The Unholy Alliance (Part 1)

The Unholy Alliance by Dr Mae-Wan Ho
(Feature Article from The Ecologist, Vol.27, No.4, July/August)
- part1-

Genetic engineering biotechnology is inherently hazardous. It could lead to
disasters far worse than those caused by accidents to nuclear installations.
In the words of the author, "genes can replicate indefinitely, spread and
recombine." For this reason the release of a genetically engineered
micro-organism that is lethal to humans could well spell the end of
humanity. Unfortunately the proponents of this terrifying technology share a
genetic determinist mindset that leads them to reject the inherently
dangerous nature of their work. What is particularly worrying at first sight
is the irresistible power of the large corporations which are pushing this

Suddenly, the brave new world dawns. Suddenly, as 1997 begins and the
millennium is drawing to a close, men and women in the street are waking up
to the realization that genetic engineering biotechnology is taking over
every aspect of their daily lives. They are caught unprepared for the
avalanche of products arriving, or soon to arrive, in their supermarkets:
rapeseed oil, soybean, maize, sugar beet, squash, cucumber ... It started as
a mere trickle less than three years ago - the BST-milk from cows fed
genetically engineered bovine growth hormone to boost milk yield, and the
tomato genetically engineered to prolong shelf-life. They had provoked so
much debate and opposition; as did indeed, the genetic screening tests for
an increasing number of diseases. Surely, we wouldn't, and shouldn't, be
rushed headlong into the brave new world.

Back then, in order to quell our anxiety, a series of highly publicized
"consensus conferences" and "public consultations" were carried out.
Committees were set up by many European governments to consider the risks
and the ethics, and the debates continued. The public were, however, only
dimly aware of critics who deplored "tampering with nature" and "scrambling
the genetic code of species" by introducing human genes into animals, and
animal genes into vegetables. Warnings of unexpected effects on agriculture
and biodiversity, of the dangers of irreversible "genetic pollution",
warnings of genetic discrimination and the return of eugenics, as genetic
screening and prenatal diagnosis became widely available, were marginalized.
So too were condemnations of the immorality of the "patents on life" -
transgenic animals, plants and seeds, taken freely by geneticists of
developed countries from the Third World, as well as human genes and human
cell lines from indigenous peoples.

By and large, the public were lulled into a false sense of security, in the
belief that the best scientists and the new breed of "bioethicists" in the
country were busy considering the risks associated with the new
biotechnology and the ethical issues raised. Simultaneously, glossy
information pamphlets and reports, which aimed at promoting "public
understanding" of genetic "modification" were widely distributed by the
biotech industries and their friends, and endorsed by government scientists.
"Genetic modification", we are told, is simply the latest in a "seamless"
continuum of biotechnologies practised by human beings since the dawn of
civilization, from bread and wine-making, to selective breeding. The
significant advantage of genetic modification is that it is much more
"precise", as genes can be individually isolated and transferred as desired.

Thus, the possible benefits promised to humankind are limitless. There is
something to satisfy everyone. For those morally concerned about inequality
and human suffering, it promises to feed the hungry with genetically
modified crops able to resist pests and diseases and to increase yields. For
those who despair of the present global environmental deterioration, it
promises to modify strains of bacteria and higher plants that can degrade
toxic wastes or mop up heavy metals(contaminants). For those hankering after
sustainable agriculture, it promises to develop Greener, more
environmentally friendly transgenic crops that will reduce the use of
pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

That is not all. It is in the realm of human genetics that the real
revolution will be wrought. Plans to uncover the entire genetic blueprint of
the human being would, we are told, eventually enable geneticists to
diagnose, in advance, all the diseases that an individual will suffer in his
or her lifetime, even before the individual is born, or even as the egg is
fertilized in vitro. A whole gamut of specific drugs tailored to individual
genetic needs can be designed to cure all diseases. The possibility of
immortality is dangling from the horizons as the "longevity gene" is isolated.

