Share this

Greenbuilder | October 1, 1999

Professor Richard Lacey, microbiologist, medical doctor, and Professor of Food Safety at Leeds University has become one of the best-known figures of food science since his prediction of the BSE (mad cow disease) crisis, made more than seven years ago. Recently Professor Lacey has spoken out strongly against the introduction of genetically engineered foods, because of the essentially unlimited health risks. The fact is, it is virtually impossible to even conceive of a testing procedure to assess the health effects of genetically engineered foods when introduced into the food chain, nor is there any valid nutritional or public interest reason for their introduction.

Professor Mae-Wan Ho of the UK Open University Department of Biology says, Genetic engineering bypasses conventional breeding by using artificially constructed parasitic genetic elements, including viruses, as inside cells.

These vectors slot themselves into the host genome. The insertion of foreign genes into the host genome has long been known to have many harmful and fatal effects including cancer of the organism.

Professor Dennis Parke of University of Surrey School of Biological Sciences, a former chief advisor on food safety to Unilever Corporation and British advisor to the US FDA on safety aspects of biotechnology writes: In 1983, hundreds of people in Spain died after consuming adulterated rapeseed oil. This adulterated rapeseed oil was not toxic to rats. Dr Parke warns that current testing procedures for genetically altered foods including rodent tests are not proving safety for humans.

He has suggested a moratorium on the release of genetically engineered organisms, foods, and medicines.

Dr Peter Wills, theoretical biologist at Auckland University writes: Genes encode proteins involved in the control of virtually all biological processes. By transferring genes across species barriers which have existed for eons between species like humans and sheep we risk breaching natural thresholds against unexpected biological processes. For example, an incorrectly folded form of an ordinary cellular protein can, under certain circumstances, be replicative and give rise to infectious neurological disease.

Dr Joseph Cummins, Professor Emeritus of Genetics at the University of Western Ontario warns: Probably the greatest threat from genetically altered crops is the insertion of modified virus and insect virus genes into crops.

It has been shown in the laboratory that genetic recombination will create highly virulent new viruses from such constructions. Certainly the widely used cauliflower mosaic virus is a potentially dangerous gene. It is a pararetrovirus meaning that it multiplies by making DNA from RNA messages. It is very similar to the Hepatitis B virus and related to HIV. Modified viruses could cause famine by destroying crops or cause human and animal diseases of tremendous power.

Dr John Fagan, an award winning microbiologist and cancer researcher, Professor of Microbiology at Maharishi University of Management, has renounced $3 million in US government research grants to publicize the dangers of misuse of biotechnology. He advocates a science-based precautionary approach requiring the labeling of all novel foods. He says without labeling it will be very difficult for scientists to trace the source of new illness caused by genetically engineered food.

Dr Norman Ellstrand, Professor of Genetics at the University of California is one of the world s leading authorities in genetic engineering.

He comments on the economic implications for farmers of gene exchange between crops and weedy relatives. We see this as a multi-million dollar problem. In Europe, there is already a big problem with gene flow between wild beet and cultivated beet. Oil-seed rape also has close relatives and is going to cause problems in the future. One would expect that the kind of genes that are now being engineered are going to be the ones that have a higher potentiality for causing trouble.

Dr Ellstrand on the likelihood of a major disaster: It will probably happen in far less than 1% of the products ... but within 10 years we will have a moderate- to large-scale ecological or economic catastrophe, because there will be so many products being released.

Dr Michael Antoniou, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Pathology at a London teaching hospital says, the generation of genetically engineered plants and animals involves the random integration of artificial combinations of genetic material from unrelated species into the DNA of the host organism. This procedure results in disruption of the genetic blueprint of the organism with totally unpredictable consequences. The unexpected production of toxic substances has now been observed in genetically engineered bacteria, yeast, plants, and animals with the problem remaining undetected until a major health hazard has arisen. Moreover, genetically engineered food or enzymatic food processing agents may produce an immediate effect or it could take years for full toxicity to come to light. Because genetically engineered foods reproduce themselves and can never be recalled from the environment, Dr Antoniou warns of an unprecedented health risk for humanity.

Dr Erwin Chargoff, eminent biochemist who is often referred to as the father of molecular biology, warned that all innovation does not result in progress. He once referred to genetic engineering as a molecular Auschwitz and warned that the technology of genetic engineering poses a greater threat to the world than the advent of nuclear technology. I have the feeling that science has transgressed a barrier that should have remained inviolate, he wrote in his autobiography, Heraclitean Fire. Noting the awesome irreversibility of genetic engineering experiments being planned, Chargoff warned that, ... you cannot recall a new form of life ... It will survive you and your children and your children s children. An irreversible attack on the biosphere is something so unheard of, so unthinkable to previous generations, that I could only wish that mine had not been guilty of it. The artificial nature of GM does not automatically make it dangerous.

It is the imprecise way in which genes are combined and the unpredictability in how the foreign gene will behave that results in uncertainty. In a post-BSE era it should be logical to think twice about using a technology that blatantly violates well established natural boundaries. Unfortunately, people are rushing into the field with a badly thought through technology. Dr Michael Antoniou, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Pathology at a London teaching hospital Open Saturday programme on TV (part of the Open University) two eminent scientists were discussing all the trends of modern genetics. Three of their interesting points or questions:

1) given the imprecision of understanding, the hypothetical nature and poor state of knowledge about the workings of genetics, and in particular the interactions between one gene and another who is responsible for educating the public so they can make decisions about the dangers or otherwise?

2) because of the rapid rate of research and development in the field of genetics, and the enormous range of possibilities opened up by it, society needs to be much more pro-active in deciding what is acceptable and what is not. We should not be chasing patents after they have been lodged but rather putting whole classes of activity out-of-bounds before they receive any investment.

3) the public needs educating on the non-absolute nature of science as it is practiced. Any theory or study is open to refutation. The public would generally be surprised to see how many scientific conclusions are couched in terms of balance of probabilities ..., further studies should show ..., would seem to indicate that ...