Wresting the possible from the impossible: Lessons from Barcelona

In Issue 13 (July 2002) Tomás Mac Síomóin reported from protests against an EU summit.

“Just like the Franco days” was the comment of Manu Chao, singing star of the huge anti-globalisation concert in Barcelona to ‘celebrate’ the end of the March 14-15 European Summit here. He was referring to the massive ‘secu­rity’ presence in the city. 10,000 police—including 2,500 riot police—were drafted in from all over Spain to shield heads of state participating in the summit from protest demonstrations called by the major trade unions here, the anti-globalisation and other protest movements. Add to that the three naval vessels moored in the Mediterranean just off Barcelona harbour, four jet fighters on standby in nearby Prat Airport together with one AWAC from the NATO fleet, police snipers on rooftops and ground-to-air missiles mounted on buildings in the city centre, and you’d wonder what they were frightened about. More Seattle, more Genoa action? Or did they reckon bin Laden might have a go at Europe’s ‘top dignitaries’ assembled here? With the closing of the Diagonal, one of our main traffic arteries, normal traffic arrangements collapsed and business life in the city was “just like on a holiday”, as one shopkeeper said to me; universities closed or just went on strike. The security overkill, together with police harassment of pedestrians, so reminiscent of ‘the bad old days’ was bitterly resented by most citizens. But if security strategy was to cow citizens into not supporting the demon­strations, it backfired, to say the least of it…

The demonstrations, routed well away from the major summit events, were massively supported. Thus, for example, the trade union demonstration brought 100,000 of us, including leaders of Catalonia’s left-wing political formations, on to the streets in a carnival atmosphere under the slogan “Volem més Europa, pero amb Drets i amb Manteniment i Millora del model social!” (briefly: “More Europe, but with rights and a better social model!”). The anti-globalisation demonstration called by the Companya contre l’Europa del Capital brought an estimated 300,000 out under the slogan “Altra Europa es Possible”. But the mother of all demonstrations was that of the Sunday before the summit to protest against the re-routing of the river Ebro, a measure to be significantly financed from EU coffers. Almost half a million citizens came out on the streets to demand an end to this plan, which will have the almost certain effect of ruining agriculture in Valencia’s highly fertile Ebro Delta. A little violence, but pretty much a marginal sideshow. And everywhere the senyera, the official flag of Catalonia, with its four red stripes on a yellow background and, frequently, its independista variant, with white star on a blue triangle superimposed on the official flag, announcing to the world at large: Catalonia is not Spain. No senyor!

It was great while it lasted, of course. Warm feelings of solidarity, brotherhood, sisterhood animate people on the move, people who want change. All on the one road, the road to God knows where… And heated discussions about where this illusory one road might lead us…

But when we reach home, sober reflection replaces the warm glow.

Even if we had been allowed near the summit events, I doubt if the assembled heads of state would have been too unhappy to see us, or the host of banners and placards we carried to represent the views of the many sectional interests that participated in the protests. Banners and placards calling for support for the Zapatistas, Polisario, Immigrant Rights, Full European Recognition of the Catalan Language, Real Equality for Women, the Tobin Tax, and an end to Transgenic Foods, Third World Debt, the Flexibilisation of Labour, Israeli Oppression of Palestinians, the American Blockade of Cuba, the Erosion of Social Gains, the Ebro Plan, Anti-Gay Discrimination, Spanish Oppression in Euzkadi, to mention but some of the concerns of the demonstrators expressed on their banners and placards. All causes that I agree with! But such senior politicians would have appreciated, I think, that in a divided society, different minority groups, each pursuing independently its own sectional goal, can never mount a serious challenge to the reigning hegemony. And that, in fact, such diversity is the best formula for reproduction of the system.

And, in spite of the expenditure of so much energy and enthusiasm, banging of drums and shouting of slogans, the summit went ahead anyhow, with its profoundly anti-democratic decisions to privatise energy etc. (For an assessment of the political results of the Summit itself, see Bernard Cassen’s article in the May issue of Le Monde Diplomatique.)

The ‘think tanks’ that plot consolidation of the neo-liberal ethos understand clearly that the way to maintain protest groups isolated from each other is to disorientate them systematically with respect to their potential common goals, thus rendering impossible the adoption of common struggle on the part of these groups. Such a strategy of social disorientation operates on three levels:

  • the atomisation of society into minority groups with little prospect of achieving power;
  • the orientation of groups towards the adoption of partial and exclusive goals which don’t invite wider participation; and
  • the neutralisation of their ability to form pacts.

