Terminator crops at large
Last December, I was asked to act as expert witness in defence of citizens who have taken civil action against GM crops which they strongly believe to be a threat to health and biodiversity. Among the crops were GM oilseed rape varieties used to produce F1 hybrids belonging to AgrEvo UK (now Aventis).
At the time, I was also preparing a joint submission, with two other scientists, to the consultation document, "Guidance on Best Practice in the Design of GM Crops" put out by the UK Government's Advisory Committee for Release to the Environment (ACRE).
One of the main enabling technologies' for 'best practice' suggested in the document is precisely Agrevo's seed/pollen sterility system, for it prevents GM gene flow.
It soon dawned on us that the GM oilseed rape lines undergoing field trials in the UK are engineered with 'terminator technology' - so named by critics because it renders harvested seeds sterile - for no other reason than to enforce corporate patents on GM seeds.
Not only that, according to AgrEvo's application, similar crops produced by the company Plant Genetic Systems (PGS), a subsidiary of AgrEvo, have been undergoing field-trials in Europe since the beginning of 1990.
In the US, similar male sterile lines engineered with the 'terminator-gene', barnase have been tested at least as early as 1992.
There have been 115 field trials, the vast majority done without risk assessment
, as the first environmental assessment came up with 'FONSI' - Finding of No Significant Impact. Crops modified for male sterility include rapeseed, corn, tobacco, cotton. Brassica oleracea, potato, poplar, chicory, petunia and lettuce.
The USDA commercial release data include 4 crops with barnase: a corn and a canola by AgrEvo, a chicory by Bejo, and another corn by Plant Genetic Systems.
Separately, the other genetic component in terminator crops, site-specific recombinase, has also been engineered into corn and papaya, and there have been 14 field trials between 1994 and 1998, with no environmental impact assessment at all.
There are more than 150 US patents listing barnase or site-specific recombination or both, the oldest, on site-specific recombinase, going back to 1987.
The first terminator patents that came to public attention were those jointly owned by US Department of Agriculture and Delta and Pine Land Company, which Monsanto had intended to acquire.
The novelty in those patents is the proposal to combine the terminator-gene system with the site-specific recombinase system, giving the company complete control over the hybrids as well as proprietary chemicals that control gene expression.As a result of universal condemnation and rejection, Monsanto had announced it will not commercialise terminator crops, to everyone's relief. Research and development, however, have continued unabated. Everyone has assumed such crops only exist in theory, when they have been out there for more than 10 years.
It is no coincidence that simultaneous consultation went on in the United States on the USDA-Delta and Pine terminator patents. The USDA has since committed itself to commercial development of the technology, and, like the UK ACRE, also argued in its favour because it could prevent GM gene flow.
But it cannot , because male sterile lines will be pollinated by non GM crops, and there is no way to prevent horizontal gene transfer.
On the contrary, the increased complication of the constructs may enhance horizontal gene transfer and recombination.
The genes and gene products themselves are also known to be harmful. The terminator-gene barnase kills cells by breaking down RNA, an intermediate in the expression of all genes.
The recombinase, in theory,
breaks and rejoins DNA at specific sites, but is far from accurate and can scramble genomes.
A male transgenic mouse engineered with only one copy of Cre recombinase was 100% sterile, because the recombinase enzyme managed to scramble the genomes of both daughter spermatids when they are still connected by a cytoplasmic bridge .
The mouse genome does not even have the lox sites recognized by the Cre recombinase.Terminator insects give wings to genome invaders
The US Department of Agriculture has approved field release of GM pink bollworms this summer, made with a mobile genetic element, piggyBac, already known to jump many species.
The element was first discovered in cell cultures of the cabbage looper, where it caused high mutations of the baculovirus infecting the cells, by jumping into the viral genome.
In experiments in silkworms, researchers already found evidence that the inserts were unstable, and had a tendency to move again from one generation to the next .
"These artificial transposons are already aggressive genome invaders, and putting them into insects is to give them wings, as well as sharp mouthparts for efficient delivery to all plants and animals...
The predictable result is rampant horizontal gene transfer and recombination across species barriers. The unpredictable unknown is what kinds of new deadly viruses might be generated, and how many new cases of insertion mutagenesis and carcinogenesis they may bring." [
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Monsanto has surreptitiously withdrawn its high lysine GM maize LY038 for safety reasons under a shroud of secrecy. There are serious health hazards inherent to the technology, which apply to every GMO. In addition each GMO carries unique hazards.
None of these has been addressed adequately so far, and there is now a stack of evidence indicating that GM food and feed are unsafe.
GM crops have had adverse impacts on farmers especially those in developing countries. The high costs of GM seeds and poor harvests led to spiralling debts and deaths. Between 1997 and 2007, the Indian government recorded nearly 200 000 farmer suicides, more than half due to Bt cotton introduced since 2002.
GMOs are bad for health and the environment; they will severely compromise global food security and exacerbate global warming. Those foisting GM crops on farmers in developing countries are committing a crime against humanity.
Genetic engineering is the epitome of mechanistic biology, part and parcel of the dominant model of the world as machine that was becoming obsolete since the turn of the last century when the new science of the organism emerged with quantum theory.
The dominant neo-liberal economy of infinite unsustainable growth has brought the earth to the brink of irreversible climate catastrophe. It is driven by competition, profligate dissipation and waste.
In contrast, nature’s circular economy (thermodynamics) of balanced sustainable growth is based on reciprocity and cooperation, which enables energy and material resources to be recycles while minimizing waste and dissipation.
Nature’s economy applies most clearly to the highly productive agro-ecology systems innovated by farmers, or perfected over millennia.
We have all the appropriate science and technologies, abundant human creativity, and local initiatives that will enable us to exit the multiple crises of food, fuel and finance. The major stumbling block is our political leaders’ overwhelming adherence to the obsolete mechanistic model.
The complete text of this lecture with references and richly illustrated power point presentation are available for download. at link
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