels against a greedy and nasty, but mostly "immoral" Monsanto, also leaves no-one any the wiser about the real benefits or dangers to humanity of the recent advances in the science of genetics and gene transfer between species.

The great "gene terror" and how to fight it

There are, in fact, several levels of opposition to genetic engineering. The lowest level - low being the operative word - is occupied by those who say, as Prince Charles does, that it is wrong to interfere with what is "natural".

No-one in sane mind still denies today that cross-breeding of living organisms takes place "in nature" all the time. Sometimes it does not work or it even goes wrong and is detrimental. But sometimes, it allows new, more successful, species to emerge. It was via this "natural" process that the human species itself evolved, in all its complexity.

It was also this phenomenon which allowed early human societies to develop agriculture - initially, purely through their own observations and then by saving seeds from crops which grew better than others, for re-planting. As these societies in turn developed, because they could feed themselves more adequately, their farmers looked for new ways to breed crops and animals which would fulfill their needs, through cross-breeding and hybridisation. At first this was a very slow trial and error process until agriculture developed into a more systematic science.

In the last 20 years, the development of this science has accelerated, revolutionised by the advances in genetics and particularly the possibility of manipulating genes through genetic engineering. Now single genes from one species can be isolated and transferred to other, different species. In the case of crops, this has enabled the commercial marketing of plants which, theoretically at least, can be endowed with resistance to attack by insects, fungi or viruses, thus cutting down the need to use potentially harmful agricultural chemicals.

However this gene transfer between species seems to evoke all kinds of fears. In a recent article published by the Observer, for instance, the newspaper editor and journalist, Andrew Marr, explains that to "hit back with history and science" against these fears, is all very well. But even he, while attempting to defend science against the mysticism of Prince Charles, has a problem with the idea of "fish genes" being placed in vegetables. Somehow, according to Marr, this is pushing interference with nature too far and too fast.

But only real science can allay such fears.

Whether Charles likes it or not, genetic modification would have been impossible without the groundwork of a "man of God", the Augustinian monk, Gregor Mendel, whose experiments on the common garden pea in the 19th century laid the foundation for our understanding of "heredity" or genetic inheritance.

It took nearly another hundred years before a complex organic chemical called DNA was discovered, together with its structure and its decisive role in genetic inheritance. It is DNA which is the genetic material of every single living cell, be it a virus cell, a fish cell, a tomato cell or a human cell. What determines whether cell division will eventually produce a human being rather than a praying mantis, is the "programming" of this DNA. Each living organism has its own unique "genome" or blueprint, a set of instructions which make the components of its DNA join together in a different pattern or sequence resulting in a unique individual.

However, genes are genes. They are made up of a universal, interchangeable material, common to all living organisms. So, in a way there is no such thing as a "fish" gene or a "tomato" gene. All living organisms, no matter how complex they have become over the (probably) more then a billion years of evolution have something in common - they all have an ancestor which was a single cell containing that self-same DNA. It is this common heritage which allows bio-engineers today to successfully move genes between some species - despite the great sorrow this seems to cause to Prince Charles and his God.

No, there is no royal gene

At the other extreme of the spectrum of arguments about genetic engineering, there has been a flood of speculation about the possibility of identifying a gene for everything, including human social behaviour, like criminality, addiction to alcohol or other drugs, and even homosexuality. Just identify it, isolate it and maybe even remove it and hey presto, all will be well with humanity.

At face value, this may sound like an argument backing up the use of genetic engineering. But in reality it is not. In fact, it is just as un-scientific as Charles's godly fear argument and as reactionary.

The fact is that so far, genetic engineering can be done but only to a very limited extent, as there are enormous difficulties involved.

These difficulties result from the fact that genes do not work in isolation, but as part of a complicated genetic network. The more complex the organism, the more complex the network. This means that when a gene is shifted by a bio-engineer into a target organism, whether it actually ends up producing the characteristic it is meant to produce depends also on the other genes already present in that organism. But that is not all. There is a multitude of other mechanisms which may either switch on or switch off the effect of this gene. And whether these mechanisms operate or not depends on another host of factors linked to the internal and external environment of each cell. Then finally there is the outside environment in which the target organism exists, where there is another barrage of factors which will influence the final effect of this gene.

Dolly the sheep is a case in point demonstrating the role of the environment: although it was a genetic clone of its "mother", having the same genetic material, it could not possibly be an exact replica since the environment in which it developed from a single cell to a sheep was necessarily different.

