Adulterated Food – Has Science Gone Too Far?
David Heaf. b.1947. After a Ph.D. at the University of Wales in 1976, David Heaf continued in academic and industrial biochemistry research until 1988, when he left a management position at Squibb Surgicare (Convatec) UK Research Laboratory to study Goethean science and German. He was a Waldorf School class teacher for two years and is now writing a book on a Goethean approach to chemistry. He is the UK coordinator for Ifgene – International Forum for Genetic Engineering http://www.anth.org/ifgene
Adulterating natural products from both the living and non-living world to gain economic advantage is an ancient art – much of the practical alchemical knowledge in ancient times was the fruit of the quest for methods of counterfeiting and adulteration.
Recent examples of adulteration include olive oil, wines and the somewhat macabre case in North Korea where counterfeiters tried to pass human flesh off as pork. But now we are faced with adulteration of a subtlety which would no doubt take away the breath of the ancient alchemists, namely genetically modified foods. So subtle is this form of adulteration that entire regulatory frameworks of the western world have been persuaded that GM-foods are ‘substantially equivalent’ to their non-GM counterparts. It’s a counterfeiters’ charter. And whole nations such as the USA and Canada have barely noticed the silent GM revolution. Through the ‘substantially equivalent’ manoeuvre, their food supply chains have long since become adulterated with GM soya, maize, rape, cottonseed, tomatoes, potatoes and fodder/sugar beet.
Now it is Europe’s turn. But it is clear that Europe – northern Europe at least – is not going to give in without a fight. Anti GM-crop non-violent direct action in Germany, Holland and France preceded that in the UK or Eire where this spring the first court cases following their 1998 activities are taking place.1 Among the defendants is the latter day Robinson Crusoe and author of Self Sufficiency John Seymour who states:
“If a government does not take action to protect its citizens from serious danger is it not reasonable that the citizens should take action to protect themselves?
“If an army of Normans landed again at Baginbun and started looting and destroying I should expect the Irish army to go and try and stop them. If it did not then I should feel it my duty to go and try and stop them myself, if not with a pike then at least with a pitch fork and I should do so.
“And when a huge multinational corporation comes and starts planting completely untested and untried genetically mutilated plants in the country where I have made my home, and the government agencies which are supposed to be there to protect us from that sort of thing fail in their duty, then I feel it not only my right but my duty too to do something to try to stop them. And if I have to go to prison because of it then I will go with a good will, and make the best of it, and when I get out I will try to stop them again!” Seymour is 84 years old.
The unprecedented UK press campaign against GM foods that broke out in early February appears to have been kindled primarily by some comments about GM potatoes made on TV last summer by Dr. Arpad Pusztai of the government funded Rowett Research Institute, Scotland. These potatoes, like all the other crops listed above are described as ‘producer advantaged’, that is they have been genetically modified mainly for the convenience of farmers. They have gained no nutritional advantage for consumers.
I have examined Pusztai’s data which are now published on the Internet2 and it is clear that there is a fire behind all the smoke which appeared in the press. Pusztai analysed and fed to rats potatoes which had been modified to contain and express a gene coding for snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) bulb lectin, GNA. Lectins are proteins sometimes with a bit of carbohydrate which have recognition and binding sites for specific sequences of sugars. They are present in all types of organisms and many plant lectins are highly toxic and may help reduce the quantity of seed lost to foraging animals. Pusztai’s data show that potatoes that have been through the modification process disrupt rat organ weights and slightly, but statistically significantly, alter a testable parameter of their immune function. What is less clear – and this is the straw clutched at by the Audit Committee3 called in to report on Pusztai’s work when he was ‘suspended under standard routine procedures’ – is whether the genetic adulteration with GNA lectin itself was to blame or whether it was the overall process used to produce the GM potatoes. (Incidentally, Pusztai’s work does show that potatoes in general stunt growth when fed to rats. One wonders what they must be doing to us humans!)