To achieve these goals, inhibition of the ability to create an intellectual space in which objectives that transcend the sectional interest of individual groups can be negotiated with other groups, and agreement and alliances achieved, is crucial. Thus, the incessant propaganda barrage trumpeting the end of ideology (postmodernism), history in general (Fukuyama), and of Marxism—lock, stock and barrel—in particular. The fatuous interpretation of history as “the clash of civilisations” (Huntingdon) is another key element in this strategy. All major print and visual media have been co-opted as allies in this battle to internalise in the hearts and minds of everybody—including members of the various protest movements themselves—those values that best promote overall reinforcement and reproduction of the ‘global economy’ and the current neo-liberal dispensation that underpins it. Thus, it is hoped, society will cease to be understood and analysed in a comprehensive all-embracing fashion, and those social utopias that create spaces for dialogue among the different groups will evaporate into thin air. At the same time, neo-liberal strategy encourages rampant individualism, a sort of ‘shipwreck culture’—‘save yourself, if you can, and the devil take the hindmost’—that denies any possibility of a collective solution to society’s ills. In this way, the time-old imperial strategy of Divida et Impera—divide and conquer, roughly—is employed to fragment and so debilitate opposition to the emerging new world order.

The neo-liberal project and its means of realisation are clear: massive re­distribution of the social product toward the already wealthy, under cover of the Big Lie (dealt with above) and circuses (sports business, media spectacles etc.) which are promoted incessantly with all the persuasive force of the media at its command. And such is the persuasive and co-optative force of this juggernaut that, in most western societies, repression as such has ceased to be the main obstacle to the development of liberation movements. Though, as the impressive display of force here at the Barcelona Summit demonstrated (not to mention the use of force in Seattle, Stockholm, Genoa etc.—and, minimally, here in Barcelona), state violence is always there as a resource of last resort. But the upshot of these influences is popular consent/obedience to the overall diktat of the status quo, which is the main obstacle to the development of the various liberation movements that comprise the loose ‘anti-globalisation’ alliance. We are faced with a sort of vicious circle here, as this consent is both the cause and effect of the huge and complex production of reality itself. This production is geared to the current needs of capitalism and is inextricably linked to reproduction of the social sphere in all its aspects.

The suicidal irrationality of the current phase of capitalism hardly needs to be spelled out in detail here. Destruction of the world’s ecosystems and the very delicate environmental balances that underpin all life on this planet goes on apace. The production of various classes of death machine is integral to the smooth functioning of the advanced economies. In the context of the increasing impoverishment and malnutrition, we know the productive capac­ity of the world’s societies could provide a comfortable, not luxurious, life for every denizen of the planet. Etc., etc.

However, the basic need to survive seems to leave no other choice but to go on producing that manifestly unjust and immoral reality, which implies in practice obedience to the same. The demonstrators of Barcelona return to work to reproduce the very reality against which they have been demon­strating—not being aware, seemingly, that the facet of that reality that drove them out into the streets is integral to the whole picture. In short, we produce that which dominates us—surrendering to the seemingly irresistible force of the productive colossus and offering it our passive consent/obedience. Not that being aware of all of this would make much difference! This domination is organised in such a manner that the only alternative to obedience/consent for individuals or small groups is death or social exclusion, neither of which is particularly attractive for most of us. For others, the domination we pro­duce doesn’t even give them the opportunity to be exploited.

In the light of such formidable obstacles then, the question must be asked: is an effective fightback really possible? And, if so, where does it begin? To that I say: the only response to ‘Divide and conquer’ is ‘United we stand, divided we fall’. Unity of all major anti-systemic forces about a common democratic project is a sine qua non if the present profoundly anti-democratic neo-liberal set-up is to be replaced with a genuinely egalitarian order. In practical terms, to achieve such unity, the primary need is for all would-be participants to arrive at a common starting point. Even before that possibility can be realised, though, many socialists need to recognise that much rubble lying about since the levelling of the Berlin Wall needs to be cleared away.

To put it in another way, just as nations/human groups cohere on the basis of a common language, shared historical consciousness and agreed (albeit implicitly) common goals, a coherent anti-capitalist left can only be articu­lated on the basis of a willingness to overcome sectional differences and to arrive at a common understanding of the lessons our history has taught us, i.e. a common ‘language’ of discourse.