As to building living organisms from scratch, gene by gene so to speak, which is sometimes predicted to be the likely outcome of genetic manipulation, this is dubious speculation, particularly when it comes to complex organisms. In humans, the most complex of living organisms, with at least 10,000 genes, each with hundreds of variants, it is going to take a very long time indeed to even identify the majority of genes, let alone uncover the genetic blueprint for "making" a human being! Making humans by means of genetic engineering is science fiction, for the foreseeable future, and beyond, given that the number of possible combinations of genes, if one assumes only ten variants for each, would be a number with 10,000 digits - with probably most of these combinations being unviable. "Trial and error" on such a scale is simply impossible.

Given this extreme complexity, the idea of "one gene, one social behaviour" for humans is not just simplistic and unscientific, it is a reactionary idea masquerading as "science". The appeal of this type of reductionist thinking is that it lets the social causes of social behaviour off the hook, and therefore lets politicians off the hook too. In an economic climate where fewer and fewer resources are being made available for social services, reductionism suits the establishment. Forget about the environmental degradation which makes people stressed out, mad, ill, angry, or even turns them into killers - blame "bad" genes.

Where this reductionism links in with bio-engineering is that the real causes of the problems linked with genetically modified food have nothing to do with the science itself, but the environment in which science operates - in other words, who owns and controls the laboratories where scientists operate? Who directs their research? What are their aims?

Take Monsanto. Monsanto claims to want to solve world hunger. It claims too that it wants to eliminate potentially dangerous chemicals in agriculture. But Monsanto's main (qualified) success is soya which is modified to be resistant to their own weedkiller and which forces farmers to buy both the soya seeds and the weedkiller as a package. And so far they seem far better at making the weedkiller successful than they are at engineering weedkiller-resistant seeds. But then Monsanto should know all about plant poisons. This is the company which manufactured "agent orange" which, during the Vietnam war was used to defoliate vegetation so that the Vietnamese could not hide from US bullets, bombs and napalm. The long term effects of this poison on the humans the US military were trying to kill immediately, were at the time irrelevant to the US government. Today these effects are still present in the population who survived and their offspring.

Yet it is irrational to blame the science of biotechnology for the consequences of the blind pursuit of profit and domination of the world market because it tampers with nature. If we eliminated all such tampering with nature in the field of agriculture we would rapidly find ourselves back at the stage of hunter-gatherers, which would surely be a problem for the anti-tamperers, since many of them are vegetarian and would object to hunting and eating animals. Tampering with nature, by bringing those aspects in the natural world which allow us to continue to survive (and develop further) under our control, is what agriculture was always about.

The reactionary Swing

There is, of course, other opposition to genetic engineering which is, at first sight at least, rather more down to earth. But in reality it is more of the same harking back to the past. Like that of the "Gaelic Earth Liberation Front", who, last September, dug up a whole field of genetically modified sugar beets on a research farm owned by Monsanto in Ireland and who continue to stage "sabotage attacks" against such fields to date. Judging from the name of their group, they are not only opposed to foreign genes, but also foreign languages and cultures.

Not to be outdone, in early June this year, a group of eco- protestors occupied a one-acre field outside Edinburgh, where they proceeded to uproot a crop of experimental oilseed rape.

Already back in 1996, Greenpeace launched an "X" campaign, using the "X" from the unaccountably popular anti-science TV series "the X-Files" where "paranormal" happenings endanger life as we know it. They began by spraying a large red "X" over a crop of Monsanto's genetically modified soya in Middle America. "These are the X fields" they said, "we are bearing witness to a huge genetic Xperiment being carried out on the global environment". This X has now become the symbol for "anti-genetiX" campaigners.

In Britain, the lobby from this quarter also includes anti-road campaigners, Earth First! and animal rights campaigners. Some claim to model themselves on the 19th-century Luddites who among other things, smashed the mechanised looms which made their skills as artisans redundant. So there is a "Captain Chromosome" (for Captain Swing) who explains: "Just as new agricultural technology was endangering the common weal then, so again today."

But in fact the opposition to genetic engineering and food biotechnology is already far more widespread than this, helped by the media circulation of fears that genetically modified foods will modify the people that eat them, no matter how implausible this may be. The Consumers Associations, the National Food Alliance, the wholefood trade organisations, and campaigns for improved food labelling have joined their voices against genetic engineering. Even Iceland, the frozen food supermarket chain has agreed not to sell any foodstuffs containing genetically modified products, or if they do, to have these clearly labelled, or refuse to use suppliers who do not label such products. A poll for Greenpeace published in January 1997 claimed that 59% of Europeans opposed genetically modified crops being grown in Europe, and that only 5% of "Britons" said they would happily eat genetically modified food.

