Genetic Engineering | Viva!

Genetic Engineering

Introduction by Luke Anderson

Much of the food currently being eaten in Europe and North America already contains genetically engineered ingredients. Multinational corporations claim that genetic engineering is both safe and environmentally sound, but despite high-level political lobbying and million dollar advertising campaigns, the public opposition to this technology is growing by the day. Generations that have grown up with DDT, nuclear energy and BSE have grown suspicious of the premature assertions of safety churned out by governments pandering to commercial interests and many independent scientists argue that our current understanding of genetics simply does not support these overly confident assurances. In the words of Richard Lewontin, Professor of Genetics at Harvard University: “We have such a miserably poor understanding of how the organism develops from its DNA that I would be surprised if we don’t get one rude shock after another.”

Once released, the new living organisms made by genetic engineering are able to interact with other forms of life, reproduce, and transfer their characteristics to related species. In many cases, they cannot be recalled or contained. The probability that one or more of these releases could cause serious ecological harm increases all the time as more and more products are approved.

Companies like Monsanto argue that these concerns are groundless and claim that: “slowing the acceptance of biotechnology is a luxury the hungry world cannot afford.” The countries of the Third World, however, do not agree. Delegates to the Food and Agricultural organisation from 18 African countries, for example, were so outraged that they decided to issue the following statement to the press: “We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.”

Some suggest that the growing opposition to genetic engineering stands in the way of scientific progress – but the nature of progress depends on your point of view. From my point of view, further threats to biodiversity and human health, potentially irreversible forms of pollution, expropriation of resources from Third World countries, increased corporate control of our food chain, the continued indus-trialisation of our agricultural systems, threats to animal welfare and the patenting of living organisms do not constitute progress. Real progress will come about when we learn how to live on this planet with less arrogance and more care and respect. The work of campaigns such as Viva! and the growing participation in social justice movements and actions taken to protect the environment are essential if we are to move in the right direction.

What is Genetic Engineering?

According to some scientists, genetic engineering is a state-of-the-art, revolutionary technology guaranteed to improve almost every aspect of our lives from health to the environment to feeding the world’s poorest people. It sounds too good to be true so why is there such a fuss about it? Campaigners, critics and many independent scientists claim it is more about feeding bank balances than feeding the hungry and there are few, if any, benefits of genetic engineering.

Quite simply, genetic engineering is the taking of genes from one species to give to another with the aim of passing on a particular desired characteristic. But the process is anything but simple as the technology involves tampering with the very building blocks of life – genes. Genetic or hereditary information is stored in chromosomes which are found in the nucleus of the cells of each and every living organism. They are made up of a double helical strand of DNA (deoxy-ribonucleic acid). A gene is a certain segment of DNA which, when working in conjunction with other genes, brings about the code for a specific characteristic, for example eye colour or size. Scientists do not restrict this relocating of genes to similar species but also move genes between completely unrelated species. The anti-freeze gene from flounder fish has been inserted into tomatoes, for example, and an insect-killing gene from bacteria into maize.

Genes are most commonly inserted into a new host, using one of two methods. Either a virus or a bacterium is used to smuggle the new gene in or the genes are coated onto tiny tungsten or gold pellets which are then fired into the cells of the recipient. Some of the pellets may pass through the nucleus of a cell and so the new genes will be integrated into the cell's own DNA (or so the scientists hope). Because of the low success rate in transferring genes, a ‘marker gene’ is used to see which DNA has actually been transferred.

A ‘promoter’ is also inserted along with the gene which acts as a switch to activate the gene in its new host. There are problems, however, with promoters in that they can force genes to express their characteristics at very high levels. For example, the promoter may stimulate a plant to produce high levels of a substance which at low levels remain harmless but which can have toxic effects in greater concentrations. 3

The Claims

The 'benefits' of genetic engineering are lauded by scientists and biotechnology companies as the way to a better future. They say it will increase food productivity, benefit the environment, produce disease-resistant animals and crops, create medicines for humans and provide organs for human transplantation.

1998 saw the first genetically engineered "nutraceutical". These are foods which are grown for medicine as well as nourishment, for example in the US a potato has been produced and tested that protects against diarrhoea.2 Gene Gabrowski of the Grocery Manufacturers of America believes that the marketing of these 'smart foods' will be worth $34 billion in five to ten years.3

Other claims for the benefits of genetic engineering range from increasing the levels of vitamins and proteins or lowering the fat content in food or delaying the ripening of produce to the most altruistic of all claims - the ability to feed the starving millions. In fact, Dr Kevin Ward of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation writes that genetic engineering "may hold part of the key to the long-term survival of human civilisation".4

Protecting people's health, the environment and feeding the world's poorest sound like worthwhile aims and while few people would dismiss these goals, the means to them as well as the driving forces behind them must be questioned. Besides it is highly doubtful whether genetic engineering could accomplish these things or whether the intentions are there to do so.

Selective Breeding

Depending on who they are talking to, biotechnology companies will either say that genetic engineering is state-of-the-art, space-age technology (particularly if they are speaking to an audience of potential investors) or they will attempt to reassure a sceptical audience by saying that genetic engineering is merely an extension of selective breeding which is itself merely an extension of natural selection. But genetic engineering is not natural, in fact it defies the laws of nature. Genetic material from one species of plant, bacteria, virus or animal can be inserted into another species with which they never would or could naturally breed. Even millions of years of natural evolution would not produce the genetically engineered examples that are now being created.

