I’ve spent most of my life on a farm so when I set out to write a thriller I naturally turned to agriculture as a theme. As I knew nothing about Genetically Modified products, I knew I’d have to do lot of research if I wanted the background of the novel to be authentic. And the more I discovered about GMO, the more fascinating the subject became.

GMO has created a huge controversy across the world with people either for it, or bitterly opposed. There have been worldwide protest marches (one taking place here in Howick a few weeks ago) lawsuits involving millions of dollars and violent clashes. In Australia recently, two women wearing Greenpeace overalls, climbed a high fence in the middle of the night and destroyed a Genetically Modified wheat crop using weed-eaters. They were given suspended sentences. This demonstrates just how far people will go to voice their opposition. There are argument to support both points of view and I will try to give both.

So, what is GMO and how does it differ from selective breeding?: Man has been using selective breeding for thousands of years to improve the plants and animals we have domesticated. By selecting wild grasses, grains such as wheat, rice and maize have evolved. From the wolf, dogs as different as the Great Dane and Chihuahua have been produced. But in all those years, breeding has only been done within a species. As one scientist said, “A pig can mate with a pig, and a tomato can mate with a tomato. But there is no way that a pig can mate with a tomato and vice versa.”

GMO  products are plants or animals that have been produced in a laboratory by taking DNA from one species and inserting it into another, totally unrelated species. The process transfers genes across barriers that kept species apart for millions of years. These genetically modified plants can spread and interbreed with natural plants and so contaminate environments in unforeseeable and uncontrollable ways.

A few examples of GMO organisms: Florescent jellyfish protein has been injected into a fertilized rabbit egg to produce a rabbit that glows in the dark. The same DNA was used to produce sheep, pigs, cats and dogs that glow in the dark. They are said to be useful in medical research.

GMO mice are used extensively in medical research. GMO pigs will be used to grow organs that can be transplanted into humans. These pigs are genetically modified to contain 6 human genes that partially “humanize” them in order to prevent rejection by the immune system of organ recipients.

A donor organism in a GMO product may be a bacterium, fungus, a plant or animal. In the case of Bt maize, the donor organism is a naturally occurring soil bacterium, that kills the larvae of the maize-stalk-borer. Farmers who plant this GMO maize do not need to spray insecticides. Another example is a green pepper gene which, when inserted into banana, has produced a strain resistant to banana wilt.

A brief History of GMO

1980 the first genetically modified mouse was produced.

1982 a giant mouse produced by transferring growth hormone genes from a rat.

1983 the first GMO plant was produced— a antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant. In the same year bacterial genes were inserted into plants and a bean gene into a sunflower plant. More dramatic still, the gene for human growth hormone was inserted into a mouse embryo. The resulting adult mouse was double the normal size.

1984 the first long-life tomato was put on the market.

1985 First GMO domestic animal, a pig, was produced.

1987 A series of GMO mice were produced, carrying human genes, all used for medical research.

1988 GMO maize (mentioned before)

1990 an enzyme used to make cheese was produced.

1992 the SA government approved the first controlled field trials with GMO crops. These were for genetically modified cotton.

1993 a hormone used to increase milk production in dairy cows was inserted into a bacterium. This bacterium produces large amounts of the hormone which is then injected back into cattle. This increases milk production by up to 25 %.

1997 the SA Department of Agriculture issued the first commercial release permits for GMO cotton and genetically modified maize (herbicide-tolerant maize and insect-resistant maize)

In the years that followed, a wide variety of crops were developed, including soya, potatoes, rice, fruit and vegetables, dairy products, eggs, meat and chicken. Genetically engineered foods saturate our diet today. We eat them without knowing in tomato sauce, ice cream, bread, margarine and peanut butter, processed foods, vegetable oils, soft drinks and salad dressings. Even baby food contains high levels of GMO maize but this was not shown on the label.

Farmers in South Africa are finding GMO crops profitable. 2,3 million hectares were planted to GMO crops in 2011. In 2012 this went up to 2,9 million hectares.  In America, 85% of corn, 91% of soybeans, and 88% of cotton are genetically modified. Many other countries are following suit. The latest statistics show that in 2012, 17,3 million farmers in 28 countries planted over 170 million hectares to GMO crops. All this in the 17 years since GMO crops were commercialised!

The  big Corporations that produce the GMO products, such as Monsanto, claim that GMO foods are safe. They argue that changing a few genes here and there does not make a crop toxic or dangerous.

