Beans Means Genes
Transgenic crops and food: a threat to cultural freedom?

by David Heaf

This article was first published in New View, Michaelmas 1998, pp 35-39.35 Glossary of terms.

Now that foods including tomato puree, soya and maize products derived from crops genetically modified (GM) by modern bio technology have reached our supermarkets, consumers are at last waking up to the fact that genetic engineering has left the laboratories and is in our midst. A recent MORI poll of 950 adults aged 15+ at 84 places throughout Britain showed that 77% wanted a ban on GM crops and 61% did not want to eat GM foods.1 But Safeway conducted another kind of poll by offering customers cut-price puree from tomatoes with a transgene to block a normal softening enzyme. Over 750,000 cans sold, a figure in excess of launch expectations. And there has been no widespread consumer boycott of the hundreds of products which now contain transgenic soya -- 50-60% of processed foods -- as a result of the policy of producers in the USA, Britain's biggest supplier, not to keep the estimated 30%2 transgenic part of the crop separate from the rest. So consumer polls and buying habits are not yet unequivocal. People, at least those who do not want to be told what's good for them, are still by and large at the stage of judgement forming. This article is about helping that process. The issue is not just about health and environment -- biotechnology is only one of a host of technologies which impact on these -- but more importantly one of cultural and spiritual freedom. I shall begin with some history then describe the phenomenon of GM crops, review the perceived benefits and risks, examine the thinking and moral judgements that created them and hopefully contribute to giving readers a firmer basis to make up their own minds if they have not already done so.


In the early 1970s some bacterial enzymes were discovered that allowed DNA3 chains to be 'cut' open at specific points and foreign DNA sequences containing known genes inserted followed by re-linking the chain. Recombinant DNA technology was out of Pandora's box. The implications caused the scientists themselves to call a temporary moratorium on certain types of experiment and an influential group of 'molecular bishops' met in private in 1975 at the 'Council of Asilomar' (USA) to decide how the research should proceed. Criticism soon followed because the discussion wasn't public. Politicians soon got wind of the seriousness of what had been discovered. Cambridge (Mass.) instituted a lay review panel to tell the scientists what recombinant DNA experiments could be done within the city limits. Formal legislation followed and now in UK as elsewhere there are regulations in force for the 'contained use' of GM organisms (GMOs, 'GM' also denotes 'genetic modification').

In the years since, the technology has advanced with molecular biology, which has made huge progress despite the inherent contradiction in the term. By the late 80s the scientists wanted to try their new GMOs in the fields. European 'deliberate release' regulations were drawn up, UK law brought into line with them and in April 1990 the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE)4 set up to advise the government and the Health and Safety Executive on all aspects of human and environmental health and safety of releases of GMOs and other novel organisms into the UK environment. The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP)5, formed shortly before, took on health and safety issues of foods derived from GMOs. The BSE and other food crises led to the appointment of a minister for food safety, currently Jeff Rooker. The committees include among others geneticists, botanists, ecologists and molecular biologists, even a bioethicist, a consumer representative and an environmentalist. Three-quarters of the membership of both committees is from the commercial and academic organisations which produce GMOs. But this has not prevented ACRE from in 1998 'naming and shaming' five organisations including Monsanto and the Scottish Crop Research Institute for failing to comply with the stringent safety procedures attached to the con sent for their deliberate release field trials.

The phenomenon

How to make a GM plant is illustrated in the diagram using a simplified textbook example involving a bacterium as the gene carrier.

heaf.gif (20450 bytes)

But the transgene does not always have to be smuggled in by an infective organism. Ballistics with a so-called 'gene gun' allows the DNA containing the gene, coated on microscopic gold or tungsten particles, to be blasted into plant cells -- a far cry from Mendel and his monastery garden! Once inside the cell nucleus, natural processes allow incorporation of the foreign DNA into the plant's own DNA in its chromosomes. If the inserted gene has the right control genes attached it will trigger the production of the particular protein that corresponds to it, which in our example is a bacterial enzyme that replaces the plant's own enzyme whose action is stopped by the herbicide. Developing a marketable transgenic plant with a stable genome6 that expresses the desired characteristic in subsequent generations together with all the pre- and post-release safety testing can take a decade or more to get from the lab via the greenhouse to the open fields. It is thus very costly and tends to be confined to the transnational chemical corporations such as Monsanto, Novartis and Zeneca, now controlling the bulk of agricultural seed sales in the west.