Genetic engineering is about as far away from natural selection as it is possible to be. The laws of nature regulate which species and which individuals within a species will survive and which will not. In nature changes are slow to occur and are of limited scope. Genetic engineers, on the other hand, are limited only by their imaginations and the unnatural frequently occurs.

And it's not as if selective breeding has been a utopian science either - just take a look at today's farm animals and you will see plenty of horror stories brought about by selective breeding.

Broiler chickens now reach slaughter weight in just 42 days, twice as quickly as they did 30 years ago.5 As a result their hearts and lungs cannot cope and even during their brief lifetime fatal heart attacks are not uncommon. Others will suffer lameness and broken bones as their legs collapse beneath their ballooning weight. Birds that are spared slaughter are rarely able to live much longer. Turkeys have experienced similar problems. Their new 'improved' shape may have provided more breast meat but it has made reproduction all but impossible and they must now rely on artificial insemination. Pigs have been bred to gain more weight more quickly and now suffer hip and joint problems as well as lung and heart conditions. Belgian Blue cattle must give birth by caesarean section as they have been given a double-muscling gene which increases the size of the calf but reduces the size of the pelvic canal.6 Dairy cows produce ten times more milk than their calves could ever drink and now suffer nutrient deficiencies, lameness and mastitis as a result.7

Scientists claim that genetic engineering is far superior to selective breeding because it allows the desired characteristic to be separated from the undesirable ones and it allows the transfer of characteristics between species. This makes the science more accurate, we are told and one day customers will be able to order their animals to exact specifications. Currently, however, genetic engineering is at best a hit-and-miss affair.

Genetically Engineered Animals

As if the selective breeding scenario wasn't bad enough, genetic engineers are manipulating animals further than ever before in an attempt to recoup the billions of dollars that has been invested in research. Genetic engineering is not a simple process and with every step more pain is inflicted on the animals involved. Firstly the female 'donor' has a course of injections to maximise ovulation and is then artificially inseminated. The embryo is surgically removed, injected with the new gene and then surgically implanted into another female, known as the 'recipient'. This female may only survive a matter of days as she will be killed when the embryo is removed and checked. If all is going well, the embryo will then be implanted into a surrogate mother who will carry the foetus to full term and give birth to a transgenic infant, often by caesarean section. Because of the low success rate, it is estimated that 40 sheep are needed to produce one transgenic sheep, and even then there is no guarantee that the off-spring will possess the desired characteristics.

The three main arguments for genetically engineering animals are for food, xenotransplantation and medicine.


Genetically engineering animals for food is all about boosting productivity even further or producing a product that is 'healthier' for human consumption. An example of this is producing pigs who have a very small layer of fat, giving a leaner cut of meat. With animals already pushed to their biological limits on farms, genetic engineering can only worsen an already appalling situation. And it's not as if we even need more meat or dairy products. In fact the British Medical Association recommends we reduce significantly the animal products we eat.8

Bovine Somatotropin

The most incredible story is that of the growth hormone bovine somatotropin (BST), marketed by Monsanto under the brand name Posilac. Cows injected with it on a daily basis are expected to increase their milk yield by 10 -20% with no extra feeding of the cow required. Ironically both the EU and the US produce a surplus of milk and there is no call for more. In fact, the EU has to pay excess costs, not just for storage but for subsidies paid to farmers to reduce their yield! And since the 1950s the United States Federal Government has had to buy the surplus each year to prevent the price of milk from plummeting.9 But because over US$1 billion was spent on developing BST, it must be promoted and profits shown. For the dairy cow the price paid is very dear.

BST is a genetically engineered copy of a naturally-occurring cattle hormone. But the side effects are so severe that the EU introduced a moratorium on the drug until 2000 and it is banned in Canada and a number of other countries, despite efforts of Monsanto to prise open those markets. The sale of Posilac in the US is thought to generate an annual income of between $300 and $500 million.10

Normally for about 12 weeks after a cow gives birth she lactates but at the expense of her health. She will lose weight, become infertile and more susceptible to diseases. When output diminishes her body recovers gradually. So by injecting BST the farmer not only increases milk output but postpones her recovery for another 8 -12 weeks thus rendering her more susceptible to disease including mastitis, an udder infection exacerbated by over-full udders. At any time, one third of the EU's dairy cows are suffering from mastitis.11 Not only is this extremely uncomfortable for the cow, but it means an increased use of antibiotics, residues of which are found along with an increased amount of pus in the milk.

Even during the experimental stages of the drug, problems were obvious. In1990 data was leaked about the significantly increased rates of udder infection in cows that had been injected with Monsanto's hormone as well as an unusual incidence of severe birth defects in the offspring of the hormone-treated cows.12 A review then showed high incidences of foot and leg injuries, metabolic and reproductive difficulties such as retained placenta, a decrease in birth weight and uterine infections.13 Despite this the hormone was approved for sale in America in 1994. Mark Kastel from the Wisconsin Farmers Union found widespread reports of spontaneous deaths amongst the treated cows, calving problems and an inability to wean cows off the drug. All in all Monsanto has admitted to 21 possible side-effects of Posilac.14

In the US hundreds of farmers called the National Farmers Union (NFU) hotline reporting problems associated with the hormone when it was first on sale and by 1995 the NFU reported that in some areas of the country 60 -90% of farmers have tried a bovine growth hormone and discontinued its use.15

Should We Be Drinking More Milk Anyway?