Others disagree. Activists claim that the long-term effects on health and environment are unknown, that the risks are enormous and that by the time we find out how damaging GMO products are, it will be too late. Once GMO seeds are introduced to an area, the genie is out of the bottle for keeps. Activists point out since GMO products have been introduced into our food, there has been an upsurge of diseases such as asthma, cancer, allergies, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes.

One of the dangers is that GMO products can have a devastating impact on the environment if they are allowed to escape into the wild. Because of this, most GMO animals must be sterilized. GMO plants, however, have already escaped. This includes two varieties of herbicide-resistant canola which now grow along roadsides in North Dakota. Each of the varieties was engineered to be resistant to a particular herbicide, but the two strains interbred in the wild and have produced a feral hybrid which now exhibits resistance to both herbicides.

Although herbicide resistance may not seem like a dire threat, imagine if these plants were to invade wheat or corn fields. They are resistant to two of the most common herbicides so they cannot be killed as traditional weeds would. They could soon take over fields, requiring the use of new poisons, adding to the load of chemicals already being dumped onto the land.

The bt toxin in maize and sweet corn protects the plant by rupturing the stomach of insects that feed on it. Monsanto claims that the toxin will break down before it reaches your dinner plate, but rats fed on the GMO corn showed organ failure and the toxin has been detected in pregnant women.

Activists accuse Monsanto of hiding the true results of trials conducted to test GMO Products. Scientists who studied the effects of GMO food on animals report all kinds of health problems including stunted growth, impaired immune system, allergies and fertility problems. Monsanto reacted by hounding and threatening the scientists and journalists who dared publish the results.

Birds and Bees: A recent report by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation, states that “a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically related to nicotine, are destroying our planets bee population, and which if left unchecked could destroy our world’s ability to grow enough food to feed its population.”

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s not. It is all too true.

GMO Humans: An article in the Daily Mail reveals that the world’s first genetically modified humans have been created in the US. 30 healthy babies have been born to women who had problems conceiving. Extra genes from a female donor were inserted into their eggs before they were fertilised in an attempt to enable them to conceive. Genetic tests on the children confirm that they have inherited DNA from three adults –two women and one man.

The fact that the children have inherited the extra genes and incorporated them into their ‘germline’ means that they will, in turn, be able to pass them on to their own offspring.  Geneticists believe that one day GMO will  be used to create a new race of humans with extra characteristics such as strength, high intelligence, disease resistance, longevity and whatever else the parents may want for their offspring. That day may not as far off as we think!

Monsanto: A few giant companies are at the centre of the GMO controversy. The largest and most powerful is Monsanto. It has been labelled the most hated corporation on earth. And with good reason. This is the company that not only contaminated a town in Alabama with a cancer-causing chemical known as PCB, but covered up this pollution for decades. It is also responsible for creating Agent Orange, the defoliant used during the war in Vietnam.

When Rachel Carson wrote ‘The Silent Spring,” pointing out the dangers of DDT and other chemicals  made by Monsanto, she was aggressively targeted and called “a hysterical woman.’ Their tactics haven’t changed. Scientists who dare criticise GMO products are ridiculed as scaremongers.

Today Monsanto is better known for it GMO crops. It is the world’s biggest producer of GMO products, responsible for 95 % of world plantings. Their most widely grown crops, maize, canola, sugar beet and soya, are specifically engineered for resistance to Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup. Chemicals in Roundup have been linked to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson, cancer and gut diseases, as well as having serious impacts on fish, soil bacteria and other ecological processes. Besides being used with these crops, Roundup is widely used on lawns and golf courses.

Farmers like these crops because they can kill weeds by spraying with Roundup without damaging their crops. However, Monsanto makes them sign an agreement which prevents them from replanting their own seeds, forcing them to buy fresh seed every year. Any farmer who tries to sidestep this is relentlessly tracked down and sued. A recent report shows that Monsanto has been awarded $23 million from lawsuits against farmers and small businesses.

