- Genotype and Phenotype
- DNA and RNA Structure and Function
- DNA Transfer Between Organisms: Transgenics
- The Rise of Agribusiness
- Corporate Farming
- The Nemesis Effect and Precautionary Principle
- Secrecy and Corporate Profits
- Governmental Regulation
- Grassroots Organizing
- Food Security
- Science and Secrecy
- Narrowing the Genetic Base
- GMOs and Honey Bees
- The Impact of GMOs on Non-Target Organisms
- GMOs and Bee Products
- Marketing and Labeling GM-free Bee Products
- GM Oilseed Rape, GM Maize and Bees
Beekeepers, like everyone else, will be affected by what is being called the “third industrial revolution.” The first industrial revolution was use of new sources of energy to produce goods and services. The second involved information theory. That is now maturing as part of the “information” age, and is based on use of digital computers in almost all the trappings of “modern” life. The third is “genetic engineering,” using aspects of the other two in conjunction with recent scientific developments to directly manipulate the components of biological life. The products issuing from the third revolution are called “genetically modified organisms” or GMOs. This opens up a whole new universe of possibility for agriculture and by extension apiculture.
At first glance the world of GMOs appears to be nothing more what humans have done for centuries as they evolved from stone- and bronze-age tool makers to modern agriculturalists. Through observation and advances pioneered by Gregor Mendel(1) and others, scientists and farmers have deliberately modified life forms. This includes everything from plants to dogs to honey bees. Examples include perhaps humanity’s most valuable food crop, corn (Zea mays), developed by combining desirable traits from a number of native grass relatives (maize, teosinte). Any dog show reveals the huge number of forms breeders have come up with, from the live-saving St. Bernard to the performing poodle.
Honey bees too have been genetically modified for centuries, either on purpose or accidentally, usually through unwitting or purposeful introduction. All honey bees in the New World are the result of either direct introductions from the Old World or of combining races after they were introduced. As a consequence, it is not feasible to find “pure” honey bee races like Carniolans (Apis mellifera carnica) in the New World, although it is possible to select for Carniolan-like traits from the extant gene pool.(2) The honey bee population in the Americas is for all intents and purposes a complete mixed bag of European, and in some areas, African honey bees.
Many technologists and others involved in developing GMOs would have everyone believe that what they are doing is the same activity described above for dogs and bees. This contention is a generalization that contains a solid germ of truth, but leaves out many details. The picture is much more complex, because along with genetic engineering, there are other revolutions occurring, which make the situation far different than that of either the traditional plant or animal breeder agriculturalist of the recent past.
Agriculture, as it is effected both by the first and second industrial revolutions, has transformed into another entity known as “agribusiness” in most of the First world. At the same time, corporate wealth and power have been added to this mix. The combination of corporations and agriculture has put into play huge forces that are producing a synergy of unknown proportions. Adding the principles of genetic engineering provides even greater power that proponents view as generally beneficial, while opponents see as quite risky.
Beekeepers are not immune from issues affecting modern agribusiness.(3) Genetic engineering is being investigated to modify honey bee populations themselves, and the honey bee is a major pollinator and beneficiary of both nectar- and pollen-producing plants that are also undergoing modification. This series of articles is designed to give the reader a broad history of GMOs and how this relates to contemporary agriculture. It is written to provide a structure for further inquiry from a beekeeper’s perspective.
Genotype and Phenotype
The genesis for the term genetic engineering is the word “gene,” a bit of hereditary material many have called the basis of life.(4) Genes are responsible for the manufacture of substances (chemical compounds) that make up an organism; they are particular parts or regions of structures called chromosomes. Chromosomes can be seen in most cells enclosed within the part of the cell known as the nucleus. Cells divide under direction of the nucleus to produce more cells resulting in growth. The division of the nucleus coincides with first the replication of the chromosomes into pairs, followed by their separation. The resultant two new cells then both have the same complement of chromosomes and their accompanying genes.
With the invention of the microscope, credited to Antony Van Leeuwenhoek,(5) chromosomes could readily be seen in the nucleus of cells and their replication and separation monitored. In some cases, such as fruit flies, the chromosomes are very large, and observers noticed certain regions or genes that were active and could be associated with specific characteristics of the resulting organism.(6) The genes of fly chromosomes were correlated with eye and body color or wing size and shape. When these characteristics were seen or visualized, the responsible genes were said to be “expressed” (revealed). All genes in an organism collectively are called the genotype. The characteristics expressed by the genotype are collectively called the phenotype.(7)
The phenotype is what beekeepers see as structure and function in bees. For example, that of the Italian honey bee (Apis mellifera ligustica) includes a yellowish light colored body, a specific tongue and wing length, and all the other characteristics it shares with other honey bees, as well as insects, including six legs, three body parts and two pair of wings. Another part of the phenotype is the observable behavior of the Italian honey bee such as its propensity to rob or to develop a large brood nest throughout the year. The latter characteristic may contribute to an increase in swarming or dividing when conditions are optimal and overpopulation is possible, or starvation, should resources in the field be limited by weather conditions resulting in a lack of food to support all individuals in the growing population.
The traditional classification of honey bees has been by phenotype. Thus, Italian, Carniolan (Apis mellifera carnica), Caucasian (Apis mellifera caucasica) and the German or dark bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) have been separated by measuring and comparing the differences in their body parts (predominantly wing length and vein structure). This is called morphometrics; it is the current way Africanized honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata) in the United States are separated from their European cousins. The process first uses FABIS (Fast Africanized Bee Identification System), which is then followed by USDA-ID (U.S. Department of Agriculture Identification) of questionable individuals.(8) Another way to discriminate between the above subspecies is behavior, but this is quite subjective and not considered definitive. Because the phenotype is determined by the genotype, however, a more focused way to separate these bees would be to directly compare gene structure and function. For example, scientists have looked at different honey bee genes to see if they produce certain proteins, enzymes called hexokinase and malate dehydrogenase. This is often referred to as “DNA analysis
DNA and RNA Structure and Function
DNA is an acronym for DeoxyriboNucleicAcid.(9) It is the basic molecule that constitutes chromosomes and their associated genes for all organisms, from bacteria to honey bees to humans. DNA structure was first described by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953.(10) The describers characterized it as a “double helix,” and Dr. Watson wrote a book of the same name detailing a fascinating story of how the structure was finally determined. It has been fifty years since the characterization of DNA, and during that time, scientists have learned a great deal about the basic genetic structure of organisms and how it works. With this basic knowledge in place, it was only a matter of time before inquiring minds took steps to experiment with this technology by copying (cloning), and then clipping and moving (recombining) bits of DNA within and among organisms. The consequences of this tinkering, known as genetic engineering, are what we now know as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
DNA is one type of nucleic acid. There is another, (RiboNucleicAcid) or RNA. Both nucleic acids are not just chemical compounds, they also provide information. The chemical logic of life is described as the following by Murrell and Roberts:(11)
- All the properties of living organisms result from the properties of the proteins they contain.