So what has history taught us, then? Among many other things that

  • The ‘Soviet model’ and Soviet Marxism are dead ducks. Learn from them and bury them!
  • The eventual collapse of capitalism is neither guaranteed nor inevitable.
  • No transcendental dynamic of history can be appealed to in order to justify political action. Still less can it be claimed that such action is the mandatory expression of said dynamic, human essence or divine will. Historical tendencies that can help to understand, not ‘explain’: yes! Laws of History: no!
  • The revolutionary nature of political action is not predetermined and can only be gauged by comparing the results it yields with the objective(s) it had in the first place. The various possibilities inherent to the action will always be discussed, of course, along with their relation to perceived historical tendencies, but always with the understanding that nobody can guarantee beforehand the revolutionary potential of the action nor claim a privileged revolutionary authority.
  • Following on the last point, the ‘revolutionary subject’ is not pre­determined in any way nor, therefore, is the ‘vanguard’ of such a subject. The self-proclaimed ‘vanguard of the proletariat’ leading the working class to a jacobin-type conquest of political power belongs only to the past history of that class.
  • The exploitation of labour by capital is not the only form of repression that leads to conflict with the established order. Others struggles, such as ethnic, linguistic/cultural, gender, antimilitarist, Third World solidarity etc., etc. can be just as important or, depending on the context, more important as agents of social/historical change. Nor does the dis­appearance of the exploitative capital-labour relationship in its present form guarantee the automatic disappearance of other forms of repression (as witness the Soviet experiment).
  • It is impossible to fully explain the current world order, however, with its well-publicised destructive side-effects, other than by reference to the global domination of capital. It is, above all, in this sense that Marx’s Capital and other economic writings remain our basic reference. For example, present-day patriarchal societal relations cannot be dis­associated from the role assigned to women in the reproduction of labour. (Which is not to suggest that every socialisation of the means of production automatically guarantees the disappearance of patriarchy and other forms of oppression: working-class history shows otherwise.) Third World misery cannot be understood without understanding the global reach of profit-maximising capitalism. Etc., etc.
  • Whatever viable socialist project emerges must involve the development of ‘ground up’ participative democracy, based on an ethic of total social equality. Such a project offers the only possibility of articulating the various anti-systemic groups, gaining widespread popular support and undermining the present repressive power structures. Details of such a project can only be the fruit of much intensive negotiation.

The word ‘democracy’ has been so debased (the term Progressive ‘Democrats’ in Ireland, for example), however, that we need to clarify use of the term here. To begin with, the status quo, neo-liberal or limited (or bour­geois) democracy—which always seeks a minimum state in terms of defence of workers’ interests together with a maximum state to copper-fasten the political conditions it needs to underpin its own economic project—is not what is meant. The struggle for full egalitarian democracy, which is nothing more or less than the struggle for socialism, is what is meant. So what is this ‘full democracy’? Let’s consider the concept in its three fundamental aspects:

  • Representative democracy. The right to elect governments and enjoy legally-guaranteed civil rights. In practice, this has meant alienation of the vast bulk of citizens from power (the decision-making process) and the favouring of powerful minority groups, creating a nucleus of first-class citizens and a second-class citizen majority.
  • Social democracy. A social order based on representation and bureau­cratic implementation, but where real social problems—living standards, employment, housing, welfare, health, education etc.—are addressed, with the aim of achieving a more egalitarian society. Regarding the long-term viability of such a project, the recent political history of Europe, East and West, tells its own (sad) story.
  • Participative democracy. The great untried project, and the major politi­cal and intellectual challenge facing the real left! Popular participation in social decision-making would be the basic aspect of this form of demo­cracy; forms and mechanisms of such participation to be worked out through comprehensive dialogue involving all committed groups and the public at large.

While a future agreed socialist project would combine all three aspects of democracy, what would most differentiate it from all pre-existing models would be its insistent emphasis on the third: a genuinely participative demo­cracy, where the people themselves, rather than a bureaucratic elite, become the true creators of a new society.