The Pegasus Project is a thriller about the search for a bio-fuel that will grow in marginal and desert-like soils and so replace our reliance on oil without taking up land needed to grow food. That research is taking place in real life right now. In my book I paint a scenario of what might happen if that research happens to fall into the wrong hands. I like scary stories so enjoyed writing it. I hope readers will enjoy reading it and, at the same time, learn a little about the pros and cons of GMO products.  Available from www.melange-books.com

My thriller THE PEGASUS PROJECT is fiction but this warning, issued by agricultural scientists, demonstrates the all too-real-danger of an alien plant running out of control.  http://www.melange-books.com/

Toxic plant threatens farms, health

Durban – One of the world’s worst invader weeds is spreading across KwaZulu-Natal and the eastern parts of the country, threatening to overrun the crops of subsistence farmers, choke game reserves and possibly cause serious skin allergies and other health problems for people.

The white-flowered Parthenium plant from Central America – also known as “famine weed” in India and Ethiopia where it has caused major crop losses for poor farmers – is toxic to people and animals and contains chemicals which can poison the soil and roots of a variety of crops and plants.

In Bangalore and other parts of India, up to 20 percent of people in heavily infested areas were reported to have developed severe allergic reactions to the plant, including skin rashes, asthma, hayfever and blistered skin.

In Ethiopia, sorghum crop yields dropped by as much as 97 percent because of dense infestation, while studies in Australia estimated that beef farmers suffered multimillion-dollar losses after pasture land was overrun.

In South Africa, the weed has spread into northern KZN from Swaziland and Mozambique. Although the heaviest infestation is still north of the MfoloziRiver, the prolific seeds of the weed have “leap-frogged” their way as far south as Durban.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife ecologists are so worried by the rapid spread that they have suggested setting up spray-booths to wash down high-risk vehicles entering major game reserves.

This is because seeds can get stuck in the mud and dust underneath cars and trucks which have passed through heavily infested areas.

Ezemvelo ecologist Ian Rushworth told a conservation seminar last week the weed could mature from a seed to a flowering plant in just four weeks and continue to reproduce throughout the winter months in some areas of KZN.

“The invasion in South Africa is relatively recent but is happening with alarming speed, and this species is likely to become the most damaging invasive alien species ever encountered,” Ezemvelo ecologists warned in a draft strategy document on how to contain the problem.

“We have a very short window of opportunity to get on top of it. But if we leave it for another season it will be very difficult to stop this species getting out of control,” said Rushworth.

So far, there have been no reports of human skin allergies or respiratory problems in KZN associated with the plant, although black rhinos in the Phongola Nature Reserve were photographed earlier this year with swollen eyes and bright pink lips while browsing in an area with dense stands of famine weed.

One of the reasons for the rapid spread is the ability of adult plants to generate up to 15 000 viable seeds each.

I met Miss Kate Champion in 1952, while working in Alpha House, a small nursing home in Musgrave Road, Durban. When I walked into her room on my first night on duty, I was struck by her appearance. Although eighty-three and obviously frail, she was still a fine-looking woman with strong features, a mop of white hair and lively, bright eyes. Propped up by pillows, she sat reading a book that looked far too heavy for her to hold.

She glanced up over her glasses as I came in. I introduced myself, asked whether she’d like tea or Milo before settling down for the night and enquired whether she would like something to help her sleep.

“Good gracious, no,” she replied, horrified at the thought. “I sleep far too much as it is. But I’d like a cup of tea and…” She paused, eyeing me thoughtfully. “And maybe a little company. Why don’t you join me when everyone else is asleep? Night duty can be very lonely. And taxing. I know because I’m a nurse too. Or used to be when I was younger.”

“Oh!” I tried to imagine her slight figure in a white, starched uniform. “Where did you work?”

“In several places—Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Ladysmith.” She drew in her breath. “I nursed there during the siege.”

I frowned, wondering whether I’d heard correctly. “Siege?”

“The siege of Ladysmith. I’ll tell you about it if you’re interested.

The siege… I’d heard about it in the same way I’d heard about the concentration camps and the battles that had been fought during the Boer war, but it had all happened a long time ago, long before I was born, and history was not my strong point. The thought of hearing about the siege firsthand, from someone who’d actually been there, sparked my interest.

“I’d like that very much,” I said. “If you’re not too tired, maybe you can tell me when you’ve had your tea.”

It took a while to settle the rest of the patients but when I got back, carrying a tray, Miss Champion was wide awake, waiting for me. I poured two cups of tea then sat back and  listened while she reminisced.

She told her story in bits and pieces, some that night, some the next, some in the nights that followed, each episode so extraordinary I could hardly wait to hear the next. This is the gist of what she told me:

“I volunteered for the front the day war broke out. I was in Durban at the time and was told to report to the station where I and other volunteers took the overnight train to Ladysmith. We arrived the next morning to find a town filled with tents—thousands and thousands, crammed together, pitched on every spare piece of land. I learnt later that there were 13,000 troops stationed in the town so it was no wonder there were so many tents.