More recently, Mori carried out a poll which found that since the debate this June, when Monsanto's advertising provoked the Prince, public opinion in Britain has swung even further against genetically modified food, and that now 77% of people in the poll said these crop should be banned. At the end of June, Blair's Environment Secretary, Michael Meacher, will be discussing the creation of European guidelines for genetically modified crops with his European counterparts. Of course this is all because of their concern for "consumer choice" and has nothing at all to do with preventing US companies from competing with European companies for European markets. Or so they say!

Their genes don't fit

There are however more sophisticated arguments offered in opposition to genetic engineering. Some scientists, mainly ecologists, are calling for a five-year moratorium which will stop further developments, until a full "risk assessment" has taken place. Greenpeace, and indeed all the main environmental groups which oppose genetic engineering, use many valid scientific arguments to expose some of the dangers which are implied by a free-for-all plunge into this field by large multinational chemical and biotech companies.

There are many horror stories - or rather, potential horror stories based on past experiments where the "genie" has got out of the test tube, as it were. Among these are the "superpig" which, when engineered with human growth hormone turned out arthritic, blind and impotent. Then there is the "supersalmon", also engineered to grow as fast as possible by gene transfer from other fish, which developed such a monstrous head that it died, being unable to see, breathe or feed properly.

And here lies the clue to the huge campaign being waged by the multinationals, led by Monsanto. They and other companies made enormous investments in what they prematurely took to be a new genetic "revolution" which would allow them to expand even further their domination of the world agri-chemical business. Moreover they saw this as a means to reduce their costs and so increase their super-profits to even more super levels. But, sadly for them, they have encountered rather more obstacles in their paths than they anticipated. And, contrary to the view espoused by the environmentalists, this is not mainly due to their undoubtedly energetic counter-campaigning and the climate of fear they have whipped up by telling us we are sitting on a timebomb and that genetic engineering poses a mortal threat to our future.

Neither are the problems which commercial companies are having technical ones. In fact the actual technique of gene transfer from one organism to another can be done quite precisely. The desired gene segment is cut from a chain of DNA using enzyme "scissors" and then pasted into an opening, created also by enzymes, into another strand of DNA. Usually carriers - non-virulent bacteria or viruses - are used as intermediaries between sets of DNA.

The problem comes afterwards, because the effects of such transfers are so far unpredictable. Even when this is being done with very simple organisms where the whole set of genes of that organism is well-known, as well as their interdependencies, problems still arise, as is shown with the failures of crops to be resistant to herbicides, despite having been modified to have this resistance. This is because secondary genetic effects may occur, as the carriers used to insert the genes may go where they are not meant to go. Others are inherently unstable, resulting in re- combinations which are unwanted or could even turn bacterial or viral gene carriers which were previously non-virulent into infectious or even cancer-causing agents. Nor can what happens once in a laboratory, under controlled conditions, be reproduced consistently, especially on a large scale. And the conditions in a laboratory are not the same as those in the field where there is the old problem of not being able to take into account all the environmental factors in advance nor to control them.

As a result, commercial genetic engineering has so far produced far more failures than successes. For every product that reaches the market, there are 20 or more that fail, according to long- standing opponent, Dr Mae-Wan Ho, who heads the Bio- Electrodynamics laboratory of the Open University. And as for those products which do reach the market - like Flavr Savr tomatoes, many have disappeared, having turned out to be commercial disasters.

There is the case of Monsanto's a special cotton seeds, to which they added a gene from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis which was supposed to endow it with resistance to insects. In 1996 this so-called "Bt cotton" crop in the US was attacked by bollworms nevertheless, resulting in lawsuits against the company from irate cotton-growers. Insects can develop "genetic" resistance to insecticidal plants, all by themselves.

Then there is the notorious "Roundup" weedkiller, which is also sold with cotton seeds specially engineered to be resistant to it, so that it can be used to kill plantlife around the crop, thus increasing the yield. But when the cotton plants were duly sprayed with Roundup, they were damaged, and the cotton bolls fell off. Now US farmers in seven states are seeking compensation from Monsanto for losses.

Similarly, the herbicide resistant canola seeds when planted in Canada did not grow properly. Even genetically modified soya - the "great success story" which has caused so much controversy because these beans have already crept into many industrially processed foods, often through soya oil, has not taken hold of the seed market in the US as anticipated. Originally it was thought that by 1998, 30% of all soyabeans grown in the US would be of this variety. But given that these crops are showing a five bushels per acre smaller yield than "normal" soya, this figure has been revised downward to 25%.

