The idea of putting genes from one organism into another is not
new, but only recently has it become a practical proposition. It
is now possible to re-engineer an organism's DNA to include factors
from another, sometimes totally different, organism to produce such
effects as resistance to disease, herbicides or to improve their
keeping characteristics. Doing so is becoming a major industry,
the new science-based manufacture of the twenty-first century. Risk
money loves this sort of developing industry and fights to retain
Chicory, poplar, sugar beet, oilseed rape, maize, potatoes, spring
barley, spring wheat and swedes - all are being re-designed to offer new
chracteristics. The growing sites are all over Britain - Aberdeen, Monmouth,
Newcastle, Cirencester, Cambridge (particularly), Norwich - you are never
far from a Release Site. If you want to see how near you are to the new
world, click on the link below. The information is derived from the public
ACRE website, which is currently updated to April 1998.
One of the main directions of development is to produce crops which
can be sprayed with weedkiller which will kill the weeds but to which they
will be resistant.
Problems with genetically modified crops
"Can we control what happens to the DNA inserted into genetically modified
crops once they are released into the environment? Is the use of antibiotic
and herbicide- resistant genes in crops safe or desirable? Are there other,
more intangible objections to increasingly 'unnatural' forms of agriculture?"
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics asks these pertinent questions. They
also consider whether UK regulations are adequate to protect us during
the development process, whether we will be able to choose not to eat such
foods, and whether developing countries, who may have most to gain, will
be able to afford these expensive products. Since the UK traditionally
imports a large proportion of its food and soya, for instance, is mixed
with so many other constituents, it is not possible to label foods
accurately as GM or not. A farmer in a developing country could be totally
dependent on a crop company for both his seeds and the compatible chemmical
The wild plants which are currently safe from herbicides might be so
no longer, if farmers were able to use more powerful chemicals without
harming the crop. Growing insect-resistant crops could severely reduce
the numbers of insects in our countryside and thus the birds which feed
on them. Using antibiotic genes may de-sensitise dangerous organisms so
that they can no longer be controlled.
Problems with performance
The companies developing GM crops are confident that their products
are safe. Experience suggests otherwise. The genes which are believed to
be un-transmissible are all too readily transferred to other organisms.
When French scientists planted wild radish plants next to transgenic
oilseed rape they found that the hybrid plants also carried the herbicide-resistant
gene. Even in the fourth generation 20 per cent of the hybrids retained
the gene for herbicide resistance. Thus farmers who think they are buying
into a new efficient weed control regime may find that in fact they are
simply creating newly uncontrollable pest species.
Snowdrops contain a lectin which interferes with insect digestion and
thus protects them from predation. If the gene for this is inserted into
potatoes they gain a similar protection. Lab tests found that the potatoes
killed off significant numbers of the aphid pests. But if the aphids were
then fed to ladybirds, the ladybirds only lived half as long as those fed
on aphids from normal potatoes. And up to 30 per cent fewer viable eggs
were laid by the unlucky ladybirds feeding on affected aphids. The risk
is that we could wipe out the predator which controls aphids and leave
ourselved utterly dependent on the GM varieties of potato.
In Mississippi the Monsanto company has suffered a major setback. It
produces a herbicide called Roundup and launched a cotton variety resistant
to Roundup. The new variety could be sprayed directly but last year's crop
was badly affected with small, deformed bolls, some of which fell off.
Over 12,000 hectares, apparently all Monsanto cotton, was affected. Farmers
have lost millions of dollars through their reliance on the new technology.
It therefore seems unlikely that there are no risks.
The companies which are carrying out development of the transgenic crops
are subject to few checks. Problems which arise may be of lasting
importance in the countryside.
The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment supervises licensing
in Britain. Many of its members are members of the companies applying for
the licenses and no application has yet been refused, according to Friends
of the Earth. The actual growing of the crops can sometimes be messy. The
ACRE newsletter lists recent non-compliances.
John K King and Sons Ltd: "the consent holder exerted little
management control over the release", before the inspection by
Health and Safety officials. Then "appropriate measures were subsequently
implemented prior to harvest".
Nickerson BIOCEM Ltd: "Two days prior to a routine inspection by HSE
Inspectors" the company notified them of a breach of conditions. An isolation
distance of 400 metres had been reduced to 2.5 metres at sowing.
Scottish Crop Research Institute: Health and Safety inspectors found
that the growers had "failed to destroy surviving ground-keepers and emerging
volunteers". The wrong follow-on crop had been planted. "Visual inspection
of these release sites to identify surviving volunteers for spot-treatment
with herbicides was also ineffective".
Non-compliance with the conditions and limitations of the consent is
an offence liable to prosecution and may also result in revocation of consent.
Whether there have been any prosecutions yet is not known.
What the people think
The table, displaying results of a survey commissioned by the pressure
group GeneWatch and conducted by MORI, is taken from a New Scientist News
section. It shows an increasing distrust of genetic engineering in food.
Support for the industry has fallen from 31% to 22%.
Activists have taken the law into their own hands, tearing up crops
which were being grown to test the new engineering. The case, ultimately
unsuccessful, in which Guy Watson tried to prevent cross pollination of
his organic produce by GM crops nearby, was widely publicised, reported
in the best papers, and ended in judicial criticism of Government administration.
At least one major supermarket chain has banned GM food from its shelves.
Like nuclear energy, this may well turn out to be one of those cases where
the gut feeling of ordinary people is more reliable than the enthusiasm
Wild Plants and GM
The likely effects of genetic modification on our wild plants are currently
incalculable. The close genetic links between some of our crops and some
of our wild plants means that genetic overflow is surely likely. Sea beet
is related to cultivated beets such as sugar-beet, beetroot and mangel
wurzel. Wild cabbage is just one kind of brassica of which others are cultivated.
English Nature is concerned that GM organisms are developed quickly
and without any natural controls. Risks may arise from GM invasion of semi-natural
habitats, or from competitive displacement of native species by transgenic
plants. The development of crops resistant to insect, bacterial and fungal
attack may jeopardise the survival of native species, including beneficial
insects, which rely upon such organisms within food webs.
EN is recommending a moratorium on commercial releases of genetically
modified herbicide tolerant and insect resistant crops until current research
has been completed and evaluated.