“The hospital had been set up in the town hall. By the time I arrived, it was full of casualties. The wounded were brought in from the battlefields in ambulance wagons, at times so many that they lined up, one behind the other, waiting for hours on end before we could attend to the men.

“The siege began about three weeks after I got there, on 2nd November 1899. We were told that the Boers had taken up position on the hills surrounding Ladysmith and that, as the rail and telephone lines had been cut, we would have to survive as best we could until the army broke through and relieved us. That news was bad enough, but things got worse because soon after that the Boers began firing shells into town. The church was hit several times and one landed on the town hall, killing some of our wounded.

“The next day General White sent a message to the Boer general asking permission to move our wounded to a place where they would be safe. General Joubert agreed, and a place some five miles from Ladysmith was declared a no-man’s land. It was called Intombi Camp. We were given twenty-four hours to set up the tents we would need to accommodate our patients and staff. After that, a train carrying white flags would be allowed in once a day to bring supplies and more patients. It returned empty because, once in Intombi Camp, no one—whether it be doctors, nurses, patients or general staff—were allowed to leave.

“Intombi Camp… I remember it quite clearly—the tents, the heat, the cold, the mud, the flies, the shells screaming overhead and the stench. We had one hundred beds to start off with. That soon increased to three hundred. Then a thousand. Then two thousand. When we ran out of beds, we placed mattresses on the ground. When we ran out of mattresses, the patients lay on blankets or groundsheets.

“Nursing in those conditions was very difficult. We had no running water and only the most basic equipment. Latrines were no more than open pits. We were short of linen, blankets and worse still, medicines.

“Each day the train brought more casualties, men with terrible wounds which, in spite of our best efforts, often turned gangrenous. Then typhoid broke out—a very bad epidemic that killed more men than Boer bullets. Doctors and nurses went down with it too. When things got really bad, the deaths totalled as many as fifty a day.

“The dead were sewn up in blankets and buried in the cemetery on a nearby hill. We could see the white crosses quite clearly from our tents. As time went by, the grave diggers had a hard time keeping up with the need. When they could no longer cope, they gave up digging individual graves and dug a long trench instead. There the dead were placed side by side and covered with earth.

“We were terribly short staffed. For weeks on end, no one took time off. Doctors and nurses worked round the clock, snatched what sleep we could then got up and carried on working. When the fever was at its height, a nurse sometimes had as many as sixty patients under her care.

“News came once a day with the train. Sometimes the news was good and we had high hopes that relief was on its way. Then bad news came—our troops had suffered heavy losses at Colenso and Spionkop. As time went by, we began to think we’d be there besieged forever.

“Everyone had the same rations dished out each day—a little mieliemeal, two slices of bread, a few tealeaves, a spoonful of sugar and half a pound of meat. The rations were later cut to half and then a quarter. When food began to run out, the cavalry horses were killed and we were reduced to eating horsemeat. A soup made from this meat was fed to the patients.

“A few days after New Year, we woke to the sound of gunfire and rushed out of our tents to see a fierce battle taking place on Wagon Hill, about two miles away. This made everyone very nervous for it seemed the Boers had attacked and were trying to take the town. The battle raged on for about eight hours, until the Boers retreated. The next day, when the supply train arrived, it was full of men with the most dreadful wounds. We knew that many of them had little chance of surviving.

“Towards the end of February we heard the sound of heavy battles taking place to the south. Then, one morning, we woke to an eerie silence. Later that day a group of horsemen came riding into Intombi Camp to tell us that the Boers had fled and that the relief column was on its way. After four long months the siege was over.”

I lost touch with Miss Champion when I left Alpha House, but I never forgot her or her amazing story. Years later, when visiting the battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal, I stood for a long time on the site of Intombi Camp and stared out at the white crosses that marked the cemetery. In my mind’s eye I could see the tent town that had housed the field hospital and the staff who’d worked there. I could almost hear the whistle of the supply train and the shriek of shells as they flew overhead. And, for just a moment, I fancied I saw the white-uniformed figure of Nurse Kate Champion making her way towards the big marquee where her patients lay.

