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The BAD science of Genetic Engineering Part Two

Guest Opinion: The BAD science of Genetic Engineering Part Two

See also: The BAD Science of Genetically Engineered Food - Part One


I received two replies on my first article. Both were aggressive attacks on my ability to research and understand science and served as excellent examples of the first line of attack that defenders of the GE faith utilise – question the scientific credentials of the dissenter. I had done much research on the subject and had my article reviewed by two academic biologists, but this of course meant nothing. I was a heretic. I should be burnt at the ideological stake.

Steve McKinlay mangled his chance by showing his bias with the phrase “inevitable error” in the FIRST sentence. He then kindly defined what science was and then because I did not fit his definition, postulated that I must be totally erroneous in all things The article carried a colossal vanity that could only be justified by a painstaking demolition of all my points. Alas, no demonstration of any such demolition was evident, nor was any attempt made to do so.

After piling one unreadable philosopher atop of another, his article collapsed from the weight of it’s own ill-managed conceit. Mr McKinlay also discovered that I am a cannabis activist, and in an e-mail that showed the nuts-kicking nature of many GE advocates, threatened to “out” me… something that happened about 20 years ago…about the same time that GE had some sort of future.

Mike Berridge, in a later less random article unfortunately made the mistake of letting Russell Brown do the talking. Brown’s rambling discourse brought up the subject of Mexican corn but failed to drawn attention to the confirmation of the infestation by the Mexican Government – a confirmation that has met with a stony silence from the biotech community. Mike cause is also not helped by the Corngate controversy brewing as I finish this article prior to release to Scoop. I will attempt to address the reality of this brouhaha in Part 3.

Mike has great faith in the processes set up to make sure released organisms are safe. He stated that “Control, containment and safe use is addressed by the regulatory agency, ERMA, which operates under the HSNO Act”.

This is an unfortunate posture as the most potentially damaging episode of a genetically engineered organism had passed the USEPA tests and was ready to be released when a researcher made one final, last-minute test…..which neatly brings us to the first point….

* One GE product may be enough to produce a biological Chernobyl.

This is not some paranoid conspiracy theory. It nearly happened.

A graduate student, no longer working in the field of engineered organisms, and his supervisor did some research on a particular engineered bacterium that had been approved by the US authorities for field testing. No environmental effects were detected during pesticide or toxicity testing with this organism.

Michael Holmes discovered that the engineered bacterium, Klebsiella planticola with a additional alcohol gene, killed all the wheat plants in microcosms into which the engineered organisms was added 1 . None of the wheat plants were killed in microcosms into which the not-engineered parent organism or just water were added.

This bacterium was engineered to produce alcohol from plant debris, so alcohol could be produced after raking up grass straw residues instead of burning fields. This organism would have been released to the real world by placing the residue left at the bottom of the fermentation container following grass straw alcohol production on fields as fertilizer. With a single release, we know that bacteria can spread over large distances, probably world-wide.

These bacteria would therefore get into the root systems of all terrestrial plants and begin to produce alcohol. The engineered bacterium produces far beyond the required amount of alcohol per gram soil than required to kill any terrestrial plant. This would result in the death of all terrestrial plants, because the parent bacterium has been found in the root systems of all plants where anyone has looked for its presence. This could have been the single most devastating impact on human beings since we would likely have lost corn, wheat, barley, vegetable crops, trees, bushes, etc, conceivably all terrestrial plants.

1) Holmes, M. and E.R. Ingham. (1999) Ecological effects of genetically engineered Klebsiella planticola released into agricultural soil with varying clay content. Appl. Soil Ecol. 3:394-399.

Needless to say, publication of this report guaranteed Holmes and his supervisor got the full treatment as to their methods and conclusions.

* GE companies are genetically engineering fungi that may destroy crops.

Biological weapons are currently being tested to kill illicit crops of coca, opium poppy, and cannabis in forced crop eradication programs. These pathogenic fungi were developed principally by the USA for use in narcotics-producing areas globally; but especially Asia and South America. The agents are environmentally unsafe, and threaten to effect wild plants and agriculture in fragile and biodiverse ecosystems. These biological agents also endanger human health and, most importantly, threaten to undermine the global ban on biological weapons.