- The properties of a given protein result from the sequence of amino acids that comprise it.
- The amino acid sequence of each protein is determined by the sequence of nucleotides in nucleic acids
- Nucleic acids comprise the hereditary material that each organism hands on to the next generation.
In the above description it is helpful to remember that most proteins are generally chemical compound types known as enzymes, which are responsible for regulating the speed of life processes (chemical reactions). Other proteins include antibodies, hormones and muscle fibers. Amino acids are basic nutritional resources needed by organisms to form proteins. These have often been called the body’s “building blocks.” There are 20 amino acids in nature.(12) They must be either manufactured in the body or be acquired from an outside source.
Another way of looking at this is in computer terms, according to Murrell and Roberts . The nucleic acids are the software (program) that generates the proteins (hardware). The proteins then become the physical apparatus that executes the program (growth) as determined by the nucleic acid software.
Nucleic acids interact with each other in a specific way. DNA acts as a template. Its information is made available (transcripts) to an RNA template, which is called messenger RNA (mRNA). The mRNA determines (translates) the order of amino acids to make specific proteins. The “genetic code,” therefore, is a set of rules or instructions where DNA determines the order of amino acids to make proteins via mRNA. This is accomplished by the sequence of the nucleic acids’ respective nucleotides.
Only four nucleotides constitute the nucleic acids. Each nucleotide is characterized by a specific compound known as a “base.” The bases for DNA are adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C). These bases are intimately associated with each other and must always be paired in a specific way. A can only pair with T, and by elimination G with C. Thus DNA is characterized by a specified sequence of “base pairs” hung together in a long molecule. Finding out the number and particular sequence of base pairs in a DNA chain allows scientists to not only examine, but also manufacture a specific organism’s genetic code. Another way to look at this process is to visualize the base pairs as letters that are strung together into words, which then form sentences that in their entirety are the instructions for running an organism’s life.
Finding the letters constituting the genetic instructions for any organism is a daunting task. Fortunately, this is being helped by improved computer technology. Thus, the human genetic code (genome) has recently been cracked. It constitutes some three billion letters of DNA.(13) This makes some of the other genomes being considered a relatively easier task. One is for the honey bee itself. A consortium led by Dr. Gene Robinson at the Unversity of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign has received $7 million to sequence the 270 million letters of Apis mellifera DNA. The justification for this includes looking at the insect’s symbolic language and social structure, as well as possible ways of helping the honey bee by providing instructions to better coexist with its diseases and pests.(14) This sets the stage for developing genetically modified honey bees.
DNA Transfer Between Organisms: Transgenics
Finding the specific sequencing of DNA in genes, and their cloning or duplicating called “recombinant DNA technology,” has been used to better characterize and study them. Modification of specific DNA snippets within the same organism has a number of possible advantages as noted previously with respect to honey bee diseases and pests. Again, this is something that humans have accomplished over many years through traditional breeding programs. However, it is when a specific organism is genetically modified in a way not observed in nature that can raise an indignant eyebrow and a call for caution.
Biological organisms are given two scientific names. The first is the genus (capitalized) and the second is the species (not capitalized). Since the genus and species are usually based on Latin, they are italicized when written. Organisms with different species names are thought incapable of interbreeding, and so cannot exchange genetic material. Thus, Apis cerana (the Asian honey bee) cannot interbreed with Apis mellifera (the European honey bee) because they are different species, although they have a common genus (Apis). However, the African honey bee subspecies or race (Apis mellifera scutellata) readily interbreeds with its European-Italian cousin (Apis mellifera ligustica) as they both are of the same species (mellifera). This interbreeding has caused much confusion in the Americas when regulators and beekeepers have attempted to determine the kind of bee found in particular geographic locations.
If this kind of situation occurs in closely related organisms, then it seems reasonable that genetic interchange between completely different species higher up the classification ladder, such as between an animal and a plant would be impossible. And in the natural world of multi-cellular “advanced” organisms this is usually the case. However, it is not true for “primitive” single-celled bacteria and viruses. Both have the ability to exchange DNA, and viruses in particular have evolved a way to insert their own DNA into organisms, which then can take over and run their host’s cellular machinery as the virus sees fit, often in a ruinous way.
One outgrowth of gene sequencing and duplication (cloning) through recombinant DNA technology is the possibility of employing bacteria to synthesize proteins found in other organisms. These might include human insulin for diabetes treatment, human growth hormone for Pituitary dwarfism or human interferons as cancer treatment. Another is to use viruses to produce proteins such as Hepatitis B virus surface antigen, then employed to immunize humans against that form of liver disease. Finally, it is possible to use bacteria or other unicellular organisms as hosts to manufacture totally new proteins, not found elsewhere in nature, and for which there may or may not be a use, a mind-boggling notion.
The next logical step is to produce foreign proteins in organisms other than bacteria. This is now routinely done with yeasts and plants. The intermediate organisms, however, continue to be bacteria, in many cases Escherichia. coli (found in the human gut and elsewhere) or the one mostly used with plants, Agrobacterium tumefaciens. The transfer of DNA from bacteria into a plant results in the formation of a true “transgenic” organism. This sets the stage for another revolution in agriculture comparable to the “green revolution” of the 1970s.(15) This one, however, will not be based on conventional plant breeding, but the full-out use of GMOs.
The Rise of Agribusiness
There are perhaps no greater advances in the modern era than those associated with agricultural production and distribution, which has dramatically increased availability of food and fiber worldwide. This is due to a mixture of agricultural and business practices, collectively known as “agribusiness.” One definition of this term is “all market and private business-oriented entities involved in the production, storage, processing, and distribution of agro-based products; in the supply of production inputs; and in the provision of services, such as extension, research, finance, and agricultural policies.”(16)
Agribusiness thus focuses on a constant search for greater efficiency and lower cost in “production, storage, processing, and distribution of agro-based products.” This runs counter to most natural biological systems, where effort is not necessarily concentrated and efficiency is only one of several considerations that sustain them. It is the juxtaposition of these two systems, often with increasingly diametrically opposed objectives, that is the root of the modern agricultural dilemma.
Concentration of crop plants is only possible where there is sufficient soil, nutrition and water. In most large-scale plantings, soil must be fertilized. This nutritional material (amendment) is often imported from other regions. Given sufficient water, pumped in by irrigation when needed, a great many plants can be grown on a given area of fertilized land. Genetic material has also been concentrated through the development of hybrid seed and specialized plant varieties. The resultant concentration of similar plants, however, called a monoculture, is susceptible to large-scale invasions by other organisms including weeds, insects, rodents, fungi, bacteria and others. Reduction, often called “control,” of these pest populations is a major challenge to modern agriculturalists. Traditionally, they have turned to an arsenal of chemicals known as killers (“cides”). Collectively these are called pesticides (killers of pests), but can be broken down and named based on what they are designed to kill (herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides). The search for efficiency also results in a wide array of machinery designed to replace inefficient and costly hand labor in planting, harvesting, processing and marketing agricultural products. Collectively, the items listed above are the second part of the agribusiness definition, a “supply of production inputs.” Generally the basis for most of these is use of fossil fuels.