There are problems, of course, as there would be in any technology. The
ethical issues have to be decided by the public. (By implication, the
science is separate and not open to question.) The risks will be minimized.
(Again, by implication, the risks have nothing to do with the science.)
After all, nothing in life is without risk. Crossing roads is a risk. The
new biotechnology (i.e. genetic engineering biotechnology) is under very
strict government regulation, and the government's scientists and other
experts will see to it that neither the consumer nor the environment will be
unduly harmed.

Then came the relaxation of regulation on genetically modified products, on
grounds that over-regulation is compromising the "competitiveness" of the
industry, and that hundreds of field trials have demonstrated the new
biotechnology to be safe. And, in any case, there is no essential difference
between transgenic plants produced by the new biotechnology and those
produced by conventional breeding methods. (One prominent spokesperson for
the industry even went as far as to refer to the varieties produced by
conventional breeding methods, retrospectively, as "transgenics".(1) This
was followed, a year later, by the avalanche of products approved, or
seeking, approval marketing, for which neither segregation from
non-genetically engineered produce nor labelling is required. One is left to
wonder why, if the products are as safe and wonderful as claimed, they could
not be segregated, as organic produce has been for years, so that consumers
are given the choice of buying what they want.

A few days later, as though acting on cue, the Association of British
Insurers announced that, in future, people applying for life policies will
have to divulge the results of any genetic tests they have taken. This is
seen, by many, as a definite move towards open genetic discrimination. A few
days later, a scientist of the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh announced
that they had successfully "cloned" a sheep from a cell taken from the
mammary gland of an adult animal. "Dolly", the cloned lamb, is now seven
months old. Of course it took nearly 300 trials to get one success, but no
mention is made of the vast majority of the embryos that failed. Is that
ethical? If it can be done on sheep, does it mean it can be done for human
beings? Are we nearer to cloning human beings? The popular media went wild
with heroic enthusiasm at one extreme to the horror of Frankenstein at the
other. Why is this work only coming to public attention now, when the
research has actually been going on for at least 10 years?(2)

The public are totally unprepared. They are being plunged headlong, against
their will, into the brave new genetically engineered world, in which giant,
faceless multinational corporations will control every aspect of their
lives, from the food they can eat, to the baby they can conceive and give
birth to.


I should, right away, dispel the myth that genetic engineering is just like
conventional breeding techniques. It is not. Genetic engineering bypasses
conventional breeding by using the artificially constructed vectors to
multiply copies of genes, and in many cases, to carry and smuggle genes into
cells. Once inside cells, these vectors slot themselves into the host
genome. In this way, transgenic organisms are made carrying the desired
transgenes. The insertion of foreign genes into the host genome has long
been known to have many harmful and fatal effects including cancer; and this
is born out by the low success rate of creating desired transgenic
organisms. Typically, a large number of eggs or embryos have to be injected
or infected with the vector to obtain a few organisms that successfully
express the transgene.

The most common vectors used in genetic engineering biotechnology are a
chimaeric recombination of natural genetic parasites from different sources,
including viruses causing cancers and other diseases in animals and plants,
with their pathogenic functions 'crippled', and tagged with one or more
antibiotic resistance 'marker' genes, so that cells transformed with the
vector can be selected. For example, the vector most widely used in plant
genetic engineering is derived from a tumour-inducing plasmid carried by the
soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens. In animals, vectors are
constructed from retroviruses causing cancers and other diseases. A vector
currently used in fish has a framework from the Moloney marine leukaemic
virus, which causes leukaemia in mice, but can infect all mammalian cells.
It has bits from the Rous Sarcoma virus, causing sarcomas in chickens, and
from the vesicular stomatitis virus, causing oral lesions in cattle, horses,
pigs and humans. Such mosaic vectors are particularly hazardous. Unlike
natural parasitic genetic elements which have various degrees of host
specificity, vectors used in genetic engineering, partly by design, and
partly on account of their mosaic character, have the ability to overcome
species barriers, and to infect a wide range of species. Another obstacle to
genetic engineering is that all organisms and cells have natural defence
mechanisms that enable them to destroy or inactivate foreign genes, and
transgene instability is a big problem for the industry. Vectors are now
increasingly constructed to overcome those mechanisms that maintain the
integrity of species. The result is that the artificially constructed
vectors are especially good at carrying out horizontal gene transfer.