No! Nutritionist Dr. Gill Langley sums up the reasons:

"Cow's milk is a common but still unrecognised cause of allergy in infants and children, and symptoms range from diarrhoea and vomiting to eczema, asthma and chronic sleeplessness. Infants under one year who are given cow's milk as the sole or major food may develop iron deficiency, not only because it is a relatively poor source of iron but also because it can cause iron loss through gastrointestinal bleeding. Lactose intolerance is a significant cause of repeated abdominal pain in children. Milk and other dairy products account for about one third of the saturated fat intake and saturated fat is a risk factor for heart disease. Some studies have directly implicated cow's milk consumption in heart disease and an insulin-dependent diabetes. Other problems have also been associated with dairy milk"16

With soya milk, cheese, yoghurts and cream freely available in every high street, avoiding the dairy has never been easier. It is perfectly clear that milk is not needed in a healthy diet but Dr Kevin Ward sees things differently. If the milk is not good for us, he reasons, we'll change the milk. "It may be possible", he writes "to manipulate the composition of milk to improve its nutritive value for human consumption, for example, by making the protein component more homologous to human milk by altering the lipid (fat) or carbohydrate profile."17 If you have to do all this to make a foodstuff palatable, digestible and healthy then doesn't that tell you something? Does it not suggest that cow's milk is not good for human health and that it is not natural to drink it?

Disease-resistant Animals

It is claimed that productivity of meat, milk and eggs can be even further enhanced by genetically engineering disease-resistant farm animals. This would reduce the amount of antibiotics used and so allegedly benefit the consumer. But genetically manipulating an animal could have disastrous consequences for the animals as well as the people who consume the flesh of that animal because long-term effects cannot be predicted.

Clinical microbiologist, Professor Richard Lacey is extremely concerned about the effects of genetically altering farm animals. Although it is not possible to make animals resistant to all diseases, he claims, they could certainly be made resistant to some. However, we do not know the effect that these modifications will have on the animal and its health. Besides, disease is an inevitable consequence of life due to environment, diet and overcrowding and so will never be completely eradicated. Even if certain diseases are banished, others will appear and this is where the problems lie. "We cannot cope with the consequences".18


Xenotransplantation is the transplanting of organs from another species into humans. The Cambridge-based biotech company, Imutran produces pigs with human genes to overcome the immune reaction when the organs are transplanted and so prevent the rejection of the new organ. They recently revealed plans to use genetically modified pigs' livers as a temporary dialysis machine for patients awaiting a human organ. The Home Office refused to permit the use of organs from chimpanzees, gorillas and orang utans.19

Again, the main concerns centre on animal welfare and rights and human health, particularly with the possibility of transmitting a pig virus known as porcine endogenous retrovirus (PERV) to humans. Studies to date have offered conflicting conclusions. Dr Ulrich Martin from Germany found that PERV can be produced by cells in pigs' aortas, livers, lungs and skin. All of these are used for transplants and the researchers concluded that there was " a serious risk of retrovirus after xenotransplantation". A second study at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found no evidence of PERV infection in 10 transplant patients who had received implants from pigs, despite receiving a large number of pigs cells and being treated with drugs that should have reduced their ability to resist PERV infection.20

It seems nothing is certain yet the medical industry as well as the food industry, seems content to utilise this technology, even if it is at the cost of human health.

Other Medical

The other major medical development is the production of sheep and cows who secrete useful drugs in their milk. For example, in 1990, the Roslin Institute produced 'Tracy', the transgenic sheep that secreted large quantities of the human protein alpha-antitrypsin.21 This protein is secreted mainly from the liver in humans and a deficiency of it is linked to emphysema.


Once an animal has been engineered to display the required characteristics, scientists are able to create more identical animals by cloning them. The nucleus from one of the animal's cells is transplanted into a fertilised egg from which the nucleus has been removed. The egg is then cultured in vitro (in the laboratory) before being implanted in the womb of a surrogate mother. The surrogate mother is killed in order to ensure the safe delivery of the cloned off-spring.

In February 1997, The Roslin Institute announced that it had successfully cloned a sheep, Dolly. In theory, it won't be long before there are whole herds or flocks of genetically identical animals. Aside from the inevitable pain that is caused in the process, the main concern is that the reduced gene pool which make up the animals may lead to a reduced resistance to disease and an increased rate of deformities.

It also brings in to question how far geneticists are prepared to take their science. American scientist, W French Anderson proposes to conduct gene therapy experiments on human foetuses which critics claim is the slippery slope to 'designer babies'.22 American scientist, Dr Richard Seed has promised that he will have cloned a human by the year 2001 and if US law prevents it, he says he will go to Mexico. It seems there are no limits at all but in the UK and the US, human cloning is illegal at present.