Sister Amelia was our Catechism teacher. She told us about Adam and Eve, Noah’s Arc, the Tower of Babel and every other story in the Old Testament, then worked her way systematically through the New. In between, we learnt about popes and saints, the miracles they worked and why martyrs went to heaven. We also learnt a great deal about hell. Sister Amelia’s description of what took place down there gave me nightmares for months.

Sister Amelia made sure we knew all we needed to know about going to Confession. She explained why it wouldn’t do to pop into the confessional any old time, and blurt out the first sin that happened to come into our heads. Such a hit-or-miss way of going about things would not do at all. People so slapdash ran the risk of committing the most deadly sin of all.

“What’s that?” I asked.

Sister Amelia drew herself up and shuddered, as though just thinking about it was enough to give her the horrors. “Omitting a sin. If you don’t confess all your sins when you go to confession, it’s as good as taking a ticket straight down to hell.”

“But suppose we forget one?” The thought of ending up in hell because of an oversight was alarming.

Sister Amelia smiled. My question was the exact one she’d been hoping to hear. “You won’t forget if you examine your conscience carefully and methodically.”

No one wanted to go to hell so we listened attentively as Sister Amelia explained how to avoid this awful error. It was a relief to discover that all we needed to remember was the Ten Commandments.

“Every sin, from murder down to a tiny one such as stealing a pin, is mentioned in the Ten Commandments. And, what’s more, they’re all numbered. So, when you confess your sins, make sure you keep them in numerical order. That way you won’t leave one out. And, besides, it’s less confusing for Father Zimmerman.”

Father Zimmerman was a short, podgy man who spoke with a strong German accent. His Sunday sermons were, for the most part dull and boring, guaranteed to put the congregation to sleep. Occasionally he woke them up with talk of hellfire and damnation. I liked those sermons best. One minute he would be droning on and on, the next shaking his fist in the air and shouting at the top of his voice.

Sister Amelia went to a lot of trouble to make sure we knew how to peg each sin to the right Commandment. Except the sin of adultery. When she came to that commandment she simply waved a hand and said; “Adultery is a sin of impurity. Don’t worry about it now. You’ll find out all you need to know about impurity when you grow older.”

I puzzled over that a bit, wondering how we would find out, and when exactly, then shrugged the thought away. Impurity was just another puzzle to add to a long list of questions without answers.

As time went by, my nervousness disappeared. Confession became no more than another routine, weekly event. My sins were few and insignificant. This was not because I was angelic by nature, but because the chance of doing anything really wicked did not occur. At St Dominic’s, we were under surveillance from the time we woke in the morning, till we went to bed at night. Every book we read was censored. Home was a forest-station where activities were restricted to board games, reading, or taking leisurely walks. The sins I whispered into Father Zimmerman’s ear must have bored him to tears.

Things may have gone on the same way for ever had Sister Agnes not taken ill. When she failed to appear at bedtime, we milled about the dormitory, whispering, wondering what could have happened to her.

“Something awful,” Betty whispered. “Sister Agnes is never late, not by a second.”

“Maybe she’s had an accident,” someone suggested.

“Maybe she’s dead.”

“Maybe she ran away.”

“Like the headless nun.”

“With a man…”

The last idea was so ridiculous, we burst out giggling. And once started, couldn’t stop. We looked around guiltily, half expecting Sister Agnes to sweep through the door and pounce on us. When it became plain our fears were groundless, the giggles became louder and turned to laughter.

Betty picked up a pillow and threw it at me. I picked it up and threw it back. In no time at all, pillows were flying every which way, accompanied by squeals of laughter. At last, hot and sweaty, but still giggling, we flopped onto our beds.

And then, taking us by surprise, Rita told a joke, the first smutty joke I had ever heard in my life. It was so outrageous that I listened in shocked silence. Then, quite suddenly, laughter burst from me in great, shaking waves.

“Oh no!” I cried. “Oh no. How could you, Rita? How could you? Wherever did you hear such an awful, awful joke?”

Rita was not in the least put out. She grinned. “Do you want to hear another?”

“Another?” My mouth dropped open. “You know another?”

She did. And another after that. And another, and another, each a little more outrageous than the last. Then someone else told a joke. I held my sides, rocking with laughter. It was the best fun I’d had in my whole life.

Everyone in the dormitory was hooting with laughter when Betty gave a warning whistle. “Shh…” she whispered. “Someone’s coming. Put out the light. Quick. Hurry!”

