DNA IS universal to all living things – bacteria, fungus, plant or animal. Using ’cut and paste’ techniques, it is possible (sometimes) to transfer a desirable feature from one organism’s DNA into another organism, or an undesirable feature could be replaced.
A British government report on genetically modified (GM) crops has concluded that, in spite of claimed long-term benefits, GM crops will not be profitable until demand increases. But it is no wonder that people are sceptical. With corporations like Monsanto deciding research priorities, science is distorted to meet their quest for profits. Science becomes a race to find a new way of making money for the capitalists who take ownership of research findings. JOHN DALE puts forward a socialist approach to genetic ’engineering’. CWI online.
Genetic ’Engineering’, ’modification’ or change?
If a fish can survive in sea temperature below 0ºC, perhaps this could be reproduced in a peach blossom, so it would not drop off after a frosty night.
This ’cut and paste’ can be carried out using viruses, which are very good at inserting their genetic information into the DNA of their host (as when we get a viral infection). Bacteria are also used, as their DNA is relatively easy to work with.
When a mixture of DNA fragments, hopefully containing the desired gene, is mixed with tiny particles of gold they can be fired into the cells of the receptor organism.
This last stage is known as the "shotgun technique" or "bioballistics".
It does not take much imagination to see that this is not precision "engineering". The final position of the transferred gene on the receptor DNA is a matter of luck. Does this matter? It does, because genes do not exist in isolation, but affect – and are affected by – their environment, on the DNA chain itself and in the cell.
The biotechnology industry prefers to use the term "modification", rather than genetic engineering with its’ ’Frankenstein’ image. But modification implies gentle adjustment, as has happened since plants and animals were first domesticated by humans, using selective breeding.
Genetic "change" is a more accurate description than either genetic engineering or modification.
Whether the change is desirable is usually far from clear.
What is a gene?
ALL LIVING things consist of cells – just one for a bacteria, 3 million million for a human. Each cell in a multi-celled organism contains the same genes, although the cells may have different functions (e.g. skin, liver, muscle).
Genes are codes for the cell to produce different proteins, needed to renew themselves and carry out their various tasks.
Humans are estimated to have 30,000 genes yet produce 250,000 different proteins, so genes must act in different combinations to produce them.
The DNA molecule is a very long chain of codes, each cell containing a two metre chain. (It’s spiralled so it fits into tiny cells.) Along its length are varying combinations of four chemicals, arranged in stretches of about 1,000, to make a gene.
DNA also contains ’switches’ to turn a gene on and others to turn it off. These respond to the cell’s environment, enabling it to carry out different functions when needed.
Long pieces of DNA have unknown functions, or no function, as well as repetitions.
No miracle solution
BECAUSE OF the unpredictable outcome of the techniques, unexpected results occur. A salmon with a growth hormone gene inserted grew too fast and too fat. Also its flesh was green – a tricky marketing problem! In 1997, Monsanto was forced to withdraw a variety of oilseed rape when an unexpected gene was found, but not until 60,000 bags of seed had already been sold in Canada.
In real life genes don’t exist in test-tube isolation. Neither do genetically changed organisms remain in sealed greenhouses or laboratories. It is possible that plants developed to be toxic to a fungus known to attack them (which seems desirable) could also leach the toxin out through their roots into the soil, where other fungi and bacteria are essential to keep the soil fertile. If the toxin also killed them, the soil could become sterile.
The North American Monarch butterfly’s caterpillar appears to be poisoned by pollen from genetically changed maize. Thousands of other insect species are far less visible, but their position in the food chain is essential. Unless research is done on every species that could be affected, to release genetically changed plants or animals into the environment is very risky.
There is evidence that soya allergy is increasing in North America, where genetically changed varieties have been on sale for several years. Some have had a brazil nut gene inserted. Could this transfer nut allergy into soya, a crop widely used in almost all processed foods, including baby foods?
Advocates of this technology dismiss the possibility that the viruses and bacteria used to ’cut and paste’ genes could survive and multiply in the wider environment. They are described as "crippled". Despite this, there is growing evidence that some may survive – with unknown consequences.
Some evidence also suggests that pieces of DNA may survive boiling and digestion, passing through the gut wall and potentially into human cells. Is this important? No-one can say. Presumably it has happened throughout our development, but then we haven’t evolved eating some of the genetic concoctions now being served up.
Because the techniques of introducing new genes into DNA are haphazard, a method is needed to separate cells with the desired changes from those without. A gene for antibiotic resistance is linked to the desired gene. Dosing the mixture with antibiotic kills off those cells with unchanged DNA. The surviving changed cells then have a gene for antibiotic resistance, which may transfer to other bacteria once the organism that grows from the cells is out in the wider environment.
