ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

1 December 2002


Lord May has some support. According to this article from Britain's newspaper, The Sunday Telegraph, we should all be listening to the President of the Royal Society, but instead:

"Those in the anti-GM lobby have become like African villagers who reject inoculation but vanish into the jungle for their witch-doctors to smear them with emotionally-reassuring but medically-useless monkey blood".

The article, which also speaks of, "...mumbo-jumbo drums emanating from the forests of voodoo... juju...anti-scientific gibberish" etc., concludes, "Intellectually, the GM argument was won thousands of years ago. The only barrier to it now is the one that existed then: pagan superstition."

Unfortunately, the writer seems to be seriously misinformed about what "GM" actually is! Thus, the writer contrasts traditional animal and plant breeding, which he terms "pioneering GM", with "modern GM". "Modern GM", he tells us, "presents no such dangers [as "pioneering GM"]. It precisely inserts the required gene into the host DNA."

In reality, of course, "modern GM" does exactly the opposite. It inserts into the chromosome not just the "required gene" but a whole "cassette" of genetic material, and it does so *randomly*.

In order to determine who it is that's been listening to the "mumbo-jumbo" of "witch-doctors" talking "gibberish", compare and contrast the Sunday Telegraph's account of "modern GM" as a process that avoids risks through precise insertion of a single gene with the following passage from a study on behalf of the European Commission on GM food safety:

"[Transgenic] DNA introduced into plant cells mostly integrates at random, i.e. at non-predetermined positions of the genome. The biological process ultimately responsible for random integration is known as illegitimate recombination. DNA integrated at random frequently contains multiple copies and often copies are scrambled. Multiple copies also often induce gene silencing and hence instability in the expression of the introduced genes. In addition, the DNA integrates at loci of unknown stability and capacity for expression and randomly integrated copies may induce unpredictable and undesirable mutations in the host genome..... Although our understanding of the general biology of recombination in plants is constantly improving, we still lack the knowledge for precision engineering of plants' genes." Study on behalf of the European Commission on GM food safety from Université Blaise Pascal Aubière (FR), Max-Planck-Institut für Züchtungsforschung Köln (DE), University of Ghent (BE)  Using a radical new technology to make irreversible changes in a random manner to a complex level of life, about which little is known, is inevitably going to give rise to unpredictable consequences."

That's of little consequence, however, if like Lord May, The Sunday Telegraph, and many of Lord May's colleagues on the Government's recently announced Science Review Panel, one's mind is firmly closed to the scientific realities regarding this technology.

For more quotes on the problems of genetic engineering:


GM crops are fine: beware the rhododendron

The Sunday Telegraph (United Kingdom)
December 1, 2002

Listen to Lord May, President of the Royal Society, when he says that imported plants are a far greater threat to Britain's natural environment than genetically-modified food. And remember those words, which - for the moment, anyway - are spoken in vain. The attention of his greater audience is still on those mumbo-jumbo drums emanating from the forests of voodoo.

Those in the anti-GM lobby have become like African villagers who reject inoculation but vanish into the jungle for their witch-doctors to smear them with emotionally-reassuring but medically-useless monkey blood. When people denounce GM, they are simply proving that high-technology societies are just like low-technology ones in their widespread preference for the magical over the empirical. Most people in the US, the most technologically-sophisticated society in  the world, believe in UFOs. They don't do this because there is any evidence for visitors from space, but because belief in juju seems to be part of the human condition. People prefer witch-doctors.

Europe's witch-doctors today belong to the extraordinarily powerful coven of anti-GM lobbyists: they have effectively ended GM research in Europe, even though they have no serious scientific evidence to support their claims, which at best are trivial, at worst simply risible. The consequences are not. Not merely is anti-scientific gibberish hailed as respectable even in intellectually-reputable circles, it is spreading apparently unstoppably throughout the developing world. When Robert Mugabe refused a free gift from the US of $10 million in GM corn, he wasn't just being his inimitable barking self, but was being very imitable indeed. Zambia promptly banned all GM food-aid, African countries preferring a PC famine to a GM plenty.

The most common fear about GM is that implanted genes might leap complete species, though there is no compelling evidence that this is possible. What is certain, however, is that idiotic panics can leap continents: and not just panics.

For Lord May was absolutely right. There are terrible dangers involved in introducing new plant species into an unprepared environment. He cited plants from garden centres as an example, and his point is irrefutable, as the ponds clogged with Australian swamp stonecrop or meadowlands infested with Japanese giant hogweed demonstrate. Yet once again, a statement of the obvious has attracted the derisive noises of denial that GM-opponents invariably bray whenever they hear common sense.

Take the much-loved rhododendron, which is only much loved if you have the labour to keep it in check. It has colonised thousands of acres in the west of Ireland. It is now uncontrollable, and is grabbing Lebensraum like the Wehrmacht. Where rhododendron marches, stealing sunlight and nourishment, other species must flee: and in Kerry, no Red Army stands before it. Of course, the threat of human-aided transmigration of species predates garden centres and the rhododendron. There would be no grey squirrels, no mink, no rabbit, in these islands without human assistance; more extraordinary still, no rats - thus no plagues, no Black Death, and none of their awesome political and economic consequences.

Without human assistance, neither would we have potatoes, turnips, carrots, cabbages; nor cattle, sheep, goats or pigs. And what distinguishes all those agricultural products is that they are themselves the products of genetic modification, over a very long time, and in the open, not over a few weeks in a laboratory. So in the first GM experiment centuries ago, species with desirable characteristics were protected from the normal promiscuous genetic to-and-fro of natural selection, and were encouraged to inbreed: grasses could only pollinate their immediate siblings,  concupiscent sows were allowed to copulate only with their grandfathers, potatoes sired their grandchildren through their own grandmothers and mares presented themselves to their great grandsons - because no alternatives were allowed.

So there was nothing natural about the GM invention of breeds and crops. It was incestuous, and highly unnatural. Moreover, this pioneering GM could be dangerous: undesirable characteristics might, undetected, be reinforced by imprudent fertilisation. Rogue or useless breeds would have to be ruthlessly culled.

Modern GM presents no such dangers. It precisely inserts the required gene into the host DNA, accompanied by no other genetic material. It is economy itself. Moreover, it does seem as if man-made species can exist only with our protection. Dogs gone feral soon produce a wolf-type offspring, and unprotected wheat will revert to those aboriginal grasses whose forced and unnatural liaisons made civilisation possible.

Europe, the continent responsible for much of the first GM revolution, is rejecting the second one, leaving exploration to the US. This is insanity. We cannot clothe our millions with handlooms, we cannot do our economic calculations with chalk, nor feed ourselves on wild roots. Intellectually, the GM argument was won thousands of years ago. The only barrier to it now is the one that existed then: pagan superstition.

Copyright © 2002 The Sunday Telegraph

ngin bulletin archive