Let me summarize why rDNA technology differs radically from conventional
breeding techniques.
** 1. Genetic engineering recombines genetic material in the laboratory
between species that do not interbreed in nature.
** 2. While conventional breeding methods shuffle different forms (alletes)
of the same genes, genetic engineering enables completely new (exotic) genes
to be introduced with unpredictable effects on the physiology and
biochemistry of the resultant transgenic organism.
** 3. Gene multiplications and a high proportion of gene transfers are
mediated by vectors which have the following undesirable characteristics:
* a. many are derived from disease-causing viruses, plasmids and mobile
genetic elements - parasitic DNA that have the ability to invade cells and
insert themselves into the cell's genome causing genetic damages.
* b. they are designed to break down species barriers so that they can
shuttle genes between a wide range of species. Their wide host range means
that they can infect many animals and plants, and in the process pick up
genes from viruses of all these species to create new pathogens.
* c. they routinely carry genes for antibiotic resistance, which is already
a big health problem.
* d. they are increasingly constructed to overcome the recipient species'
defence mechanisms that break down or inactivate foreign DNA.


Isn't it a bit late in the day to tell us that?, you ask. Yes and no. Yes,
because I, who should, perhaps, have known better, was caught unprepared
like the rest. And no, because there have been so many people warning us of
that eventuality, who have campaigned tirelessly on our behalf, some of them
going back to the earliest days of genetic engineering in the 1970s -
although we have paid them little heed. No, it is not too late, if only
because that is precisely what we tend to believe, and are encouraged to
believe. A certain climate is created - that of being rapidly overtaken by
events - reinforcing the feeling that the tidal wave of progress brought on
by the new biotechnology is impossible to stem, so that we may be paralysed
into accepting the inevitable, No, because we shall not give up, for the
consequence of giving up is the brave new world, and soon after that, there
may be no world at all. The gene genie is fast getting out of control. The
practitioners of genetic engineering biotechnology, the regulators and the
critics alike, have all underestimated the risks involved, which are
inherent to genetic engineering biotechnology, particularly as misguided by
an outmoded and erroneous world-view that comes from bad science. The dreams
may already be turning into nightmares.

That is why people like myself are calling for an immediate moratorium on
further releases and marketing of genetically engineered products, and for
an independent public enquiry to be set up to look into the risks and
hazards involved, taking into account the most comprehensive, scientific
knowledge in addition to the social, moral implications. This would be most
timely, as public opposition to genetic engineering biotechnology has been
gaining momentum throughout Europe and the USA.

In Austria, a record 1.2 million citizens, representing 20 per cent of the
electorate, have signed a people's petition to ban genetically engineered
foods, as well as deliberate releases of genetically modified organisms and
patenting of life. Genetically modified foods were also rejected earlier by
a lay people consultation in Norway, and by 95 per cent of consumers in
Germany, as revealed by a recent survey. The European Parliament has voted
by an overwhelming 407 to 2 majority to censure the Commission's
authorization, in December 1996, for imports of Ciba-Geigy's transgenic
maize into Europe, and is calling for imports to be suspended while the
authorization is re-examined. The European Commission has decided that in
the future genetically engineered seeds will be labelled, and is also
considering proposals for retroactive labelling. Commissioner Emma Bonino is
to set up a new scientific committee to deal with genetically engineered
foods, members of which are to be completely independent of the food
industry. Meanwhile, Franz Fischler, the European Commissioner on
Agriculture, supports a complete segregation and labelling of production
lines of genetically modified and non-genetically modified foods.

