"We are assured that biotech is the only way to feed the world, just as we were told that nuclear power is the only way to keep the lights on. The reality is just the opposite. Both technologies cost more and work worse than well established alternatives outside the commercial orthodoxy - alternatives that are better buys for customers but less profitable for input suppliers."
Amory & Hunter Lovins, RMI Solutions, Fall/Winter 2000
"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."
Open Letter from World Scientists to All Governments, 2000
It is quite astonishing given the vast amount of debate over the subject of genetically modified food that both public, media and 'experts' are so ill informed about the philosophy and science of this subject. Genes are components of a complex system, operating in a complex organism within a complex environment, thus complexity science should have a few things of relevance to say about this debate.
Here we will briefly outline what is and is not known scientifically about the workings of genes and their effects, and we will also comment on the standards of debate and honesty shown by all the parties involved. For any debate, whether about a scientific issue or not it is important to sort the wheat from the chaff, the genuine information from the ego-preservation, commercial greed, opposition on principle and other attempts to confuse or avoid the issue.
A gene is part of our DNA, the cellular instructions inherited from generation to generation that result in the creation of a human being rather than, say, a tortoise. Each cell in our body has some 50,000 genes, but only a small number are active at any one time - this is a crucial point for later. Those active in any cell determine the type of tissue as well as its metabolism. A regulatory mechanism (itself driven by genes) is thought to switch cell types during development and later life, and to control which set of genes is expressed at any one time (this is a nonlinear causal loop not a linear chain of processes).
A gene is nondestructively processed (read) by the chemistry of the cell in such a way as to produce a protein. Period. Despite many technical complications a gene does not produce any structure in itself, only a protein molecule, a large organic molecule consisting of a number of amino acids. Thus claims that a perticular gene 'determines' sexuality, lifespan, disease or whatever are complete nonsense !
The cell contains many thousands of such molecules, each of which (under physical forces) curls up to form an intricate shape. The cell chemistry operates due to the semi-random interactions of these molecules. If two molecules collide (and this happens a trillion times a second !) then, depending upon their types and how their shapes relate, they may react and it is the combined sum of all these probabilistic reactions that drives the cellular metabolism and the formation of structure. In this process the cell takes in resources from outside (food) and excretes the waste products produced by this chemical 'factory'.
How all this activity gives rise to our cellular structure is not known. Period. Some small parts of the process are known in detail, some reaction chains have been analysed and documented but this is like analysing a few car parts and then saying you know what a car is ! The emergent mechanism by which many of the body's processes and structures come into being is as yet unknown, and this common problem with all complex systems is a major focus of study within complexity science.
Imagine your car stops working, so you take it to a garage. The diagnostics there can identify a part perhaps that has failed. This is possible because the mechanic knows what should happen and thus can detect it when it does not. Exactly the same is true for genetic abnormalities, doctors can compare the patient with a 'normal' person to identify a discrepancy - for example the absence of a certain chemical or protein in the cell.
Given knowledge of the protein, we can trace it back sometimes to identify the gene normally responsible for creating that protein and may find that it is absent in the particular patient. Medical intervention can then sometimes repair the damage, by providing the chemical artificially (e.g. insulin in diabetes). But note carefully that this is only restoring what was missing, like replacing a car part, no changes to the basic organism functions are involved and neither scientists nor doctors need have any idea of how that component works or fits into the overall system !
Given that knowing which proteins genes produce can prove useful, as we saw above, it seems to make sense to study and map the entire genome (DNA contents) of humans and other species, and this project is underway. You may be forgiven for assuming from the hype surrounding this task that once it has been completed then all our medical problems are at an end. Far from it, they have just begun in earnest !
A list of the amino acids making up every gene in our body (or some 'average' body - we are all genetically unique) means nothing at all in isolation, it is just so much waste paper. What it does give is potential understanding of some of the lower level processes in the cell, but even that is far from achieved. The information first needs to be interpreted in an overall cellular and organizational context, and for such complex systems this is extremely problematical.
Genetic engineering is a way to manipulate gene sequences, to split, rearrange and combine bits of DNA from multiple sources. We are already in a situation where certain companies, for commercial gain, are trying to exploit this form of technology - even (unacceptably) patenting parts of other peoples bodies ! Identifying genes is like identifying new species of animals, a lot of work may be needed to find them but it would be absurd then to claim that you then 'owned' that species.
Despite such absurdities of business 'ethics', condoned only by greed, we can welcome attempts to scientifically make use of this new knowledge, which should be freely available to all. It is quite possible to do this providing we fully understand what it is that we are doing, and herein lies the main problem.
Over the years, many attempts have been made to treat environmental problems (e.g. pests) with biological solutions. What this often means in effect is introducing a foreign species into an ecosystem, usually en masse. The results (well known to Ecologists) have often been devastating to the ecosystem concerned, wiping out not only the pest but large parts of the ecosystem itself, or establishing the new arrival as a worst pest in its own right.
Ecosystems are co-evolutionary complex systems, well understood from complexity studies in such fields as Artificial Life as well as from Ecology. It is known that these often have a delicate balance and the introduction of a new creature can cause totally unforeseen effects on the other creatures and food chains present. This is due to the extensive interactions between all the components, so that a minor change can escalate by positive feedback loops until it becomes a major incident. The very same scenario applies to inserting new genes !
"There is substantial evidence that organisms are not limited for their evolution to genes that belong to the gene pool of their species. Rather it seems more plausible that in the timescale of evolution the whole of the gene pool of the biosphere is available to all organisms and that the more dramatic steps and discontinuities in evolution are in fact attributable to very rare events involving the adoption of part or all of a foreign genome."