Genetically Engineered Crops

This is a subject which has united the majority of consumers world-wide. With the appearance of genetically modified foods on our supermarket shelves it seems the experiment began long before the consumers really had time to think about the issues at stake.

On September 1st 1998 it became a legal requirement in the UK to label protein from genetically modified soya and maize although there is no legislation covering soya lecithin and soya oil. The reason given by the Department of Health for this apparent loop-hole is that these ingredients are so highly refined that they are no longer deemed to be genetically modified. Since more than 60% of processed foods contain soya and these derivatives account for 90% of soya products, this decision may mean that the majority of processed foods in the shops will contain genetically modified derivatives.23

With the foods already appearing on our shelves the debate over their safety rages on. The government, backed by the multinational biotech companies, are doing their utmost to convince us that these crops are safe but consumers have heard it all before. Just as the House of Commons only served beef from a guaranteed non-BSE stock in the Highlands, so our ministers are enjoying only food that is free from being genetically tampered with.24 You would think if our MPs were so convinced of the safety of these foods, they would be keen to prove the point and lead by example.

But many feel the government are deceiving us. Environment minister, Michael Meacher tried to calm an ever-growing opposition to these crops by promising that no herbicide-resistant crops would be grown commercially in the UK before autumn 1999, just one year from when the promise was made. From 1999, six farms are allowed to grow the crops on a commercial basis to establish the effects of widescale planting. (Until 1998 only small scale trials were permitted.) But the UK couldn't have grown these crops within a year anyway due to a row in Europe over their safety so Meacher's promise was meaningless.23 Interestingly, despite the French calling a moratorium on oilseed rape, Britain's agricultural minister Jeff Rooker claimed that the UK was not in a position to do the same as it would contravene EU law.26

Meacher also promised to ban the commercial growing of insect-resistant crops until 2001. By some coincidence, the testing guidelines would not allow crops to be commercialised within that time frame anyway (except for one strain of maize which could not be grown in the UK) so it seems the public were given yet another empty promise from Meacher.27

The cynical could be forgiven for thinking that the government is hoping to ride the storm and gently ease consumers into accepting these crops. They have agreed to 50 test sites by the year 2000 which obviously means more genetically engineered crops not less. Most worryingly, the effects will be monitored by biotech industry.28


So What Is Wrong With Genetically Engineered Foods?

Concerns can roughly be broken down into five arguments: animal welfare, health, environment, a sustainable future and moral.

Animal Welfare

Animals must already endure constant misery and pain on farms and by increasing their productivity we could be pushing these creatures beyond their limits. We have already looked at the legacy of selective breeding which has left us with animals unable to carry out their natural functions and in some instances have meant a lifetimes worth of pain. But with genetic engineering, the situation has worsened.

The many failures of genetic engineering read like something out of a horror novel. Pigs born with a human growth hormone were arthritic, ulcerous, partially blind and impotent.29 Others given the bovine (cow) growth hormone were grossly deformed and at just two years old were crippled with arthritis. Despite this they could still breed and their meat was highly desirable being low in fat, so low in fact, that they were in danger of dying from the cold.30 Pigs given a human growth hormone suffered agonising arthritis and were able only to crawl around on their knees.31 Lambs have suffered similarly. In America, transgenic lambs developed a lethal form of diabetes which led to liver, kidney and heart disorders. All the lambs died of their diseases before they were 12 months old.32 Even transgenic chickens, implanted with the bovine growth hormone have been developed. Given the crippling effects and diseases already brought about by selective breeding, the future for chickens doesn't look bright. In 1980 the steroid hormone diethylstilboestrol was given to calves in Italy with disastrous effects. It contaminated baby food causing cancer in infants and brought about the development of secondary sexual characteristics such as menstruation and breast development in young children.33

We should also remember that because the majority of the world's crops are fed to farm animals, they are ingesting genetically modified crops on a regular basis. Who knows what sort of detrimental effects this will have on them and their off-spring?

As for the animals who are unfortunate enough to be selected for the genetic engineering tests, untold horrors await them. We may never see the 'accidents', or 'mistakes' but the biotech companies certainly shout loudly about their 'successes'. Dolly is the infamous sheep, cloned at the Roslin Institute, whose picture has appeared in every paper but we have never seen what happened to the hundreds, maybe thousands of sheep that were tested on, mutilated and died in order for the world to see the one 'success'. Even then the truth about Dolly wasn't widely reported. In 1998 a Norwegian newspaper carried the story that Dolly was "eating herself to death". Despite being twice the size of her litter mates, the newspaper reported that Dolly couldn't stop eating.34 So much for success.


The simple fact is that we don't know enough about this science or its long-term effects to say for certain what genetic engineering will do to our health. A gene does not work in isolation and scientists do not understand the way in which new genes interact with every other gene in the sequence.

Potential hazards include new toxins and allergens in food and more virulent diseases in the crops which could lead to health problems. With genetic engineering we are ingesting genes that have never before been a part of the human diet - genes from certain bacteria, rats or scorpions may affect humans adversely but there is no way of knowing until it is too late. Besides, vegetarians and vegans have made a choice to cut out animal products from their diet for very good reasons - we certainly don't want to get to a stage where we don't even know if our vegetables are vegetarian.