Present-day systems of parliamentary democracy, and social democratic policies that served to legitimate it during the Cold War, have been syst­ematically undermined over the last twenty or so years by a capitalism that no longer needs them. In the present dictatorship of money and “titty­tainment”, as Zbygniew Brzezinski cynically (and accurately) described the culture he would prescribe for the masses, both have been placed at the same level as television and shopping mall entertainment. Popular, and well-founded, suspicions that real decision-making power lies outside the present political process, failure to effectively address the manifold social problems that come in the train of the new economic order, along with distancing of the politico-bureaucratic process from the average citizen, have led to increasing abstention levels at elections and an ever-growing disenchantment with politicians and the political process itself. Add to that the inability of citizens to distinguish between the policies of the different political formations—not surprisingly, since the majority of them have assimilated comfortably into the neo-liberal ‘centre’.

This disenchantment and boredom with politics carries its own dangers. The rise of the ultra-right, with its simplistic panaceas, throughout Europe is the right-wing equivalent of anti-systemic mobilisations of the left such as ours in Barcelona. But whereas the political right can do without party politics, as it has demonstrated during various dictatorships, for the left, insofar as it is necessary to construct a popular anti-systemic force to qualita­tively transform society, an open political space is a basic necessity, whether it be for a party, a political alliance or some other formula.

And such a formation is needed crucially for two reasons: Firstly, social transformations don’t occur spontaneously. The ideas and values of capitalist society permeate all of society, but especially those sectors least equipped theoretically to distance themselves critically from them. A counter-source of ideas and values is a necessary antidote to such brainwashing. And secondly, because it is necessary to be able to overcome the immensely more powerful forces that can be expected to fight tooth and nail against any such trans­formation. Such will not be possible without a political grouping capable of formulating a project, now glaringly conspicuous by its absence, that can effectively challenge the neo-liberal diktat, mobilise the masses and articulate and unify the various liberation movements that comprise our present frag­mented, and hence ineffective, opposition to the current order.

Present circumstances place the left in the impossible situation of a David confronting a gigantic Goliath. But David overcame the giant, wrested the possible from the impossible. The political will to wrest the possible from the ‘impossible’ is the key. And a ready willingness to dialogue without pre-conditions, abandoning the fetid bunker of nostalgia-based dogma for the fresh air of political creativity. Objectively, the bunker-folk have sold out to the enemy. The serious left must move on without them!

The gene is out of the bottle: The menace of genetic engineering

Tomás Mac Síomóin wrote this article, which appeared in Issue 7 in July 2000.

As I write, today’s newspaper reports that thousands demonstrated, and 20 were injured, in Genoa yesterday in protests against genetically mani­pulated foods. No less than 5,000 policemen were deployed in a tiny area of Genoa to ensure that a “Biotechnical Fair” sponsored by 60 companies in this sector, passed off without incident. The same reporter tells us that although one out of every two Italians hasn’t an iota as to what biotechnology signifies, a majority would express itself as being “cautious” regarding the application of such knowledge to the creation of new agricultural products. Isn’t that what spokespersons for the genetic engineering sector tell us: that opposition to their project and consumer rejection of their products is based on roman­ticism, groundless fears and irrational technophobic attitudes—sad anachronisms as more and more areas of social life submit to the dictates of technological rationality, the ideological bedrock of the coming millenium?

A range of transgenic supercrops to solve the world’s nutritional problems is one of the many tempting prospects held out by genetical engineers—and yet the transgenic crop field trials are destroyed by eco-protesters. Biotech partisans hold that genetically altered animals and micro-organisms hold the key to the cost-efficient production of many substances of crucial medical and nutritional importance. Opponents hold that methods used to achieve these goals pose unacceptable risks to the health of this and future generations. Worried consumers pressurise for the removal of transgenic products from supermarket shelves. Genetic ID, a US company, reports that more than half of the maize samples analysed in its laboratories contain transgenic contamination (today’s newspaper again!). Transgenic seed stocks are destroyed as biotech share prices plummet. The Human Genome Project offers the prospect both of the elimination of hereditary disease, and of eugenic planning. The O J Simpson trial put DNA tests firmly in the public domain. The ethical debate around the issue of human clonation runs and runs…

No wonder the average punter, and not only in Italy, is confused! The gut feeling of socialists would be that they are ‘agin’ field trials and commercial release of transgenic crops and seeds, for example, if only because of the enormous economic leverage and power over (especially) Third World farmers that exploitation of genetic engineering technology places in the hands of a handful of multinationals. This is, of course, a point worth reiterating, although many may feel, subliminally, that this is a price worth paying in view of the alleged fabulous benefits genetic manipulation can bestow on humankind.