So far, the most popular transgene apart from antibiotic resistance marker (ARM) genes has been for herbicide resistance which have now been put in soybeans, maize, wheat, rape, fodder/sugar beet and chicory. It allows the crop to be sprayed with a total herbicide only if weeds are becoming a problem without killing the crop. The second commonest transgene is for insect resistance. The soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) produces some 150 insect toxins, a cocktail of which is widely used in organic agriculture outside the UK to spray crops to kill insect pests. The genes coding for the toxic proteins have been isolated and transferred to crop plants such as maize, potato and cotton. If insects eat the leaves they are killed. The most widely advertised transgene is one which prevents the expression of a softening enzyme in tomatoes allowing them to be ripened on the plant whilst reaching the supermarket sufficiently firm for sale. Some of the hundreds of other transgenes tried or in the pipeline include leaf-roll virus resistance, insect resistance from snowdrop and modified starch content in potatoes; altered lignin content in poplar; modified oil content, reduced pod shatter, fungal tolerance and male sterility in rape; insect resistance (Bt toxin) in tomatoes; and Arctic turbot antifreeze protein genes in strawberries.

With the huge investment in research and development of a GM crop and the potential for rich rewards for the seed companies, what is to stop the farmers simply saving seed from their first year's harvest of such crops in order to avoid paying the premiums for the new technology? Monsanto has tried contracting with farmers in the USA to prevent this. However, many have broken such contracts and been dealt with by legal processes. But in the long run, recovering royalties this way will be difficult and expensive to police. Wouldn't it be much better if the crop can be engineered to police itself? And this is indeed the major GM crop breakthrough for 1998. It has been dubbed 'terminator technology'. At the second generation, the embryo in the germinating seed dies as a result of the presence of a toxic transgene, thus rendering the saved seed useless for cultivation. There is no reason why such an invention, now patented by a Monsanto subsidiary, cannot be incorporated in any GM crop, or indeed in any conventionally bred commercial variety. It would provide similar protection for the owner of the seed variety rights as is currently the case with F1 hybrids whose progeny differ genetically from the variety purchased and have less vigour.

The GM crops grown and currently entering the food supply lines are mostly confined to the USA where the technology has met with relatively little public and regulatory resistance. Soybeans are only a minor UK crop, but the marketing consent granted in May 1996 for Monsanto's Roundup-Ready (RR) variety, which is imported for processing, was necessary because of its GMO status. Objections by UK and/or other European member states are holding up commercial growing in Britain of rape, potatoes, maize and chicory. Of these, AgrEvo's herbicide tolerant oilseed rape looks set to be the first GM crop to be grown commercially in the UK.7

"And we make (by Art) in the same Orchards, and Gardens, Trees and Flowers, to come earlier, or later, then their Seasons; And to come up and beare more speedily then by their Naturall Course they doe. We make them also by Art greater much then their Nature; And their Fruit greater, and sweeter, and of differing Tast, Smell, Colour, and Figure, from their Nature. And many of them we so Order as they become of Medicinall Use.

Wee have also Meanes to make diverse Plants rise by Mixtures of Earths without Seedes; And likewise to make diverse New Plants, differing from the Vulgar; and to make one Tree or Plant turne into another...

By Art likewise, we make them [Beasts and Birds] Greater, or Taller, then their Kinde is; And contrary- wise Dwarfe them and stay their Grouth: Wee make them more Fruitfull and Bearing then their Kind is; and contrary-wise Barren and not Generative. Also we make them differ in Colour, Shape, Activity many wayes. We finde Meanes to make Commixtures and Copulations of diverse Kindes; which have produced many New Kindes, and them not Barren, as the generall Opinion is...

Neither doe we this by Chance, but wee know before hand, of what Matter and Commixture, what Kinde of those Creatures will arise."

Taken from 'New Atlantis' by Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, Viscount St Alban. (pp37-38. G. C. Moore Smith Edition, Cambridge University Press, 1929). [According to Moore Smith, 'New Atlantis' was first published in 1627, a year after Bacon's death, and was probably written between 1622 and 1624. The spelling is exactly transcribed.]

