Mae-Wan Ho Answers 11 Questions on GMOs, Science, and Life
Paul Haeder: Where is the GMO debate now worldwide?
Mae-Wan Ho: The GMO debate should be over by now, at a time when the agronomic failures of GM crops are there for all to see (particularly in the United States, which has more than 40% of global GM crops planted) together with serious health and environmental impacts from scientific studies that fully confirm what farmers have been experiencing in the fields for years (ISIS Special Report  Ban GMOs Now). But all that is being smothered by a massive campaign of dissimulation perpetrated by even traditionally respected science magazines (see  Scientific American Disinformation on GMOs, SiS 60).
A measure of how desperate the GM proponents are is the recent decision of the journal editor to retract a thoroughly peer-reviewed paper – the famous Séralini study – published a year ago, basically because it found serious health impacts in rats fed GM maize and/or exposed to Roundup herbicide compared to controls. An open letter has been posted for signing to demand reinstating the paper and pledging to boycott the publisher unless and until that is done ( Open Letter on Retraction and Pledge to Boycott Elsevier, SiS 61). The letter has already attracted thousands of signatures from around the world. Please sign on and forward widely. We need to stop this unprecedented censorship on scientific knowledge and information crucial to public health and well-being.
PH: Why are GMO labeling initiatives failing in the USA?
MWH: The GMO labelling initiatives are failing in the USA because people are still being told lies and half-truths that GM products are no different from their non-GM counterparts. There has been saturation coverage in the media, not just in the USA but worldwide. Most people are not fooled, which is why GM crops are still confined to 28 countries with over 90% within just 5 countries after 20 years of commercial growing. But people do need to understand the dangers for themselves.
PH: What’s your biggest reservation about GMOs?
MWH: GMOs are not only inherently unsafe, they are highly unsustainable, and most of all, obstructing the shift to non-GM organic, agro-ecological farming already taking place in local communities and countries around the world, which have proven to increase yields, mitigate climate change, and more able to adapt to climate change (see  Food Futures Now *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free, ISIS Special Report and  Paradigm Shift Urgently Needed In Agriculture). I have a recurrent nightmare of aliens from outer space landing on our planet in the not too distant future finding a wasteland filled with giant cockroaches. That’s what could happen if we are all forced and tricked into growing GM crops.
PH: Is science at a crossroads, as you say, vis-a-vis the retraction of the Séralini article?
MWH: Yes, I think this sordid act is symbolic. The Séralini study is not the only scientific evidence of harm from GMOs and herbicide, as mentioned earlier, nor the only published paper to be retracted recently (see  Over 1170 Condemn Retraction and Pledge Elsevier Boycott, SiS 61). I was nearly a victim myself for a paper explaining why artificial genetic modification is inherently hazardous . The order to withdraw it most likely came from the publisher. Fortunately, the editors apparently stood their ground and reinstated my paper. If we don’t stop such practice now, it really could mean the end of science. One scientist actually said to me: “it chills me to the bone to think they could do this.” Incidentally, our Open Letter  attracted so many signatures within the first days that the pro-GM trolls began to attack us by constantly sending in fake signatures, so we have had to double check every one. Would you trust people who fake and lie and suppress research results from you to tell you what food is safe to eat?
PH: What can the average citizen do to get involved in the GMO debate?
MWH: Take it upon yourself to understand the science behind genetic engineering, expose the lies and half-truths you’ve been told; that’s how to learn real science, and it is fun. Don’t be intimidated by the ‘experts’. Run informal teach-ins (combined with organic fests). Involve your whole family. Think of imaginative ways to explain things to other people. Scientists themselves are not very good at that, me included. I am still trying my best.
PH: How has science from your experience changed over the years?
MWH: I am still a scientist in love with science. That was what motivated me to be a scientist in the first place. I am still inspired about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, the ‘big questions’. Nowadays, this sense of wonder and excitement is lost. No one asks big questions anymore, they want to know how to exploit nature rather than living sustainably with nature.
