Issue 243: January 2007


Risks Underestimated


I have been intuitively, intellectually and morally resisting the advance of genetic engineering (biotechnology) for two decades – not because of what I know, but because I’ve never been convinced that others know as much as they claim to know. My reading of the science tells me the same thing: there is much that is not known, that is pretended to be known, or that cannot, in all honesty, be known. 

I just can’t accept that life is as simple and simplistic as the biotech promoters make it out to be. Their ‘science’ has always struck me as more than a little preposterous and arrogant. Nothing in this world is as simple as the Central Dogma of “One Gene, One Protein” proclaims it to be. There are dialectics and interactions; for every action, a reaction –  somewhere.

One could even say that there is no such thing as a ‘one-way street’ – otherwise, we would never get home again, would we?

If the actual complexities of biology in general, and molecular biology in particular, were fully acknowledged, genetics, genomics, proteonomics, and any other biological ‘omics’ that strike your fancy, would still be the subject of research, but the funding and commercialization might look vastly different. In fact, the chances of GMOs getting out of the lab, past the regulators and onto the market would be about nil. It would be recognized that not enough is known – and may never be known – about what happens when the invasive techniques of genetic engineering are applied to an organism to ever ensure that the resulting GMO is ‘safe’ to release into the environment.

The notion of placing transgenic trees in unrestricted environments would be regarded as insane and/or criminal.

The notion of ‘farming’ transgenic fish or growing a drug-containing canola would be regarded similarly.

And yet transgenic trees are being planted out in Canada virtually without restrictions and with no possible understanding of the forces being unleashed.


“Risk Underestimated” is the title of an incisive collection of interviews with nine scientists on the inherent risks of genetic manipulation, published by Greenpeace International. The following are brief quotes from some of the notable contributors. The initials following each quote identify the contributor.

“Genetic engineering is bound to introduce turbulence in the existing systems.” MB

“A gene can have a lot of different functions – the number of its functions has no upper limit. A gene can also acquire new functions.” MH

“Variation in proteins coded by the same gene may be extremely high like that found in neurexins, a class of proteins involved in neural connections. In that case, more than 2000 proteins can be produced on the basis of the information contained in only three genes.” MB

“How can the environment be encoded in the genome?  We know today that this can be done through gene silencing and gene activation by epigenetic mechanisms.” RS

“Nature, through evolution, has placed between the genome and the phenotype [the outward appearance and characteristics of an organism] a number of complex systems. All of which are context dependent. And these systems together regulate not the gene sequences bu t the pattern of how genes are expressed.  The expression of genes changes when the environment changes.” RS

“Epigenetics is widely recognized in human and animal genetics. Probably also in plants.  But when it comes to practical applications the outdated paradigm of the gene [one gene, one protein] is still dominant.” FK

“The question is, how is it possible that such wrong-headed theories around genetic determinism could be tolerated for so long.? Economic power and, of course, the mixture of the university with the corporations when you cannot tell the difference between the university scientist and somebody working for Monsanto anymore. They are all trained the same way. . . . you have to actually extend to them some sympathy because in some way they actually believe at some level that what they do is correct.” RS

“The study of the composition and the analysis of the substantial equivalence is far below the level of sufficiency to be able to predict any toxicity or any unintended effect of a plant. At least we should introduce mandatory scientific toxicity tests. . . . We should also make it obligatory that a transgene is sequenced after the insertion, not just before the insertion. . . in almost all GMOs the transgenes are no longer the ones published by the companies.” GS

Note: at this time, a url for this document is not available, but we can supply  a paper or electronic  copy on request.

The biotech lobbyists, of course, need not be troubled by the science. They are paid to sell the product, however faulty or dangerous. This is obvious by the following statement from the Argentine Council for Information and Development of Biotechnology (January 2007)

“Economic impact of GM crops in Argentina: Agricultural biotechnology has given the country a $20 billion profit.  During the decade 1996-2005 Argentine agriculture went through a deep transformation. . Biotechnology created 1 million jobs.”

“A study carried out by Drs. Eduardo Trigo and Eugenio Cap for the Argentine Council for Information and Development of Biotechnology, ArgenBio . . .  evaluated the impact of the ten years of adoption of GM crops in Argentine agriculture. Total benefits generated by all three GM crops [soy, maize and cotton] were estimated . . . in excess of 20 billion US dollars. In the case of herbicide-tolerant soybeans, total accumulated benefits for the 1996-2005 period, reached $19.7 billion, distributed as follows: 77.45% to the farmers, 3.90% to seed suppliers, 5.25% to herbicide suppliers and 13.39% to the National Government.”


Equally generous benefits are attributed to GE maize and cotton, but there is no mention of the assumptions built into the model that produced these conclusions.  What can be said is that the claims made for GMOs in Argentina far exceed even the most grandiose claims of the biotech industry in the north and bear no resemblance to the reality described by groups such as Grupo Reflexion Rural or the many displaced diversified farmers that used to supply Argentinians with their food.

“Regarding the social impact, the study asserts that the release of herbicide-tolerant soybeans could have contributed to the creation of almost 1 million jobs (whole economy-wide), representing a 36% of the total increase in employment over the period under study.”

Needless to say, there is no accounting for this magnificent figure. Certainly the mega-scale industrial monoculture plantings of soy are not labour intensive and it canot take a million workers to make the small number of tractors required. Just as the biotech industry does not account for all that it excludes from its research results, neither does it account for all its hyperbole. It’s business, after all.;  – B.K.

#243: January 2007 TOC
Risks Underestimated -- Brewster looks at what is not know and may not be able to be known about GE
Seed Sector Regulation -- deadline for public input extended --
analysis of the issues
The Gospel According to James -- that's Clive James of the ISAAA
Who Benefits from GM Crops -- including an expose of the ISAAA
GM Crops and Labour Saving -- a new study suggests why farmers use GMOs when there is no apparent advantage
Why Precaution Makes Sense -- new facts explain why human guinea pigs almost died
Biofuels, Energy, and the Madness of Economic Growth
Fresh is Best -- keeping broccoli green
Pepsi's Health Food -- and how Whole Foods works