The strains of the fungi Fusarium oxysporum and Pleospora papveracae might infect and kill plants other than coca, poppy, and cannabis in ecologically sensitive areas of Asia and the Americas.

It is well known that some strains of F. oxysporum can infect many different plants, even distantly related species. To avoid disturbing delicate ecosystems in the Amazon, rural Southeast Asia, and the Andes, the fungi must not be released.

Strains of Fusarium oxysporum are highly toxic to animals and humans. Birds feeding on plant seeds are endangered, and consumption of the coca leaves - which is legal in Peru and Bolivia - might pose a health threat. " Fusaria can produce mycotoxins that are deadly enough to be considered weapons of war and are listed as biological agents in the draft Protocol to the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention,

US Department of Agriculture researchers have never tested the host range of Agent Green on plant species native to target countries, including Colombia, which is currently number one on the USA's list of places to use the fungi. Only a limited range of commercial crops were tested, which is little indication of how the fungi will behave in the varied and poorly-understood real-world ecologies where they might be used.

The United States says that the fungus varieties it wants to use in developing countries are not genetically-engineered. But its has created genetically-modified strains in the laboratory. US scientists have also cloned virulent genes from related fungi (Fusarium strains that attack potatoes) with the possible intent of increasing the kill rate of anti-drug fungi through biotechnology. A consequence of permitting testing and use of the current fungi will be future pressure for countries to allow "enhanced" Living modified organisms (LMOs) fungi.

If history is any guide, these GE fungi will on the ground as soon as possible.

Further Reading :

* GE crops have toxin genes that may degrade soil fertility

The use of GE crops with Bt toxin genes is widespread. These genes make the crops resistant to important pests. Due to these genes, the Bt toxin is produced in every part of the plant, so when the parts not harvested decompose, considerable amounts of the toxin may reach the soil.

Dr Charles Benbrook, former Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture for the US National Academy of Sciences has commented: "Compared to the volume of Bt in the soil in a conventional agroecosystem, the quantity of Bt entering the soil in corn stalks and stover must be enormous... Remarkably millions of acres of Bt GM varieties have been allowed to be grown in the US with little, if any, research being carried out as to the long term effect on soil fertility of such potentially toxic plant residue material (i.e when incorporated into soils post-harvest in preparation for the next crop). That this fundamental question has been overlooked is symptomatic of modern systems of agriculture generally, which frequently pay little regard to the fundamental role microbial activity plays in maintaining genuine soil fertility."

"Typically, toxins in naturally-occurring Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria, and sprays made from them, exist in an inactive form, which becomes activated once ingested by the target insect.

By contrast, the toxins in many Bt crops are already in the active form. Researchers from New York University, including the renowned soil ecologist Guenther Stotsky, found that unlike natural Bt, these active toxins do not disappear when added to soil, but become rapidly bound to soil particles, and are not broken down by soil microbes. This contradicts what GE scientists have been saying about soil persistence of Bt toxin from their Bt crops.

The researchers contend that engineered Bt toxins could built up in the soil, killing Bt sensitive soil organisms and increasing selection pressure for resistance to develop.".

Source :

* GE science is introducing potentially toxic levels of vitamins into food crops

GM rice, rich in iron which also contains vitamins, is already under development.
While this might serve as a supplement for people with deficient diets, there are significant problems with putting a drug in entire country's staple food supply. These include quality control of the active ingredient content, and restricting access to sensitive populations.

Vitamin A is required at low doses, but it may be toxic at levels only 10 times those required to prevent deficiencies (see for example, Casarett & Doull's Toxicology, 5th ed, 1996). Hypervitaminosis A has occurred in adults who took 3-6 mg of retinol daily for 2 years. The Food & Nutrition Board of the National Research Council has warned that ingestion of more than 7.5 mg of retinol daily is ill advised.

Early signs of chronic retinoid intoxication include dry and peeling skin, dermatitis, disturbed hair growth, bone pain, anorexia, edema, fatigue and hemorrhage. There are pathological changes in the liver and there may be alterations in blood chemistry which cause bone demineralization or neurological symptoms secondary to increases in intracranial pressure (see Goodman & Gilman's The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics, 7th Ed. 1985).

That’s it for now. See you all next week…

Adrian Picot

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