Brief Address to Wellington Forum on Genetically Modified Food
by Peter R Wills, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Physics,
University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand
25 March 1999
Organisms are dynamic.
In fact everything that happens in biology is based on endless orderly
change, especially the flow of matter.
The natural patterns and regularities that we observe in biology depend on
the maintenance of processes of change.
This applies from the microscopic level of the cell - a teeming zoo of
molecular motion - all the way up to the biosphere - with its rich and
variegated spatially-differentiated ecologies.
How all of this works cannot be understood solely in terms of material
structure, whether we are talking about the proteins and DNA molecules in
a cell, or the individual organisms existing in an ecosystem.
The effects of a gene cannot be assessed by looking at the static
relationship between its sequence, the letters of the DNA message it
represents, and the characteristics of the organism to which it is
The meaning of a gene is determined by the context in which it is
expressed. It also contributes to that context.
So, when we swap a gene from one organism to another, we cannot know in
advance what all the effects will be.
We cannot know, not even in principle.
That is very important because ecological relationships and evolutionary
change rely on what is unusual, the innovation which arises as a result of
mutation or the establishment of new interactions.
The way this works is that events propagate through biological systems.
The variation created by genetic mutation and recombination is the most
elementary and fundamental way in which things propagate in biological
Three and a half billion years of evolution have given rise to only a very
few means of genetic information transfer and propagation.
These limitations have produced what we now call the tree of life.
The maintenance of boundaries between
constellations of particular genes in particular organisms is what keeps
species and their interactions in the relationships that constitute
Over the last few 10,000 years, intentional human actions, selective
breeding programs of ever- increasing sophistication, have coerced desired
changes from the game of roulette that reproduction plays with genes.
But the basic rules of the game have not, and could not by such means, be
In the last quarter decade, as a result of what we have learnt in
molecular biology, we have started to break all of these rules.
No we make genetic transfers at will.
It is now routine to effect changes which could never be coerced out of
the billion-year-old processes which govern ecological interactions and
The type, speed and scale of genetic change now being undertaken will
affect the dynamics of biological systems, ecology and evolution, at their
Changes that cannot be assessed in advance will progressively propagate
through the biosphere.
The pattern of those changes cannot be expected to fit in with what we
The changes we are making will propagate with their own novel dynamics and
the outcomes will be far- reaching.
The only thing we can know with certainty is that we do not know, and
cannot in principle know, what the character of the ultimate outcome will
be, except that it will be different from anything that we are familiar
Using an analogy to stereotypical gender relationships, an analogy that I
think is fully justified here :
Mankind will be left trying to beat Nature at her own game, playing
according to rules that have been imposed with the express aim of
exercising unprecedented power over her. She will wait, and when she
speaks back in the new language which has been created for her, Mankind
will have already lost what would have been of the greatest value.
CORPORATE POWER SILENCES RBGH CRITICS, PANEL SAYS
The Capital Times Washington March 25, 1999
Last week, the European Union stated that milk from rBGH-treated cows
could increase the risk of breast and prostate cancer in humans.
Canada, Japan and Australia have banned the genetically engineered dairy
hormone, citing concerns about its effects on animals and humans.
Yet farmers in the United States are injecting rBGH into dairy cows from
coast to coast.
"What is it they know in Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan that we
don't?" journalist Steve Wilson asked a University of Wisconsin audience
Plenty, according to Wilson, who maintains that a combination of forces is
keeping the U.S. press silent on a critical food safety issue.
Wilson and Jane Akre, two veteran investigative television reporters,
discussed the rBGH controversy during this week's UW- Madison Democracy
Teach-In. They were joined by John Stauber of Madison-based PR Watch.
Wilson and Akre were fired by Fox News in Tampa, Fla., after producing a
four-part series about the potential risks of rBGH milk. The television
station maintains that the husband-wife team were dismissed for being
"difficult to work with." But Wilson and Akre say the reason was their
story, which was critical of the hormone and drew the ire of its
manufacturer, biotech giant [ Monsanto Co. ]
"In February of 1997, right before the story was set to run, the letters
(from Monsanto) started coming, saying the story was all wrong and
predicting dire consequences if we ran it," Akre said.
Several months later, she said, the story was shelved and she and Wilson
were out of work.
Stauber, who studies the influence of corporations and public relations
professionals, said such situations are all too typical. The reasons, he
said, have much to do with three major forces in America:
*The media. Corporate ownership of major news outlets, concern about angry
advertisers and falling standards are causing many journalists to turn away
from investigative reporting and toward easier, more simplistic work, he
said. When reporters like Wilson and Akre take the initiative, he said,
they are often thwarted by their superiors. That silence allows
corporations to "spin" their products unchallenged.
"The fact the U.S. media haven't paid attention to rBGH has allowed the
controversy to drop off the front page," he said.
*Corporations. With savvy public relations campaigns and deep pockets,
corporations like Monsanto have become adept at creating a positive image
of products like rBGH even as they silence critics, Stauber said.
Such companies also tend to have friends in high places, he contended.
*Public opinion. More than any other population, Americans believe deeply
in the benefits of scientific progress, Stauber said, a belief that leads
many to view critics with suspicion.
"There's almost a patriotic lock step that has developed to the idea that
technology is going to be beneficial," he said.
But rBGH could still receive the attention they feel it deserves, the
panelists agreed. In December, a U.S. consumer group called on the FDA to
pull bovine growth hormone off the market, charging the agency overlooked
key evidence about the drug's safety. (The agency had 180 days to conduct
the investigation and either reject the claim or pull the drug.)
Continued opposition in Canada and Europe, backed by research into the
hormone that has been difficult to obtain here, is beginning to gain
attention in the United States.
And Wilson and Akre, who are suing Fox for allegedly firing them under
pressure from Monsanto, are traveling around the United States to raise
public awareness of the hormone's potential downside.
More attention can only work to the benefit of American consumers, Stauber
"I think Americans are extremely interested," he said.
(Copyright (c) Madison Newspapers, Inc. 1999)
Here is a quote from Professor R B Elliot , one of New Zealand's most
accomplished medical researchers.
Re: GE foods
I have decided on my personal stance. I do NOT want to eat such foods -- I
see no health or economic advantage in doing so, and a whole raft of
putative health and environmental disadvantages.
Any 'advantage' in GE foods as far as I can see is to one or more of the
grower of the crop, the GE source company, the Roundup manufacturer etc.
I cannot imagine for a moment that GE food will even be cheaper for me --
If Burger King can guarantee that their product contains no GE components
-- then I will eat their stuff rather than McDonalds etc.
I have discussed this with my staff -- who agree that the risk /benefit
ratio is infinitely high as however small the personal risk, there is no
Posted by Dr Robt Mann, science chairman, Physicians & Scientists For
Responsible Genetics, New Zealand <email@example.com>
Richard Wolfson, PhD
Consumer Right to Know Campaign,
for Mandatory Labelling and Long-term
Testing of all Genetically Engineered Foods,
500 Wilbrod Street
Ottawa, ON Canada K1N 6N2
tel. 613-565-8517 fax. 613-565-1596
Our website, http://www.natural-law.ca/genetic/geindex.html
contains more information on genetic engineering as well as previous
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