GM is Dangerous and Futile
We Need Organic Sustainable Food and Energy Systems Now
New genetics research invalidates the science underpinning the $73.5 billon global biotech industry and confirms why genetic modification is futile and dangerous; we must implement organic sustainable food and energy systems now Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
Invited Lecture at Conference on Future of Food: Climate Change, GMOs and Food Security, 1-2 October 2008, India International Centre, New Delhi
The Brave New World of GM Science
In Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare, the Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business  first published in 1997/1998 I explained why the science behind GM is wrong and obsolete, and hence dangerous; a story elaborated further in Living with the Fluid Genome  published in 2003.
Genetic engineering of plants and animals began in the mid 1970s in the belief that the genome (the totality of all the genetic material of a species) is constant and static, and that the characteristics of organism are simply hardwired in their genome. This was encapsulated in the Central Dogma of molecular biology. The genetic information goes from DNA, the genetic material, to RNA, a kind of intermediate, to protein which determines the characteristic involved, such as tolerance to herbicide, for example. One gene determines one trait, so you can transfer one gene and get exactly the trait you want, be it herbicide tolerance, or resistance to insect pest.
But geneticists soon discovered that the genome is remarkably dynamic and ‘fluid’. It is constantly in conversation with the environment, and that determines which genes are turned on, when, where, by how much and for how long. Moreover, the genetic material itself could also be marked or changed according to experience, and the influence passed on to the next generation. Most of that was known by 1980, long before the Human Genome Project was conceived.
The best thing about the Human Genome Project is to finally explode the myth of genetic determinism  (The Myth that Launched a Thousand Companies, SiS 18), revealing the layers of molecular complexity that transmit, interpret and rewrite the genetic texts  (Life Beyond the Central Dogma series, SiS 24). The ENCODE project has confirmed and extended the complexities especially with regard to what constitutes a gene. Traditionally, a gene is a sequence of DNA that codes for a protein with a well-defined function. This idea has been well and truly shattered ; as Barry Patrick wrote in the Science News  “genes are proving to be fragmented, intertwined with other genes, and scattered across the whole genome.”
The genetic engineer’s idea of a gene is presented in Figure 1. It has a regulatory signal, a promoter that says to the cell, go and make lots of copies of the coding sequence that would be translated into a protein, and a terminator that says stop, end of message. This is what genetic engineers put into cells to make a genetically modified organism (GMO).
Figure 1. A gene expression cassette, the genetic engineer’s idea of a gene
Instead, within the human genome, and indeed other mammalian genomes, coding sequences are in bits (exons) separated by non-coding introns, and exons contributing to a single protein could be in different parts of the genome. Coding sequences of different proteins frequently overlap. Regulatory signals are similarly scattered upstream, downstream, within the coding sequence or in some other distant part of the genome. Coding sequences occupy just 1.5 percent of the human genome, but between 74 and 93 percent of the genome produce RNA transcripts , many now known to have regulatory functions. So much so that the project of mapping genetic predisposition to diseases, the original rationale for the Human Genome Project, has now run into serious trouble.
David M. Altshuler, associate professor of genetics and medicine at Harvard Medical School and his research team showed that the risk for type 2 diabetes involves more than a mutated gene. Instead, diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and other deadly ailments involve non-coding DNA as well as in genes . “We’re realizing that things happening ‘somewhere else’ in the genome, not in genes, are playing critical roles” in sickness and in health, Altshuler said.
David B. Goldstein at Duke University is very pessimistic. He said the effort to nail down the genetics of most common diseases is not working : “There is absolutely no question that for the whole hope of personalized medicine, the news has been just as bleak as it could be. After doing comprehensive studies for common diseases, we can explain only a few percent of the genetic components of most of these traits.” For schizophrenia and biopolar disorder, there is almost nothing, for type 2 diabetes, 20 variants, but they explain only up to 3 percent of familial clustering, and so on.
Goldstein added: “we have cracked open the human genome and can look at the entire complement of common genetic variants, and what do we find? Almost nothing. That is absolutely beyond belief.”
