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RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH NEWS #743
---January 31, 2002---
NEW THREAT TO INDIGENOUS PEOPLE
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The survival of indigenous people, within the U.S. and across the globe, is being directly threatened by genetic engineering (GE) of food crops.
In September, 2001, scientists discovered genetically engineered (GE) corn at 15 locations in the state of Oaxaca, deep in southern Mexico, a country that has outlawed the commercial use of all genetically engineered crops. No one knows how it got there.
In the U.S., genetically engineered corn has been grown commercially since 1996 and 26 percent of all U.S. corn acreage is now genetically engineered. The remote region of Oaxaca where the illegal GE corn was discovered is considered the heartland of corn diversity in the world. Scientists had hoped to keep Oaxaca's rich diversity of corn uncontaminated by GE strains because Oaxaca retains the wealth of genetic varieties developed during 5500 years of indigenous corn cultivation. Scientists now say that aggressive forms of GE corn, let loose in Oaxaca, may drive native species to extinction, causing the loss of irreplaceable cultivars.
It is unclear whether the GE corn was carried deep into Mexico by birds, or was intentionally spread there by corporations or governments promoting GE crops.
All genetically engineered varieties of corn are owned and patented by transnational corporations. The only legal way to acquire such seeds is to purchase them from the corporation holding the patent. Such patents are called "intellectual property" and their enforcement under international law has been a major goal of "free trade" agreements in recent years. The World Trade Organization (WTO) contains strict protections for Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), and patented forms of life, such as GE crops, are explicitly covered by TRIPs. [See "Why Biotech Patents Are Patently Absurd - Scientific Briefing on TRIPs and Related Issues" by Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Institute of Science in Society-Third World Network Report, February 2001" --ratitor]
Under WTO rules, national governments are required to protect the intellectual property rights of corporations. In the U.S. and Canada, farmers have complained that they have become victims of gene drift, or genetic pollution, as GE crops have drifted across property lines, contaminating non-GE crops with patented GE varieties. Genetic drift of GE crops to non-GE fields has, in fact, been well documented and even the GE corporations and their regulators in government acknowledge that it is a serious problem. Now, however, Monsanto, a leading supplier of GE seeds, has cleverly turned the tables on the alleged victims of genetic pollution by suing them for stealing Monsanto's patented genes. In the first case that came to trial, in Canada in 2001, Monsanto sued Percy Schmeiser, an organic farmer who complained of genetic pollution. Monsanto said that after 40 years of growing crops organically, Mr. Schmeiser had a change of heart and decided to raise a genetically-engineered crop by stealing Monsanto's patented genes. Monsanto won and Schmeiser must pay. [See www.percyschmeiser.com, "Monsanto vs. Schmeiser" --ratitor] With this important victory in the bank, Monsanto now has similar lawsuits pending against farmers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Indiana, and Louisiana. Thus farmers that fall victim to genetic pollution may find themselves sued for violating the intellectual property rights of a corporation and be forced to compensate the genetic polluter.
The purpose of patenting seeds is to prevent seed saving -- the ancient indigenous practice of keeping seeds from this year's crop to grow next year's crop. Farmers who purchase GE seeds sign contracts requiring -- under penalty of law -- that they not save seed from one crop to the next. Thus farmers who employ GE seeds must purchase new seed year after year, making them dependent upon whatever transnational corporation owns the patent. Farmers who can't afford to buy seed each year will simply not be allowed to grow a crop. In free-market societies, such displaced farmers are free to move to a city where they are free to be unemployed.
Today's GE crops can't guarantee that farmers won't save seeds. Corporations intent on preventing seed-saving must hire agents to travel from farm to farm, reporting any unlicensed crops. Such monitoring is expensive.
To avoid the need for monitoring, and to gain 100 percent control over farmers, the GE corporations have developed a new technology -- terminator genes. Terminator genes prevent a crop from reproducing itself unless certain "protector" chemicals are applied to the crop. Any farmer using terminator seeds must buy the "protector" chemicals each year. As terminator technology spreads around the world, it will end indigenous agriculture, and much biodiversity as well. An estimated 1.4 billion indigenous people currently grow their own crops for subsistence, worldwide. In many instances, their land is being eyed for corporate "development" and GE crop technology offers a legal way to separate indigenous people from their land.
The ETC Group (www.etcgroup.org) of Winnipeg, Canada, revealed last week that two of the world's largest genetic engineering firms -- DuPont and Syngenta (formerly Astrazeneca) -- during 2001 were awarded new patents on "terminator" seeds, engineered for sterility. In 1999, Syngenta's (then Astrazeneca's) Research and Development Director claimed that all work on terminator technology had ceased in 1992, but the ETC Group found that the Director was either mistaken or dissembling: Syngenta's latest terminator patent was applied for March 22, 1997 and awarded May 8, 2001.
"Terminator [technology] is a real and present danger for global food security and biodiversity -- governments and civil society cannot afford to let `suicide seeds' slip beneath their radar," said Hope Shand, Research Director of the ETC Group.
Despite the grim social consequences that seem likely to follow the widespread adoption of genetically engineered crops, few scientists have questioned the safety of the technology itself. The major GE corporations have insisted for 15 years that their technology is thoroughly understood, reliable, and safe, and government regulators have agreed (or at least remained silent).
Now a new report, released this month, asserts that the scientific theory underpinning the genetic engineering industry is dangerously outdated and wrong. The new report, by Dr. Barry Commoner of Queens College, City University of New York, says, "The genetically engineered crops now being grown represent a massive uncontrolled experiment whose outcome is inherently unpredictable. The results could be catastrophic," the report says.