Yet again the messages are mixed. The government promises there is nothing to worry about but they said the same about beef. The supermarkets are willing to stock these foods but reading between the lines they are not so sure either. For example, Sainsbury's, produced a leaflet entitled, Genetically Modified Soya which guarantees that no baby foods are made with genetically modified products. Why try to reassure us with this fact if they do not have concerns for health? And if there are concerns for health, why do they allow any genetically modified products in their store? It doesn't make sense.

Councils all over the country have ordered suppliers of school meals to shun genetically modified foods. Stockport council in Cheshire banned them from 120 schools because of health concerns and is also planning to ban them from staff canteens and meals on wheels. Gardiner Merchant who provide school dinners for a large number of Local Education Authorities have instituted a 'no genetically modified organism' (GMO) policy into their own guidelines.35

And the fears are not without substance. Scientific studies have linked bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to cancer. rBGH stimulates the production of another growth hormone called Insulin-Like Growth Factor1, a naturally occurring hormone-protein in cows and humans. rBGH increases the levels of IGF-1 in the cow's milk. Because this is active in humans, causing cells to divide, some scientists believe that ingesting high levels of it could lead to uncontrolled cell division - cancer. This has been backed up by several scientific studies in the UK and the USA. Professor Samuel Epstein from the University of Illinois found that IGF-1 from rBGH- treated cows may lead to breast and colon cancer in human milk drinkers.36 An American study in May 1998 found a seven-fold increased risk of breast cancer amongst pre-menopausal women with high levels of IGF-1 in their blood. A separate study in January 1998 found a 4-fold increased risk of prostate cancer among men.37 This is the strongest known risk factor, even exceeding that of family history. Prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer in non-smoking men.

In the USA since 1995, rBGH-produced milk need not be labelled so consumers are not even given the right to choose. This policy was decided by Michael R Taylor of the Food and Drugs Administration who previously was a partner in a law firm that represented Monsanto and now works for... Monsanto!38 In fact, the biotech firm has been known to take legal action against farmers who label their milk 'BGH-free' although in the face of public opposition they have given up his tactic.39

Monsanto's Roundup is the world's biggest selling herbicide and the company has used genetic engineering to dramatically increase its sales. Because using too much of the herbicide destroys the crop as well as the unwanted weeds, Monsanto genetically created crops that were resistant to this particular herbicide. Farmers can now use far greater amounts of the herbicide without fear that it will damage their plants and Monsanto can amass even greater wealth. However, Roundup has been shown to cause severe health problems, stemming primarily, it is thought, from unlabelled inert ingredients designed to make it easier to use and more efficient. Roundup consists of 99.04% "inert" ingredients including polyethoxylated tallowamine surfactant (POEA) which has been discovered by Japanese researchers to cause acute toxicity in patients. Symptoms include gastrointestinal pain, vomiting, excess fluid in the lungs, pneumonia, clouding of consciousness and destruction of blood cells. Another Roundup "inert" isopropylamine is extremely destructive to the mucus membrane tissue and upper respiratory tract.40 There is further evidence to suggest that transgenic soya sprayed with Roundup may contain increased levels of plant oestrogen which mimics female hormones and there are concerns that this could affect human reproductive systems.41 In 1994, Roundup was used on almost 800,000 acres in the UK.42

Testing these ingredients on humans doesn't seem to matter to the companies involved. No tests on humans were carried out at all before the soya that goes into Batchelor's Beanfeast was approved43 and it is this lackadaisical approach to the public's health which has angered many people. But even when tests are carried out, their findings are ignored if they do not suit the manufacturers. When the Rowett Institute found that feeding rats genetically modified foods stunted their growth and suppressed their immune system, the government still refused to ban it.44 This decision would suggest that they consider animal testing pointless in which case they should end all vivisection immediately. But if they do believe it to be valid, they should take on board the outcome of these experiments and ban genetically engineered foods. They can't have it both ways.

According to The Daily Mail45, a huge experiment into the health consequences of genetically engineered foods is planned with consumers as the guinea pigs. Government health experts have asked supermarkets to hand over their loyalty cards so they can monitor who is buying GM foods and they will cross-reference this with registers for cancer, birth defects and hospital admissions. Conducting tests after these foods have been released could mean lives are lost or ruined because the government wouldn't show caution but rather chose to rush in blindly. The sorry truth is the only way they will ever know the harm genetically modified foods can do is when it is too late and the harm has been done.


At a time when an estimated 50,000 species are becoming extinct every year any further interference with delicate ecosystems could spell disaster.46 Unlike synthetic pollutants genetically engineered organisms cannot be recalled as they are alive and can reproduce, mutate and cross-breed. Once released into a complex environment the outcomes become increasingly unpredictable due to cross-pollination with related species causing new life forms. This is known as geneflow.

The biotech companies claim that genetically engineered crops will benefit the environment by reducing the use of herbicides but this is not so. Glyphosphate herbicides, like Roundup accounts for one sixth of Monsanto's total annual sales and are worth $1,200 million per year.47 There is no incentive for them to reduce the use of herbicides and by genetically engineering crops that are resistant to them, Monsanto can produce and sell even more. This could mean environmental destruction on a huge scale.

