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Sowing feudalism

By Evaggelos Vallianatos - posted Monday, 11 August 2008

Atomic science gave birth to weapons civilised people wish never existed. Now agricultural genetic engineering is on the verge of bringing into being another monster future generations will face with the same perplexity and anguish we feel about our nuclear bombs.

Genetic engineers made DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) a long molecule wrapped tightly within the nucleus of every living cell, the king of their realm, the oracle whose message might even lead bioengineers to make men.

Genetic engineering claims that DNA alone is the key to inheritance, with each DNA segment, gene, developing a protein for a specific trait. Yet one gene may produce hundreds and thousands of different proteins. The Human Genome Project discovered that humans have about 30,000 genes but 100,000 proteins. Also, it’s not DNA alone but DNA genes and protein-based processes working together that pass on traits of inheritance.


However, starting from the “central dogma” of genetic science, which says more precisely that a DNA gene controls no more than a unique inheritance trait, genetic engineers moved aggressively to test their theory at the farm by altering food crops.

They assumed, for example, that the DNA bacterial gene, Bt, which they inserted into corn, would produce nothing but a poison for the insects feeding on corn. However, by moving the Bt gene into the alien environment of corn, in addition to the insect-killing protein, the Bt gene could give birth, and often does give birth, to dozens of other proteins with unpredictable behaviours and possibly toxic effects on human health and nature.

A group of international scientists, working under Joint Actions of Information on GMOs, signed a letter dated April 8, 2006 in which they said that Bt toxins:

… caused powerful immune responses and abnormal and excessive cell growth in the intestine of mice … Filipinos living next to Bt cornfields developed symptoms during pollination and blood tests also showed an immune response to Bt. Indian workers handling Bt cotton developed allergic responses … we must … find out if Bt genes transfer to gut bacteria like soya genes do. They could turn our internal flora into living pesticide factories.

We suspect that genetic engineering is causing trouble not because we have results from studies, which barely exist, but from the failures of experiments. Clones are not doing well. Kidney and brain malformations often kill the cloned animal. Bioengineered pigs, about to be remade into a fish delicacy, suffer from arthritis, enlarged hearts, renal disease and dermatitis. All this spoils the bioengineers’ idea that each DNA gene, like each biotech boss, orders things to be done alone without interference from anybody or anything.

But in real life, often and almost inevitably, with countless numbers of transgenic crop plants, errors crop up, causing chaos in an otherwise elegant plan or experiment. Without careful studies of those plants, we are headed for big trouble.


Genetic engineers show perfect contempt for nature, their hubris knows no bounds. They willfully ignore the fact that, in nature, genetic material moves freely only within a single species. Butterflies don’t mate with fish.

Barry Commoner, a distinguished biologist and philosopher of science at Queens College in New York, is right to warn us about the premature licensing of agricultural genetic engineering in the United States. We don’t know anything about the presumed safety of the genetically modified (GM) food.

“The genetically engineered crops now being grown,” he says, “represent a massive uncontrolled experiment whose outcome is inherently unpredictable. The results could be catastrophic”.

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About the Author

Evaggelos Vallianatos is the author of several books, including Poison Spring (Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

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