Similar inputs are prevalent in animal systems. Like plant crops, chickens, turkeys, cows and pigs are often concentrated to increase efficiency. Although some pesticides are used in these systems, more important is application of antibiotics to alleviate stress and control bacterial outbreaks that are encouraged by high host populations. Taken to its extreme, large concentrations of animals reared in smaller and smaller spaces to increase efficiency is called “factory farming.” Again, the inputs are mostly provided via fossil fuels.
Agribusiness is now exploring the use of GMOs to further increase the efficiency of the natural system being working with, especially since many of the traditional pesticides and antibiotics are losing effectiveness and becoming more expensive. This time, however, the reliance is not on fossil fuels, but on genetic modification to do the work. Instead of inputs, usually developed and transported from outside the system, the materials will come from inside the organisms themselves via genetic engineering.
A close reading of the above definition of agribusiness reveals a third aspect that is often taken for granted or ignored: “provision of services, such as extension, research, finance, and agricultural policies.” This brings into focus the role of government, which is increasingly looked toward to help agribusiness maintain its efficiency and profitability. Although many agriculturalists would like to think they are the “rugged individualists” of capitalism, relying mostly on their own resources for success, rigorous examination often reveals that nothing could be further from the truth. This is especially true when the history of the production of GMOs is carefully scrutinized. The road to the eventual development of these organisms is paved with large sums of public funding and a rich tradition of research and extension activities going back to the beginning of the land grant universities and establishment of the United States Department of Agriculture. Only recently have private companies gotten into the agricultural technology picture; how much of previous knowledge developed with public funding they can call their own in developing proprietary products is the subject of considerable debate.
Beekeeping is less amenable to efficiency increase than many other agricultural enterprises. With the advent of the moveable-frame hive in 1851 followed by the smoker and extractor, most beekeeping technology is still a 19th century phenomenon. Only the development of Instrumental Insemination is a 20th century development. The rise of antibiotics, however, provided a tool for beekeepers to help them control foulbrood diseases, which were not a problem until large concentrations of beehives became the norm.
Fossil fuels increased efficiency in beekeeping in a number of ways, especially in the transportation of colonies, resulting in bees being trucked to several pastures during a season and large-scale plantings for pollination. There is no better anecdote for this than the reply to a question about how to best feed bees protein. “Feed’em diesel fumes” uttered one influential beekeeper. This piece of advice referred to putting colonies on a truck and taking them to a source of natural pollen. In a further nutritional development, beekeeping was the recipient of agribusiness development in the Midwestern United States when large corn yields meant that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was available at a cost below that of the traditional supplementary bee food, cane sugar. Not only was it cheaper, but HFCS further increased efficiency because it already came in liquid form. Beekeepers, therefore, were able to avoid one of the most labor-intensive practices of their craft, mixing cane sugar and water to make sugar syrup.
It was a given that pesticides, the tool of choice for so many agriculturalists to increase efficiency, would be anathema to beekeepers. Beginning with arsenic dust in the 1950s through the development of encapsulated methyl parathion (Penncap M®) and now the new generation of seed treatment using imidacloprid, there continue to be honey bee losses. Beekeepers loudly complained about damage to their colonies and became so adamantly anti-pesticide that the U.S. government instituted an indemnity program to reimburse them for losses in the 1970s. With introduction of both the tracheal and Varroa bee mites in the 1980s, one wag remarked “beekeepers tore down the fence to get to the other side.” Many, including this author, watched in amazement as they adroitly clambered aboard their own version of the “pesticide treadmill,” beginning with the fairly benign pyrethroid, fluvalinate, and progressing to the far more toxic organophosphate, coumaphos.
Beekeeping also had its share of governmental assistance. This included not only the pesticide indemnity program mentioned above, but also provision of bee inspection services, generations of help from a number of honey USDA bee research laboratories, and the services of numerous university research and extension education programs. Other forms of assistance included price supports, loans and crop insurance. In short, beekeeping too has become part of the agribusiness phenomenon.
The first thing anyone taking a business class is usually taught is that one can classify enterprises in three ways based on ownership. These are the individual proprietorship, partnership and corporation. In the first two, the owners are individually responsible for the business and personally liable for any of their decisions. The corporation, however, is an entity in and of itself and the owners have limited liability. In addition, there are different, often quite favorable, tax consequences available to corporations. It doesn’t take long to realize that the corporation is often the preferred kind of business to invest in.
The Corporation goes back to at least the sixteenth century. It is a charter, a privilege given by a state to investors in return for taking risks. The American revolution was to a great extent one against corporations that were given special rights to exploit the riches of the New World. These included the East India and Hudson’s Bay companies among others. Most of the original thirteen colonies themselves were chartered as corporations by King George and granted monopolistic powers over lands and industries deemed critical to English parliament. After independence, the new American republic was reticent about granting powers to corporations that they saw as being responsible for many of the evils of colonialism. As far back as the Civil War, however, President Abraham Lincoln warned that corporations had again been “enthroned” and were responsible for an era of corruption that would lead to the destruction of the nation.(17)
The rise in corporate power in the United States is the consequence of certain favorable legal decisions. In 1886, the Supreme Court ruled that a private corporation is a natural person under the U.S. constitution in Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad.(18) Deeper inquiry into this subject indicates that although this has become a standard interpretation, the decision was more slanted towards benefiting corporations because of rule making by bureaucrats, rather than due process of law. Nevertheless, since that time, corporations have garnered huge amounts of influence and power as they have been granted more and more privileges of “personhood.”
Corporations feed on profits measured in money and they can never have too much. One of the major objections to these businesses is they put money before people. Money, in the form of profits, is increased by reducing costs through increasing production efficiency and minimizing labor costs, often accomplished by eliminating jobs. Efficiency is also enhanced by merger; one company buying up another, until all that remains are large conglomerates that can manipulate labor, markets, prices and increasingly, governments. Using immense wealth, influence, and “personhood” status, corporations are able to lower costs by demanding favorable tax treatment and labor agreements, as well as the use of public resources at relatively little or no cost. Given the advantages, it is inevitable that firms involved in agribusiness, including most farmers themselves, have become incorporated. This may be one of the reasons that corporate influence has been difficult to effectively control; almost everyone who owns stock or a business in the United States has a vested interest in the corporate system.
