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#743 - New Threat To Indigenous People, 30-Jan-2002

The survival of indigenous people, within the U.S. and across
the globe, is being directly threatened by genetic engineering
(GE) of food crops.

In September, 2001, scientists discovered genetically engineered
(GE) corn at 15 locations in the state of Oaxaca, deep in
southern Mexico, a country that has outlawed the commercial use
of all genetically engineered crops.[1] No one knows how it got
there.

In the U.S., genetically engineered corn has been grown
commercially since 1996 and 26 percent of all U.S. corn acreage
is now genetically engineered. The remote region of Oaxaca where
the illegal GE corn was discovered is considered the heartland
of corn diversity in the world. Scientists had hoped to keep
Oaxaca's rich diversity of corn uncontaminated by GE strains
because Oaxaca retains the wealth of genetic varieties developed
during 5500 years of indigenous corn cultivation. Scientists now
say that aggressive forms of GE corn, let loose in Oaxaca, may
drive native species to extinction, causing the loss of
irreplaceable cultivars.

It is unclear whether the GE corn was carried deep into Mexico
by birds, or was intentionally spread there by corporations or
governments promoting GE crops.

All genetically engineered varieties of corn are owned and
patented by transnational corporations. The only legal way to
acquire such seeds is to purchase them from the corporation
holding the patent. Such patents are called "intellectual
property" and their enforcement under international law has been
a major goal of "free trade" agreements in recent years. The
World Trade Organization (WTO) contains strict protections for
Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), and patented
forms of life, such as GE crops, are explicitly covered by
TRIPs.

Under WTO rules, national governments are required to protect
the intellectual property rights of corporations. In the U.S.
and Canada, farmers have complained that they have become
victims of gene drift, or genetic pollution, as GE crops have
drifted across property lines, contaminating non-GE crops with
patented GE varieties. Genetic drift of GE crops to non-GE
fields has, in fact, been well documented and even the GE
corporations and their regulators in government acknowledge that
it is a serious problem. Now, however, Monsanto, a leading
supplier of GE seeds, has cleverly turned the tables on the
alleged victims of genetic pollution by suing them for stealing
Monsanto's patented genes. In the first case that came to trial,
in Canada in 2001, Monsanto sued Percy Schmeiser, an organic
farmer who complained of genetic pollution. Monsanto said that
after 40 years of growing crops organically, Mr. Schmeiser had a
change of heart and decided to raise a genetically-engineered
crop by stealing Monsanto's patented genes. Monsanto won and
Schmeiser must pay. With this important victory in the bank,
Monsanto now has similar lawsuits pending against farmers in
North Dakota, South Dakota, Indiana, and Louisiana.[2] Thus
farmers that fall victim to genetic pollution may find
themselves sued for violating the intellectual property rights
of a corporation and be forced to compensate the genetic
polluter.

The purpose of patenting seeds is to prevent seed saving -- the
ancient indigenous practice of keeping seeds from this year's
crop to grow next year's crop. Farmers who purchase GE seeds
sign contracts requiring -- under penalty of law -- that they
not save seed from one crop to the next. Thus farmers who employ
GE seeds must purchase new seed year after year, making them
dependent upon whatever transnational corporation owns the
patent. Farmers who can't afford to buy seed each year will
simply not be allowed to grow a crop. In free-market societies,
such displaced farmers are free to move to a city where they are
free to be unemployed.

Today's GE crops can't guarantee that farmers won't save seeds.
Corporations intent on preventing seed-saving must hire agents
to travel from farm to farm, reporting any unlicensed crops.
Such monitoring is expensive.

To avoid the need for monitoring, and to gain 100 percent
control over farmers, the GE corporations have developed a new
technology -- terminator genes. Terminator genes prevent a crop
from reproducing itself unless certain "protector" chemicals are
applied to the crop. Any farmer using terminator seeds must buy
the "protector" chemicals each year. As terminator technology
spreads around the world, it will end indigenous agriculture,
and much biodiversity as well. An estimated 1.4 billion
indigenous people currently grow their own crops for
subsistence, worldwide.[3] In many instances, their land is
being eyed for corporate "development" and GE crop technology
offers a legal way to separate indigenous people from their
land.

The ETC Group (www.etcgroup.org) of Winnipeg, Canada, revealed
last week that two of the world's largest genetic engineering
firms -- DuPont and Syngenta (formerly Astrazeneca) -- during
2001 were awarded new patents on "terminator" seeds, engineered
for sterility. In 1999, Syngenta's (then Astrazeneca's) Research
and Development Director claimed that all work on terminator
technology had ceased in 1992, but the ETC Group found that the
Director was either mistaken or dissembling: Syngenta's latest
terminator patent was applied for March 22, 1997 and awarded May
8, 2001.

"Terminator [technology] is a real and present danger for
global food security and biodiversity -- governments and civil
society cannot afford to let 'suicide seeds' slip beneath their
radar," said Hope Shand, Research Director of the ETC Group.[4]

Despite the grim social consequences that seem likely to follow
the widespread adoption of genetically engineered crops, few
scientists have questioned the safety of the technology itself.
The major GE corporations have insisted for 15 years that their
technology is thoroughly understood, reliable, and safe, and
government regulators have agreed (or at least remained silent).

Now a new report, released this month, asserts that the
scientific theory underpinning the genetic engineering industry
is dangerously outdated and wrong.[5] The new report, by Dr.
Barry Commoner of Queens College, City University of New York,
says, "The genetically engineered crops now being grown
represent a massive uncontrolled experiment whose outcome is
inherently unpredictable. The results could be catastrophic,"
the report says.

