Genetic Engineer speaks out against GMO’s

14/09/2009 (but still important)

Michael Antoniou teaches Molecular Genetics at King’s College, London. In his spare time, he likes to help non-profits with information on the science of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Savvy Soumya Misra met him at a workshop in Delhi recently where he was vocal against GMOs. Edited excerpts.

Jairam Ramesh, minister of state for environment and forests, recently said GM crop (Bt cotton) is acceptable but GM food (Bt brinjal) is not.

This is the first time I have heard somebody make this distinction. People who draw this distinction see cotton as a non-food product but they forget cotton seeds are used for oil, animals eat the stub after harvest and farmers are always in contact with cotton. There is evidence that these farmers have suffered allergic reactions; this needs an official follow-up though. Both environmental and health implications have to be taken into account.

Hazards of GMO’s

Gene transformation is highly mutagenic. This leads to multi-organ toxicity affecting liver, kidney, gut, blood biochemistry and immune system.

Acute signs of aging and decreased fertility in animals fed with GM crops have also been reported.

The problem with herbicide-tolerant GM crop is it destroys not just weeds but biodiversity in general. Intense use of herbicide makes weeds resistant. In such cases, new herbicides are used—more damage to the environment, in other words. The other problem is the Bt crop, which produces the insecticide Bt toxin. Companies promote that insecticides need not be sprayed on Bt crops. This is wrong. Protection from Bt toxin in Bt crops is insufficient to fully protect them. One insect can be destroyed but another resistant to Bt toxin can then come in.

So, you face the risk of Bt toxin as well as insecticides.

Processed GM vs GM crops

The argument that no adverse effects have been recorded among Americans is completely unscientific ( the US uses GM corn in its processed form such as chips, sweeteners). Animal feeding studies have been done on whole corn, not in its processed form. So, it is impossible to say if consumption of processed GM food has had any adverse impacts. Besides, consumers are not monitored. It might help to do a scrutiny of the American population in a controlled epidemiological manner.

How safe is Bt brinjal?

Bt toxin in animal studies has shown to cause allergic reactions and disrupt intestinal functions. If you cook Bt brinjal, the Bt toxin may break down and its toxicity may reduce. But the point is the main toxic effect that comes from GM food is not from the new gene but from the effects of the gene transformation process.

Recalling approved crops

Approval can be withdrawn. But if it is already in the field you are stuck with it. You can try and remove it from the food chain but this is going to be very difficult because of cross pollination between GM and non-GM crops. It will take many generations of cropping before the environment contamination level is reduced.

On biotechnology

GM is just one aspect of biotechnology. A more powerful use would be increasing gene maps of major food crops. Once a gene marker map is in place it can be used in breeding programmes. The plants can then be crossed. Gene marker assisted selection can be used to take offspring from the cross, map their genes and identify the plants that have by chance combined all the genes required. This has been successful in India to produce a highland drought tolerant variety of rice. Because this is a non-GM procedure, there are no safety considerations and the normal gene order is not disturbed.

Gene mapping can also be done to identify genes of high yield or better nutrients.

4 responses to “Genetic Engineer speaks out against GMO’s

  1. What I have never understood is the patent holders insistence that trans-species GMOs and other open pollinated food crops be tested in the open without the benefit of any long (or even short) term testing on the health effects to humans and other animals or to the environment, the farmer or the consumer. And yet we’re using a technology that is changing, fundamentally,the very building blocks of life.Yet here in the states the regulating agency somehow didn’t even see fit to require disclosure on the label of items that contain products made with GMOs.

  2. This is a short summary of how an unexpected ecological malfunction occurred in Africa within $ years of the first GM maize (corn)
    The African Stalkborer (Busseola fusca), known as the stalkborer, has lived in Africa for thousands of years. It bores into the stalks of all indigenous grasses and thus plays a vital role in the natural ecology of Africa.