The benefits and risks

The arguments for and against GM crops are by no means new. Francis Bacon enthused about the prospects for the technological manipulation of life (see box). Perdita in Shakespeare's Winter's Tale8 would have no slips of the flowers of human artifice in her garden. If we do not want to take such a fundamentalist position as Perdita's, but wish as citizens to give informed consent to use the 'art which...shares in great creating nature',8 we must look more closely at the nature of the technology in general and at particular real cases. We shall begin with the latter, selecting just three examples from the many now in our fields or research glasshouses.

Marker genes for antibiotic resistance are widely used to allow selection at the test tube stage of organisms which have successfully taken up the transgene. This is unfortunate for those trying to market the first generation products. Whilst some markers correspond to antibiotics rarely used in medicine, e.g. kanamycin in AgrEvo's sugar beet,9 other are for antibiotics in common use. That is why the UK authorities expressed concern about Novartis' insect and herbicide resistant maize which also contains an ampicillin resistance gene. Ampicillin and antibiotics closely resembling it are still of therapeutic value and it was feared that horizontal, i.e. cross-species, transfer of the ampicillin resistance gene from maize forage to livestock gut microflora and thence to humans would render the antibiotic useless. Crops with ARMs eaten directly by humans could pose a more direct threat. Although this is a debatable risk scenario, few biotechnologists now want ARMs in second generation products.

We can best consider the herbicide resistance gene concept by looking at the cases of Monsanto's RR soya and AgrEvo's glufosinate resistant oilseed rape. Monsanto claims that farmers can: 'reduce their herbicide use in soybean fields by up to one- third and still control weeds better; reduce their herbicide costs; control their weeds with a herbicide well-known for its favour able environmental characteristics; have more flexibility to treat weeds only when needed; and rotate crops more easily because Roundup® herbicide doesn't stay in the soil. Consumers will benefit as well. RR soybeans are the same as other soybeans in safety, nutrition, composition and how they process into animal feeds and food ingredients. At the same time, these soybeans can be grown with less herbicide, and farmers will be able to use a herbicide (Roundup) that, while highly effective in controlling weeds, is no more toxic to people and animals than table salt.'10 Are these claims justified? Roundup (glyphosate) is the world's biggest selling herbicide and Monsanto's most profitable product.11 Tying the economic advantage of growing a particular variety of crop to a trait conferring resistance to a company's lead product would hardly seem to be motivated by a desire to cut usage worldwide and therefore sales of the herbicide. Indeed sales continue to rise at over 20% per year.12 Roundup residues persist in soils up to 3 years after application.13 It is toxic to fish,14 earthworms,15 beneficial insects16 and humans.17 An unidentified Roundup component has recently been found to react with DNA in mice, thus pointing to its possible mutagenicity and hence carcinogenicity.18 These are a few of a relatively small number of papers questioning Roundup's claimed harmlessness, but are not yet enough to dissuade the USA regulators from classing it as a relatively innocuous herbicide. Last year New York State won a case against Monsanto following complaints about Roundup advertising which resulted in terms like 'environmentally friendly' and 'biodegradable' being removed and hefty costs being awarded against the company.

In view of the very serious worldwide soil erosion caused by tillage, soil compaction and hence fertility loss caused by heavy machinery and fossil fuel combustion giving rise to emissions, the claimed 46% no-till acreage of RR soybeans in 199719 would seem at first glance to be a good thing. But here we are talking about no-till in the kind of field which stretches beyond the horizon and an agricultural system already highly prone to soil erosion. A technical fix is therefore being claimed for an inherently unsustainable agriculture. Furthermore, is the reduction in fuel and emissions just shifting the problem to another part of the petrochemical industry, namely agrochemicals? And while we are on the subject, is the adoption of the term 'sustainable' by Monsanto19 and other companies to describe GM technology an appropriate use of the term?20

In contrast to soya, oilseed rape is a UK crop grown on over a million acres. I mention it for two further perceived dangers of GM crops. The first is the risk of gene flow to wild species. There is real potential of gene transfer from glufosinate herbicide resistant oilseed rape to wild relatives including hoary mustard, wild turnip, wild radish and mustard greens.7 New herbicide resistant invasive species may arise, costly for the farmer and potentially damaging to the environment because to get rid of them recourse might need to be made to older more toxic herbicides. Furthermore, with Monsanto developing a Roundup resistant rape, the possibility of multiple herbicide resistant hybrids arising from Monsanto and Agrevo varieties grown in adjacent fields cannot be ruled out. However, to see such 'superweed' scenarios in perspective, it should be noted that accidental and deliberate movement of alien species round the world has already created hundreds of invasive species, rhododendron and Japanese knot weed being just two examples of many in the UK.