Certainly GNA lectin was expressed in the potatoes, but other aspects of the chemistry of the potatoes were changed too.2 The potato organism was clearly disturbed. Focusing on one molecule – GNA lectin – misses an important element of the picture. A more holistic approach would ask the question: how important is maintaining genomic integrity for a healthy plant?4 The process for smuggling a foreign gene in is still relatively crude5 whereas the conventional breeding process, however hit-and-miss it seems to a transgenicist, does not try to defy the laws of living nature. The concept of genomic integrity may be hard for a reductionist science to accommodate, and still harder to devise tests for. Admittedly only one gene is involved but imagine introducing a new instrument into an orchestral piece playing a different tune in a different key at a different tempo. The effect would be disturbing to say the least. It is something like this for the plant organism. We come up against a fundamental limitation of the science of our time.
Natural = Good, Artificial = Bad?
So how do we form a judgement about GM food? Can we get beyond the fundamentalism of ‘thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled [hybrid?] seed’ (Lev. 19:19) and ‘Thou shalt not sow thy vineyard with diverse seeds: lest the fruit of thy seed which thou has sown, and the fruit of thy vineyard, be defiled.’ (Deut. 22:9)? When those words were written, wheat and maize, which are artificial monstrosities compared with their ‘natural’ relatives, had long since existed.
In a paper by Christine Karutz currently being translated6 the author surveys for the lay reader breeding methods from the most traditional to the most transgenic – including selecting characteristics; crossing with a specific aim in view; exposing plants to disease and breeding from the survivors; F1 hybrids; crossing distantly related plants (often requiring ‘embryo rescue’ to get viable offspring); treating with chemicals which double chromosome numbers;7 increasing new mutations and therefore new characteristics with radiation or chemical mutagens; culture of anthers followed by chromosome doubling;8 selection of viable plant tissue in the ‘test tube’ after exposure to fungal toxin; somatic hybridisation (i.e. fusing cells that are neither eggs nor pollen); DNA-marker assisted selection in laboratory tissue culture and finally transgenesis (e.g snowdrop lectin potatoes) by a variety of transfer methods involving thousands of possible synthetic gene constructs. Exactly where on this ‘slippery slope’ should a biodynamicist draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not? And this is the big question facing the organic movement at the present time. Karutz examines the possibilities e.g. no using isolated DNA, tissue culture or crossing species/family boundaries. Each possibility is not without its problems. For instance triticale, a cereal produced with laboratory techniques, has properties useful in organic agriculture. Karutz points out that any breeding method which takes plants out of their natural context for part of their life cycles, i.e. into the laboratory, might end up with plants improperly adapted to the farm environment and therefore weakened, unhealthy.
The science is OK, it’s what we do with it
Snail geneticist Professor Steve Jones – a leading media spokesman for science – said, “science itself has no ethical dimension. What you do with science has an extremely powerful ethical dimension. DNA, for example, is just a molecule. It doesn’t have a soul or a mind. What you do with the results is important. Science itself has to be value free.”9 Here I think Jones displays crass naïveté. We do not have space here fully to deconstruct his statement, so a few comments will have suffice.10
The scientist is already steeped in personal and social preconceptions before he/she sets foot in the laboratory. Making these preconceptions conscious would be a major step towards healing science, but scientists hardly ever attempt it – it’s too philosophical they say. But if one sets out on the quest for knowledge with the prejudice that only those explanations are valid that are based on the view that everything in the living world is caused by matter behaving according to the laws of physics and
chemistry then the kind of science one ends up with, and worse still the technology based on it, will no doubt ‘work’ but it will be deeply coloured by that initial value-judgement. Science cannot exist independently of the scientist and the scientist is just another human being like the rest of us. In Jones’ terms, the deed has already been done with science before any so-called facts, e.g. ‘DNA is just a molecule’, have been discovered, nay invented. Why ‘invented’? Because, as scientists we carve out of the seemingly jumbled world of phenomena a subset to which we restrict our gaze, and subsume it under the term DNA. We do it, and it works! But it also means that other ways of doing science are possible. Indeed, they exist and are practised albeit by a minority of scientists. They complement the useful but one-sided method of reductionism. So we, as scientists, cannot shift the blame to technologists or some other element of society. Scientists need to become far more conscious of their own preconceptions than they have hitherto.
