Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 6. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 54-56.

Mutant Red Herrings?

Why labelling of genetically modified food is pointless

Genetic Engineering is one of the most terrifying technological developments of the 20th century. We are now tampering with nature on the very smallest, molecular level, and we have no clear idea of what the consequences might be. The subject is not an easy one for the uninitiated to get to grips with, and the jargon associated with it seems almost designed to alienate people. However, it is vital that we make the effort to understand the full risks involved in this technology, in order to realise the urgent need for direct action to stop it.

A long time ago, manufacturers were forced by law to add vitamins and minerals to products that had been impoverished by the processing they were subjected to (for example, margerine and cornflakes). In spite of the fact that the addition of a few artificial vitamins is no substitute for good fresh food, these products are now presented as 'fortified with vitamins and minerals' as if it was an improvement.

There are no limits to the dishonesty of the food adulteration industry (see the Monsanto story below), and given time the obstacle of mandatory labelling of gmo's will be similarly overcome.

It seems that the main (perhaps the only) thrust of the current campaign about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is about if and how they should be labelled. There was a time, not so long ago, when the debate was over whether or not any such organisms should be released into the environment at all.

Whilst this debate was still going on, the biotech corporations took illegal direct action and started field trials without even the permission of their regulatory poodles - the government bodies set up (ostensibly) to consider the dangers involved and make decisions on our behalf.

The evidence presented below shows that GMOs have crossed and will continue to cross with non-gm crops and their wild relatives. This will make it impossible to have any foods that are free of the modified genes, and any of the other dangerous bits and pieces that have been inserted into the organisms.

Other evidence shows that the vectors used to insert the new DNA are themselves dangerous. This means that the whole process must be stopped until such time as the scientists themselves (free of the constraints imposed on them by greedy self-interested corporations) can prove conclusively that they have reached the level of expertise and knowledge that would guarantee safety.

The tactics we are using at present are based on the assumption that the law is sufficient to protect us, yet an increasing number of dangerous mutated organisms are being released every month all over the world. On the rare occasions that biotech corporations do actually encounter legal difficulties they cheat, lie and bribe their way around them, and use force to get their products into the marketplace. Where they meet physical opposition (for example, from Greenpeace - one of the very few organisations actually campaigning for a ban), they use the violence of the state to overcome it.

What appears below is not speculation to be argued about politely with the representatives of corporations, but things that have actually happened.

GMOs cannot be kept apart from their wild and cultivated relatives

Transfer of Gene to Non-Gmo Crops

Field tests with genetically engineered potatoes have demonstrated both the high frequency and wide range of gene flow. When normal potato plants were planted at distances of up to 1100 metres from modified potatoes, and the seeds of the normal potatoes were collected afterwards, 72% of the plants in the immediate neighbourhood of the transgenic (gmo) potatoes contained the transferred gene. At greater distances an almost constant 35% of seeds contained the transgene.[1]

Scientists at the Scottish Crop Research Institute have shown that much more pollen escapes from large fields of genetically engineered oilseed rape than was predicted from earlier experiments on smaller plots. They found that escaping pollen fertilised plants up to 2.5 kilometres away.[2]

Transfer Via Human Systems

Crop seeds travel hundreds of kilometres between seed merchant, farmer and processing factory, therefore spillage in transport is inevitable, and could be more worrying than the threat of pollen spread.[3]

Transfer of Foreign Gene to Micro-Organism

It was reported in 1994 that gene transfer can occur from plants to micro-organisms. Genetically engineered oilseed rape, black mustard, thorn-apple and sweet peas all containing an antibiotic-resistance gene were grown together with the fungus Aspergillus niger or their leaves were added to the soil. The fungus was shown to have incorporated the antibiotic-resistance gene in all of these co-culture experiments.[4] It is worth noting that microorganisms can transfer genes through several mechanisms to other unrelated micro-organisms.

Unexpected Effects

A common harmless variety of a bacterium Klebsiella planticola, which inhabits the root-zone of plants, had been genetically engineered to transform plant residues like leaves into ethanol for use as a fuel. The genetically engineered bacteria not only survived and competed successfully with their parent strain in different soil types, it proved unexpectedly to inhibit growth or kill off grass in the different soil types tested. In sandy soil, most of the grasses died from alcohol poisoning. In all soil types the population of beneficial soil fungi decreased. These fungi are crucial for plant health and growth as they help plants to take up nutrients and to resist common diseases. In clay soil, the genetically engineered bacteria also caused an increase in the number of root-feeding worms, with consequent damage to plants.[5]

The bacterium Pseudomonas putida was genetically engineered to degrade the herbicide 2,4-D. The engineered bacteria broke down the herbicide but degraded it to a substance that was highly toxic to fungi. These fungi - essential for soil fertility and in protecting plants against diseases - were therefore destroyed.[6]