Before leaving these two cases we shall consider total herbicide use on crops in general. As their use year after year exerts what population geneticists call a 'selective pressure' on weed populations, even without horizontal gene transfer eventually weeds are bound to evolve that are resistant. In time, when all possible management strategies are exhausted the options remaining will be either stronger, more toxic herbicides or a switch to organic or biodynamic farming based on traditional methods of weed control. Another concern is the indirect effect on wildlife. Weeds support insect populations and both are food for birds. As a whole sale switch of conventional agriculture from the already environmentally harmful selective herbicides to the broad spectrum types could devastate our wildlife, the government wildlife agencies English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Countryside Council for Wales and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee have united in calling for a 5 year moratorium on the use of the technology. Having seen the destructive effect on field headlands of the total herbicide used currently on flax before it is harvested, I feel that these agencies' concern is warranted.

Our last example concerns the insect resistance (e.g. Bt) genes. In principle, putting these in crops would make spraying with noxious insecticides a thing of the past. A current case is Novartis' insect and herbicide resistant maize, approved for commercial use in France, but awaiting the final go ahead in UK. France originally asked for it to be approved by the European Com mission. Once approved all EU member states must admit it. Austria and Luxembourg have banned it, but risk court action to have the ban ruled illegal. Despite the fact that sales of the GM maize seed in 1998 in France have been a flop it is worth looking at this case in more detail. The concept is simple in principle. The target insects, in this case the European corn borer which can drastically reduce crop yield, are only poisoned by the Bt toxin when they eat the maize. But a recent laboratory study has shown that death rates of lacewings, beneficial insects that feed on plant-eating insects, are doubled when feeding on insects that have eaten GM plants containing Bt toxin.21 In a study nearer to natural conditions, potatoes containing a snowdrop insecticidal gene were found to grow less well than controls when both were exposed to aphid attack. The cause was traced to a fall in numbers of ladybirds, an aphid predator, on the transgenic crop resulting from the ladybirds eating poisoned aphids. The Bt gene alone was not sufficient to protect the potatoes. They needed ladybirds too. Little is known yet of the ecological impact of Bt toxin crops on bees let alone on honey quality.

All experts agree that the target insects will eventually develop resistance to Bt toxin, even with planting so-called 'refuges', i.e. areas of the same crop, but non-GM. Resistance is likely to happen sooner than with conventional use of Bt toxin sprays, which is usually in single isolated doses, because the toxin in GM plants is presented as a constant stimulus to the processes of evolutionary adaptation in the insects throughout the growing season. Alternatively, if the pest is eradicated in certain areas, it will leave an ecological niche vacant for occupancy by other species which may eventually pose a greater threat to crop yield. However, David Stark, head of Monsanto's transgenic potato project said at an Ifgene meeting that the company has access to a Bt gene library containing 10,000 genes, enough to keep ahead of the resistance problem for the foreseeable future.25

Crops containing Bt toxins and their genes have never been used for feeding to animals or humans. The dangers from their long term consumption are unknown. As GM crops will often contain more than one of the 150 toxin genes, the crops should, if the precautionary principle were honestly applied, generate enough allergenicity and toxicity monitoring to keep the food safety experts busy for decades.

Consuming an actual 'foreign' gene in food is not yet widely thought to be dangerous. Indeed, the Committee on the Ethics of GM and Food Use chaired by John Polkinghorne coined the term 'copy gene' partly to allay fears that, for example, if we ever have human genes in a food plant it would not be cannibalism to eat it. Apart from the intended gene products in GM crops others may result from the unpredictable side effects caused by disruption of the integrity of the plant genome. These may be so subtle that effects on health may not show up for several years or generations. Increased human consumption of total herbicide is one obvious risk which is so far little researched. When challenged on GM crops and food safety, Jeff Rooker admitted earlier this year that the UK government was 'no longer in the driving seat' as regards allowing such crops, but, more reassuringly, he was adamant that he would make full use of the precautionary principle when giving safety clearance for the novel use of the herbicides involved. Although, as we have seen, Monsanto claims that less herbicide will be used, the company recently applied for a 200-fold increase in an official safety limit set for Roundup in soybeans. Even if the doses of such herbicides are too low to pose a threat to humans from eating GM vegetables, which seems unlikely with long term intake, the indirect presentation via herbicide accumulation in meat and offal could be more serious.