Fresh attempts are now made to redefine a gene either in terms of a protein product  or a transcript , neither of which are satisfactory or would save the industry. All patents on genes based on the old concept are no longer valid; ultimately because the patent is awarded on a supposed function attached to a DNA sequence. But as genes exist in bits interweaving with other genes, so are functions. Multiple DNA sequences may serve the same function, and conversely the same DNA sequence can have different functions. Again, I have explained Why Biotech Patents Are Patently Absurd .
Despite the bewildering complexities of how the genome works, individual processes are precisely orchestrated and finely tuned by the organism as a whole, in a highly coordinated molecular ‘dance of life’ that’s necessary for survival.
In contrast, genetic engineering in the laboratory is crude, imprecise and invasive. The rogue genes inserted into a genome to make a GMO could land anywhere; typically in a rearranged or defective form, scrambling and mutating the host genome, and tend to move or rearrange further once inserted. Transgene instability is a big problem, and has been so right from the beginning. There is fresh evidence that GM crops grown commercially for years have rearranged [15, 16] (MON810 Genome Rearranged Again. Transgenic Lines Unstable hence Illegal and Ineligible for Protection, SiS 38). This is a real opportunity to challenge the validity of all biotech patents. Another key issue is safety. Transgene instability means that the original transgenic line has turned into something else, and even if it had been assessed as ‘safe’, this is no longer the case.
The genetically modified genes are a big hazard because they do not know the intricate dance of life that has been perfected in billions of years of evolution. That’s ultimately why genetic modification is both dangerous and futile.
No case for GM crops, small scale organic farming is the way ahead
Meanwhile, on 15 April 2008, 400 scientists of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) released its 2 500-page report [55, 56] (GM-Free Organic Agriculture to Feed the World”, SiS 38) that took 4 years to complete. It is a thorough examination of global agriculture on a scale comparable to the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change.
The IAASTD calls for a fundamental change in farming practice to counteract soaring food prices, hunger, poverty and environmental disasters, it says GM crops are controversial with respect to safety for health and the environment, and will not play a substantial role in addressing climate change, loss of biodiversity, hunger and poverty. Small scale farmers and agro-ecological methods are the way forward, and indigenous and local knowledge are as important as formal scientific knowledge. It warns that growing crops for biofuels could worsen food shortages and price rises.
The conclusions of the IAASTD are remarkably similar to our own report Food Futures Now *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free  launched in UK Parliament a week later.
Our Food Futures Now report goes a step further. We argue that only organic agriculture can truly feed the world. More than that, organic agriculture and localised food and energy systems can potentially compensate for all greenhouse emissions due to human activities and free us from fossil fuels, and we need to implement this urgently.
The UN has declared 2008 the year of the Global Food Crisis, and it has been the top news story everyday for months now as the crisis deepens. Food prices increased by an average of 40 percent last year; a string of food riots and protests spread around the world including the UK, and more than 25 000 farmers killed themselves in India.
Most commentators agree that the immediate cause of the food crisis is the divestment of food grains into producing biofuels. BusinessWeek identified Monsanto as a “prime beneficiary”. Its stock correlated closely with the price of oil (better than ExxonMobile), and hardly correlated with the price of corn, basically because no one will eat its GM corn. Nevertheless the pro-GM lobby are out in force, using the food crisis to promote GM crops.
GM crops are one big failed experiment based on an obsolete scientific theory, and this failure has been evident since 2004 if not before  (Puncturing the GM Myths, SiS 22). Apart from yielding less and requiring more pesticides, anecdotal evidence since 2005 from farmers around the world indicates that GM crops also require more water . Industrial Green Revolution agriculture is now generally acknowledged to be a major driver of climate change as well as being vulnerable to climate change because of its heavy dependence on fossil energies and water, and its susceptibility to pests, diseases and climate extremes [56, 60, 61] (Beware the New "Doubly Green Revolution", SiS 37)..GM crops have all the worst features of industrial Green Revolution varieties exaggerated, and not least, there are outstanding safety concerns as I mentioned. Growing GM crops for biofuels does not make them safe, as they will contaminate our food crops all the same.
Any further indulgence in GMOs will surely damage our chances of surviving global warming. We must get on with the urgent business of building organic, sustainable food and energy systems right now.
Etiquetas: Mae Wan Ho