By the time Sister Thomasina walked into the dormitory, everyone was in bed with eyes closed. She snapped on the light, stared around for a couple of seconds, then switched it off again. The next morning, we learned that Sister Agnes had been rushed to hospital for emergency surgery.

“You must pray for her,” Sister Thomasina said. “Pray she makes a speedy recovery.”

The days passed, one after the other. As they did, memory of the fun and laughter slipped from my mind. Until Friday. Confession day. That was when memory came back with a bump. And with it a gut-twisting panic. How was I…how could I kneel in the confessional and tell Father Zimmerman that I’d listened to dirty jokes? And worse—that I’d laughed at them? How could I possibly? I squirmed at the thought. Suppose he asked for details? Suppose he wanted to know about the old woman locked in the lavatory? Or the man who ate baked beans on the train? Or what happened when the outhouse was struck by lightening? I pushed the thought away. It was too awful, too ghastly, to contemplate!

But more ghastly still, was the thought of what might happen if I didn’t confess. I shivered as memory of Sister Amelia’s words came back: “Omitting a sin when you go to confession is as good as taking a ticket straight down to hell.”

The sin had to be confessed—there was no way around that—but there had to be some way of slipping it in so Father Zimmerman wouldn’t notice. I wracked my brains, only to come face to face with another problem: where in the Ten Commandments did the sin I’d committed fit in? Which numerical slot? I knelt for a long time, screwing up my eyes, and prayed for guidance.

The answer came quite suddenly, and once again, Sister Amelia’s voice came floating back. “Commandment number seven…adultery…the sin of impurity.”

I felt quite weak with relief. Of course! Of course! Not only was that the exact word I’d been searching for, but the correct numerical slot. Problem solved!

When my turn came, I walked into the confessional, knelt down, made the sign of the cross and murmured, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It is one week since my last confession.”

The words and Father Zimmerman’s softly spoken reply were comfortingly familiar. On the other side of the screen, his head tilted to one side as he waited for me to go on. His eyes closed. He wasn’t actually asleep, but I was pleased to note that he didn’t look wide awake either.

I began with sin number one, went on to two, then three… At seven I murmured, as softly as possible, “and Father, I have been impure.”

Father Zimmerman’s head jerked up. He coughed, then his chair scraped against the floor as he leaned forward to ask, “I’m sorry…I don’t seem to have heard. Would you mind repeating that?”

I shifted from one knee to the other, swallowed hard, then took a deep breath and raised my voice to a hoarse whisper. “I said…I said…Father, I have been impure.”

This time there was no doubt that Father Zimmerman had heard. He gasped. His mouth opened and closed a couple of times then, with an obvious effort, he pulled himself together and asked, “Impure? My child, with who?”

Sweat broke out under my armpits and prickled the small of my back. I wanted to get out of that dark, stuffy room as quickly as possible, so I told him straight. “With all the girls in the dormitory, Father. That’s who.”

For a moment, I thought he was having a heart attack. He swayed in his chair, and went quite purple in the face. His glasses must have misted up because he took them off and rubbed them with his handkerchief, then put them back on again.

“Tell me, my child,” he said sternly. “Tell me exactly what you…and all those girls in the dormitory did.”

I knew that telling a lie would send me to hell. But I also knew I was not going to tell Father Zimmerman those jokes. Not one. Wild horses could not have dragged them from me.

“Sister Agnes was away, so we had a bit…a bit of fun,” I told him grudgingly. “We laughed most of the time.”

“Laughed? Laughed?” His voice was shocked, as though he could scarcely believe his ears. He made the sign of the cross, pulled his chair closer, and began asking questions. They were the strangest, weirdest questions I had ever heard. I had no idea what he was getting at, but that made us quits because I made sure the answers I gave were so vague that he couldn’t possibly understand what I was talking about either.

It was a long while before it dawned on me that we were talking about two different things. Completely. My face went hot, then cold, then hot again. There was a roaring in my ears. The roar grew louder and louder, till I could stand it no longer and rushed out of the church.

Sister Amelia saw me, and did her best to persuade me go back in again. She begged, pleaded and threatened, but nothing she said made the slightest difference. I’d made up my mind. I wasn’t going back into that confessional. Not then. Not ever.

I never did. That was the last time I went to confession.