DNA thinking versus the broader context

The diagram on the title page may have given the mistaken impression that genetic engineering is as simple and precise as cutting and pasting with a word processor. As favourable genetic mutation is a relatively rare occurrence, finding the herbicide resistant mutant bacterium is only made possible by the fact that millions of micro-organisms can easily be handled at once and cloning allows the desired gene to be pinpointed. Thereafter, getting it into the crop plant is more miss than hit, so hundreds sometimes thousands of attempts are made. There is little control over how many copies of the transgene go in or where they end up in the plant genome. Transgenesis can cause all sorts of disturbances to the host genome including loss of entire chromosomes. Whether, by ballistics or an infectious agent such as Agrobacterium tumefaciens which causes plant tumours, the gene is smuggled past defence mechanisms which are part of the plant's integrity and identity. The process is analogous to infection by a retrovirus which inserts itself into an organism's genome, sitting there some times for years before taking part in a disease process. Even if gene insertion into a plant's DNA works, the gene can still be switched off by an incompletely understood process called gene silencing. The first plant specimens from a successful insertion often lack vigour and have to be taken through a conventional breeding program to restore vigour to an acceptable level. Having raised these criticisms, it is fair to say that the technology is only a little more than 20 years old and we can expect that more research including unravelling the entire genomes of target plants will greatly improve the precision of gene insertion. To dismiss it for poor technical performance now would be like rejecting railway technology on the basis of the performance of George Stephenson's Rocket.

So far we have considered the pros and cons of the technology largely within the framework of the agricultural paradigm of conventional farming which uses herbicides and pesticides as a matter of course. A more holistic approach to agriculture, such as organic farming, is less interested in DNA and more in developing a healthy farm organism. Here the traditional first line of defence against weeds is crop rotation so that the varied tillage and timing of it creates conditions which make it difficult for a weed species to get a hold. Conversely, large scale monoculture on the same vast fields year after year creates a weed paradise for which herbicides are indispensable to avoid economic disaster. An even more thorough context-based agricultural system is offered by biodynamic farming which has grown from indications given by Rudolf Steiner in 1924.26 As well as using traditional breeding methods in a way which recognises the individuality of a variety, it achieves its 'genetic manipulation' by working consciously with an even wider context than that of organic agriculture. It seeks to influence the material of heredity through choosing not only environmental conditions such as soil, moisture, light and warmth, but also conditions of sun, moon and planets in relation to the stars.27 Genetic engineering is currently unacceptable in such agriculture,28 but if traditional breeding has long ago given rise to monsters - compared with their natural ancestors - like wheat and maize, why not admit the possibility of GM into BD farming too, as some biodynamicists are willing to do?29

Is GM not just part of the continuum of man's increasing control of the living world? Certainly it is a logical next step from traditional biotechnology, but what could make it dangerous for mankind is its very success. Through modern communications and the power of transnational seed companies a few GM varieties might rapidly supplant the existing worldwide crop diversity necessary for withstanding disease and climate changes, thereby leaving the food supply wide open to sudden catastrophic loss. Lack of genetic diversity in potatoes faced with the new challenge of blight in the 1840s was responsible for a famine in Europe which killed hundreds of thousands, possibly millions.30

The minority of leading scientists who point out that pollution from genetic engineering, dubbed 'gene smog', is potentially more dangerous than from radioactivity or chemicals are dismissed as alarmist by their colleagues. The argument goes that once a rogue organism gets into the wild it can reproduce itself, eventually spreading beyond national and geographical boundaries. The genes cannot be recalled. The rabbit calcivirus debacle which began as an experiment on an Australian offshore island and in 1995 escaped to the mainland is a case in point. But even if the bottom line for certain GM techniques spells death to thou sands of human beings is there any cause to worry? We tolerate the motor car which worldwide kills many hundreds of people each day.30

