The following article
is an extended version of one originally published as a personal opinion
in the Norfolk Society (CPRE) journal: "The Norfolk Countryside Review"
GENETIC ENGINEERING AND THE CULTURE OF COMPLACENCY
The BSE disaster has been both a harrowing and, as the Audit Commission has shown, an extraordinarily costly experience for the UK. Around 30 people have already died from new-variant CJD and some four billion pounds of public money has been spent trying to eradicate BSE from Britsh cattle, while the rural economy has suffered its most devastating crisis since the war. However, with the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment, the Government appears to be showing all the signs of having learnt little if anything in terms of the dangers of lax regulation and complacent reliance on industry-linked expertise. Yet this time the potential hazards from violating well established natural boundaries are on a truly staggering scale, not just in terms of public health but also of impact on the countryside.
Many people in Norfolk may have been alerted to this issue by the media coverage, both local and national, of the occupation and clearance by protesters of a test site for genetically modified (GM) sugar beet on Crown Point Estate land at Kirby Bedon in Norfolk. The site had been leased to the biotechnology company Novartis, which has a base nearby at Brooke. It is one of about seven such trials taking place on Estate land at Kirby Bedon. Kirby Bedon, in turn, is just one among some 300+ test sites throughout the country, over half of which are in East Anglia.
To date no GM crops have been approved in the UK for commercial use (although GM crops from the US have been going unlabelled into a wide range of processed foods since 1996) but the Government were said to be on the verge of licensing a GM oil seed rape. However, MAFF and the equally pro-biotech Dept. of Trade have been seriously embarrassed by the recent, and very timely, intervention of English Nature, the Government’s own advisory body on nature conservancy, which has called for a 3-year moratorium on any commercial growing of GM crops.
English Nature’s scientists have warned that some of this country’s most treasured birds and wildlife could be wiped out. They have highlighted birds living on farmland, such as the skylark, the linnet and the corn bunting, as being in particular peril.
English Nature has also criticised the character of the Government’s regulatory advice on the release of GMOs, with Lady Young, the Chairman of English Nature, going so far as to say:
“It is not being carefully regulated or monitored. There is a hole in the regulatory system.”
In fact, the majority of the current members of the Government’s scientific Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) have direct links with the very industry that they are supposedly overseeing, and indeed specifically with companies and institutions that are running almost half the trials that ACRE has approved. Even one of the committee’s own members has said that there is a need for ACRE to “look at the wider ecological aspects of genetic engineering and bring in new members with different backgrounds.” [Quoted in the Financial Times, 9/7/98]
Perhaps most alarming, in terms of the absence of any regulatory rigour, is the fact that to date ACRE has not recommended refusal of a single application for an experimental release of a GMO, despite considerable controversy in the scientific community about the general precision and safety of genetic engineering, as well as about the impact of the specific genes that are being inserted into crops. These concerns centre not just on the exotic, as in the case of, say, genes for scorpion venom in cabbages, but such elements as:
* the use of genes conferring herbicide resistance on plants (favoured by chemical companies like Novartis and Monsanto) which allow farmers to spray chemicals with much less caution, thus killing a wider range of plant life, with obvious knock on effects for wildlife;
* the use of genes which produce a pesticide within the plant, which have been found also to kill off natural predators (e.g. ladybirds, lacewings) and pollinators, though only a proportion of the pests;
* the use of antibiotic marker genes (as in Novartis’s GM maize) which it is widely thought could greatly increase antibiotic resistance;
* the use of viruses as vectors to insert foreign genes - some geneticists have warned that laboratory research already suggests these could reactivate to devastating effect.
If this weren’t cause for concern enough, there is also the question of the effect of cross pollination of GM crops with other crops or related wild plants - there have been confirmed reports of this happening during trials (eg GM oil seed rape with wild radishes), resulting in the passing on of traits artificially introduced into one crop into weeds and wild relatives. The problem in a nutshell , as the NFU’s working party on biotechnology has commented, is that the impact of GM crops on the complexity of the wider ecology simply cannot be predicted accurately.
The current low visibility in the countryside of the problems of GM crops (compared say to unsightly farm buildings or residential sprawl) shouldn’t blind one to the scale of the pending danger from what is clearly a “badly-thought through technology”. Those are the words of Dr Michael Antoniou, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Pathology at Guy’s Hospital, with 17 years experience of genetic engineering as head of a research group studying clinical applications. As Dr Antoniou points out, what makes the stakes so high in the case of GMOs is theirreversibility of any damage:
“Once released into the environment, unlike a BSE epidemic or chemical spill, genetic mistakes cannot be contained, recalled or cleared up, but will be passed on to all future generations indefinitely.”
If that doesn’t give one pause for thought, then the words of Dr Mae-Wan Ho of the Open University’s Biology Dept., and a prize-winning writer on genetic engineering, certainly should:
“The large-scale release of transgenic organisms could be worse than nuclear weapons.”
These urgent warnings from scientists deeply concerned at what is occurring in agriculture are a world away from the culture of complacency fostered by MAFF and the coterie of industry-linked researchers that dominate the regulatory system. These concerned scientists are urging UK farmers not to be lulled into repeating the errors that led to BSE and beyond. As Dr Antoniou writes in a recent edition of Farmers Weekly:
“...by staying GM-free the UK will not only avoid the inevitable health, farming and environmental problems which basic science and mounting evidence tells us will arise, but also enjoy a premium and security in the market.”
That, and not another and still more menacing
round of intensification of British agriculture, is the only credible recipe
for protecting our already all-too-pressured counytryside.