In June this year, President Clinton imposed a five-year ban on human
cloning in the USA, while the UK House of Commons Science and Technology
Committee (STC) wants British law to be amended to ensure that human cloning
is illegal. The STC, President Chirac of France and German Research Minister
Juergen Ruettgers are also calling for an international ban on human cloning.

Like other excellent critics before me,(3) I do not think there is a grand
conspiracy afoot, though there are many forces converging to a single
terrible end. Susan George comments, "They don't have to conspire if they
have the same world-view, aspire to similar goals and take concerted steps
to attain them."(4)

I am one of those scientists who have long been highly critical of the
reductionist mainstream scientific world-view, and have begun to work
towards a radically different approach for understanding nature.(5) But I
was unable, for a long time, to see how much science really matters in the
affairs of the real world, not just in terms of practical inventions like
genetic engineering, but in how that scientific world-view takes hold of
people's unconscious, so that they take action, involuntarily,
unquestioningly, to shape the world to the detriment of human beings. I was
so little aware of how that science is used, without conscious intent, to
intimidate and control, to obfuscate, to exploit and oppress; how that
dominant world-view generates a selective blindness to make scientists
themselves ignore or misread scientific evidence.

The point, however, is not that science is bad - but that there can be bad
science that ill-serves humanity. Science can often be wrong. The history of
science can just as well be written in terms of the mistakes made than as
the series of triumphs it is usually made out to be. Science is nothing
more, and nothing less, than a system of concepts for understanding nature
and for obtaining reliable knowledge that enables us to live sustainably
with nature. In that sense, one can ill-afford to give up science, for it is
through our proper understanding and knowledge of nature that we can live a
satisfying life, that we can ultimately distinguish the good science, which
serves humanity, from the bad science that does not. In this view, science
is imbued with moral values from the start, and cannot be disentangled from
them. Therefore it is bad science that purports to be "neutral" and divorced
from moral values, as much as it is bad science that ignores scientific

It is clear that I part company with perhaps a majority of my scientist
colleagues in the mainstream, who believe that science can never be wrong,
although it can be misused. Or else they carefully distinguish science, as
neutral and value-free, from its application, technology, which can do harm
or good.(6) This distinction between science and technology is spurious,
especially in the case of an experimental science like genetics, and almost
all of biology, where the techniques determine what sorts of question are
asked and hence the range of answers that are important, significant and
relevant to the science. Where would molecular genetics be without the tools
that enable practitioners to recombine and manipulate our destiny? It is an
irresistibly heroic view, except that it is totally wrong and misguided.

It is also meaningless, therefore, to set up Ethical Committees which do not
question the basic scientific assumptions behind the practice of genetic
engineering biotechnology. Their brief is severely limited, often verging on
the trivial and banal - such as whether a pork gene transferred to food
plants might be counter to certain religious beliefs - in comparison with
the much more fundamental questions of eugenics, genetic discrimination and,
indeed, whether gene transfers should be carried out at all. They can do
nothing more than make the unacceptable acceptable to the public.

The debate on genetic engineering biotechnology is dogged by the artificial
separation imposed between "pure" science and the issues it gives rise to.
"Ethics" is deemed to be socially determined, and therefore negotiable,
while the science is seen to be beyond reproach, as it is the "laws" of
nature. The same goes for the distinction between "technology" - the
application of science - from the science. Risk assessments are to do with
the technology, leaving the science equally untouched. The technology can be
bad for your health, but not the science. In this article, I shall show why
science cannot be separated from moral values nor from the technology that
shapes our society. In other words, bad science is unquestionably bad for
one's health and well-being, and should be avoided at all costs. Science is,
above all, fallible and negotiable, because we have the choice, to do or not
to do. It should be negotiated for the public good. That is the only ethical
position one can take with regard to science. Otherwise, we are in danger of
turning science into the most fundamentalist of religions, that, working
hand in hand with corporate interests, will surely usher in the brave new

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