The power of corporations has taken agribusiness by storm in the form of consolidation fed by increasing wealth. An example is Dr. Mark Winston’s description of the fate of Garst Seeds, one of the first hybrid seed companies. “…Garst seeds became the only substantial seed company existing outside of a conglomerated corporate umbrella. Pioneer Hybrid was bought by Dupont in 1999, and Monsanto purchased the next largest independent seed company DeKalb seeds in 1998. Similarly Dow Chemical now owns Cargill Hybrid Seeds, United Agriseeds, and Illinois Foundation Seeds, and today’s two other major life sciences companies Syngenta and Aventis, own the remaining major seed companies between them.” He concluded that Garst Seeds is likely to be purchased by other conglomerates like BASF or Bayer, two international chemical companies that “need a seed outlet if the are to join the other biotechnology companies in the quest for transgenic profits.”(19)
In order to maximize profits, corporations need to gain control over resources that will then not be available to other corporations or “persons,” the citizenry. This usually comes about through patents, exclusive uses of what is called “intellectual property.”
In 1976, Mr. John Moore had a cancerous spleen. It was removed at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical Center. Over the next few years, Mr. Moore, suspicious of the number of follow up exams required, found out that his spleen had been used to develop a cell population with specific characteristics, known as the Mo line. Through his lawyer, Mr. Moore learned that his surgeon, Dr. Golde, and a research assistant, Shirley Quan, received patent number 4,438,032 for a "Unique T-Lymphocyte Line and Products Derived Therefrom." It was granted by the Government Patent Office on March 20, 1984. This patent of a cell line known as Mo was assigned to the Regents of the University of California and Golde and Quan were named as “inventors.” After a number of court appeals, and eleven years after Moore's initial diagnosis, the California Supreme Court ruled that Moore did not have any property rights to his own spleen.
The Strange Case of John Moore and the Splendid Stolen Spleen is a study authored by Adam Stone.(20) He wrote, based on communication with Mr. Moore, “The issue that I find so bizarre is that these guys could claim as theirs something that was totally mine, genetically mine. They could claim it for themselves - claim ownership - but I couldn't. And they had no obligation to inform me.”
The basis for Mr. Moore’s stolen spleen is another decision by the U.S. Supreme court in the 1980 case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty.(21) After a number of legal procedures and appeals, the Court in a five to four decision allowed an oil-eating bacterium to be patented by Dr. Chakrabarty.
Ironically, according to Mr. Stone, a close reading of the Diamond v. Chakrabarty decision reveals it is not about the patenting of biological organisms, but is based on a narrow legal technicality associated with classification of bacteria as “composites.” He concluded: “However, as is often the case with scientifically-oriented rulings, the court's decision was expanded well beyond the scope of the original controversy presented to the court. As the processes by which organisms were created became both more similar, and more easy to duplicate by other methods, the product patent became the key tool of the biotechnology companies. Further, Diamond v. Chakrabarty has already been successfully applied to multi-cellular organisms as in the more recent Harvard case of the OncoMouse.(22)
The Onco-Mouse is a transgenic animal, meaning that segments of the genetic code of the mice have been replaced with new code which changes their characteristics. Because they are changed on a genetic level, their progeny share those same changed characteristics. The Onco-mouse is a research lab mouse which is genetically pre-disposed to develop cancer. This saves the trouble of infecting the mice with cancer to do the research. The product patent allows Harvard to not only charge for the original Onco-mice which they create, but to charge for their natural progeny as well. In other words, the product patent gives the inventor the rights to the offspring of the genetically created animal.”
The events described above have literally opened a Pandora’s box. Biotechnology corporations are now on the prowl for DNA of any value, which they can then patent for exclusive use and profit. The increasing speed of DNA sequencing and ability to modify the genetic material of a wide variety of organisms through genetic engineering, coupled with so-called “bioprospecting” in natural biological systems, has created a sense of urgency by companies to enter the competitive field of transgenic products or be left behind.
It is the time compression in the above scenario that is most troubling to many scientists and others. It took nature millions of years to create the variety of living organisms found on this globe. In the process, there were many failures, but over time, a whole planet of successful life forms emerged, all connected together in an intricate web. Now humanity, in its haste to create its own transgenic organisms that may or may not lead to products and profits for agribusiness corporations, risks irrevocably changing this fragile living fabric.
The Nemesis Effect and Precautionary Principle
Competition by biotechnology corporations to identify genetic material and turn it into profits through use of transgenic organisms has produced an environment where speed is of the essence. The human search for rapidly increasing efficiency is at odds with the more complex sustainable strategies found in nature.. Thus, the GMO revolution finds itself in conflict as it tries to develop products much more rapidly than would be possible in natural systems.
Even relatively small changes in natural systems can result in circumstances that are long-lasting and wide-ranging. The adaptation of a system to any change is unpredictable. For example, who would have suspected that constructing a dam on the Danube river in Europe would trigger an ecological collapse? It did; “mollusks, sponges, sea urchins, even the marine worms, are disappearing. The shallows, where vast beds of sea grass once breathed life into the waters, are regularly fouled in a fetid algal soup laced with a microbe that thrives in such conditions: cholera.”(23) This is a result of what has been called the Nemesis effect.(24) Other examples include introduction of nutria, a South American water mammal, to Louisiana, and the zebra mussel to the Great Lakes. There is also the current situation with respect to what are called endocrine disrupters: “Certain impacts of synthetic chemicals on the endocrine system may be subtle on an individual basis (for example, a reduction in sperm count) but have large implications for a population. Effects of an early exposure, for example in utero, may not be observable for many years after exposure and may be virtually impossible to trace back to the earlier exposure due to the multiplicity of confounding chemicals and stressors.” (25)
Beekeeping has not been spared the Nemesis effect. Take for example the changes in apicultural management dictated by introduction of the African honey bee in tropical America or the world-wide dispersion of the Varroa mite, transferred from Apis cerana to Apis mellifera, with devastating results. Synthetic chemicals introduced into colonies to reduce mite populations may in fact be acting as endocrine disruptors. Many suspect pesticides employed to kill mites, although not causing direct and visible honey bee loss, are responsible for reported problems in queen and drone viability and vigor.(26)
Plants are not immune either. Consider the effects of purposeful introduction of kudzu for erosion control in the southeastern United States or accidental establishment of water hyacinth into aquatic systems. GMOs have already affected changes in the agricultural food chain. One of the first examples was that a genetically-modified product designed for animal feed, known as Starlink® corn, somehow found its way into taco shells sold in the United States.(27) In spite of efforts to remove all traces of this corn, it has shown up more recently in a shipment to Japan. This occurrence threatens to damage the corn export market.(28)
Genetically modified corn has already found its way to Mexico, the native land of Zea mays. “In the remote mountains of the southern state of Oaxaca, transgenic strains were found in 15 of 22 villages examined. Three to 10 percent of plants were contaminated in the fields tested. Scientists from the University of California at Berkeley last November used DNA testing to confirm that the plants in question were genetically modified.”(29) Controversy rages over this situation as it is not known how genetically modified corn could reach into such remote areas of the country.