Pollen from genetically changed plants can spread – up to four kilometres by wind and five kilometres by bees. Seeds can be carried from field to field by farm machinery. There is already evidence that wild relatives of genetically changed plants can interbreed to acquire the new traits, so that resistance to a weedkiller may become widespread.
The environment is constantly changing, through climate, floods, droughts and diseases. The pace of change is increasing with global warming. Natural variation means some members of a species are better adapted to survive in new conditions than others. Conventional modern agriculture has vastly reduced the variety of food plants, especially in the past fifty years. We only need to look at the supermarket shelves to see the same few varieties of apple, now grown all around the world.
Diversity is now threatened even further. To recoup their investment, the biotechnology companies add ’terminator’ genes so that plants grown from the seeds they sell cannot have seeds of their own. Farmers are forced to buy afresh from seed companies, often part of the same giant corporations as the biotechnology companies.
A large experiment in China in 1999/2000 compared traditional rice planting (several varieties in the same field) with modern planting methods (only the most productive variety best-suited to the local conditions).
Surprisingly, the traditional fields showed 94% less rice-blast fungus, so did not need chemical treatment – and their yield was 18% higher. These findings are useless to corporations seeking to maximise sales of seeds and the chemicals needed to grow them. Diversity cannot be monopolised.
WHEN FIRST introduced, genetically changed food encountered huge consumer resistance in Europe, although not in the USA. Other food-exporting countries resisted these crops, fearing the loss of their European markets.
Such was the pressure that supermarkets and even American-owned multinationals in Europe, such as McDonalds and BurgerKing, were forced to exclude them.
The first generation of crops was developed to be resistant to weedkillers, such as Monsanto’s Roundup. This was not a particularly good marketing tool.
The government chief scientist, Sir Robert May, said: "What is needed is a glamorous GM product that would change the image of biotechnology." A so-called second generation is now being developed with the image of famine-busters.
George Bush has thrown his weight behind these. "For the sake of a continent threatened by famine, I urge the European governments to end their opposition to biotechnology," he said in June. (Out of the top 22 industrial nations, the USA ranks 22nd in aid to the less-developed world!).
At least 600 million people suffer from malnutrition. Leading the charge to save them with genetically changed food is ’Golden Rice’. This has had two daffodil genes and a bacterial gene inserted so that the central grain produces pro-Vitamin A, converted to Vitamin A in the body. Lack of this vitamin is the major cause of blindness amongst children, affecting 250-500,000 every year. They also lose resistance to disease, half dying within a year of losing their sight.
Golden Rice (called because of its colour, not the amount of money Syngenta hopes to make from it) will give 5-8% of the recommended vitamin intake from 100 grams of dry rice. So a diet of rice alone could mean eating a kilo of dry rice or three kilos of cooked rice a day to get the full dose.
But it is far from certain that such a diet would prevent vitamin deficiency. Fat is needed to absorb the vitamin and other vitamins and minerals are needed to use it. A diet of plain rice alone would almost certainly be deficient in these other nutrients.
However, unpolished rice has more nutritional value, including Vitamin A, in the outer layer, which is removed to make it easier to store in hot climates and more marketable for export.
Syngenta have signed an agreement with the inventors of Golden Rice (who were financed by public and charitable research funds) that farmers earning less than $10,000 a year will not have to pay for the seeds. However, it is not clear whether they will have to pay in the future, or get free chemicals which the plants may need to grow.
Another product recently in the news is the ’protato’ – a potato with one third more protein than normal. The Indian government have suggested it could be used in free school meals. But the protato only has 2.5% protein, compared to 20-26% for lentils, beans and peas.
These products do not relieve the real deficiency malnourished people suffer – deficiency of land on which to grow food for themselves, or money to buy food if they are living in cities.
Preventing famine would be far quicker achieved by cancelling all debts of poverty-stricken countries, distributing land to peasants, giving free credit and technical assistance for irrigation, crop storage and similar measures. Malnourished people do not need genetically changed crops. They need socialism.
CALGENE DEVELOPED this with a gene to delay ripening, giving it a longer shelf life. They fed it to mice, who refused to eat it. The mice were then force-fed through gastric tube but they became sick. Nevertheless, the US Food and Drug Administration granted approval to the FlavrSavr!
It was withdrawn from sale in 1996, as it proved far more difficult to grow a commercial crop than had been anticipated.
Medicines and money
THERE HAVE been some advances in the field of medicine with genetic manipulation. Interferons have been known since the 1950s and may be treatments for viral conditions, cancers and multiple sclerosis – conditions difficult or impossible to treat by other means.
Using the same techniques as in agricultural biotechnology, it is now possible to make interferons in useful quantities. Beta-interferon is now used in multiple sclerosis. Although not a good treatment, it seems better than anything else.