The now well established scientific Achilles heel of the whole genetic engineering enterprise is seldom stressed leaving the propaganda initiative with ‘experts’ who assure us soothingly that their meticulous trials and tests ensure that all possible risks are identified and eliminated before transgenic organisms are released for commercial exploitation. So the industry can respond to critics by presenting them as latter-day Luddites, born-again Flat-Earthers etc., straining, Canute-like, in their attempts to stem the tides of (inevitable) scientific progress. After all, they reason, genetic modification is simply the latest in a continuum of biotechnological innovation that has been going on since the year dot. Its possible benefits to mankind are limitless.

Food, for example. Today 800 million people go hungry and 82 countries neither grow enough food nor can afford to import it. In India alone, 85% of children under five suffer from malnutrition. The global population now needs to consume per annum over 2 billion tonnes a year of cereals and other crops, according to the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome (World Bank Report) and, with current demographic trends, this production will need to be doubled over the next 30 years. Given the limited technical and other resources of the Third World, how is this goal to be achieved? Plainly high-yield disease- and pest-resistant crops with high nutritional value and zero environmental impact would be a highly desirable step in the right direction.

And that’s where genetic engineering comes in.

By that is meant a set of techniques for isolating, modifying, multi­plying and recombining units of genetic information, known as genes, from different organisms. Genes play a key role in the determination of the form of organisms, each gene being associated with the expression of one particular characteristic. The uniqueness of each organism is a reflection, then, of its own unique gene pool or genome. Using biotechniques, a gene from one organism can be attached, for example, to a virus with its pathogenic genes removed, which can then be made to infect other organisms, inserting the foreign gene into the host organism genome. So, by cutting and joining bits of viruses, or other genetic entities that can move from cell to cell or organism to organism, appropriate vectors, or carriers, are made which can transfer genes from a donor species even to recipient species that do not naturally interbreed with it. Thus, fish genes could be incorporated into sugar beet genomes, for example, or human genes into those of pigs or plants.

Or, to return to the less exotic, using these techniques crop plants can be genetically modified to increase yield and nutritional value, and to enable their cultivation in currently inhospitable environments. Such crops can be tailormade to resist pests and diseases and, moreover, to thrive on reduced inputs of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers.

The root of the problem is that certain assumptions of pre-1970 molecular genetics, on which genetic engineering practice is based, have been invalidated and superseded by advances in the science over the last ten to twenty years. And evidence accumulating over the same period leads to the inevitable conclusion that the methods used to genetically manipu­late organisms not only subject public health to unacceptable and, in practice, unknowable long term risks but are bound to cause incalculable damage to the delicate fabric of existing ecosystems on which all human life ultimately depends. To better understand this position, look at the invisible terrain of DNA, the gene, the chromosome and the vector, as seen by the commercial genetical engineer!

You and me, for example, are made up of billions of such units. Ultimate control of cell activity and form is located in their organising centres or ‘nuclei’ in structures known as chromosomes. The nuclei of human body cells, for example, contain 46 chromosomes. Each individual cell trait is determined by a specific section of a chromosome called a gene, as defined above. The gene is made of DNA, whose chemistry encodes instructions needed to enable the gene to carry out its specific role. The chromosomes of a cell are thus seen as long linear sequences of genes which constitute a comprehensive set of commands that determine precisely the chemical nature and form of the cell environment and, by extension, that of the whole organism.

One of the main functions of genes is to organise the synthesis of protein molecules, enzymes, each one of which catalyses specifically one of the many thousand chemical reactions in the body that, in summation (the metabolism), make up the life process. More specifically, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the genic substance, ‘makes’ RNA (a chemical relative of DNA) and that RNA in its turn ‘makes’ enzyme proteins, each of which by virtue of its chemistry, enables a specific chemical reaction in the cell, which would not otherwise occur. Enzymes are the agents of DNA policy, as it were.

Thus, the story goes, by determining the enzyme complement of a cell, nuclear DNA controls its chemical/metabolic activity in a rigidly deter­ministic way and, thence, its form which is the visible expression of its chemical activity. This model postulates strictly one-way information (or command) flows outwards from chromosomal DNA. Reverse flow is not envisaged; i.e. proteins cannot alter RNA nor can RNA alter the infor­mation encoded in DNA.

A basic assumption underlying this picture is that genes are stable, apart from random mutations, and are passed on unchanged to succeeding generations (hence the constancy of species form across the generations). Another is that each gene expresses itself independently of the others; a gene transferred from one genome into another will behave in its new environment exactly as it behaved in its original one.