Once sprayed, Roundup is absorbed into soil components and remains active. Residues have been found in lettuces, carrots and barley planted one year after the glyphosphate treatment. Not only can it harm human health, it kills beneficial insects such as lacewing, ladybirds and parasitoid wasps, affects earthworms and beneficial fungi and increases the susceptibility of crop plants to disease.48

What's more, by removing all the weeds, soil composition is destroyed leading to soil erosion. If weeds become resistant to these herbicides (and eventually it is predicted they will) this will lead to increased doses, stronger chemicals and even more sales - all good for Monsanto.

Pesticide-producing plants are also being developed which is predicted to lead to the appearance of resistant insects and of course the pesticide is not selective, killing beneficial insects too. In one test, inserting a gene from a snowdrop into a potato made the potato resistant to greenfly but also killed the ladybirds feeding on the greenfly.49 Lacewings who prey on the corn borer and are food for birds died when they consumed pests raised on Novartis's genetically modified maize.50

As if the threat from these pesticides and herbicides wasn't enough, we have the possibility of 'superweeds' being created. In September 1998, the Daily Express reported that scientists at the University of Chicago created a superweed by accident. They were trying to create transgenic crops that allowed farmers to spray expensive herbicides just once before harvesting, but in one common weed (thale cress) it caused a massive fertility boost. This dramatically increased the likelihood that it could cross-pollinate with related species, creating uncontrollable weeds. This not only leads to competition with native plants but farmers will require more and stronger herbicides in order to control them. A vicious circle can be visualised where biotech and agricultural companies are the only winners.

Natural species could be driven out by these superweeds with a knock-on effect for all the species dependent on them for survival. It only takes one mistake for huge and permanent disastrous effects to take place. English Heritage has warned of the widespread destruction to native birds and insects and the creation of aggressive weeds and even Prince Charles has spoken out in favour of the environment.

It is not as if Monsanto has an unblemished record when it comes to environmentalism. According to The Ecologist 51, they have caused massive environmental pollution through production of enough PCBs to kill all mammal life in the world's seas. And in 1995 Monsanto ranked fifth among the US corporations in the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory having discharged 37 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, land, water and underground.52

Genetically modified crops have been released at over 300 test field sites in Britain and despite safety regulations some have started to 'escape' already. We will only know the impact these have on the environment when it is too late to protect it.

Sustainable Future

Monsanto boasts that biotechnological advances will triple the world's food crop without needing any more farmland thus saving rainforests and the world's precious habitats. But one of the most important practices to promote a sustainable agriculture in developing countries is to save and selectively cross-breed seeds from year to year. Monsanto has undermined this practice by forcing any farmer who buys their patented Roundup Ready seed to sign a contract saying they will not use any of the harvested crop as seeds for next year.

And it gets worse - the American Delta and Pine Land Company patented the Technology Protection System (TPS), known to the rest of the world as Terminator Technology. This system ensures that plants will produce self-terminating off-spring and that farmers will have no choice but to buy new seeds every year. According to the Delta and Pine Land Company the primary sales targets are "Second and Third World countries".53 So much for the their commitment to ending world hunger. Just two months after being patented, Monsanto bought the company. If the joint venture between Monsanto and Cargill (who virtually have the monopoly on seed sales in the developing world) succeeds farmers will have no choice but to buy these self-terminating seeds every year.54 Poverty can only increase, small farmers will go out of business and global food production could eventually end up in the hands of just a few multinational corporations. Recognising the situation, the Agriculture Minister in India banned any introduction of these terminator seeds in to the country.55

Terminator technology is predicted to become an agent in biological warfare in the future. Theoretically it is possible for specific traits to be switched on and off, thus allowing direct control of a nation's food supply and economy. It seems the military and security forces are particularly interested.56

Hand in hand with these patented Roundup Ready seeds go their corresponding weedkiller, Roundup, designed to kill everything except for the specific crop. But what constitute weeds for Monsanto are food, fodder and medicines for the Third World. In West Bengal, for example, 124 "weeds" collected from rice fields have economic importance for farmers and all these would be lost if farmers were to sign up to the biotech company's schemes.57

Monsanto's promotional literature is steeped in myths about world hunger. The truth is there are no global food shortages. The problem lies with producing the wrong food - fodder for the West's farm animals instead of food to feed the world's people. There are over one billion cows alive today, grazing on six continents 58 and the amount of feeding they require is phenomenal. Simply grazing them isn't enough so it is substituted with grain, oil seeds, soya, fish meal and until recently in the UK with other ground up animals. The West cannot produce enough feed for their animals and so 90 per cent of the concentrates used for animal feed in Britain comes from the developing world who grow and sell crops to pay off debts to rich western countries like Britain and America. Approximately 40 million tonnes of food would eliminate the most extreme cases of hunger around the world and yet the developed world feeds 540 million tonnes of grain to farm animals every year.59

It is estimated that 800 million people go hungry each day60 and this number is increasing even though food production has increased per capita since 1970.61 Global access to food is now solely by purchase so boosting food growth doesn't help people who cannot afford to buy it. Peasants in the developing countries have lost land, independence, tradition and community as well as food. For them the price is very dear.