The new genetics, for example, is enchanting; it is completely different from the old obsolete genetics that motivated genetic engineering and genetic modification . It has turned conventional genetics upside down. Instead of a one way flow of information from DNA (the genetic material) to traits (biological function) to the environment, there is a circular feedback from the environment and the organisms’ experience that marks out which genes are to be expressed or not, even changing the genes themselves. I call this natural genetic modification. It is an intricate molecular dance of life that is essential for survival. Natural genetic modification is done with finesse and precision by the organisms themselves, without damaging the genome. In contrast, artificial genetic modification done in the laboratory by genetic engineers is crude, imprecise, uncontrollable, and ends up scrambling and damaging the genome with totally unpredictable effects on safety. It also interferes inevitably with the natural genetic modification process, and that is ultimately why artificial genetic modification is inherently hazardous.
I would love to see more new genetics research being done. Instead, most postdocs and graduate students are trapped into doing mindless, soul destroying genetic modification when they should be doing exciting research on how and under what circumstances natural genetic modification takes place.
PH: Why has the narrative around precautionary principle tied to GMOs turned into anti-science rhetoric coming from both scientists and the media?
MWH: There is a great deal of misunderstanding about the precautionary principle. It is absolutely based on scientific evidence. It is not anti-science at all, far from it. It just says that where there is scientific evidence for a hazard, the fact that the evidence may not be conclusive is not to be used as an excuse for ignoring the hazard. I would argue that in most cases, it leads to creative, imaginative solutions and alternatives. Critics are using it as a refuge for weak mindedness and lack of imagination. Prof Peter Saunders from ISIS has written what many people regard as the best article on the subject some years ago  Use and Abuse of the Precautionary Principle (ISIS News 6). A recent article answering the critics of the precautionary principle is also compelling reading  Caution Needed for the Precautionary Principle (SiS 61).
PH: GE-GMO capitalists seem to have the upper hand, as all marketers have — just push through with the product, get it into every corner of society, and, a decade later, or earlier, well, it’s so pervasive that it’s normalized and the average citizen accepts the new normal. Is this true?
MWH: It is a subtle psychological warfare, and some critics actually play into their hands. They hype up the GM technology to be just the most powerful thing in the world, or that ‘the genie is out of the bottle’ and it is already everywhere, so resisting it is useless. This leads people to feel absolutely powerless and paralysis sets in, which is exactly where they want you to be. That is why it is so important to understand the science for oneself.
The new genetics tells us we can reverse things if we take care of the environment, build a healthy soil without pesticides and other agrochemicals, and we can get rid of the pests, the diseases, very likely even the bad genes, and get the good genes back.
PH: What is your work?
MWH: My own research work is centered on the big question — what is life — Schrödinger posed in 1941. I pioneered an interdisciplinary way of understanding life in two books, both best-sellers for the publisher, the first having gone through 3 editions and multiple reprints [10, 11] (The Rainbow and the Worm, The Physics of Organisms and Living H2O the Dancing Rainbow Within). I am very pleased to receive the 2014 Prigogine Medal for that work ( ISIS Director Wins Science Award, SiS 61). My inaugural lecture title is “Circular Thermodynamics of Organisms and Sustainable Systems”  to be delivered in Sienna in Italy at a conference on sustainable cities; for ‘circular thermodynamics’ read ‘circular economy’ of nature. The lecture is on how to live sustainably with nature by integrating and building ourselves into the circular economy of nature.
PH: There seems to be a big disconnection between nature and industry, technology, economics?
MWH: Spot on. That’s the reductionist science way. I have spent my whole life recovering the organic holistic science that really enables us to live sustainably with nature where knowledge is all of a piece (art, science, music, philosophy in one), and we are immersed within nature. The organic, holistic way is not only sustainable; it is very joyful and sustaining. It gives us all the strength and vitality of nature as well as all her beauty and inspiration.
PH: Climate change is the big game changer, and seems to be the underpinning of the pro-GMO industries and sciences. Discuss how non-GMO farming might be the answer to some of the changes we will face because of climate change — i.e. hotter, wetter, dryer, irregular weather.