At present, 68 percent of U.S. soybean acreage, 26 percent of our corn acreage, and more than 69 percent of our cotton acreage have been genetically engineered. "[A]ny artificially altered genetic system, given the magnitude of our ignorance, must sooner or later give rise to unintended, potentially disastrous, consequences," says the new report.
The safety assurances of the genetic engineering industry are based on the scientific premise that one gene controls one characteristic. If this is true, then removing a gene from one species and inserting it into a new species will give the new species one new characteristic, no more and no less.
Unfortunately the theory that a single gene controls a single characteristic, while it may have seemed true 40 years ago, is known to be wrong today:
- Genes are composed of segments of DNA, a long molecule coiled up within each cell's nucleus.
- The 40-year old theory (developed by Francis Crick, who, with James Watson, discovered DNA in 1953), says that DNA strictly controls the production of RNA which in turn strictly controls the creation of proteins which give rise to specific inherited characteristics. Because DNA is the same in all creatures, this theory says that a gene will produce a particular protein (and a particular characteristic) no matter what species it finds itself in -- thus making it possible for the genetic engineering corporations to claim that inserting genes from one species to another will not lead to any surprises or dangerous side effects.
- It was -- of all things -- the Human Genome Project that revealed most starkly that Crick's theory was wrong. There are about 100,000 different proteins in a human and, if Crick were right, there should be 100,000 genes to produce these proteins. However, the Human Genome Project announced last February that humans have only about 30,000 genes. (See many articles in Science Feb. 16, 2001.) Thus there must be something more than mere genes controlling the development of proteins and the resulting characteristics.
- Actually, scientists had known for many years (since 1981 in the case of human genes) that after DNA creates RNA, the RNA can split into several parts, giving rise to several different proteins and several different characteristics. This is called "alternative splicing." By 1989 more than 200 scientific papers had been published describing alternative splicing.
- As cells split and reproduce themselves, their DNA molecule also reproduces itself, but sometimes errors occur in in DNA reproduction. Special proteins repair these errors of reproduction, so genetic inheritance is not simply a matter of genes -- it's a matter of interaction between genes and repair proteins. Will these complex interactions always work reliably and identically when a gene is placed into the entirely new environment of a different species?
- Proteins function as they do because of two characteristics: they have a specific chemical (molecular) make-up, and they are physically folded into a particular shape. The Crick theory assumes that a particular gene always gives rise to a single protein that is chemically identical and is identically folded. However, scientists now know that proteins get folded in a particular way by the presence of additional "chaperone" proteins. More protein-gene interactions.
- Furthermore, during the 1980s, in searching for the causes of fatal "mad cow" disease, scientists made the startling discovery that some proteins can reproduce themselves without involving any DNA whatever -- an impossibility according to the Crick theory. These proteins are now called "prions" and, as Dr. Commoner points out, they reveal that processes far removed from the Crick theory are at work in molecular genetics and can give rise to fatal disease.
Thus the basic theory underlying genetic engineering of crops is quite wrong. Single genes are important, but they do not invariably give rise to a single characteristic in an organism. A gene's action is modified by alternative splicing, by proteins that repair errors in reproduction, and by the chaperones that fold the final protein into its active shape. In nature, such a system works reliably within a species because it has been tested and refined for thousands of years. But when a single gene is removed from its familiar surroundings and transplanted into an alien species, the new host's system is likely to be "disrupted in unspecified, imprecise, and inherently unpredictable ways," the Commoner report concludes. In practice these disruptions are revealed by the vast number of failures that occur whenever a gene transplant is attempted.
Most ominously, the report points out, Monsanto Corporation acknowledged in 2000 that its genetically modified soybeans contained some extra fragments of a transferred gene. Despite this, the company announced that it expected "no new proteins" to appear in the GE soybeans. Then during 2001, Belgian researchers announced that the soybean's own DNA had been scrambled during the insertion of the new gene. "The abnormal DNA was large enough to produce a new protein, a potentially harmful protein," Dr. Commoner concludes.
Thus genetically engineered crops threaten not only the agricultural systems and the cultural survival of all indigenous people, but also the food security and safety of all people everywhere.
Carol Kaesuk Yoon, "Genetic Modification Taints Corn in Mexico," New York Times October 2, 2001, pg. unknown. Available at www.nytimes.com for a fee.
David R. Moeller, GMO Liability Threats For Farmers (St. Paul, Minn.: Farmers' Legal Action Group, Inc., November 2001). Available in PDF format at http://www.gefoodalert.org/library/admin/uploadedfiles/GMO_Liability_Threats_for_Farmers_PDF_Ver.pdf.
Pat Roy Mooney, The ETC Century; Erosion, Technological Transformation, and Corporate Concentration in the 21st Century (Winnipeg, Canada: The ETC Group, 2001); available in PDF: http://www.rafi.org/documents/other_etccentury.pdf. [Local ratical copy at: ECTcent.pdf --ratitor] The ETC Group (formerly RAFI, the Rural Advancement Foundation International) can be reached at 478 River Avenue, Suite 200, Winnipeg, MB R3L 0C8 Canada; Tel: (204) 453-5259, Fax: (204) 284-7871. This report is "must read" for all activists.
News Release: "Sterile Harvest:New Crop of Terminator Patents Threatens Food Sovereignty," January 31, 2002. Available in PDF: http://www.etcgroup.org/documents/new_termpatent_jan2002.pdf
Barry Commoner, "Unraveling the DNA Myth," Harper's Magazine (February 2002), pgs. 39-47. [Local ratical copy at: UnrvlDNAmyth.html --ratitor]
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