With the examples used in this article the transgenes all properly belong to the realm of soil bacteria. What we have done is move them up out of the soil realm into the plant above ground so that the genes are now expressed in leaf, flower, fruit and seed. To take the analogy of the human being, if we were to move processes that rightly belong in the nerve-sense system, especially the head, down into the metabolic-limb system, especially digestion, we would have a diseased state. It is not yet under stood what role the Bt toxins, for instance, play in the household of the bacterium from which they are taken or the ecosystem around it. But applied molecular biology has its mind's eye on the DNA and the gene product that comes with it. If gene transfer 'works', that is sufficient, at least at first. Awakening fully to the context without which the transferred characteristic would be meaningless comes at the field trial stage or even later as the disastrous losses farmers sustained last year with Monsanto's transgenic (Bt) cotton show.

A less well considered part of the context is the culture, the society into which the novel organism is received. Until this year British people on the whole have been relatively open to GM crop technology. There are over 300 GM crop field trials currently listed in the official UK records.4 But since June 1997 and especially this year activists destroyed over 30 test crops mainly be cause they were seen as a danger to the environment and health. 'We were not asked if we wanted GM foods' and 'Where was the public debate?' they ask. And this could be a clue to how to deal with GMOs in future. Hitherto no major technology has been introduced by first asking consumers if they think they need it. Other hurdles such as efficacy (does it work?), quality/stability and safety are jumped long before consumer 'need' is tested. That has traditionally been left to market forces. But do we need to go on doing it that way? If the process of introducing a new technology is to be as conscious as possible with full participation of the rest of society the answer would be 'no'.

Rudolf Steiner showed how society is threefolded according to the threefold nature of the human being.34 Three spheres of society can be recognised: cultural/spiritual; rights (political) and economic. To each of these correspond the three mottoes of the French Revolution. The cultural/spiritual sphere can only develop properly when freedom (Liberté) prevails. Rights, i.e. to do with laws and their making, can only be recognised where equality (Egalité) exists between human beings. A healthy economic life demands a feeling of brotherhood (Fraternité) for or solidarity with one's fellow human beings. Food is a cultural/spiritual matter as much as it is one which belongs to the economic and rights spheres and we would expect to see freedom in the cultural sphere. Indeed, the polls show that people want to decide for themselves what they eat and want foods to be labelled to make this possible. Monsanto's policy of infiltrating Europe's food with GM soya shows every sign of backfiring. In March, Malcolm Walker of the Iceland supermarket chain took the decision to break ranks with the other supermarkets and for own-brand products to source raw materials affected by GM from non-GM producers in Brazil and Canada. Other supermarkets followed. Something similar is happening in France. But setting up supply lines so that trucks, silos, ships and mills are GM- free is immensely difficult. Even more difficult, but necessary to be ethically consistent, will be ensuring that own-brand meat and dairy products are from animals not fed on GM crops. This is being attempted by a supermarket in France. But things may have already come to a pass that a 'no GM ingredients' policy is no longer sustainable. If so, we are faced with a serious curtailment of cultural freedom. Furthermore, the fastidious may not even be able to escape GM foods, at least in the long term, by buying organic or BD. In a test case, the Soil Association which oversees organic certification in the UK warned Devon farmer Guy Watson that a trial plot of GM maize near his fields, which was planted by the National Institute for Agricultural Botany at Hood Barton, Dartington, may compromise the organic status of his maize because of GM pollen transfer. The Ministry argued that the risk was negligible. Walker applied to the High Court for a judicial review of the consent for the trial, but this was re fused even on appeal. Direct activists destroyed the GM maize in early August.