Each of these assumptions has been invalidated. For example, reverse information flow has been demonstrated to occur in many different ways and, indeed, current research would identify it as being the norm. And it is a matter of recorded observation that not only can genes be altered by environmental stimuli, but such altered genes have been transmitted to offspring.

But, most alarmingly, genes in nature are now known not only to hop from chromosome to chromosome within their own genome and migrate across generations within their own species, but have been shown to roam throughout the biosphere across species and even kingdom (the animal, plant and microbial domains) boundaries. Thus genes for pathogen or herbicide resistance introduced by genetic engineering techniques into crop plants, say, can be expected, and indeed have been shown, to migrate both into the genotypes of relatives and even non-relatives—creating ‘superweeds’, for example, with inevitable disruption of nutritional webs that underlie the delicate balance of the ecosystems within which they are located. Field trials have shown, for example, that such gene migration has taken place from herbicide-resistant transgenic Brassica napa to a number of its wild relatives, rendering the latter herbicide-resistant also. A very recent German report based on a four-year study of an herbicide resistant gene in rape detected this gene in the intestinal bacteria of bees. The zoologist who headed the study, Hans-Heinrich Kaatz, warns that his finding could have grave implications for human health. And, indeed, an earlier German report indicates clearly that genes for antibiotic resistance in pig gut have wound up in humans. We will return below to the signifi­cance of such gene transfers.

Furthermore, scientific observation showing us that the expression of a given gene can be various, depending on the particular genome in which it is located, has invalidated the assumption that genes express themselves independently of each other. In fact, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define and delimit a gene as the expression of each gene is ultimately connected to that of every other within an organism’s gene pool or ‘genome’. The old idea of one-to-one relatedness between gene and specific function in all circumstances is oversimplistic and, hence, exact prediction of the full effects of introducing a foreign gene into a genome is impossible.

Thence, single gene transfers have inevitably led to unexpected changes in host organisms. Toxins and allergens have arisen unexpectedly as ‘side-effects’ in transgenic plants and microbes, hideously deformed animals have resulted, again unexpectedly, from single gene transfer, underlining the oversimplicity of the ‘one gene:one character’ postulate and the un­predictability of this procedure. Not surprisingly, a human death has been recently reported in the US following ‘gene therapy’ among allega­tions that other such occurrences may have been subject to cover-up.

In short, the tenets on which commercial genetic engineering is based have been invalidated by a wealth of scientific observation and experiment that has been accumulating, with gathering momentum, over the last couple of decades, data that are conveniently—and irresponsibly—ignored by proponents of ‘easi-fix’ genetic cure-alls. The claim that gene manipu­lation can solve our food, medical and even social problems can only be true if by identifying a gene we can with certainty relate it to a correspond­ing trait, by changing the gene we change that trait only, and by transfer­ring the gene we transfer that trait only. Such assumptions are no longer valid, but they still inform genetic engineering—which explains not only why this practice cannot fulfil its promises but why it creates such unacceptable health and ecological hazards.

Failure to recognise that genes migrate promiscuously across species and even kingdom boundaries is the basis for probably the greatest hazard that genetic engineering poses for the biosphere, including the human component of it. Geneticists have linked the emergence of pathogenic bacteria and of antibiotic resistance to such transfer of genes to other bacteria and even to unrelated species.

For example, the bacterium Escherichia coli is a normally harmless in­habitant of the intestine of all human beings and many other mammals. In 1982 a new pathogenic strain, E. coli 0157:H7, emerged, which causes severe haemorrhages of the colon, bowel and kidneys in human beings. Since then many outbreaks have occurred all over the world with increas­ing frequency. An outbreak in Japan in 1996 affected 9,000 and claimed the lives of twelve children. A series of outbreaks in Scotland in 1997 claimed 20 lives and made hundreds ill. Scientific evidence indicates that E. coli 0157:H7 arose recently and appears to have acquired the ability to manufacture toxins associated with the pathogenic bacterium, Shigella, most probably by gene transfer from the latter organism. Antibiotic resistance genes have been shown in nature to cross species, genera and kingdoms.

