26 August 2016
It came as quite a shock when Dr Mae-Wan Ho and her colleague, genetics Professor Joe Cummins, died within months of each other in April and January, respectively. Both were vociferous critics of GMOs, but it was Mae-Wan Ho's seminal book, Genetic Engineering, Dream or Nightmare? (1999), that flung the doors open for this unpredictable biotechnology to be hotly debated since the late 1990s.
Her funeral at London's Golders Green Crematorium was sombre and intimate: a celebration of her many achievements, culminating in the playing of Peter, Paul and Mary's 1960's political anthem, Where have all the flowers gone, when will they ever learn? Poignant lyrics by Pete Seeger, reflecting Mae-Wan Ho as a teacher and scientist on a world scale.
I first met Mae-Wan, aged 60, in 2001. She was youthful and compelling, a tiny dynamo full of intelligence, independence and a childlike charisma. Yet she inspired the respect of the white, male-dominated Western science community. I joined her Institute of Science in Society to help organise briefings in both the UK and European Parliaments, drawing attention to the threat to bees from the toxic weedkiller, glyphosate, marshalling efforts to keep GM crops out of Europe's fields and launching three groundbreaking reports: Food Futures Now, Which Energy? and Green Energies 100% Renewable by 2050 in response to the crises in food, farming and energy. And we set about circulating the radical journal Science in Society.
A major ally in coordinating our efforts within Westminster was the former Environment Minister Michael Meacher, whose death preceded Mae-Wan's by six months. He was sacked by Tony Blair in 2003, two weeks after speaking at our anti-GM meeting at Kings College. Michael's funeral was well attended, his Labour party colleagues Jeremy Corbyn and then leader, Ed Miliband, were also present.
Mae-Wan Ho's unshakeable dedication to a socially and ecologically accountable science often saw her called to address public hearings on food safety, where she warned the regulatory food agencies about the dangers of GM technology and, in particular, the hazards of horizontal gene transfer, while successfully rebutting claims that genetically altered foods are safe, made by manufacturers Monsanto, Aventis and Syngenta.
Among her mentors, the biophysicist Fritz Popp discoverer of biophotons emitted by living organisms and the process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, whose understanding that we are all an integrated part of a whole system, informed Mae-Wan's holistic theories challenging Darwin's mechanistic ideas of genetic determinism, inheritance and reductionism. She was a forceful critic of the dominant scientific paradigm in thrall of the industrial/military complex and quick to jump to the defence of the numerous scientists vilified for speaking out against it, including Dr Arpad Pusztai, the first to discover disease in rats fed GM potatoes (pictured right).
Besides this, Mae-Wan had other ambitions. Her research into the physics of the organism describes how our cells communicate and orchestrate in colourful coherence, which she playfully called 'Quantum Jazz', is explained in her illuminating books, Rainbow and the Worm and Living Rainbow H2O. Her flashing insights into circular thermodynamics and sustainable systems won her the prestigious Prigogine Gold Medal Award in 2014.
Mae-Wan grew up climbing trees on Hong Kong island. Fluent in several languages and showing early academic promise, she stunned a nun at her convent school by saying that she, 'understood the Trinity'. The nun's rejection of Mae-Wan's early ideas propelled her into a life-long quest for answers to life's big questions. Her last book, Meaning of Life & the Universe, completed just before she died, is her final answer.
Her popular Institute of Science in Society website www.i-sis.org.uk is held in a permanent archive by the British Library, an everlasting and inspiring resource for truth seekers everywhere.
Rt.Hon Michael Meacher, Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Prof Arpad Pusztai
Photos by (c) Sam Burcher 2003