At present, 68 percent of U.S. soybean acreage, 26 percent of
our corn acreage, and more than 69 percent of our cotton acreage
have been genetically engineered. "[A] ny artificially altered
genetic system, given the magnitude of our ignorance, must
sooner or later give rise to unintended, potentially disastrous,
consequences," says the new report.

The safety assurances of the genetic engineering industry are
based on the scientific premise that one gene controls one
characteristic. If this is true, then removing a gene from one
species and inserting it into a new species will give the new
species one new characteristic, no more and no less.

Unfortunately the theory that a single gene controls a single
characteristic, while it may have seemed true 40 years ago, is
known to be wrong today:

1) Genes are composed of segments of DNA, a long molecule coiled
up within each cell's nucleus.

2) The 40-year old theory (developed by Francis Crick, who, with
James Watson, discovered DNA in 1953), says that DNA strictly
controls the production of RNA which in turn strictly controls
the creation of proteins which give rise to specific inherited
characteristics. Because DNA is the same in all creatures, this
theory says that a gene will produce a particular protein (and a
particular characteristic) no matter what species it finds
itself in -- thus making it possible for the genetic engineering
corporations to claim that inserting genes from one species to
another will not lead to any surprises or dangerous side
effects.

3) It was -- of all things -- the Human Genome Project that
revealed most starkly that Crick's theory was wrong. There are
about 100,000 different proteins in a human and, if Crick were
right, there should be 100,000 genes to produce these proteins.
However, the Human Genome Project announced last February that
humans have only about 30,000 genes. (See many articles in
SCIENCE Feb. 16, 2001.) Thus there must be something more than
mere genes controlling the development of proteins and the
resulting characteristics.

4) Actually, scientists had known for many years (since 1981 in
the case of human genes) that after DNA creates RNA, the RNA can
split into several parts, giving rise to several different
proteins and several different characteristics. This is called
"alternative splicing." By 1989 more than 200 scientific papers
had been published describing alternative splicing.

5) As cells split and reproduce themselves, their DNA molecule
also reproduces itself, but sometimes errors occur in DNA
reproduction. Special proteins repair these errors of
reproduction, so genetic inheritance is not simply a matter of
genes -- it's a matter of interaction between genes and repair
proteins. Will these complex interactions always work reliably
and identically when a gene is placed into the entirely new
environment of a different species?

6) Proteins function as they do because of two characteristics:
they have a specific chemical (molecular) make-up, and they are
physically folded into a particular shape. The Crick theory
assumes that a particular gene always gives rise to a single
protein that is chemically identical and is identically folded.
However, scientists now know that proteins get folded in a
particular way by the presence of additional "chaperone"
proteins. More protein-gene interactions.

7) Furthermore, during the 1980s, in searching for the causes of
fatal "mad cow" disease, scientists made the startling discovery
that some proteins can reproduce themselves without involving
any DNA whatever -- an impossibility according to the Crick
theory. These proteins are now called "prions" and, as Dr.
Commoner points out, they reveal that processes far removed from
the Crick theory are at work in molecular genetics and can give
rise to fatal disease.

Thus the basic theory underlying genetic engineering of crops is
quite wrong. Single genes are important, but they do not
invariably give rise to a single characteristic in an organism.
A gene's action is modified by alternative splicing, by proteins
that repair errors in reproduction, and by the chaperones that
fold the final protein into its active shape. In nature, such a
system works reliably within a species because it has been
tested and refined for thousands of years. But when a single
gene is removed from its familiar surroundings and transplanted
into an alien species, the new host's system is likely to be
"disrupted in unspecified, imprecise, and inherently
unpredictable ways," the Commoner report concludes. In practice
these disruptions are revealed by the vast number of failures
that occur whenever a gene transplant is attempted.

Most ominously, the report points out, Monsanto Corporation
acknowledged in 2000 that its genetically modified soybeans
contained some extra fragments of a transferred gene. Despite
this, the company announced that it expected "no new proteins"
to appear in the GE soybeans. Then during 2001, Belgian
researchers announced that the soybean's own DNA had been
scrambled during the insertion of the new gene. "The abnormal
DNA was large enough to produce a new protein, a potentially
harmful protein," Dr. Commoner concludes.

Thus genetically engineered crops threaten not only the
agricultural systems and the cultural survival of all indigenous
people, but also the food security and safety of all people
everywhere.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

=====

[1] Carol Kaesuk Yoon, "Genetic Modification Taints Corn in
Mexico," NEW YORK TIMES October 2, 2001, pg. unknown. Available
at www.nytimes.com for a fee.

[2] David R. Moeller, GMO LIABILITY THREATS FOR FARMERS (St.
Paul, Minn.: Farmers' Legal Action Group, Inc., November 2001).
Available in PDF format at www.iatp.org.

[3] Pat Roy Mooney, THE ETC CENTURY; EROSION, TECHNOLOGICAL
TRANSFORMATION, AND CORPORATE CONCENTRATION IN THE 21ST CENTURY
(Winnipeg, Canada: The ETC Group, 2001); available in PDF:
http://www.rafi.org/documents/other_etccentury.pdf. The ETC Group
(formerly RAFI, the Rural Advancement Foundation International)
can be reached at 478 River Avenue, Suite 200, Winnipeg, MB R3L
0C8 Canada; Tel: (204) 453-5259, Fax: (204) 284-7871. This
report is "MUST READ " for all activists.

[4] News Release: "Sterile Harvest: New Crop of Terminator Patents
Threatens Food Sovereignty," January 31, 2002. Available in PDF:
http://www.etcgroup.org/documents/new_termpatent_jan2002.pdf

[5] Barry Commoner, "Unraveling the DNA Myth," HARPER'S MAGAZINE
(February 2002), pgs. 39-47.