Food production, especially with modern technologies such as genetic engineering raises ethical issues. These cannot be settled by scientists or the regulatory committees dominated by them. Whether something is acceptable or not acceptable is a moral, not a scientific judgement. Yet it seems that already political decisions have been made about genetic engineering without adequate cultural involvement in the decision making. The technology is actively promoted by government funded institutions such as the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council who argue that it is a way of coping with the world food shortage at a time of rapidly rising population.32 But would we have any starvation in the world today if two decades of biotechnology investment had instead gone on appropriate technology, food production and distribution for the third world or if the bulk of maize and soya grown in the west was fed to humans and not farm livestock? Humanitarian motives, then, are not at the top of the list, but rather the incomes of a few transnational companies which are gaining a firmer grip on strategic crops. The profits will be privatised, but the environmental, health and socio-economic costs socialised. Monsanto's 'terminator' technology, for instance, cannot have been developed with the traditional seed-saving practices of small farmers in the third world in mind. But Monsanto has not forgotten them. The company announced in June 1998 that it was forming a partnership with Bangladesh's Grameen Bank, which would aim to bring some of Monsanto's high-yielding hybrid seed technology, to low-income villages through the bank's 'micro-credit' schemes at its branches in 38,000 Bangladeshi villages. By July, Grameen had pulled out of this deal following adverse publicity from environmentalists. It is worth noting that a farmer in Canada has already gone on record as saying that he feels like a non-contracted employee of the seed company.

We have seen that when we question gene technology we raise once again many old issues: intensive agriculture; pesticide and herbicide use; and the power of the big corporations. We cannot deal with new or old issues without cultural freedom and the possibility of pluralism. This presupposes power-free dialogue between all parties. Connoisseurs of either GM or BD foods can not live side by side in active tolerance if the former change food supply lines by stealth tactics or use their undoubted superiority of wealth to manipulate public opinion. In 1997 Greenpeace obtained and published a confidential document on strategies to win over Europeans to gene technology worked out by Burston Marsteller a public relations consultancy firm to EuropaBio an association of the biotechnology transnationals. In summer 1998 Monsanto launched a multi-million dollar advertising campaign in Europe with the same general aim. Part of its strategy was to write to all African heads of state to invite them to place full page letters in the press pleading with Europeans to let the technology proceed for the sake of the hungry in Africa. Many refused the invitation.

There is enough safety evidence to date to send all GM crop technology back to the laboratory for a few years while a free and informed public date is conducted at local community level. Perhaps by then the technology will have come of age. Perhaps cross-species transfer of antibiotic, herbicide and insect resistance genes will be replaced by something less ethically and aesthetically questionable. What would we say, for instance, to a wheat pathogen resistance gene being moved from one wheat variety to another by genetic engineering? Would we welcome the production of diesel fuel and biodegradable plastics from GM crops or the phytoremediation33 of soils contaminated by past industries? GM technology faces mankind with a tremendous challenge. Is now the opportunity to see what social forms we must put in place to carry on the debate in cultural freedom in order adequately to meet that challenge? Rudolf Steiner wrote: 'The task of the future will be to find, through associations, the kind of production which most accords with the needs of consumption, and the most appropriate channels from the producers to the consumers.'34 Already consumers associate, merchants associate and producers associate. Has the time finally arrived when consumers, merchants and producers sit round the same table to decide on how, if at all, genetic engineering is to be admitted into the food chain and thus our culture?

1. Data from MORI poll, 6-8 June 1998, for GeneWatch, The Courtyard, Whitcross Road, Tideswell, Derbyshire, SK17 8NY, UK.

2. American Soybean Association estimate for 1998. The 1997 figure was 14%.

3. DNA (deoxyribose nucleic acid) is the substance that contains the genetic code in most organisms. It is packaged with proteins into chromosomes which can be seen with the light microscope in the nucleus of suitably prepared cells.

4. Sources: ACRE Annual Reports from The Biotechnology Unit, Floor 2/G9, Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions, Ashdown House,123 Victoria Street, LONDON SW1E 6OE, Tel. 0171-890 5275/5277, Fax 0171 890 5259, email: Web sites: &

5. Source: ACNFP Annual Reports from Nick Tomlinson, Advisory Committee on Novel Foods & Processes, Ergon House, 17 Smith Square, London, SW1 3JR. Tel 0171 238 86377, Fax: 0171 238 6382, MAFF Food Helpline 0645 335577.

6. Genome = all the genes of an organism.

7. Genetically Engineered Oilseed Rape: Agricultural Saviour or New Form of Pollution, GeneWatch, 1998, 44pp, for address see Note 1.

8. Act IV, Sc. III, lines 81-103.

9.. ACRE Annual Report no. 4 (see note 4).