While doing research for The Pegasus Project, I came across the following facts:

  • DNA  from florescent jellyfish has been injected into a fertilized rabbit egg  to produce a rabbit that glows in the dark. The same DNA was used to produce sheep, pigs, cats and dogs that glow in the dark.
  • Human growth hormone inserted into a mouse embryo has resulted in an adult mouse double the normal size.
  • GM pigs will be used to grow organs that can be transplanted into humans.  These pigs are genetically modified to contain 6 human genes that partially “humanize” them in order to prevent rejection by the immune system of organ recipients.
  • The  Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation claim that a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically related to nicotine, are destroying our planets bee population. If left unchecked this could destroy our world’s ability to grow enough food to feed its population.”
  •  96 percent of the vegetable varieties our ancestors ate in 1903 are now extinct.
  • The latest statistics show that in 2012, 17,3 million farmers in 28 countries planted over 170 million hectares to GM crops. All this in the 17 years  since GM crops were commercialised!

The Pegasus Project is a thriller about the search for a super bio-fuel and what might go wrong if that research fell into the wrong hands. A frightening and all-too-possible scenario. The book is available from http://www.melange-books.com/ and the author at dafol@mymtnmail.co.za

Happy Valley Farm

            A farm! After years of working and saving, hoping and dreaming, Andrew and I were about to leave the city and head into the country to our very own farm. After signing the document that made Happy Valley Farm in the district of Thornville, KwaZulu-Natal ours, Kids -Happy Valley Farmwe walked home on a cloud, hardly able to believe our good luck. No more rat race, no more smog, no more traffic jams. Instead, we could look forward to fresh air, home-grown veggies, eggs from free-range hens and milk, butter and cream from the dairy herd we planned to buy.

The fact that we were city folk with no experience of farming, didn’t worry us in the least. Our shelves were packed with manuals on every aspect of agriculture, from ploughing, planting and animal husbandry to poultry, tomatoes, strawberries and beekeeping. And a whole lot more besides. With so much knowledge at our fingertips, what could possibly go wrong? On that bright, sunny day in 1973, we were confident we could cope with whatever might lie ahead.

Although showing signs of age, the rambling old farmhouse had everything we could wish for—an enormous kitchen, lounge with fireplace, an outdoor entertainment area and ample space for our large family. From the verandah, one could look out over the whole farm. Water sparkled on a dam way down in the valley. The hill beyond stretched to the horizon. A plantation of pine trees marked one boundary. Tall blue-gums, growing close to the house, offered protection against the weather. Some distance away, in a grassy paddock, was the barn, dairy and a scattering of stables and sheds.

In the days leading up to the big move, we wrote lists. I kept four—what to take, what to leave behind, what to do and what to buy. The latter contained items such as seeds, fertilizer, fruit trees, tractor and a pump for the irrigation system Andrew planned to install. The item on top of my, ‘What to do’ list was, ‘party’. Achieving our lifelong dream was an occasion to celebrate, and that was what we aimed to do just as soon as we were settled.

Our friends were delighted to receive an invitation to a housewarming party at HappyValley farm. “Come for the weekend,” we told them. “Bring the children. The kids can sleep in the barn. There’s a mountain of hay in there, and they’ll be warm enough wrapped up in a blanket or sleeping bag.”

This news was greeted by our own children with wild excitement. A sleep-out in a barn! That was something they’d surely be able to boast about to their city friends. They ticked off the days on a calendar, hardly able to wait for the big day—or rather night—to arrive.

A wintery wind gusted through the trees as our guests drove through the gate, but it was warm inside the house and, once the festivities began, the weather was soon forgotten. The wind picked up as time went by. I heard it rattling the roof and whistling through the trees, but took little notice until, round about midnight, I happened to glance out a window and saw a dull glow on the horizon. I stepped outside, sniffed and breathed in a whiff of smoke. As I watched, the glow brightened. A shower of sparks lit the sky. And then… and then flames flowed over the crest of the hill and came rolling towards us.

“Fire!” I yelled. “Fire. The whole farm is on fire.”

My yells brought everyone running. For a few seconds, our guests stood speechless, eyes wide with shock. Then Andrew shouted, “The barn! Get the kids out of the barn. Hurry! For God’s sake, run.”

The thought of what might happen if the fire reached the barn before us sent everyone racing, breathless with haste, hearts hammering in chests. It took a while to rouse the children, longer to get them up and longer still to get them out of the barn and up to the house.  By the time they were settled on mattresses on the floor, the fire had reached the dam. We watched in horror as it swept across the wetland and began a remorseless climb towards our house.