The two events described above show that plant GMOs pose a formidable challenge to those who would keep them out of the food supply. They also reveal how even a small amount of introduced genetic material could affect both the biologic and economic systems on which we all depend. Honey bees and beekeeping will most certainly be affected by this situation. Many plants, though not directly benefited by pollination, such as corn, are certainly genetically impacted by pollen foraging. It is conceivable that in some agricultural areas, honey bees in fact may be eliminated as they will be seen as prime biological “contaminators” in some GMOs.
So many examples of the Nemesis Effect in natural systems have been observed that most now believe any change must be undertaken with extreme caution. At the Wingspread Conference Center, Racine, Wisconsin, which took place 23-25 January 1998, thirty-two authors released their version of what they call the Precautionary Principle: “The process…must be open, informed and democratic, and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.” (30)
Secrecy and Corporate Profits
The Wingspread document described above runs counter to an agribusiness environment where corporations are vying for dominance in genetically engineered products. Again, in order for these activities to be profitable, there must be some exclusive use provision, such as a patent. In addition, the processes used are often classified as “proprietary,” the information on how they operate and what constitute them being trade secrets. Perhaps the ultimate form of secrecy is elimination of any reference to GMOs on labels of food that contain them. This has not gone down well in many First world countries, like the UK, Japan and Australia. The U.S. population so far has been luke warm on the issue, but there is an active campaign to label all foods in the country containing GMOs.(31) All the above circumstances to increase profitability work against a primary tenet of the precautionary principle, that the process be open and democratic.
This brings into focus profits, money left over from product sales after the costs have been subtracted. The costs are based on cash or monetary expenses, according to standard accounting practice. Because corporations have such privileges and power, however, many of the expenses are not taken into consideration. These include favorable tax treatment and what economists call “externalities,” costs (usually environmental) that are not shown on financial statements and so are ignored when determining profits. For example, a polluter may consider air or water free. Dumping pollutants into the air or water is a way to dispose of wastes that does not result in a large expense, but this action involves costs because it affects alternatives that others face, such as making them forego clean water. One could say that the polluter imposes some costs of production on others, although this use of the word "cost" differs from the normal meaning (accounting practices). Those who bear these costs are usually not involved in the choice. In its pure meaning, these costs are choices that affect many, but made by a few who are generally not affected.(32)
The above is an explanation in economic terms of a phenomenon known as “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Take, for example, applying this principle to visiting a natural heritage site: “The National Parks present another instance of the working out of the tragedy of the commons. At present, they are open to all, without limit. The parks themselves are limited in extent -- there is only one Yosemite Valley -- whereas population seems to grow without limit. The values that visitors seek in the parks are steadily eroded. Plainly, we must soon cease to treat the parks as commons or they will be of no value to anyone.”(33) Beekeepers too have seen examples of this tragedy, such as widespread contamination of apiaries by American foulbrood, produced by a few beekeepers who do not control the disease. Another is the worldwide contamination of the world’s recyclable beeswax by pesticides to control mites.
The bottom line is that many of the true costs of production are not borne by corporate persons, but instead are really levied against other biological persons or natural systems. In the United States, much of this is due to a long history and tradition called manifest destiny, expansion into the western frontier.(34) This results in “acting like cowboys on a limitless open frontier when in truth we inhabit a living spaceship with a finely balanced life-support system.”(35)
The development of GMOs is expansion into the new genetic frontier. It demands a revolution in thinking as expressed in the elements of the precautionary principle described above. The possibility that genetically-modified organisms are “ultimate pollutants” exists.(36) Once they are let loose into the environment, the Nemesis effect will take over; there will literally be no way to put the genetic genie back in the bottle. At the same time, the potential environmental costs if things go wrong will in all probability not be borne by those who have caused the situation. The executives and scientists working under the corporate “personhood” umbrella will be protected, even as they are encouraged, to push the envelope in the search of quick profits. If something goes awry, the real people and other organisms of the earth will be left to pick up the pieces and suffer the consequences. There are many examples of this phenomenon from the tax payer savings and loan bailouts of corporations in the 1980s to the bursting of the energy and high technology stock market bubble in the 1990s, resulting in loss of retirement benefits and jobs by employees, and savings of small investors.
Government and business have always been uncomfortable partners. One of the most tenacious myths is that known as liassez-faire, that businesses are bound to make good decisions and in the process do not need governmental regulation or intervention.(37) In fact the opposite is often true: “It is by the interaction of these two dominant forces in our society that much of the economic and political present has come to exist.”(38)
Regulations by governmental bureaucracies in the biological arena are recent. Only in 1970 was the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established, yet today it has a several billion dollar budget with thousands of employees.(39) The EPA, along with the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration, regulates GMOs. “The quandary that government regulators find themselves in is simple; protecting human and environmental health should be rooted in objective, data-based science, but in practice politics influences regulatory decisions.”(40) This situation does not bode well for the precautionary principle, as the influence of corporations in all aspects of government and the regulatory authorities continues to grow.
Given the state of affairs described above, groups have formed to help put people ahead of both corporate and governmental interests as the GMO debate heats up. Many are using the World Wide Web to get their messages out. ReclaimDemocracy.org is a non-profit organization that has as one of its main objectives to revoke corporate personhood.(41) Another is the effort to label genetically engineered foods mentioned earlier; it is estimated that 93 percent of U.S. citizens want the same right as those of the European Union, Japan, and Australia and many other countries to know if their foods have been genetically engineered.