The last ten to fifteen years have seen a dramatic increase in virulent infections and antibiotic resistance in Europe and America, some of which can be undoubtedly attributed to overuse of antibiotics in medicine and intensive farming; antibiotics not only stimulate target organisms to develop resistance to them but can actually increase gene transfer ten to 100-fold. For example, some countries in Europe have suffered a 20-fold increase in salmonella infections over the last ten to fifteen years—and since the early 1990s, resistance to a wide range of antibiotics has evolved in one of the strains of the bacterium responsible for the infections. The fact that such alarming increases have coincided with the development of commercial-scale genetic engineering serves to focus attention on the fact that artificial gene transfer vectors or carriers, by their very nature, are bound to accelerate gene transfer across species boundaries.

The most common vectors used in genetic engineering to infect target organisms are a recombination of natural genetic parasites from a variety of sources, including cancer-causing viruses and other diseases in plants and animals, with their pathogenic functions neutralised. These are routinely attached to antibiotic genes so that cells transformed by the vector can be harvested. Exposure to the relevant antibiotic in a mixed culture simply zaps untransformed cells that have failed to incorporate the vector, leaving the genetic engineer with a pure culture of vector-infected cells. Released into the biosphere, these cells—apart from carrying out their designated functions—can serve as a source of antibiotic resistance genes for other organisms.

Furthermore, many such vectors are specifically designed, and used, to break down species barriers and to neutralise cellular mechanisms that attack foreign DNA so that they are enabled to broadcast genes across a wide spectrum of organisms. More simply, these artificially created vectors smuggle foreign genes into cells that would reject them in the normal course of events. Thus, they can infect many animals and plants and in the process pick up genes from viruses of all these species to create new pathogens. And bestow their antibiotic resistance genes randomly on a wide range of other species, including pathogenic ones, when current antibiotic resistance levels in the biosphere are already the cause of serious medical concern.

Would that the story of the migrating gene were science fiction! According to a German report published in 1996, and referred to above, the antibiotic streptothricin was administered to pigs in 1982. By 1983, streptothricin resistance genes were found in pig gut bacteria. This had spread to the gut bacteria of farm workers and their families by 1984, and to the general public and pathological strains of the bacterium the following year. The antibiotic had to be withdrawn in 1990; yet prevalence in soil of the vector carrying streptothricin resistance genes remained high in 1993, pointing to the tenacious survival of gene-carrying vectors in the environment.

A 1996 report shows that a mobile genetic element, mariner, originally found in the fruit fly, is now found in humans, where it leads to a neuro­logical wasting disease, the Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome. The same element has been incorporated by genetic engineers into ‘anti-malarial’ mosquitoes, holding out the real possibility that the disease has spread from transgenic mosquitoes to human beings.

The dangers posed by vector-mediated gene migrations don’t stop there. The nuclei of higher organisms contains much more DNA—up to 99% in some genomes—than is necessary to code for all the proteins their cells need. Part of this excess or ‘junk’ DNA is known to contain endo­genous proviruses, the partial genomes of viral pathogens of the recent or distant past, that became permanently incorporated into host species genomes, having lost the genes that would enable them to undertake autonomous action. However, they may be reactivated by combination with appropriate gene sequences carried by the ‘benign’, i.e. non-pathogenic, vectors of genetic engineering technology. Thence, the real possibility of the re-emergence of major diseases of the past and the creation of new highly virulent pathogens with high levels of antibiotic resistance.

In fact, as provirus sequences are found in all genomes, recombinations between the genetic material of introduced vectors and endogenous proviruses are bound to occur. ‘Murphy’s Law’, that says that the disaster that can happen will, pithily encapsulates this very unfunny statistical inevitability. So, not surprisingly, there is now a number of reports of observations that directly relate such recombination to pathogenesis— though not, as yet, to human pathogens. So far! However, some, at the very least, of the 30 new diseases, including AIDS, Ebola and Hepatitis C, that have appeared over the past 20 years, according to the 1996 WHO Report, along with the worldwide re-emergence of diphtheria, cholera, tuberculosis and other old infectious diseases, will have been caused undoubtedly by gene transfers and recombinations. Accelerated development and dis­semination of supervectors on the part of the genetic engineering industry can only serve to further facilitate a process whose potential for under­mining public health and destroying the stability of the biosphere on which we depend is limitless.

Scaremongering? Continually accumulating scientific evidence shows us that the dissemination of genetically modified organisms gives us the best of reasons to be scared. And the best of reasons for all who share a concern for the environment and for the health of this and future genera­tions to battle against the reckless irresponsibility of profit-driven biotech multinationals who would pollute the biosphere, the patrimony of all, with deadly genetic litter for centuries to come.