The toxin-producing gene of the bacterium Bacillus thurigiensis is commonly engineered into crops to provide them with a built-in insecticide. However, the toxin produced is known to resist degradation by binding itself to small soil particles whilst continuing its toxic activity. The long term impact of this toxin on soil organisms and soil fertility is unknown.[7] In spite of this, industry scientists assumed that the release of genetically engineered biological pesticides was safe, believing that naturally occurring biological pesticides were not capable of long-term survival in the wild. Dutch studies now reveal that the popular biological pesticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) does not die within a few days, but can remain active a year or more. Bt spores were found to thrive in both dead and living insects. "There are no previous examples of the spores reproducing in living organisms," Dutch researchers marveled.[8]

Dangers Inherent in the Process Itself

The Use of Cauliflower Mosaic Virus

"Essentially, all of the crops released after genetic engineering use Cauliflower Mosaic Virus (CaMV) genes as switches to turn on the foreign genes that have been introduced into the crops, to make them patentable and ready for market. CaMV is a pararetrovirus related to Hepatitis B virus in humans. CaMV is used even though experiments show that virus genes in crop plants recombine with invading viruses to make new strong virus strains. The danger from CaMV is that it will create newer stronger plant viruses. It isn't out of the question that CaMV will recombine with Hepatitis B to make a virus that lives in both plants and animals. Such a natural transmission is seriously discussed for the scary virus, Ebola. When CaMV is used on crops it is present in every cell, thus the number of gene copies in the crop far outnumbers the genes in the environment as virus. There is a fundamental genetic law in recombination that says "too many genes mixed together are bound to produce bad news".[9]

In addition to the dangerous nature of the mutant 'foods', there have been numerous instances which show that the regulatory bodies are either too uninformed or too corrupted by corporate influence to make sensible decisions. Even if the authorities were acting on our behalf, the corporations ignore the law and go ahead with their unmandated agenda regardless.

As Bill Mollison said; "the time for evidence is over, there is only time for action", or in the more eloquent words of Kant: "It is often necessary to take a decision on the basis of knowledge sufficient for action, but insufficient to satisfy the intellect." In this case we may even have the latter.

If we campaign wholeheartedly for a ban we are on solid scientific ground. We can appeal directly to people to help, and show them why it is important. The campaign for labelling is making the issue of a life-threatening technology appear to be merely an issue of civil rights. This is not an issue that can be resolved through the mechanisms of the market, or 'consumer choice' - and food is only one of the many applications of biotechnology, most of which have so far been overlooked. This is playing right into the hands of the biotech corporations. We need a debate about how to stop them, not about how to allow them to carry on. No-one has the right to choose something that threatens the lives of others; that endangers the current life of this planet.

These new organisms must be stopped. The democratic process is being subverted by powerful corporations who are taking direct action with no mandate. How should we react? There is a fundamental right to self-defence in law, even to the extreme point of killing someone. I am not talking about killing people, merely using force to stop them. This is a perfectly reasonable proposition as all other methods have demonstrably failed, and our 'security' forces have failed to act. The biotech corporations have bypassed the normal channels, so they have only themselves to blame if the people rise up and destroy them. It is too late to reform them, they must be eliminated.

The efforts of our best thinkers, which are currently being squandered by the likes of Monsanto plc [Anagram: "Conman's plot"!] on trivial self-serving projects must be channelled into finding real solutions to the horrendous problems we face. The biotech corporations are waging a war against life and against human freedom. We must overcome our fear and defend ourselves using tactics appropriate to the situation which we now find ourselves in. As Tolstoy once said: "You may not be interested in war, but war is very interested in you."


1. Skogsmyr I (1994) Gene dispersal from transgenic potatoes to conspecifics: A field trial. Theor. Appl. Genet 88: 770-774

2. Timmons AM, O'Brien BT, Charters YM & Wilkinson MJ (1994) Aspects of environmental risk assessment for genetically modified plants with special reference to oilseed rape. Scottish Crop Research Institute, Annual Report 1994. SCRI, Invergowrie, Dundee, Scotland.

3. Crawley M (1996) 'The day of the triffids'. New Scientist 6 July pp 40-41 -this was further referenced.

4. Hoffmann T, Golz C & Schieder O (1994) Foreign DNA sequences are received by a wild-type strain of Aspergillus niger after co-culture with transgenic higher plants. Curr. Genet. 27: 70-76.

5. Holmes T M & Ingham E R (1995) The effects of genetically engineered microorganisms on soil foodwebs. in "Supplement to Bulletin of Ecological Society of America 75/2

6. Doyle JD, Stotzky G, McClung G & Hendricks C W (1995) Effects of Genetically Engineered Microorganisms on Microbial Populations and Processes in Natural Habitats, Advances in Applied Microbiology, Vol. 40 (Academic Press).

7. Summarised in Doyle et al., 1995.

8. Earth Island Journal, Dec 1996.

9. Personal communication. Professor Joe Cummins, Emeritus Professor of Genetics, 738 Wilkins Street, London, Ontario, Canada N6C4Z. - for a more thorough document he wrote on this subject, send SAE to "CaMV" at Do or Die.

Do or Die DTP/web team: