The Natural Breeding Misconception
One critical issue is that multiple genes are being transferred across kingdoms and species such as bacteria, viruses, plants and animals in ways that do not occur by natural breeding methods.
All living things are classified according to a ranking system that starts with species. Closely related species are grouped together under a rank that is called a Genus. Closely related Genera (the plural of genus) are grouped together under the rank of Family. Closely related Families are grouped together under the rank of Order. There are seven ranks; starting with the highest they are: kingdom, phylum or division, class, order, family, genus, species.
Plants, Animals, Fungi, Viruses and Bacteria belong to separate Kingdoms. Natural breeding can take place between some species that belong to the same genus and very occasionally between species of different genera. However, species that belong to different families do not breed and definitely species that belong to different Kingdoms such as plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and viruses do not breed in nature. Plants for example do not breed with animals, bacteria or viruses.
Genetic engineering allows for the transfer of multiple genes between Kingdoms in a way that can never occur naturally. This is something that has never occurred before and it creates a new frontier with many uncertainties due to science's limited understanding about genetics.
The Single Gene Misconception
The other great misconception is that researchers are only inserting one new gene.
At this stage, science is not sophisticated enough to insert a single gene and get it to work. To overcome this problem, scientists have to combine the gene with the desired trait (such as herbicide tolerance or pesticide production) with other genes that will make it work. Researchers also insert genes that help them to identify if the new gene is working within the chromosome.
This becomes a complex construction of transgenes that can come from bacterial, viral, fish, plant and other sources.
Inserting the Gene Sequence
Another misconception is that the gene is neatly inserted into the cell. Genes are grouped together inside the cell in long strands known as chromosomes. Researchers use what can be best described as a shotgun approach when they push new genes into a chromosome. They either shoot the genetic material into the target cells, insert it after weakening the cell membrane with an electric shock/chemical, or use a modified microorganism such as a virus to infect the target cell with the new genes.
The problem with these approaches is that researchers do not know if genes have been inserted into a chromosome or if they will work.
Antibiotic Resistance Marker Genes
The most common method of discovering if the new gene will work involves using Antibiotic Resistance Marker Genes. These genes come from bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. The marker genes are attached to the gene with the desired trait (herbicide resistance as an example) and they are shot into the target cells. These cells are then cultured and an antibiotic is added. The cells that live have adopted the new genes since they are resistant to the antibiotic.
These are then grown out as plants. The big problem with these plants is that every part of the plant has genes for antibiotic resistance. Many scientists and medical professionals have expressed concerns about these genes being horizontally transferred into the gut and mouth bacteria of humans and animals eating genetically modified food. They are worried that this could create bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotics needed to cure infections.
Horizontal gene transfer is where microorganisms take up genes directly through their cell walls rather than by the normal method of reproduction. It has been shown to occur with the antibiotic resistant super bugs that are now found in many hospitals.
When the potential danger of this practice was pointed out to genetic scientists, they dismissed it as impossible. Several studies have since shown that these antibiotic resistance genes can be transferred to bacteria in as little as two hours after eating genetically modified food.
New Scientist in July 2002 reported on a scientific experiment that showed this can happen to bacteria in the human digestive system: For the first time, it has been proved that bacteria in the human gut can take up DNA from genetically modified food.
Currently, every commercially released GMO plant has the antibiotic resistance genes in every cell. They should be banned for this reason alone.
The Cauliflower Mosaic Virus Promoter (CaMV)
When foreign DNA is inserted into organisms, three things usually happen. The most common occurrence is that foreign DNA is digested to provide energy and building blocks for the cell. It can also be rejected. The other response is to close over the foreign DNA and deactivate it.
All of these responses are defense mechanisms to overcome attacks by pathogens (disease). The host organism defends itself by getting rid of the foreign material. This is the reason why transplant recipients have to take anti-rejection drugs. When organisms detect foreign DNA a whole range of responses, collectively known as the immune system, can be activated to repel or destroy the invaders.
When foreign genes are shot/infected into a cell, they tend to be digested, rejected or closed over. Either way, this means the target organism will not have the desired trait from the new gene.
To overcome this, genetic scientists build a construction with a section of the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV). The CaMV gives the signal that activates or promotes the new gene. This ensures the gene is active so that its desired trait, like herbicide resistance, works in the new plant.
Problems with the CaMV
There are several problems with the CaMV. Every current GMO plant is part virus. Every cell of their bodies contains the active section of a virus. With billions of these plants now released into the environment, many scientists believe there is a great risk of horizontal transfer of the viral genetic code from GMO plants into invading viruses, creating new virulent transgenic viruses.
The Union of Concerned Scientists stated: “Recombination can occur between the plant-produced viral genes and closely related genes of incoming viruses. Such recombination may produce viruses that can infect a wider range of hosts or that may be more virulent than the parent viruses.”
