Genetic Engineering, Dream or Nightmare?: The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business - Mae-Wan Ho (Gateway Books, 1998)

At the end of the Cold War and as we approach the new millennium the greatest threat to mankind is not nuclear war but genetic engineering.

Critics of the industry are frequently attacked as anti-science. It doesn't take a PhD in food science or genetics to realise that something is wrong. Genetic engineers are tinkering with the building blocks of life itself. As Mae-Wan Ho shows, herself a leading geneticist, the industry is built on bad science, even worse it is bad science coupled with bad business - global corporate greed, prepared to destroy the planet in pursuit of profit.

The rape and plunder of the Third World by global corporations is well documented by others (Noam Chomsky, Chris Curtis etc). The corporations are now moving into a new phase, the theft of genetic material. Following its historic path the US bludgeons countries into accepting a legal framework that legitimises this plunder. In the West, if we continue down this path, the same corporations will control life itself - in vitro fertilisation, body parts, medicine, food.

Mae-Wan Ho looks in some depth at modern genetics. In classical genetics we have gene leads to RNA leads to protein leads to characteristic. Modern genetics tells us that the gene may be modified by its environment, the transcribed protein depends on the context. This bodes ill for the biotech industry. Who would invest when told that this gene may or may not give the desired characteristic when inserted in another species?

Mae-Wan Ho exposes the many dangers which at present are being glossed over, if discussed at all. Genetic material that can be picked up by viruses. Bacteria that interchange DNA, then interchange with other species. Aggressive viruses that are used to transpose DNA, that will then carry on the good work across other species. Genetically modified material (GMM) that is being disposed of as liquid waste with no safeguards, no monitoring. GMM will serve as a pool of DNA and may explain the recent rapid rise in new diseases and increased antibiotic resistance of existing diseases. Antibiotics are being used as markers in transposed genes. This will increase the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. Pesticide exuding plants at the sublethal level will lead to superpests. The use of natural toxins, which are part of the natural life cycle may lead to major non-reversible environmental catastrophes.

The media gets a side swipe for failing to expose the dangers, for giving in to corporate threats, for wheeling out so-called 'experts' that in reality are industry stooges.

Modern genetics should have led to a tightening of the release of genetically modified organisms to the environment, instead the regulatory regime has been relaxed, profit overrules safety.

Throughout the book runs the constant theme that reductionist, determinist science has failed and the neo-Darwinian interpretation of genetics upon which commercial genetic engineering is based is one of its most spectacular failures, a failure that is putting the entire planet at risk. The last chapter explores this in more depth and puts forward a holistic, network approach for interpreting and reacting with the world around us, an approach that is in empathy with the world's natural life cycles.

Genetic Engineering is in part a personal journey. Mae-Wan Ho was in the 1980s at the forefront of the development of modern genetics. In the 1990s, it came as something of a shock to discover that the whole of the biotech industry was built on flawed science and false promises. Few scientists are prepared to speak out, they either own the companies, are employed by them or dependent on them for research funds. Realising the dangers Mae-Wan Ho took to the streets as a political activist.

The book contains an excellent glossary, essential, but could be at least twice as long as many of the terms used are not explained. The book cries out for many more diagrams to explain the details of modern genetics. The few tables have grey backgrounds. This may have been fine as colour on a computer screen but now lack clarity.

If you want to understand why independent scientists are so opposed to the release of genetically modified material into the environment then this is the book to read.

Highly recommended.

Books Worth Reading
(c) Keith Parkins 1999 -- October 1999 rev 0