10. Herbicide Use With The Introduction Of Roundup Ready% Soybeans, Reference No. 117, 24 September 1996, Monsanto Company. Also available at

11. Monsanto, Mail on Sunday Magazine, 7.6.98 and R. Steyer, "Monsanto Makes a Bestseller Better," St Louis Post-Dispatch, 21.1.96, pg. D1.

12. Monsanto Annual Report 1997, p16. The company sold more than three times as much Roundup in 1996, the first year of RR soya, as it did in 1990.

13. Torstensson, NTL, et al. Ecotoxicol.Environ. Safety 18:230;1989.

14. WHO UN Environmental Program, International Labour Organization. 1994. Glyphosate. Environmental Health Criteria #159. Geneva, Switzerland.

15. Springett, J. A. & Gray, R.A.J. (1992) Effect of repeated low doses of biocides on the earthworm Aporrectodea caliginosa in laboratory culture. Soil Biol. Biochem. 24:1739-1744.

16. Pestic. Sci. 30:309;1990

17. Pease, W.S. et al, 1993, Preventing pesticide-related illness in California agriculture: Strategies and priorities. Environmental Health Policy Program Report. Berkeley, CA: University of California School of Public health, California Policy Seminar.

18. Peluso, M. et. al. (1998) 32P-postlabelling detection of DNA adducts in mice treated withthe herbicide Roundup. Env. Mol. Mutagen. 31:55, 55-59

19. Monsanto Background Briefing Notes, The RR Soyabean System: Sustainability & Herbicide Use. April 1998.

20. Unpublished graduate research in Holland revealed that the industry began to describe biotechnology as 'sustainable' when public opinion began to turn against it.

21. Hilbeck, A. et al. (1998) Effects of transgenic Bt corn-fed prey on mortality and development time of immature Chrysoperla carnea. Environ. Entomol. 27(2), 460- 489.

22. Birch, N. (1997) Scottish Crop Research Institute, Annual Report.

23. Jeff Rooker, the agricultural minister, has told Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes: "I am not sure we are in the driving seat . . . We cannot stop, as a UK government, those crops that have been already approved in the European Union from being planted. What we can do of course is to influence

industry in its code of practice as to how they will be managed and used." Environmental Audit Committee, April 1998.

24. Press Release, 25.2.98, Application by Monsanto to Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) Natural Law Party, 5 Adam St, PO Box 17-273, Greenlane, Auckland, New Zealand.

25. Stark, D. (1997) Risk assessment and criteria for commercial launch of transgenic plants. In 'Dialogue on risk assessment of transgenic plants', Pubs: Ifgene, pp 21- 36. To order, send a cheque payable to 'Ifgene' for £5 (UK) or £7 (elsewhere) to D. Heaf, Hafan, Cae Llwyd, Llanystumdwy, Gwynedd, LL52 0SG, UK.

26. Steiner, R. (1924) Agriculture. 8 lectures, Koberwitz, 7-16 June (GA327). Biodynamic Agricultural Association, London.

27. Rist, L. & Rist, M. (1998) Genetics and ethics: The difference between inorganic and organic nature in theory and practice. Forschungsinstitut fùr Natur- und Geisteswissenschaftliche Biologie, der Johannes-Kreyenbùhl-Akademie, Reinach, Switzerland. (see also

28. UKROFS statement on GMOs, 30.8.95, MAFF (see Note 5).

29. Kunz, P. Gene technology and plant breeding (pp 2-9) and The Research Group, Gene technology and biodynamics pp12-13, in Star & Furrow 85, Winter 1995.

30. Barrett, J. A. (1981) The evolutionary consequences of monoculture. In 'Genetic consequences of man made change.' (J. A. Bishop & L. M Cook, eds), 209-248. Academic Press, London.

31. 40,000 deaths in 1995 in USA alone.

32. The New Technologies: Opportunities & Challenges, p14. March 1996. BBSRC, Polaris House, North Star Avenue, Swindon, SN2 1UH.

33. Phytoremediation involves the use of plants specially bred to remove toxic substances from the ground.

34. Steiner, R. (1920) Towards Social Renewal: Basic issues of the social question. (GA23), Rudolf Steiner Press, London, page 112.

35. To subscribe to New View, the magazine in which this article was first published, contact Rudolf Steiner bookshop, 35 Park Road, London, NW1 6XT, Tel: +44 (0)171 724 7699, Fax: +44 (0)171 724 4364.

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