It is not just lay citizens who are organizing. The Union of Concerned Scientists founded by faculty members and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has also developed a statement on GMOs. “Our current priorities are to: 1) Convince the federal government to establish regulations to protect the food supply and environment from contamination by engineered pharm and industrial crops; 2) Persuade the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct rigorous reviews of ecological risks and require strong resistance-management plans before approving crops producing Bt toxins; 3) Press the federal government to strengthen oversight of environmental risks of engineered fish; and 4) Urge the Food and Drug Administration to require safety testing and labeling before biotech foods are allowed on the market.” (42)
Five hundred fifty nine scientists from 69 countries have signed an open letter to governments of the world: “We, the undersigned scientists, call for the immediate suspension of all environmental releases of GM crops and products, both commercially and in open field trials, for at least 5 years; for patents on living processes, organisms, seeds, cell lines and genes to be revoked and banned; and for a comprehensive public enquiry into the future of agriculture and food security for all. Patents on life-forms and living processes should be banned because they threaten food security, sanction biopiracy of indigenous knowledge and genetic resources, violate basic human rights and dignity, compromise healthcare, impede medical and scientific research and are against the welfare of animals.”(43)
Suggested benefits of genetic engineering in producing transgenic plants involve increasing the supply of food and fiber. In addition, there is the argument that this technology will require fewer herbicides and pesticides.(44) Within this context it is important to remember the legacies of what is called the “green revolution.” It too was expected to increase agricultural production based on advances in plant breeding, and did so with phenomenal success.(45) However, it has been deemed a failure in human terms by many observers because in the course of improving production, the increased costs due to required fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides marginalized many farmers, who were forced to sell their land to larger-scale producers or go deeply in debt. In many regions, this resulted in large-scale abandonment of rural areas in favor of urban centers, a migration causing huge problems, especially in the developing world. The agricultural situation continues to deteriorate in India, for example, long considered a poster child of the green revolution.(46)
The implied benefit of the green and now the new transgenic revolutions is that they will alleviate world hunger and provide food security. However, observers point out that the supply of food is not so much the problem as distribution of existing stockpiles. These are often affected by political and economic conditions that have little to do with production.(47) Another touted benefit is that genes producing certain vitamins could be incorporated into the food supply, resulting in improved health. One example is inserting a gene for producing vitamin A into rice, thus preventing blindness in areas of world with a condition called “avitaminosis.” This technology is directed mostly at the developing world. In this particular example, through the efforts of its developer, the patent rights on “golden rice” have been waved by Monsanto Corporation.(48) However, detractors point out that there are plenty of alternatives available and implementation of this technology is not worth the ecological and economic risks.(49)
Both food security and conditions such as avitaminosis are valid concerns of the third world. However, it is important to realize that many GMOs are not destined for human food, but for animals to produce protein. The majority of GMOs are produced in first world countries, which then often seek markets for these products in the developing world. Farming is quite different in these two arenas and the effects are bound to be “especially harsh in the countries of the southern hemisphere where farming is an extensive activity involving many more people than it does in industrialized countries.”(50)
Science and Secrecy
A difference between the green and genetic revolution is that the former was funded mostly using public funds, whereas the latter is much more allied with private, corporate support. This is perhaps nowhere better seen than in the great universities of the world. As these entities continue to see erosion in public support, they have been forced to turn toward the corporate world. Generally, scientific advances have been based on all parties sharing information, and this has been fostered by the openness of most universities and the scientists employed in them. The new paradigm of corporate secrecy, however, is changing this paradigm rapidly, and many are concerned that this will impact the future of the practice of science in institutions of higher learning.(51)
Narrowing the Genetic Base
A major concern of GMOs is that using them would further narrow the genetic base of the food most of us depend upon. There is the danger that certain varieties, by becoming more dominant through genetic engineering, would be relied on to the exclusion of others, setting the scene for a potential catastrophe should they fail. This has already happened to an alarming degree in conventional agriculture. The vegetables, fruits, and in many cases animals, that we all depend on for survival represent a small part of the potential genetic pool; one disease or pathogen, therefore, could affect almost a hundred percent of a class of food.
A classic example of the effects of a narrowed genetic base is the Irish potato famine. As potatoes imported from the New World became the staple of the Irish diet, over time one kind of potato, known as the lumper, became so dominant that it monopolized Irish agriculture, setting the stage for the following:
“In 1845, the fungus Phytophthora infestans arrived accidentally from North America. A slight climate variation brought warm, wet weather. Much of the potato crop rotted in the fields. Because potatoes could not be stored longer than 12 months, there was no surplus to fall back on. All those who relied on potatoes had to find something else to eat. The blight did not destroy all of the crop; one way or another, most people made it through winter. The next spring, farmers planted those tubers that remained. The potatoes seemed sound, but some harbored dormant strains of the fungus. When it rained, the blight began again. Within weeks the entire crop failed.”(52)
“The genetic vulnerability of corn monoculture was demonstrated in 1970 when much of the U.S. corn crop was wiped out by a blight-causing fungus. This blight was a side effect of a single gene, bred into the most popular corn variety to cause male sterility and eliminate the need for de-tasseling. Many scientists believe this was a precursor of a widespread crop failure with disastrous effects for the hundreds of millions of people. Biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote, ‘Aside from nuclear war, there is probably no more serious environmental threat than the continued decay of the genetic variability of crops."(53)
Honey bees are also at risk. Nature has built into honey bee elaborate behavioral mechanisms to prevent a narrowing of the genetic base. Most significant is the fact that queens mate with 10 to 17 drones in the air. Effectively controlling mating activity has been a goal of many queen breeders, but often is impossible unless some degree of isolation is established. This usually has best been accomplished on islands.
There is another risk when the honey bee gene pool becomes limited. It is known that as inbreeding occurs there is more chance for diploid drones to be produced. These individuals are homozygous (have the same gene form or allele) at the sex locus; only those with different alleles become females. All diploid drones are destroyed by the colony in the larval stage and the queen is then obliged to lay another egg to replace them. Colonies suffering this condition, called "inbreeding depression," may have 50 percent less developing brood. As a consequence, they cannot build enough population to produce surpluses, and in some cases may not survive.
According to Dr. Marion Ellis at the University of Nebraska, “A large population of wild honey bees existed in the United States prior to the introduction of the Varroa mite. This wild population served as a buffer to inbreeding by providing a genetically diverse component to the drone population. With the demise of the wild population of honey bees, beekeepers need to carefully guard against inbreeding if they rear their own queens. The most important precaution is to use multiple queen mothers and to select multiple lines. Infusing new lines into the population periodically will also reduce inbreeding. The loss of the wild honey bee population is a tragedy. A large part of the genetic variability available to beekeepers has been lost. Most of the honey bees in the United States are now the descendants of less than 500 breeder queens.”(54)
Finally consider this. “The banana may be the world's most popular fruit, but in scientific terms it is a sterile mutant - the edible version of the fruit has no seeds. Bananas are cultivated by replanting cuttings from their stems. The lack of genetic variation means pests or diseases can wipe out entire varieties, with no way of developing new ones to replace them.”(55). The only thing thought to be available to save the banana will be a heavy dose of genetic engineering. In other words, in the future it is conceivable that all bananas will be GMOs.
GMOs and Honey Bees
It is no secret that the inhabitants of the European Union (EU) are much more concerned about GMOs than are citizens of the U.S. For example, a prohibition now exists against importation of any GMO into the EU from the U.S. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that Europeans really know about food. No amount of genetic engineering, for example, is likely to make an improvement on the classics of Italian or French cuisine.
Dr. Ingrid Williams of IACR-Rothamsted, Plant and Invertebrate Ecology Division, Harpendent, Hertfordshire UK has described the EU’s regulatory framework with respect to GMOs and bees.(56)
Two areas of risk assessment concern honey bees:
- effects on them as non-target organisms,
- the impact of bee visits (pollination or gene flow) on plants.
