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June 7, 2000


Mae-Wan Ho: Corporate Science on the Offensive


AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

(Following comments by Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, a leading critic of
biotechnology in UK, was posted to an activist newsgroup....I do not
know when the U.S. State Dept became 'corporate'.... Prakash)

From: "Biotech Activists", INTERNET:biotech_activists@iatp.or
RE: Corporate Science on the Offensive
Biotech Activists (biotech_activists@iatp.org)
Posted: 06/08/2000 By i-sis@dircon.co.uk
Corporate Science on the Offensive

ISIS is being targeted by pro-biotech scientists from both sides of the

Dr. C. S. Prakash, Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research
at Tuskegee University (USA), is the latest corporate recruit to deal with
the worldwide rejection of GM crops. I first came across him in a pro-GM
'documentary' that I was tricked into taking part by Equinox, the science
series of Channel 4 TV in the UK (see ISIS NEWs #4). I met Prakash again at
the multi-stakeholders dialogue preceding the 8th session of the United
Nation's Commission on Sustainable Development, where he sat with, and
spoke for the biotech industry. On June 1, I encountered him for the third time
in a debate in the UK, organized by the US Embassy. The Embassy staff who
invited me to debate informed me that Prakash has been sent over by the US
State Department. Unlike his predecessor Val Giddings, Prakash oozes charm
and bonhomie. He told me he has already been touring Europe "to prevent
other Mae-Wan Hos from springing up" and UK was his last stop.

The venue was The School of Oriental and African Studies, and the motion
debated, "Agricultural biotechnology is vital for the future of the
developing world", with Prakash and Matt Ridley, speaking for, and myself
and John Vidal speaking against. Ridley and Vidal are both well-known
journalists. To my surprise, it was not an open debate as only
'stakeholders' were invited. Judging by the comments from the floor, the
majority were from industry or pro-biotech pressure groups. The Monsanto
'science outreach' representative came out smelling like roses compared to
two molecular geneticists associated with Cropgen, a new pressure-group of
scientists funded by industry, members of which have been very prominent in
the media recently, and appearing to be targeting ISIS in particular.
Angela Ryan has already debated them three times, including once on
radio, and a
further debate is planned later this year.

A few days later, an article appeared in The Guardian newspaper ("A
misguided media swarm" June 6) by one of the Cropgen scientists at the
debate. He is Conrad Lichtenstein, professor of molecular biology in a
college of London University. In the article, he rubbished all the
scientific studies that cast any doubt on the safety of GM crops,
especially those that have been given a lot of press coverage: GM potatoes
adversely affecting young rats and GM pollen being lethal to Monarch
butterflies. In anticipation of the as yet unpublished report from Jena
University in Germany - that GM genes were found to have transferred via GM
pollen to the bacteria and yeasts of baby bees - he argued that if the
finding is substantiated, that must mean it occurs all the time, so non GM
as well as GM genes are transferred. (Not so long ago, these scientists
have been arguing that horizontal gene transfer does not occur.) And, he
claims, it doesn't matter, because Darwinian natural selection will select
them out. That means that the organisms to which the foreign genes have
transferred will die out either immediately or in the long run, by the
principle of the survival of the fittest. The article ended with an
attack on me which I am quoting verbatim below:

"But, at a recent GM debate, I was alarmed to hear an anti-GM university
biologist state that GM genes are more resistant to the natural processes
by which enzymes break down other DNA and that GM genes, as they are designed
to "invade" genomes, are also more unstable and can more easily move
around, dangerously spreading. During question time, I asked for
direct experimental evidence to support this but was given the
techno-babble which puts fear into the hearts of the
scientifically uneducated. My questions remained emphatically unanswered.
I know of no experiments to support such statements, nor from my own two
dozen years of research experience on GM plants, genetic recombination and
gene jumping between species, can I conceive of any credible biological
mechanism that would permit it."

The text of my talk, "GM Crops - How Corporations Rule and Ruin the World"
can be found on the ISIS website www.i-sis.org <http://www.i-sis.org>. My
reply to Lichtenstein's attack on me has been sent to the letters section
of The Guardian, and is reproduced at the end of this report. I want to deal
with Lichtenstein's comments on horizontal gene transfer and natural
selection, which are typical of GM proponents adhering to the out-moded,
reductionist neo-Darwinian paradigm.

First, there is now a substantial body of evidence that natural horizontal
gene transfer (of non-GM constructs) has occurred in our evolutionary past,
but all the signs are that natural gene-trafficking is regulated by the
organisms themselves in response to ecological conditions.

Second, the neo-Darwinian mechanism of evolution involving rare random
variation and post-hoc natural selection, has already been discredited by
the mountains of experimental findings from molecular genetics. Variations
are neither rare nor random, and they arise in organisms as they are
'selected'. Under certain ecological conditions, certain genes can
'hypermutate' at rates up to one million times the background 'spontaneous'
rate. Furthermore, horizontal gene transfer means that microbes actually
cooperate by sharing their most valuable assets for survival, instead of
competing against one another.

As far as antibiotic resistance is concerned, the assumption, that the
marker genes will disappear from the population when the 'selection
pressure' is no longer there, has been shown to be false both in the
laboratory and in the field.

Many papers on the ISIS website give detailed references to the relevant
scientific literature. See especially, "An End to Bad Science and Beginning
with Life Again" for a compact account. For more details, read the book,
Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare (1999) by Mae-Wan Ho.

Ho Replies to Lichtenstein (submitted to The Guardian):
I am the "anti-GM university biologist" that Conrad Lichtenstein referred
to in his article on the GM controversy (6 June). The debate he described was
arranged by the US Embassy for biotechnologist, Dr. C.S. Prakash, sent by
the US State Department to promote GM agriculture in Europe. I agreed to
participate because I believe in promoting critical public understanding of
science and to draw attention to well-known and relevant scientific
knowledge that is being ignored.

Almost by definition, genetic engineering organisms involves designing
GM-constructs which invade genomes and overcome natural processes that
break down foreign genetic material. Due to their highly mixed
origins, however,
GM-constructs are more unstable than natural genetic material as well as
more invasive; and may therefore be more likely to spread to unrelated
species. Those points were not challenged by Prakash because these basic
principles and observations of genetic engineering are covered in text
books and are also areas of active research. I answered
Lichtenstein's questions
in full and referred him to our website < www.i-sis.org> where the relevant
scientific papers are cited and where more than 300 scientists from 39
countries, including many molecular geneticists who share my concerns, are
demanding a moratorium on releases of GM organisms.

There is genuine scientific dissent among scientists and the public are not
served by those who continue to misrepresent the GM debate as science
versus anti-science. In demanding a moratorium, we are not trying to
stop research
into molecular genetics. On the contrary, we are arguing for more basic
research that can tell us how and if GM technology can be safely used. More
than that, we need open, wide-ranging and inclusive debates on the kind of
science and technology that can best serve society.

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
Open University