According to the business press, the biotechnology industry is in trouble. Within a week this March, biotech stocks slipped from 77th among 197 industry groups to 95th. The original estimates of $110bn in world markets for genetically engineered products by the year 2000 is now revised downwards to $48bn, of which only $1bn will be in food agriculture.

So the great genetic engineering food revolution is not proceeding apace, as expected. And the range of genetically modified foods actually being grown on any scale, is, despite all the hype, limited mainly to soya, maize, cotton, tomatoes, potatoes and rapeseed.

In other fields, however, there have been some remarkable successes. It is through using this biotechnology that scientists have for instance, managed to get fungi to produce antibiotics, plants to produce anti-toxins which can be used as vaccines, and bacteria to produce hormones. The biggest success story is the production of insulin, which is identical to human insulin, synthesised inside a common bacterium, the E coli bacillus. In fact this process was discovered as long ago as 1978, and has eliminated the need for the extraction of insulin from the pancreas pigs and cattle, which had the serious disadvantage of causing allergic reactions in some diabetics who were dependent on it to survive.

Who is responsible?

The final level of argument against genetic engineering does appear to address the problem of social responsibility. But its protagonists get bogged down in the idea that regulation by the British or European parliament, the right controls, "public debate" or even a UN charter against the World Trade Organisation will be able to prevent the Monsantos of this world from acting against public interests. As if the BSE scandal and the leniency of British government officials toward the meat industry had not exposed clearly enough the limits of such controls in the profit society!

Left-Labour MP, Alan Simpson, has been busy campaigning and writing articles on the subject. He quite rightly stresses the profit motive of the industry and describes how big US companies have taken out "broad species" patents on a whole range of genetically modified crops which they have used to restrict research on such crops. He ends an article in the ecology journal Resurgence with a conclusion which at least in part, is hard to disagree with:

"It is not beyond the reach of people to reclaim a more civilised framework for genetic research, plant variety and livestock breeding. It does, however need to be ethically driven and under common-ownership. It is this common inheritance we must lay claim to, in an alliance which crosses continents and cultures; a solidarity of the species in opposition to demands for the corporate ownership of the planet. This is not an anti-science position. It is merely one which demands a science of social accountability and social ownership. None of this, of course comes from the script offered to us by the corporate explorers who would own and occupy our inner worlds. They will tell you that theirs is the only way to face the challenge of the future. Some will call it the age of great adventure. In truth it will be all about imperialism."

Neat. Blame the corporations and leave the governments, like that of his party, who create the frameworks in which these corporations flourish, free of all responsibility.

But in fact, there is no need to scratch too deeply to find beneath this apparent rationality quite another line of argument. Despite claiming that he is not "anti-science", Simpson echoes Prince Charles when he tells, in the same article, the story of an experiment in Cologne University where a mouse was fed "DNA...which survived in its digestive system and subsequently invaded cells throughout the mouse's body. And yet", he says, "we proceed at a pace which plays God with genetics." Simpson does not tell us what happened to the unfortunate mouse. This story is not very plausible, and if something like this did happen, Simpson has not bothered to be too precise about it, nor about the specific conditions in which it allegedly happened. Scaremongering is far more effective when you want to make your point. Of course it could be that we are meant to read between the lines and understand that Simpson is referring to the way the New Labour gene has spread throughout the Labour Party mouse, turning it into the bulldog it always threatened to be, but never had enough DNA to quite make it.

If the debate moves anywhere else it moves around in circles, and on the ground that Monsanto has placed it. For instance, by using as one of their defences the fact that - to quote the company's website - "current population growth is already straining the earth's resources. One of the few certainties of the future is that the world's population will nearly double, reaching almost 10 billion inhabitants by the year 2030. Humanity must respond to the growing pressures on the Earth's natural resources to feed more people."

This nonsense about world hunger being caused by a strain on the earth's resources, is actually taken for granted by most so-called "experts". Yet as long ago as the mid-19th century Marx and Engels put paid to the idea, promoted by Malthus, that the food needs of an ever-increasing population would eventually outstrip potential food supply. Today there is a food surplus, even though millions of small farmers and peasants in the Third World have been forced to give up their land and sell their labour in the cities. World trade agreements have meant that their countries now import their staple foods mainly from the USA, and they just cannot compete. The problem is not shortage of supply but who controls the world economy, and who determines how that supply is released onto markets and at what price.

Ensuring that the genetic "revolution" benefits mankind, as it can and should, is first and foremost a question of social organisation. It will require a social revolution. Then, and only then, will talk about "social responsibility" have any meaning.