According to Dr. Mae-Wan Ho of the Institute of Science in Society, London, “GM constructs are designed to cross species barriers and to invade genomes. In other words, GM constructs are more likely to transfer horizontally. Genetic engineering will accelerate the generation of new viruses and bacteria.”
When GMO scientists and researchers are questioned about these ideas, the standard reply is that the cauliflower mosaic virus is harmless and doesn't affect humans. Many harmless viruses change into forms that can be serious. Various forms of the flu are the classic example. Seventy years ago, AIDS and Ebola were restricted to monkeys and didn't affect humans. SARS is a slightly modified common cold virus and is now a seriously fatal disease with the potential for massive epidemics.
According to the journal Nature, April 2003, “In a simple overnight experiment, researchers transformed a coronavirus that is lethal to cats into one that infects mouse cells by replacing a single gene. The result strengthens the idea that the SARS coronavirus might have arisen when an animal and human virus met and swapped genes, says the study's lead scientist.”
The fact is no scientist can predict what would happen if transgenic viruses and bacteria emerged from GMO plants. It was only a short time ago these same scientists were saying pollen drift from GMOs would not affect nearby crops and that the horizontal transference of antibiotic resistant genes from GMOs into gut microorganisms was not possible. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho further stated, “This CaMV promoter is also known to work for genes all across the living world: in plants, bacteria, fungi, and, as we discovered recently in the literature more than 10 years old, also in frog eggs and human cells. It is able to substitute, in part or in whole, for the promoter of many other viruses … And there is evidence that such dormant viruses can be reactivated as a result of genetic recombination.”
GM Maize Linked to Tumors, Liver & Kidney Disease
A peer-reviewed scientific study found that rats fed a diet that contains a proportion of GM maize and/or minute residues of Roundup has resulted in significantly higher increases of tumors, kidney disease, liver damage and other negative health effects.
The study led by Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini has found that both the GM maize and Roundup acted as endocrine disrupters and resulted in the females dying 2-3 times more than the control animals.
The females that were fed either GM maize or non GM maize with minute roundup residues, developed large mammary tumors almost always more often than and before controls. All the non-control females, except for one that had ovarian cancer, had mammary hypertrophies (enlarged mammary glands) and in some cases hyperplasia with atypia (nodules in the mammary glands).
The pituitary gland was the second most disabled organ and the sex hormonal balance was modified in females fed with the GMO and Roundup treatments.
The treated males presented 4 times more large palpable tumors than controls and these occurred up to 600 days earlier. The treated males had liver congestions and necrosis that were 2.5-5.5 times higher than the controls as well as marked and severe kidney nephropathies (kidney damage) that were also generally 1.3-2.3 greater than the controls.
This study was the first 2-year feeding trial conducted on rats designed to see the effects of GM over an animal's lifetime. Currently, no regulatory authority requests mandatory chronic animal feeding studies to be performed for edible GMOs. However, several studies consisting of 90-day rat feeding trials have been conducted by the biotech industry even though there is no requirement to do this.
The results of the 2-year feeding study showed the current regulatory system for approving GM crops for consumption are inadequate for assessing the effects of eating these foods over a normal lifetime.
Multiple Health Problems
A peer-reviewed study published by Dr. Nancy Swanson et al. found a strong correlation between the rise in the production of GMOs, use of glyphosate and 22 chronic diseases in the U.S. The study showed how this rise in glyphosate exposure is due to the increase in glyphosate tolerant GMO crops in the U.S. and cited numerous scientific studies showing how glyphosate can cause or increase susceptibility to these diseases.
Professor Séralini and colleagues published an earlier peer-reviewed scientific study that reviewed 19 studies of animals fed with GMO soy and corn in the journal. The studies covered more that 80% of the GMO varieties that are widely cultivated around the world.
Their review found significant levels of negative effects to kidneys and livers in the animals that were fed GMOs. The scientists stated: “… the kidneys were particularly affected, concentrating 43.5% of all disrupted parameters in males, whereas the liver was more specifically disrupted in females (30.8% of all disrupted parameters).”
One of the key conclusions is that the current testing methodologies, length of feed trials and the parameters measured are insufficient to evaluate the health problems that are caused by diets of GMOs. The scientists clearly stated that this lack of proper testing protocols is socially unacceptable in terms of consumer health protection.
Andre Leu is the author of The Myths of Safe Pesticides and President of IFOAM – Organics International, the world umbrella body for the organic sector. He has written and published extensively in magazines, newspapers, journals, conference proceedings, newsletters, websites and other media on many areas of organic agriculture including climate change, the environment, agronomy and the health benefits. The Myths of Safe Pesticides is available through AcresUSA and Amazon.