The Impact of GMOs on Non-Target Organisms
Honey bees are the classic non-target organism with reference to pesticides. If caught foraging and thus exposed when chemicals are applied for almost any reason in the daytime, honey bees will probably suffer. The same will be true for GMOs as honey bees will be out in most fields. Direct effects may arise if bees ingest toxic proteins that are found in pollen, nectar, residue or honeydew secreted by GMOs. Indirect effects can occur if flower morphology, its attractiveness or its nutritional value change. Among questions asked by Dr. Williams are:
- will bees visit the GM plant for pollen/nectar/honeydew/resin?
- are new proteins expressed in these plant products?
- is bee survival, development for foraging behavior affected?,
- will management of the crop have any effect?
Pollen grains are really tiny packets of genes. Only when there is gene expression (a protein is produced in pollen as directed by that gene) would there likely to be an effect in the bees’ consuming pollen. Expression can also take place in other plant parts. Unfortunately, Dr. Williams says there are few measurements of expression in either pollen or nectar, and none for the resins, gums or exudates bees might collect from transgenic plants.
DNA is not toxic to bees and there is no evidence that transfer of intact genes to other cells occurs in animals, either from bacteria in the gut or other foodstuffs. The risk of gut bacteria acquiring antibiotic-resistance through horizontal gene transfer also appears small, but cannot be discounted. For this reason, according to Dr. Williams, the practice of using antibiotic marker genes is due to be phased out by 2005.
Most GMOs currently in use are developed for herbicide resistance. The modified plants produce an enzyme that breaks down the herbicide, making it non-toxic. Dr. Williams says this is not likely to be a problem with honey bees as they do not have the herbicide as an integral part of their body. This is touted by promoters as an important way to limit use of herbicides in the natural environment.
Insecticide-resistant GMOs is another situation Dr. Williams says. Plants may be modified to contain Bt toxin, proteinase inhibitors, and chitinases. The benefit of such plants is that they require little or no insecticide application, decreasing, or in some cases eliminating, chemical application altogether. In a similar argument paralleling that related to herbicides, it is suggested this is a potential benefit to honey bees because it minimizes their potential exposure to harmful chemicals. In addition, the materials mentioned above are generally far less toxic in general than so-called hard or synthetic insecticides.
Bt is the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. It comes in different forms, which produce specific toxins, often attacking only one insect order. There are particular ones for the orders diptera (flies and mosquitos), lepidoptera (caterpillars), and coleoptera (beetles). The material has been shown to be relatively non-toxic to the order hymenoptera (honey bees and bumblebees). One formulation is even marketed to control wax moth larvae in honey bee comb, but for economic reasons is not in widespread use. Bt is a favorite for organic gardeners; one of the fears of that community is that use of Bt in genetically-modified plants will result in widespread resistance, making that “biopesticide” no longer functional.
Proteinase inhibitors or PIs are substances that keep insects from digesting their food; thus, they starve while in the midst of plenty. Honey bees and bumblebees also use PIs and so may be susceptible to any that are expressed in modified pollen. Dr. Williams reports that one study on modified rape PI fed to bees in honey for 15 days showed no effect on lifespan or learning ability until the dose was 100 times that found in the leaves.
Chitin is an integral part of the insect’s hard outer covering or cuticle; chitinases are enzymes produced by plants that attack the cuticle rendering the insect’s armor casing less effective and affecting its ability to sense the environment. Although no adverse effects on olfactory learning or survival of bees have been seen, according to Dr. Williams, a reduction in foraging activity on sugar solutions containing chitinase was detected. The bottom line so far is encouraging, Dr. Williams concludes: “There is no evidence to date from the extensive growing of GM crops in the EU or in North America of harm to bees.” Let’s hope it stays that way.
Gene flow, the movement of plant genetic material either through pollen or seed, is an important risk factor in GMOs. The possible spread of genes from GMOs to non-GMOs might mean several things. For example, genes from a plant genetically engineered to resist herbicides might find their way into weeds, causing them to be resistant as well. Gene flow cannot be totally eliminated when bees are in a field, but might be minimized, according to Dr. Williams, using certain techniques such as trap crops or separation of plants spatially or temporally. Crop plants that produce little or no pollen or incompatible pollen are also possibilities. These, along with other ideas such as hybridization barriers or alteration of flower rewards (pollen and nectar), and bloom shape or color will not be easy to achieve and their economic viability is not clear. Dr. Williams concludes: “Any technological advances that reduce the amount of pollen or nectar available to bees, particularly in widely-grown crop plants could have far reaching consequences for the viability of bee populations, crop pollination and beekeeping.”
GMOs and Bee Products
According to Dr. Ingrid Williams of IACR-Rothamsted, Plant and Invertebrate Ecology Division, Harpendent, Hertfordshire UK, “at least 264 species of crop plant are grown for food production and most (84%) are known to depend or benefit from pollination by honey bees.”(57) Many are being genetically modified. Herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape (GMHT) has received Part C approval for market release in Europe. Widespread deployment of GMHT oilseed rape will inevitably lead to GM material showing up in pollen, honey and possibly other bee products.
How much genetically-modified pollen will show up in bee products is an unknown, according to Dr. Williams. Honey bee flight patterns and distances are not well known. Studies suggest flight ranges up to 5 kilometers in bumblebees and 10 kilometers in honey bees. She says surveys of marked honey bees foraging from colonies placed within a landscape of several crops of oilseed rape in the UK, revealed a mean colony-to-forage distance of 127 meters, but the maximum was 955 meters.
The concerns about GM pollen in honey have to do with food safety and possible horizontal gene transfer to human cells. There is a chance that genes that code for toxic proteins in pollen could find their way into honey. The species and number of pollen grains found in honey are variable. In addition, the processing of honey is different across the spectrum of beekeeping operations. In most cases EU honey is not as filtered as it is in the U.S. Dr. Williams says honey extracted centrifugally in the normal way contains relatively little pollen, such that regulators in the UK concluded that ingestion of protein from GM pollen in honey is so small there were no health concerns. However, she reports that some beekeepers fortify their honey with bee-collected pollen such that there could be much more than found in “standard” honey.
Dr. Williams concludes that risk assessments are needed to ensure that a high level of toxic proteins that are resistant to degradation in the human and bee gut does not make its way into honey. Fortunately, as reported earlier for honey bees, no evidence exists that antibiotic marker genetic material has been transferred horizontally in either the human or honey bee gut.
Marketing and Labeling GM-free Bee Products
The marketing of EU honey containing GM pollen is a real tar baby, according to Dr. Williams. Although the real risks of food safety are small, there exist public concerns about GM foods in general, and certain populations wish to completely avoid them at all costs. Thus, many supermarkets have removed GM products from their shelves. Similarly, the UK Honey Association, which purchases and packs honey, has insisted that it be GM-free. Although there is currently no definition for GM-free foods, honey labeled as GM-free found to contain GM material would be in breach of current legislation, according to Dr. Williams. Unfortunately, testing by individual beekeepers is prohibitive in cost; many simply cannot certify their product at the present time.