The leaders from some of the poorest countries see the truth plainly. Delegates from 24 African countries at the 1998 Food and Agriculture Organisation were so incensed at Monsanto's advertising they released a joint statement objecting to Monsanto's image of the poor and hungry from their countries being used to promote a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly or of benefit to them.62

Traditional farming methods work and have done for centuries. According to Greenpeace 63, in Latin America soil conservation and organic fertilisation programmes tripled or quadrupled yields within a year. Indigenous crops are suited to the soil type and have adapted to that environment over hundreds of years. These sort of education programs are the best way to keep small farmers producing foods to feed their community.

And in the West, the best contribution we can make to preventing world hunger is to switch to a vegan diet. (See guide 12, Food For a Future.) The majority of the crops grown in poorer countries are exported to the West in order to feed our farm animals so we can enjoy the luxury of meat and milk, a luxury which is harming our health anyway. If we didn't have so many farm animals, not only would we be able to save rainforests and the world's precious habitats but we would be able to help the poorest people by allowing them the freedom to grow crops that they themselves need.


The moral argument challenges genetic engineering on a physical as well as a metaphysical level. On the physical level, we can clearly see what we are doing to the animals and we can predict some of the damage that may be done to our physical world. Critics question whether we have the right to inflict this pain and suffering on sentient beings or to bring about such radical and permanent changes in the world around us. They ask if it is acceptable to inject hormones daily into a cow with the effect of causing her permanent discomfort in order to produce a product no one needs. Or if it is morally acceptable to perform agonisingly painful experiments on hundreds of pigs and then kill them in order to produce one animal that gains weight quickly, thus preparing the way for thousands, perhaps millions more animals to be in pain. Or if it is acceptable to introduce genes from one species into another and so contaminate the food on our shelves.

These are questions that ordinary people are asking themselves and the answer is coming back loud and clear from all around the world: no, we do not have the right.

On a metaphysical level it is argued that we are playing with the foundations - the very building blocks - of life. The Prince of Wales has spoken out on this point: "I happen to believe that this kind of genetic modification takes mankind into the realms that belong to God, and God alone." Should human beings be tampering with the genes that constitute life as we know it and altering that life forever? It is a big question and one that deserves plenty of attention and debate.

Ethical Committees have been set up to discuss these very issues, but according to Dr Mae-Wan Ho of the Open University, they generally limit themselves to more trivial questions, such as whether inserting a pork gene into a tomato runs counter to religious beliefs, and avoid the one big question - should we be doing this at all?64

Friends in High Places

Monsanto is one of five companies who spearheaded Bill Clinton's 'welfare to work' campaign in America, donating considerable sums of money to the government. Cynics may ask if this had something to do with why Clinton phoned Tony Blair in the summer of 1998, pressuring him to continue producing genetically engineered foods.65 Surely Britain's policies regarding our own foods does not come under his remit, but he wasn't just tackling the UK.

Leaked Cabinet documents from New Zealand showed that the US government threatened to pull out of a potential free trade agreement with New Zealand if they were to label and test genetically modified foods. US government trade representatives were also sent over to 'discuss' the issue with Japan who insisted on labelling genetically modified products.66

In December 1997 the US Department of Agriculture attempted to redefine the term 'organic' to include genetically engineered crops and those contaminated with nuclear irradiation and toxic sludge! They also proposed banning attempts to create food standards higher than their own! 99% of the 220,000 comments received denounced the proposal.67

In the UK, the ranks are tight too. The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) is supposed to be made up of independent academics whose job it is to advise the government but Greenpeace research has shown that its members often have very close links to the industry. A second advisory committee dealing with genetically engineered crops contains representatives from Zeneca and PPL Therapeutics (the firm that cloned Dolly).68

In June 1998, The Observer reported that Lord de Ramsey, head of the Environment Agency who aims to "encourage the conservation of natural resources, animals and plants" was being paid by Monsanto to grow genetically engineered crops on his land.

When people from within the industry try to speak out they are silenced. In August 1998, Professor Arpad Puszati was forced to retire early from the Rowett Institute when he revealed that rats fed on modified potatoes were poisoned. Professor Philip James who runs the Rowett Institute advises Tony Blair on food safety and has major links with companies at the forefront of genetically modified foods.69

It is not surprising that the government is only fed positive news regarding this technology. Large corporations fund the majority of research and withdraw the funding if the results are not what they want to hear. For example, UK approval of genetically altered soya was based solely on safety data collected by Monsanto who produce the product.

The Opposition

Right across the world, people are taking a stand against genetic engineering, from governments to farmers to grass-root activists. The Austrian & Luxembourg governments have banned the growing of genetically engineered maize because it has a built-in insecticide which can harm beneficial insects and antibiotic resistance- makers which can be transferred down the food chain to meat. France imposed a two year moratorium on oil seed rape and sugar beet because of the risk of the herbicide being transferred to weed relatives and Greece has banned oilseed rape for the same reason.