K.W.Jeon & J.F.Danielli, Micrurgical studies with large free-living amoebas, 1971
Our ability to change the genetic make-up of various organisms should not blind us to the presence here of three separate types of modification:
- Repair - the restoration of a functional gene to fix a genetic abnormality.
- Deletion - the removal of a gene causing unwanted effects
- Insertion - the addition of an extra gene, foreign to that organism
The first type is perhaps uncontroversial, repair is clearly beneficial and adds nothing new, but the other two may be problematical. This is due to epistasis, analogous to the ecosystem coevolution seen earlier.
Unlike many engineered systems, as we have seen, cells contain many molecules interacting at random. This means that their complexity cannot be reduced to a single interaction. This is tremendously important since this is precisely what current genetic engineering does ! If we take a part out of a car we know precisely what will be affected. This does not apply in cells. We only know what effect a faulty gene (and missing protein) has because we have a patient to study - but we still do not know what that gene does in overall system terms or what other sub-systems it is involved in.
The full effects of any gene can only be found by investigating every single process, and as we stressed earlier not all genes are used at any one time, so a single test is quite inadequate. We would need to isolate and measure every characteristic with or without the gene in every lifecycle context to ensure it was not critical for something other than the isolated issue being addressed. Deleting a gene without knowing its full whole system significance is just asking for trouble (like a broken brake pipe, you only find out when it is too late). But at least we can say that the unforeseen damage is likely to be confined to the species involved - which could however be us...
When we come to add a new gene to any organism (or equivalently to alter an existing one) we have a much bigger problem. Here we are adding a new chemical to a soup already containing thousands, the new chemical reaction chains then enabled are astronomical in number and the emergent results totally unknown - except maybe for the one effect actually being actively looked for !
Every organism, even the smallest bacteria, contains multiple functions, very few of which are understood. It is impossible to measure scientifically what the full effects of a genetic addition will be. This is not only in terms of the organism itself (will the genetically prolonged life of the tomato also make it poisonous ? or tasteless ? or indigestible ? or carcinogenic ? or what ???) but also in terms of its effect on the ecosystems in which it may be used. Failure to consider this wider picture leads to such tragedies as the Thalidomide case, where untested and unforeseen effects on another (embryonic) process caused devastating knock-on effects.
It is easy to claim that we understand genetic modifications, scientists do 'tests' and pontificate at length about their findings, yet the question is never asked "what tests ?". Such test results are invariably one-dimensional, they answer only the obviously commercial question - does it do what we are paying for it to do ? There is no incentive, financially, morally or scientifically to answer any other.
Yet it is just this failure to consider the wider consequences, the ecosystem effects, the social effects, the knock-on effects on other processes that leads to the tragedies already seen in the days before genetic modifications - the pest chemicals that also kill the birds, who preyed on the pests, which now have developed immunity to the chemical, and have no natural enemies remaining - so are ten times a worst problem than before the 'solution' !
Why do we never learn our historical lessons ? Why do we always put selfish profit before truth ? The astonishing attempts to inflict GM foods on customers, by stealth (mixing them deliberately with normal foods), by deceit (claiming there is no risk of pollen spreading - when any fool knows it can easily circle the entire globe on the wind), by government interference (driven by people with vested interests), by thoroughly bad science (and incompetent scientific 'advisors') surely shows us what to expect from commercial genetic companies. One could ask "would you buy a second hand car from these people ?".
Like so many debates about important scientific subjects we have a polarisation on the one side between people with a vested interest in promoting a change and those on the other that oppose it. The scientists (with their personal reputations and dogma of infallible 'truth') and companies (with their investment and possible loss of profit) are neither inclined to admit to what is actually the scientific truth of the matter - and that is that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing". This is not helped by the hysteria of some opponents who fear anything new and would rather suppress all knowledge than to examine it in a balanced and critical way. We have seen that when we do consider the facts that the science within the GM rhetoric is noticeably absent.
Like so many changes in our society, there are pro and anti arguments, but we are not talking about those natural preferences and biases here. What we are talking about is a fundamental misrepresentation of the sort of system under consideration. It is not, as often implied, a simple reductionist linear cause and effect, where gene = effect - a nice, understandable and easily decided issue. That is not the case here in any sense. The complexity of natural systems is still grossly underestimated even by experienced scientists, the coevolutionary effects (familiar from complexity science and ecological studies) have so far been almost absent from the genetic and evolutionary biology realms. Indeed even the effects of one cell on another and how they mutually self-organize is missing from reductionist genetic dogma, let alone the wider environmental effects ! This academic isolation and their total inability or unwillingness to learn from other disciplines is what makes such short-sighted science so dangerous. Extrapolation from local effects to global consequences (or denial of such) cannot be justified without considering the wider context, and that is what the interdisciplinary science of complexity provides.
It is up to the public (and their so far impotent 'representatives') to determine whether such forms of genetic (or other) interference with nature are an acceptable risk, and to whom. At the current state of play, the benefits are almost all to the commercial companies but the risks are to all of mankind and all the natural world. The benefits can be quantified no doubt - but the risks cannot, not without much more knowledge than exists in present day science. Do we therefore take the typical commercial and short-sighted view that a risk that can't be quantified is no risk at all ? Do we allow vested interests or bureaucratic fools to arrogantly and undemocratically decide this for us ? Please ask the Thalidomide and CJD sufferers (amongst many others who have suffered from such arrogances...).