It struck us then that nothing in our manuals had prepared us for this situation. We’d read about runaway fires, felt sympathy for the victims, but never, in our worst nightmare, imagined anything so awful happening to us. Given a week or two, we may have had the staff and equipment to fight a fire. That was high on our list of things to do. But we didn’t have two weeks. Or even a day. The fire was here, now, and growing closer by the minute. We sprinkled water on the lawn and stood by, ready to beat the flames with branches cut from nearby trees. That was as much as we could do. I hoped it would be enough to save the house and those inside.

The fire licked the edge of the pine plantation, caught hold and, with a loud crackle, sent a flame shooting high into the sky. Sparks showered down. Wind scattered them and, suddenly, the plantation was a raging inferno. Smoke billowed as, with terrifying speed, flames leapt from tree to tree. Each flared briefly, brighter than any Christmas tree, only to collapse and send up yet another shower of sparks.

The air was thick with smoke and, as the fire drew closer, we faced the fact that soon—very soon—we might have to pack children, dogs, cats and as many valuables as we could gather into our cars and flee for our lives.

And then, taking us by surprise, a truck came roaring down the road. It was followed by another and another. And yet another. As they came to a halt, men spilled out—dozens of men carrying water-filled knapsacks, wet sacks, tree branches and all the equipment needed to fight a fire.

One of the men walked up to Andrew and held out his hand. “The name’s Edwin Lucht. I live on the farm next door.” He waved to the others. “We’re all neighbours. We saw the fire and came to give a hand.” He paused to squint up at the flames. “She’s a bad one. It sure looks like you could do with a spot of help.”

“Thank you,” Andrew began. “Thank you so much. We’ve just moved in and—” but Edwin brushed his words aside.

“We’re neighbours. We help each other when we can. That’s how things work in this part of the world. Now, how about we quit talking and get on with the job?” Without waiting for a reply he turned and, calling instructions, set his team to work.

Andrew and several of our guests joined them. The rest of us sat watching as, little by little, the fire was halted and, section by section, snuffed out. Hours passed. I lost track of time, but it was close to dawn before the last embers died and the men came trudging back, bone weary and covered in ash. I handed out mugs of coffee. It disappeared down parched throats. Then, with a goodbye wave, our neighbours climbed back into their trucks and set off the way they had come.

When the sun rose, we looked out at a strange, new landscape. The tawny veldt of yesterday was gone. In its place was a vast area of blackened earth. The pine trees were no more than a layer of ash. Smoke rose from the skeletal remains of blue-gums but, thankfully, there was not a flame to be seen.

We counted our blessings. The grass would soon grow green again. Our house was intact. No one had been injured. No animals had died in the fire. The barn and dairy sheds had been spared. Best of all, we’d met the neighbours. Not quite in the way we’d envisioned, but we knew, beyond doubt, that we’d made good friends—friends we could count on for help when the need arose. And, suddenly, in spite of the devastation surrounding us, the future looked bright.

Genetically modified humans 

GMOs have created controversy across the world with people either for it, or bitterly opposed. There have been protest marches, lawsuits involving millions of dollars and violent clashes. So what’s all the fuss about? Man has been using selective breeding for thousands of years. By selecting wild grasses, grains such as wheat, rice and maize have evolved. From the wolf, dogs as different as the Great Dane and Chihuahua have been produced. But in all those years, breeding has only been done within a species. As one scientist said, “A pig can mate with a pig, and a tomato can mate with a tomato. But there is no way that a pig can mate with a tomato and vice versa.” Genetic engineering makes that possible.

GM  products are plants or animals that have been produced by taking DNA from one species and inserting it into another, totally unrelated species. The process transfers genes across barriers that kept species apart for millions of years. These genetically modified plants can spread and interbreed with natural plants and so contaminate environments in unforeseeable and uncontrollable ways. 

The Pegasus Project is a thriller about the search for a super bio-fuel and what might go wrong if that research fell into the wrong hands. A frightening and all-too-possible scenario. The book is available from http://www.melange-books.com/ and the author at dafol@mymtnmail.co.za 

GM is not confined to plants and animals. Genetically modified humans are already with us. An article in the Daily Mail reveals that the world’s first genetically modified humans have been created in the US. 30 healthy babies have been born to women who had problems conceiving. My short sci-fi story, Rock-a-bye Baby, paints a picture of what life might be like in the not-too-distant future. To read it click on  ‘My Sci-fi stories’ page.