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Issue #1783      June 28, 2017

Taking Issue – Rob Gowland

Genie out of the bottle

Do you give much thought to bio-security? Or how to safely manage the outputs of industrial innovation? Well, perhaps you should. As Jonathan R Latham, PhD, co-founder and executive director of the US Bioscience Resource Project, has noted, “novel products incorporating nanotechnology, biotechnology, rare metals, microwaves, novel chemicals, and more, enter the market on a daily basis. Yet none of these products come with an adequate data set of scientific information.” Latham is the publisher of Independent Science News (independentsciencenews.org). He has published scientific papers in disciplines as diverse as plant ecology, virology, and genetics.

“We expose our world to unique hazards with every product launch. In comparison with its tremendous importance, this is surely one of the least discussed issues of our day,” he says. “How will the product be disposed of? What populations and which ecosystems will be exposed in the course of its advertised uses? What will be the consequences of accidental, off-label or illegal uses? ... Each product of the chemical and biotech industries has a close to infinite list of potential negative outcomes.”

The overriding concern of capitalism of course is making money, not protecting the environment or preventing unfortunate impacts on public health. Rather than spending money on such measures, corporations prefer to spend money on legal teams to defend them against possible lawsuits arising from their failure to act on these issues.

Latham points to the recent experience of the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, generally thought of as tropical paradises. In 2007, professor Dominique Belpomme reported to the French government that the 800,000 inhabitants of the islands faced a “health disaster” as a result of the spraying of the banana pesticide chlordecone. Half the male population would develop prostate cancer, infertility on the islands was rising, and all children on the islands were contaminated. And chlordecone will remain in the soil for up to a century.

Dr Latham points out that in fact around the world “a long line of chemical insecticide families have entered widespread use only to be discarded or banned for their broad negative ecological and health consequences.” He notes that “any single synthetic chemical, such as a pesticide, may potentially cause an enormous number and diversity of harms. They may result in reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, or carcinogenicity, for example, to any of a very large (often unknown) number of species. Moreover, these harms may vary according to life stages, with environmental or dietary conditions, the presence of other pollutants, and so forth. Furthermore, these harms may occur near to or far from the places and times where the chemical was used.”

And the harm may take surprising forms. “For example, contraceptives entering sewage systems may later contaminate water bodies and so disrupt the endocrine systems of fish.” Some of these harmful effects may be difficult to predict, and equally difficult to prevent.

Chemical giants like Monsanto have their sights set on gaining control of the world’s food industry (just as other capitalist corporations are seeking to gain control of the world’s water supply – in strategic terms it’s called “full spectrum dominance”). They produce and aggressively market genetically modified crop varieties that are resistant to the pesticides and insecticides that are indiscriminately sprayed from the air over large areas in Western commercial agriculture.

Aerial spraying is the fast, efficient way to eliminate weeds and pests. It also eliminates non-harmful insects and plant species, everything except the genetically modified varieties with built-in resistance. Which is good for Monsanto or whichever chemical company has produced the GM variety, but potentially highly destructive for the people whose agricultural land is being sprayed.

“GMOs [genetically modified organisms] intended for agricultural use ... may harm human and other intended consumers, soils, other crops, non-target insects, and so forth,” says Latham, and quotes the example of “creeping bentgrass (Agrostis stolonifera) ... a turf grass for which the Scotts corporation (in collaboration with Monsanto) created a GMO version resistant to the herbicide glyphosate.

“The Scotts GMO bentgrass was open field-tested by the company in preparation for marketing between 2001 and 2003. However, it escaped from several company test sites. Whether mainly by pollen flow or by seed dispersal is not known, but glyphosate-tolerant A. stolonifera can currently (as of 2016) be found in several Oregon counties and in neighbouring Idaho. The escape of this GMO grass has created problems for weed management of waterways. Since A. stolonifera is a wind-pollinated species, we can anticipate that, in the absence of a dramatic intervention, GMO A. stolonifera transgenes will spread globally to wherever this grass grows wild.”

Genetically modified turf grass is not by any means the only GMO to have “escaped” from “approved” locations to run wild with unpredictable results. Latham again: “GMO herbicide-tolerant canola (Brassica napus) has been approved for agricultural use in Canada, the US, and Australia. Within those countries, herbicide-tolerant canola GMO populations have been found growing as feral populations. Feral GMO canola populations have also been found in Great Britain, Japan and France.”

So what? I hear you ask. Latham answers that question with the example of GMO corn in Mexico. “GMO corn often contains one or more members of the Cry family of insecticidal proteins. In much of Mexico, unlike most of the US, corn growth is not restricted by frost – which means that, in essence, self-replicating insecticides are spreading across the landscape. This corn arguably represents a degree of risk to ecological and food systems that exceeds the threat from chemical pesticides.”

If GMO crops pose problems for humanity in the future, consider what potential disasters await us with the unleashing of genetically modified insects and other animals. This is already under way. Oxitec is planning experimental releases in New York State of a GMO diamond back moth (Plutella xylostella), containing DNA from several viral pathogens including Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). As Latham points out: “Whether genes from viral pathogens can ever be safely inserted and used in other organisms is still an open question.” We may find out the hard way.

These planned measures rely on in vitro techniques to introduce foreign gene sequences to drive gene frequencies. “Their ultimate goal is to alter the genetic composition of populations, including for the purposes of engineering population crashes or extinctions.” Latham points out however, that “the main distinction between gene driven organisms and most GMO crops is that gene driven organisms are explicitly designed to live and reproduce in the wild”. And we are already in trouble with GMO crops running wild!

These genetic modifications are being pursued by scientists working for companies whose overriding concern is seizing profit opportunities. In this instance, what they are seeking to produce are “products” that, if they fail, cannot be recalled. Any damage they do will be final and irreversible.

Latham poses some worrying questions, including whether genetically modified creatures such as mice or mosquitoes could be hazardous to the predators that eat them. Who knows? Other questions concern whether genetic modifications could spread from the original species to others with which it may sometimes interbreed. This is important because the genetic modification is likely to negatively impact these other species. Moreover, any unwanted or unanticipated impacts beyond the original species will likely be felt outside the predicted “impact zone”.

People rely on their governments to ensure that business’ reckless pursuit of profit does not result in harmful effects on society. But at a time when business is waging an open and vigorous struggle against any and all government regulations, as “restrictive interference”, it is becoming increasingly difficult to protect the community from the effects of corporate greed. The drive for profit is compounded by the corporate desire to get the product into the market place before the competition. Companies don’t want to wait while possible socially or environmentally undesirable side-effects are researched.

The result is that everywhere that commerce dominates science, the population has not been adequately protected against synthetic chemicals and the environment has not been adequately protected against GMOs. With genetic engineering being extended to insects and animals, it is only logical to expect more “unforeseen” impacts and more wild GMO organisms.

The only feasible answer, according to an increasing number of scientists and activists is to embrace biodiverse ecological farming instead of genetic engineering.

Even without profit-driven interference with the genetic structure of plants and animals, human activity has still managed to seriously (in some cases catastrophically) affect the operation of the natural world. We need from here on to err on the side of caution. As Dr Latham says: “Gene driven organisms ... must never be released.”

Next article – Housing as a financial commodity

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