In Sweden, the main farmers' organisation LRF has demanded that animal feed producers declare themselves GMO free.70 In Switzerland concerned farmers joined food producers, consumers and Greenpeace in a legal challenge to the government's approval of genetically engineered soya.71

Independent scientists are also queuing up to denounce genetically modified foods. Professor E. Ann Clark, Associate Professor Crop Science at the University of Guelph, Ontario believes: "It is not a matter of 'if' but 'when' these inserted genes will get out into the wider [plant] community... the only question is whether we ourselves (the creators of the genetically engineered organisms) will have to face the music, or whether it will be our children, or their children."72

And Dr Mae-Wan Ho, a most out-spoken critic of genetic engineering warns: "The large scale release of transgenic organisms could be worse than nuclear weapons as a means of mass destruction."73

A statement issued by 21 scientists from seven countries including Professor Richard Lacey, Department of Microbiology at Leeds University; Professor Brian Goodwin, Biology Department at the Open University and Professor Jacqueline McGlade from the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Warwick reads: "It is disturbing that the already considerable and substantial scientific literature on safety and ecological aspects of genetic engineering has not found corresponding responses in the safety policies and programmes of governments or the industry.... With genetic engineering familiar foods coud become metabolically dangerous or even toxic."74

The public agree. In October 1998 a Friends of the Earth poll showed 78% of consumers didn't favour genetically modified products even being on sale and 58% were actively opposed to their presence.75 In June of the same year, a poll commissioned by The Guardian and ICM found that 95% of people wanted foods derived from genetically modified crops to be labelled.76

But only lack of sales will influence the companies, manufacturers, governments and farmers and consumers are voting with their wallets. Organic foods have never been more popular and some companies do seem to be listening to the demands of their customers. Holland and Barrett, for example have delisted Batchelors Beanfeast from their shelves and Iceland boss Malcolm Walker has denounced genetically modified products as "Frankenstein foods".

Others, however, do not seem to care. In 1997, Unilever's chairman Morris Tabaskblat promised that if consumers in one country didn't want genetically engineered ingredients they would remove them, otherwise they would not be doing their job properly. But Unilever broke their own promise, saying they cannot find enough non-genetically altered soya for their products. International soya traders Norgrow UK say this is "incorrect".77

Grass roots activists are making their views known world-wide. In India, for example ten million farmers in the southern state of Karnatake launched their 'Cremate Monsanto' campaign in protest at the biotech giants' presence in India. On November 28th 1998 Indian farmers burnt a field trial of Monsanto's genetically manipulated cotton. Since then other fields have been burned and crops damaged world-wide by protesters.78

The California Croppers is an American football team made up of activists who hold their matches in genetically modified crop fields and in the US and the UK activists have taken to throwing vegan pies at biotech bosses such as Monsanto's Robert Shapiro and Novartis's Douglas G Watson.79

All around the world people are campaigning for an end to genetic engineering and the effect of these campaigns has been amazing. A report leaked to Greenpeace, written for Monsanto by a former polling advisor to Clinton, Blair and Mandela reveals: "an on-going collapse of public support for biotechnology and GM foods. At each point in this project, we keep thinking that we have reached the low point and that public thinking will stabilise but apparently we have not reached that point."80

What Can I Do?

Join Viva! to campaign for a more sustainable future where animals, the environment and the world's poor are shown the compassion they deserve.

Remember that consumers wield considerable power so read food labels carefully, educate yourself and choose wisely. Lobby MPs, supermarkets and food companies and make a point of buying from companies who confirm they do not use any genetically modified produce. This is a list of current supermarket policies (but things change fast so keep an eye on your local supermarket).

  • Iceland has removed GMOs (genetically modified organisms) from its own brands and other products that contain GM derivatives are gradually being labelled.
  • Tesco is also gradually labelling foods containing soya oil or lecithin as having GMOs unless the original soya was certified GMO free. They have also banned the use of GM maize by farmers producing especially for them.
  • Safeway's leaflet on the subject suggests environmental benefits of genetic engineering and they do stock GM tomato puree.
  • Co-operative Wholesale Society won't stock GM tomato puree as there are "no consumer or environmental benefits". Although they are not banning GMOs from the 60 brand items that they currently stock, they are working on GMO-free own brand items.
  • Asda is gradually removing GMOs from all its own brand foods and is also labelling soya lecithin and oil. 
    Waitrose currently has only seven own brand items that contain GMOs and is trying to make them GMO free. They are considering labelling lecithin and oil.
  • Somerfield are trying to minimise GM soya in their own brands but won't label foods that contain GM soya lecithin and oil as "there's no legal requirement".
  • Sainsbury's pioneered GM foods with its tomato paste and doesn't label GM soya oil or lecithin. Lord Sainsbury, former head of the supermarket group, is leading a campaign with the government to promote GM foods. However, the supermarket says it is trying to source non GE-soya for its own brands.
  • Marks & Spencers says it will label GMO lecithin but not soya oil and has no plans to take GMOs out of their own brand goods.81

Write to your MP expressing your concerns for the animals used in genetic engineering experiments. If you haven't already, cut out meat, eggs and dairy products from your diet, or at least insist on organic free-range products. Viva! can provide information on how to go vegetarian or vegan.

Lobby the caterers at your child's school and insist that they provide GMO-free food. As of January 1999, 21 out of 33 London boroughs and at least 14 county councils had adopted official policies against the inclusion of GM foods or were actively seeking to avoid them.

Join Genetic Engineering Network to keep up to date with the latest news: GEN, PO Box 9656, London N4 4JY.