Foods adulterated by GM are not a logical conclusion from the way the world is made up. And that is why many spokespersons for the organic/biodynamic agriculture movement are now saying that we need as a society to decide whether we want to make use of GM food technology at all. This may seem at first like fundamentalism, but it arises from the sure knowledge that the science behind genetic engineering is not value-free and that there are other perfectly viable alternative ways of growing our food.
And if it is not already bad enough having a questionable basis to the prevalent science, it is somewhat more disturbing to hear that even its intellectual integrity is in question as shown by the following recent comment by Dr Richard North: ‘I’ve seen some incredibly bad science go straight through the peer review system. The peer review system is not functioning properly in the UK, so you cannot rely on the scientific community to vet properly its own members.’11 Fortunately, a UK committee, which will report in May/June 1999, is looking into how the government gets its biotechnology advice.12 But a re-examination of whether genetic engineering should be applied in agriculture at all still seems a long way off.
We live in a multicultural society and it should be possible to arrange for those who want to eat GM food to do so without putting the rest of society at risk through contaminating non-GM crops with GM pollen. A Dutch government consultative committee on precisely this problem was last year advised that male sterility could get round the problem by combining transgenesis with ‘traditional’ hybrid seed technology to produce male sterile hybrids. This is already being tested with rape and chicory, but its universal applicability is questionable.
While the debate continues and the technology evolves, a battle of wills rages in the political arena. Iceland Frozen Food’s contribution to this battle is to launch together with Greenpeace a petition calling for an outright ban on GM food technology and aiming for two million signatures by UK citizens only. 13
1. More information on non-violent direct action against GM crops can be obtained from GenetiX Snowball, One World Centre, 6 Mount Street, Manchester, M2 5NS. Tel: +44 (0)161 834 0295. http://www.gn.apc.org/pmhp/gs E-mail: email@example.com
2. Dr Puzstai’s report in full: http://www.rri.sari.ac.uk/gmo/index.html.
3. The Audit Committee’s comments: http://www.rri.sari.ac.uk/gmo/gmaudit7.htm.
4. The genome is all the genes of an organism. The concept of ‘genomic integrity’ was drawn to my attention by the geneticist Dr Johannes Wirz, of the Science Section at the Goetheanum, Dornach, Switzerland.
5. For background information on GE, see for instance, Heaf, D. J. (1998) ‘Beans Means Genes’, New View, 4th Quarter, 35-39.
6. Karutz, C. (1998) Ökologische Getreidezüchtung und Gentechnik – ein Arbeitspapier. Forschungsinstitut für biologischen Landbau (FiBL), Postfach, CH-5070, Frick, Switzerland. Barbara Saunders-Davies has kindly agreed to donate a translation of this to Ifgene. Enquiries as to its availability and donations towards typing it for printing and distribution should be directed to “Ifgene”, (International Forum for Genetic Engineering). Address: see note 10.
7. Chromosomes are the microscopic structures containing the material of inheritance (DNA) in the nucleus of cells.
8. The cells of the anthers which produce pollen have only half the number of chromosomes of the parent plant.
9. BBC Radio 4, “P.M.”, 12.2.99.
10. For articles and books going more deeply into this issue see for instance Ifgene web site at http://www.anth.org/ifgene. An excellent treatment for lay readers of the presuppositions in the science and practice of GE is contained in En toen was er DNA…wat moeten we ermee? (E. Lammerts van Bueren et al. eds., Indigo/Vrij Geestesleven, Zeist 1998). 11. Dr Richard North, Food Safety Adviser. BBC Radio 4, “P.M.”, 12.2.99.
12. Select Committee on Science & Technology, House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA. Spokesman: Ian Gibson MP.
13. Alternatively you can send an email with your name(s) and postal address to firstname.lastname@example.org with the following text ‘I/We call upon the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to ban genetically modified ingredients in our food.’
Adulterated Food – Has Science Gone Too Far?
David Heaf edits the Newsletter of the Science Group of the Anthroposophical Society of Great Britain. The Science Group’s newly opened web site is at http://www.science.anth.org.uk/