The dangers of genetic engineering and GM food

Siobhan Mitchell
Sunday, 1st February 1998

Genetic engineering is now a fact of life and its consequences are at large in our society. In this passionately argued article, Siobhan Mitchell explains why this subject is too important to be ignored...

Genetic Engineering is now a part of all our lives whether we like it or not - and surveys show we don't. It offers new assaults on old issues of protest, from human rights abuses (particularly those of indigenous peoples) to animal welfare, and environmental issues such as biodiversity. Its impact on our health is as yet unknown. There are also many parallels with the nuclear age - huge investment (this time by companies rather than governments); experiments cloaked in secrecy through jargon, and protected by patents rather than the Official Secrets Act; information held by the very few; and the blithely comforting assurances of safety by governments around the world.

Educational Material... For Children

The biotech industry itself is now being fuelled by its own momentum - massive investment in research means that companies are now seeking a return, and there is much money to be made. Europe's industry is growing rapidly - the present total of 716 companies is up from 584 last year, while the United States has a total of 1,287 biotech companies. The cloning of Dolly the sheep was heralded as an earner for stocks and shares by the biotech industry. Companies such as Monsanto are obviously not going to sit back and wait for the public to decide if they want the products. Last year's enforcement of their genetically engineered soya on the European market demonstrates that. Their recent investment in public education is just starting to appear in Europe, and the pack developed includes 'educational' material for children.

Patented Umbilicus - 'Owning' A Primal Form

Every contentious ethical issue is being abused by this technology, but one of the most fundamental - the ownership of life - is being abused solely to protect individual companies' investments in research. This includes one of the most primal forms of life - the umbilical cord - which has now been patented. This patent is at least being contested in Europe, but that it happened at all shows the consequences of this technology for the whole of humanity. Other patents on animals are as hideous as their implications. Our scientists have created creatures such as the Oncomouse, genetically engineered to be born with a fatal disease, not only literally born to die but also born to be experimented on in a laboratory.

The exploitation of indigenous peoples by the industrialised nations has taken a new twist as we want their DNA, and some of their endangered plants too. Scientists involved in the Human Genome Project (HGP) have been strongly criticised. The bioethics working group, set up by UNESCO, points out that while the HGP has expressed an urgency in collecting samples from people in danger of cultural and physical extinction, it hasn't expressed concern about their physical extinction per se. The working group also recommended UN organisations not to endorse any individual project in this area whilst Human Genome Science/Smith-Kline Beecham holds the largest genetic database in the world, having sequenced 90% of the human body's genes already. The situation has become so dire that some countries such as Papua New Guinea are considering declaring their lands a GE 'patent free zone'.

Genetic engineering is the only sector in which experiments on animals is increasing, apart from biological warfare. Thanks to our popular campaigns, animal testing for cosmetics is on the way out, but pigs with human hearts and cloned animals are now being produced for our 'health'. Behind closed doors, a range of deformed animals have been produced in the blind pursuit of the ultimate control of life. Two companies in this country even tried to dispose of the 'failed' animals in the human food chain (and nearly did - except the problem of how to label them tripped them up).

Gene Spillage

We are eating food which is genetically engineered and we live in a country which is experimenting with genetically engineered brassicas, maize, potatoes and apples. There have been 124 consents to release genetically engineered organisms into the environment in the UK since 1993, and some of these were for a number of sites around the country. Accidents will and have happened. Spillage of genetically engineered seeds has already happened in Britain, but reporting of such accidents is dependent on the companies themselves. In Canada, genetically engineered seeds have already been recalled from farmers because Monsanto had mixed them with seeds that were not approved for use. One of the more direct threats from these trials comes from GE pollen in honey gathered by bees (presently from test sites, but from commercial sites from next year). MAFF research has already concluded that this could pose a serious health risk in itself, through the consumption of live DNA which could be toxic or allergenic.

Antibiotic Resistance Genes

In the UK, a government committee set up to consider specifically the ethical concerns about genetic engineering concluded in its report that,"Jews will readily accept the transplant of an organ, even if it is from a pig".

MAFF's permanent advisors on GE foods - the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) - are made up of 'independent' experts, who happen to represent companies such as Nestlé, Zeneca (formerly ICI), Nutrasweet (part of Monsanto), and that old favourite MacDonalds. Compare and contrast the following advice from the ACNFP's 'clarification of principles for decision making': "The ACNFP confirms its previous recommendation that GE micro-organisms consumed live should not contain antibiotic resistance marker genes." The executive summary in the ACNFP's 1994 report also states: "Alternative markers have been developed and should be used."

However, the ACNFP then concludes in its 1995 report that, "The inserted genes are present in the GE [processed] tomatoes but do not raise any specific concerns."

Previously, the UK Government had argued that the processing of tomatoes would destroy the antibiotic gene. It has now approved the use of fresh tomatoes which have been genetically modified - which means that we could soon be eating them and they could soon be grown within Europe. The fresh tomato (there are 10 lines of genetically engineered tomato which have been approved) contains a kanamycin-resistant gene - this is the antibiotic currently used as a last resort, i.e. it is our very last line of defence. Our 'guardians' can't even make up their minds about issues they have identified as potential problems. How can we believe their guarantees of safety, or their ability to deal with the inevitable consequences (e.g. superweeds, superbugs) when they emerge?

The Genetic Age - Here Already

We have already entered the genetic age. The question is do we ignore it and hope it will go away, or do we take action. The nuclear industry is fading now because people took action at the start of the nuclear age, regardless of the huge vested interest involved. The industry's motives are clear: SKB chief operating officer JP Garnier says that, "SmithKline's value will be enhanced significantly with the patenting of important new products."

An alternative future is being drawn up by grassroots groups. The 'Indigenous People's Biodiversity Network' has invoked the 1964 Helsinki Declaration, which states that, "In research on man, the well-being of the subject takes place over science and society", to argue for a halt to the HGP on the grounds that it is not in the interests of indigenous people. Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN) meanwhile is calling for a new legal framework that would produce local 'community rights regime', including the right way to say no to any proposal for the collection or commercialisation of biodiversity. Other initiatives include the destruction of GE crops; the first commercial crop in Ireland was completely destroyed recently, and German groups have persistently destroyed experimental crops after it was discovered that GE oil seed rape could cross breed with weeds.We as permaculturists can largely avoid GE foods (except honey) by growing our own and buying organic (the Soil Association's label guarantees GE free food). Yet we cannot avoid the broader threat of this technology which encompasses the abuse of human rights and animal welfare, endangers our well-being and depletes our biodiversity still further. Part of our shift towards sustainability has to include a direct challenge to the new Genetic Age.


  • GRAIN, Tel: +34 33011381 Fax: +34 33011627 eMail: [email protected]
  • Global 2000, Brussels Tel: +32 2 736 80 52 Fax: +32 2 733 57 08 Fighting the EC directive and supporting the other challenges to patents on life.
  • Women's Environment Network, 87 Worship Street, London E8 Tel: 0171-247 3327 Campaigning on patenting and labelling issues.
  • Compassion in World Farming, Charles House, 5A Charles Street, Petersfield, Hampshire GU32 3EH Tel: (01730) 268863 Fax: (01730) 264208 Campaign on welfare issues for farm animals involved in genetic programmes.
  • SHAG - Superheroes Against Genetics, Flit about the country playing cricket in GE crop fields and committing other outrageous acts.