To meet the requirements, the UK Honey Association suggests beekeepers locate their hives at least six miles (9 kilometers) from GMHT oilseed rape or other GM crops. Dr. Williams concludes: “Economic impacts of GM crops on organic farmers, non-GM farmers and beekeepers are not part of the regulatory procedure for ‘safety’ evaluation of GM crops. Liability for any GM ‘contamination’ has not been resolved and beekeepers are not compensated for the extra work and expense of moving their hives.”
Current directives (Regulation 258-97) call for all foods containing GM material (novel DNA or protein) in the final product to be labeled.(58) A novel food is one that has not been consumed by humans to any extent in the EU before. The current view of the European Commission is that honey, containing GM pollen, does not constitute a novel food. However, GM pollen sold by the health food industry would fall under the guideline. Another issue of importance is traceability of GM products. Dr. Williams describes the EU’s labeling regulations as being in great flux and in the future, it will no doubt continue revising its directives in this arena.
GM Oilseed Rape, GM Maize and Bees
In her final article on GM crops and bees, Dr. Williams examines in detail the new GM cultivars of oilseed rape and maize, already available in the EU or grown in large-scale field trials prior to commercialization.(59) Honey bees are agents of both self-pollination and cross-pollination of GM oilseed rape. They also provide for pollen and gene flow within and between crops and from oilseed rape to weedy relatives with which they are compatible. Oilseed rape pollen is a component of honey derived from the crop. Thus, Dr. Williams concludes, “Risk assessment of GM oilseed rape must therefore take account of the interactions between bees and the transformed crop.”
Oilseed rape is modified for herbicide tolerance (GMHT). As such it is not expected to affect honey bees. Concern, according to Dr. Williams, is more about impact on the environment and farmland biodiversity.
GM maize is engineered both for herbicide (GMHT) and insect resistance (Bt maize), especially against the European corn borer (Ostrinia nubilalis). Maize is known for its enormous quantities of pollen. It produces no nectar. In contrast to oilseed rape, bees do not pollinate maize; they never visit the female flowers. GMHT maize is considered to be low risk to both human health and the environment, according to Dr. Williams. Bt maize is also low risk.
Both GM oilseed rape and maize are part of a four year (1999-2003) research project in both Scotland and the UK, “The farm-scale evaluations (FSE) of genetically modified herbicide tolerant (GMHT) crops.” This program, Dr. Williams says, examines whether herbicide management associated with GMHT crops has any positive or negative effects on the abundance or diversity of farmland wildlife when grown on field scale.(60)
Commercial planting of GMHT crops will not take place in the UK until after the results of the FSE are peer reviewed and published.
Although it appears that GM crops in the UK are not much of a risk for either bees or humans, there continue to be vexing questions even as data is gathered. For example, there is recent evidence that pollen pellets taken from bees collecting them on GMHT oilseed rape, when fed to nurse bees, resulted in herbicide-resistant genes being transferred across to the bacteria and yeast inside the intestines of the young bees. If so, this again opens up the possibility that genes used to modify crops can in fact “jump” the species barrier.(61)
In this series of articles, I have provided an outline of the major subjects that constitute the source of the current debate about genetically-modifed organisms or GMOs. With the discovery of the structure of DNA, it has been possible to decode the language of all life. Incredibly, this consists of only four letters. Because the same letters are used by every organism, they can be interchanged using genetic engineering technology. As a consequence it has become relatively easy to create true transgenic individuals, something extremely rare in natural systems. Most of the successes so far in this growing field are with plants. And because plants and honey bees are so closely interlinked, it is logical to ask how the technology of genetic engineering might affect both the insects themselves and their keepers.
Although the history of the discovery of DNA, and the grand tales that characterize much of genetic engineering are those often of heroic scientific discovery, they bring with them a set of circumstances that promises to irrevocably change both the economic and natural environment. Producing GMOs has transformed much of agricultural research from a public one, based on non-profit institutions with open communication, to a private enterprise filled with competition and secrecy. At the same time, socio economic shifts in agriculture have created another environment, the corporate farm (agribusiness), which seeks to increase profits often at the cost of the traditional human labor that has characterized the activity in the past.
The global corporatisation of agriculture, protected by the rights of “personhood” and given legal sanction by the highest courts in the land, has created an environment out of which has come great good. What was once considered a benefit for all (protection by the state), however, appears to be a pendulum that has swung too far toward amassing power by corporate entities at great potential cost to biological persons and the environment.
History has shown that corporate, like any kind of power, has the potential to corrupt, and the search for profits to the exclusion of all else can bring with it ruinous consequences. There seems to be big potential for this in the current environment, where speed is of the essence in producing and marketing GMOs, and precaution often seems to be an afterthought. GMOs released into the environment, through the Nemesis Effect, are certain to impact the natural biological systems we all depend on in ways we do not yet recognize.
It is now impossible to put the genetic genie back in the bottle. GMOs are a fact of life in most of the developed world and their impact is increasing every day through corporate research and sponsorship. Genetic engineering techniques exist for practically every conceivable cultivated plant species. That does not mean that citizens do not have the power to retake some of the initiative, however, and there are several movements that are attempting to facilitate that. The most important and strident ones are those that are re-examining what “personhood” of biotechnology and agribusiness corporations really means, and demanding that genetically modified food be labeled for what it is.
There are many books and articles that seek to explain the genetic revolution to various audiences. Dr. Paul F. Lurquin Professor of Genetics at Washington State University has done an admirable job and is also a pioneer in the technology, which gives him a wider perspective than most. I have chosen to close this series of articles with his observations:
“Unfortunately, nobody seems to care enough about the science of plant transgensis to explain it to the public. This must change because the bottom line is with the consumer: If he or she decides not to buy transgenic products, they will not be sold.
“It might be argued that my ethical problems with biotech companies are as naïve and as subjective as Prince Charles’s theistic opposition to biotechnology. After all, industrial research and development funds have made possible the synthesis and commercialization of products such as antibiotics and plastics. These are regarded as good by most people because they make life easier and better for just about everybody on the planet. However, I find it impossible to characterize herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crop plants in the same way. These products are not making the life of most of us easier and better. Corn is not more abundant, cheaper, or better than before biotechnology, and neither is canola oil nor tofu. So far, applied plant biotechnology has been neutral (or negative if one considers the backlash against it) in what it has offered to the public. It is legitimate to ask what the vision of biotech corporations really is.
“Finally, on an optimistic note, I cannot stress enough the impact that genetic manipulation has had and still has on basic plant biology. This also holds true for the field of human medicine. Recombinant DNA and gene transfer techniques have totally changed the way we study living systems and understand them. As Time magazine put it once, gene technology is indeed an ‘awesome skill.’ It is up to us to use it wisely.”(62).
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