    The Bacillus Thuringienis (Bt) is a bacteria which has existed throughout the world for thousands of years. It plays a vital role in the balance of the ecology of all grasses throughout the world by attacking, inter alia, the  vulnerable diapause  larvae of insects hibernating in the dormant dry stalks of all grasses throughout the world. (Diapause is a period of suspended development or growth occurring in many insects and other invertebrates during which metabolism is greatly decreased.) 
This important bacteria (Bt) secretes a crystal pesticide  (Cry Toxin) which is toxic to the diapause larvae whilst they are in this vulnerable diapause state. For thousands of years the perfect balance  between grasses, diapause larvae and Bt has existed.
 For thousands of years no insect resistance to naturally occurring Bt has ever developed. 
 Dr Rami Kfir of the South African Agricultural Research Council (ARC) : Journal of African Zoology 107:543-553, prior to the introduction of GM crops, confirmed the high winter mortality rate of larvae of the stalkborer which he attributed partially to Bt which he had significantly isolated, among other pathogens, on the cadavers of diapause stalkborer in the stover (stalks) of maize.

    Natural Bt spray.  Decades prior to the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops, microbial preparations of the entomopatho-genic bacterium Bacilllus thuringiensis (Bt) containing the Cry Toxin were commercially formulated.  This had numerous applications in the control of insects, but it’s most significant use for the purposes this discussion was that it was extremely efficient as a spray in the control of stalkborer throughout the world. This toxin was particularly popular with  irrigation farmers who simply used their overhead sprays to strategically target vulnerable  hatching and infantile crawling larvae. A most important, economic factor, is that natural Bt spray is used by organic farmers because it is natural and also biodegradable in water so no residue remains on the produce. Because insects in some areas have become extremely resistant to synthetic insecticides, particularly the pyrethroids, Bt spray has replaced synthetic  pesticide in many areas. It therefore has significant agricultural and economic importance.
    After twenty years of use, no stalkborer resistance to natural Bt spray has developed in any field population of maize throughout the world. (Tabashnik 1994).

    The first genetically modified (GM) Bt maize containing an edible Cry Toxin was planted in South Africa 1994 and it took only four years for the first resistant African Stalk borer to appear in a number of localities. The first reported cases cases arrived at the Agricultural Research Centre ARC in Potchefstroom during the 1998/1999 growing season. Prof Van Rensburg attributed this to larvae feeding on the silks which when mature penetrated the stalks and went into diapause later to mature into the first seasonal flight of moths.  
    Bearing in mind that there are two flights of moths each growing season, each moth producing some 1500 eggs, it is not surprising that  during the 2004/2005 growing season an alarming number  reports of severe damage to GM maize crops  flooded in to the ARC.  What was even more alarming was that they originated from many widely dispersed locations  throughout the country.  It was not only restricted to Monsanto’s GM maize but to all brands of GM maize. The one thing in common was that the  wide spread reports of severe damage were widely spread throughout South Africa and all involved irrigation schemes.

    The fact that the stalkborer has a propensity for developing a resistance to the ever present edible Cry Toxin in Bt maize and the stalkborer’s virile reproductive capacity,  has effectively neutralised commercial Bt sprays with severe economic implications to agriculture.  
    The biggest and probably the most unexpected ecological malfunction was that the natural control reported by Dr Ramy Kfir in the preferred hosts, indigenous grasses, has been compromised beyond repair. 

  3. Thank you for this Trevor. This is what scientists have been saying for some time now. Once you develop resistance, you are now in a lifecycle of staying on top of the problem: a problem that wasn’t even there in the first place. This is how deadly and dangerous GM is. Monsanto has developed a new stronger form of Roundup for 2010. Can hardly wait to see how well, and how long, that works. It’s now a never ending cycle for us.

    Nothing is more dangerous than a man with good intentions and no vision.

  4. Stick to your (moral) guns. They’ve been cramming it down our throats and we don’t like it one bit.

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