MWH: Climate change is definitely happening. There is no denying it. No, most scientists who alert us to the dangers of GMOs are not climate deniers (those saying that climate change is not happening at all) or climate sceptics (those who don’t believe human action has anything to do with climate change). Please don’t conflate GMOs with climate change. I often tell climate sceptics or deniers that being sustainable is good whether you believe human action is causing climate change, or whether you believe climate change is happening, because we are running out of all kinds of resources, so renewables are in. Circular economy is in.
There is evidence that the predominantly GM crop system in the US is failing badly  (US Staple Crop System Failing from GM and Monoculture, SiS 59), and not just because of the recent drought, which decimated harvests  (Surviving Global Warming, SiS 60).This is not surprising, as GM crops are industrial monocultures, only more so. The numerous successes and benefits of organic, agro-ecological farming are no longer in doubt: more yields, more organic matter and carbon sequestration in the soil, more fertile soils, more water retention capacity (hence more resistant to drought) more nutritious, health promoting, more resilient to floods and hurricanes, more profitable, and less energy use, hence less carbon dioxide produced [4, 5]. We mustn’t let GM crops spoil our chance for surviving global warming and all climate extremes it will bring.
This interview is an extended version of one that first appeared in DissidentVoice.org. Paul Haeder has been a communications, English and journalism instructor since 1983, and during that time he’s been a journalist in Arizona, Texas, Mexico, Central America, Vietnam and now in Washington State.
- Ho MW and Sirinathsinghji E. Ban GMOs Now, ISIS Special Report, ISIS, London, 2013. http://www.i-sis.org.uk/Ban_GMOs_Now_-_Special_ISIS_Report.php
- Ho MW, Sirinathsinghji E and Saunders PT. Scientific American disinformation on GMOs. Science in Society 60, 2-3, 2013.
- Becker HA, Clark EA, Cummins J, Davidson RM, de Guzman LE, DelGiudice E, Dotson RS, Exley C, Haffegee J, Ho MW, Huber DM, John B, Mason R, Mendoza T, Novotny E, Oller JW, Palmer J, Pollack G, Pusztai A, Samsell A, Saunders PT, Shiva V, Sirinathsinghji, E, Swanson N, Seneff S, Tomlijenovic L, Zamora O. Open letter on retraction and pledge to boycott Elsevier. Science in Society 61 (to appear).
- Ho MW, Burcher S, Lim LC, et al. Food Futures Now, Organic*Sustainable*Fossil Fuel Free, ISIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2008, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/foodFutures.php
- Ho MW. Paradigm shift urgently needed in agriculture, UN agencies call for an end to industrial agriculture & food system. Science in Society 60, 4-9, 2013.
- Ho MW and Saunders PT. Over 1170 condemn retraction and pledge Elsevier boycott. Science in Society 61 (to appear).
- Ho MW. The new genetics and natural versus artificial genetic modification. Entropy 2013, 15, 4748-81 (open access).
- Saunders PT. Use and abuse of the precautionary principle. ISIS News 6, September 2000.
- Saunders PT. Caution needed for the precautionary principle. Science in Society 61 (to appear).
- Ho MW. The Rainbow and the Worm, the Physics of Organisms, World Scientific and Imperial College Press, 1993, 2nd ed 1998, 3rd ed. 2008. http://www.i-sis.org.uk/rnbwwrm.php
- Ho MW. Living H2O, the rainbow within (introducing Living Rainbow H2O, World Scientific and Imperial College Press, 2012 ). http://www.i-sis.org.uk/Living_H2O.php
“ISIS Director wins science award”, Science in Society 61 (to appear).
- Ho MW. Circular thermodynamics of organisms and sustainable systems. Systems 2013, 1, 30-49 (open access).
- Sirinathsinghji E. US staple crop system failing from GM and monoculture. Science in Society 59, 12-13, 2013.
- Ho MW. Surviving global warming, localized food & energy systems in nature’s circular economy. Science in Society 60, 16-17, 2013.