Hormones such as insulin can be made, which in the past were extracted from pigs or cows.
A potential development, in which a great deal of research is being invested, is the production of vaccines and other medicines in foods – "pharming".
One example is a banana with the genes to produce cholera vaccine.
These could be useful in areas of the world where there is poor access to clinics, nurses, clean needles and syringes, or refrigeration to store vaccines. A food that could be easily transported would have obvious advantages – and disadvantages, such as how to control the dose.
Would it not be easier and safer to equip clinics and train nurses in these ex-colonial countries? It may well be cheaper than the current research programmes. But the aim of the corporations behind this research is not to provide vaccines to those too poor to pay for them, but to use the same techniques to produce health supplements for the western market.
Big business profits
GENETIC ’ENGINEERING’ is a rapidly developing technology, with possible benefits and probable dangers. Who decides whether it should be researched and whether products should be developed for wider use?
A few giant corporations dominate the biotechnology industry but most research is publicly funded. In Britain, companies can write off 100% of their research costs against tax and 25% of ancillary costs. But unelected directors take decisions, accountable only to their shareholders.
Despite claiming this technology is the way to wipe out famine, only 1% of research in this field is aimed at crops used by poor farmers.
A new form of colonialism has emerged, where natural living resources of less-developed countries are plundered by the biotechnology corporations. In 1980 the US Supreme Court ruled that life forms could be patented. So not only the method of isolating a gene from living things is deemed to be private property but the living thing itself.
Plants from the rain forest and other environments, which may have medicinal properties, are patented so that the local communities who have passed on their knowledge for generations now have to pay. The Indian Neem plant has many medicinal uses. After WR Grace, an American company, patented it the price rose 100 times in two years.
The World Trade Organisation oversees this theft of traditional knowledge and living resources. The Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement allows ownership only of laboratory-tested findings.
A multinational corporation can perform an irrelevant test on a plant and then claim ownership of it. People who have used that plant for generations, unable to access laboratories, find themselves beneficiaries of the ’free market’ and have to pay or go without.
Although these corporations claim ’their’ patented knowledge and genetically changed seeds are unique, they deny there is anything different about the crops that grow from them. The food produced is "substantially equivalent" to non-genetically changed food and so deserves no special testing or labelling, they say.
It is not surprising that the same companies are ensuring the law will not allow them to be prosecuted for liability should unexpected results occur. They want to avoid the tobacco and asbestos companies’ experience of costly legal battles with their victims.
Both US and British governments are firmly supporting the rights of the biotechnology corporations to foist their genetically changed seeds on to farmers and consumers across the world. The sacked Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, said (after losing his job): "The influence of big business on this government is very great." It’s a pity he did not say this six years ago!
George W. Bush appointed Ann Veneman as Secretary of Agriculture. She had been a board member of Calgene, the first company to market a genetically changed food, the FlavrSavr tomato. Calgene has since been taken over by Monsanto.
A socialist programme
THE BIG business agenda means that ’inconvenient’ findings are often brushed aside, like the discovery that pieces of genetically changed DNA can pass through the gut into the animal that has eaten it.
This should have been the signal for an intensive programme of feeding trials. Instead corporations are rushing ahead, more concerned that they might lose market share than possible health or ecological consequences.
About ten giant monopolies dominate this industry. 70% of all genetically changed crops grown come from Monsanto technology. It owns or has agreements with the largest seed developers and research companies across the world. Its chemicals division has been separated into another company, Solutia, as it attempts to evade responsibility for decades of its toxic operations.
Syngenta is the world’s biggest producer of pesticides. It was formed from a merger of the crop biotech units of Swiss-owned Novartis (itself a merger between chemical and pharmaceutical giants Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy) and AstraZeneca (a merged company formed by the pharmaceutical and agrochemical sections of British ICI and Swedish Astra).
Other major companies include DuPont/Pioneer (a merger between the world’s biggest chemical and the biggest US seed companies), Dow/Mycogen (also American), Bayer and BASF (German owned), Limagrain (French) and Takii and Company (Japanese).
They need to be taken into public ownership, without compensation except to small shareholders in genuine need. A workers’ government in Britain could nationalise chemical factories, research establishments and land, but could still be forced to import genetically changed food unless workers’ parties with socialist programmes are built on an international scale.
These industries should be run democratically by workers, consumers, small farmers, scientists and health workers, ensuring that health and the environment are the top research priorities.
A balanced view could then be drawn up of the advantages and disadvantages of this new technology and the precautions needed to use it.
In a socialist society, it is possible that there could be some role for genetically changed products – but probably much smaller than the hyped-up claims made by the commercial interests pushing it now.