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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > January 26, 2008 > How GM Crops Endanger Environment and Agriculture

Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 6

How GM Crops Endanger Environment and Agriculture

Saturday 26 January 2008, by Bharat Dogra


Recent advances in genetic engineering have emerged as one of the most important influences on the future of agricultural and food systems. With genetically engineered crops spreading rapidly to millions of hectares in countries like the USA (which export food to many countries) this is a crucial time to carefully examine the many sided impacts of genetic engineering on agriculture.

The science of genetics was transformed by the discovery of DNA and the steady increase in knowledge about this molecule which carries the hereditary information in the cells. The structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the same for all living organisms; what differs is the precise ordering of the chemical base in the DNA molecule. This is what makes each creature unique. So several scientists started thinking that they can modify life forms by changing this ordering. Some scientists, including those supported by big business, tried to alter the genetic make-up of living things by transferring specific genes from one organism to another.

Particularly in the context of agriculture and animal husbandry, this technology has far-reaching implications as it allows the introduction into plants and animals of entirely new characteristics, including genes originally found in unrelated plants, animals or micro-organisms. This is very different from traditional breeding practices, and we need time to consider all its possible impacts. However, the technology is spreading so fast that very adverse consequences can result even before we have the time to understand the implications. At a very early stage of its development this technology has got heavily concentrated in the hands of a few giant corporations which are interested in its quick commercial exploitation to recover their investments and reap profits. In the process, critics fear, very serious and irreversible damage can be caused to our environment, to our food system and to the health of millions of people.

A lot of discussion on this issue has concentrated too narrowly on whether the GM crops helped to increase per acre productivity. In this context the experience generally has been that the high expectations created by big companies promoting GM crops were not justified. In some cases the yields for a short initial period were indeed high, creating a rush for the new seeds, but after some time such expectations could not be maintained. On the other hand, there are many examples of farmers who invested their meagre resources and borrowed heavily to buy expensive GM seeds and other supporting inputs (for example, herbicides linked to these seeds) but later felt betrayed as the low yield left them indebted and saddled with debts. There were even reports of suicides by these farmers. There have been allegations of GM crops like Bt cotton being introduced in rainfed areas like those of Vidarbha (India) for which these were not suited.

WHILE a careful study of these experiences is necessary, we also need to look beyond the narrow questions of short-term productivity changes to examine the question of long-term, even permanent, threats to environment and natural farming systems. Several of these threats were examined at an international conference of scientists involved in studying the implication and impacts of genetic engineering. This conference on ‘Redefining the Life Sciences’ was organised at Penang, Malaysia, by the Third World Network. These scientists and experts issue a statement called the Penang Statement (PS).

This statement listed a wide range of potential adverse effects of genetic engineering. Of particular concern is the difficulty or impossibility of recalling GEOs which have been released into the environment, or which have escaped from containment and later found to have adverse effects.

The potential ecological risks of applying genetic engineering to agriculture include the possibility that some transgenic crops could become noxious weeds, and others could become a conduit through which new genes may move to wild plants which themselves could then become weeds. The new weeds could adversely affect farm crops as well as wild ecosystems. Similarly, genetically engineered fish, shellfish and insects could become pests under certain conditions.

Plants are presently being engineered to contain parts of a virus in order to become virus-resistant. Some scientists have raised the possibility that widespread use of transgenic virus-resistant plants in agriculture may lead to new strains of viruses or allow a virus to infect a new host. There are concerns that the creation of new viral strains and the broadening of the virus’s host may increase the risks of new viral diseases that adversely affect crops and other plants. Mechanisms have been described whereby genetically engineered plants could plausibly give rise to new plant diseases.

In addition, this statement warns that the rapid spread of transgenic crops poses a threat to traditional crop varieties and wild plants that are the major sources of crop genetic diversity.

Some traits of organisms may take decades or even longer to manifest themselves. An organism declared ‘safe’ in the short term could eventually prove to be dangerous.

Another ecological risk is the possibility that field or forestry plants engineered to express toxic substances like pesticides and pharmaceutical drugs may poison certain nontarget organisms. Transgenes for insecticidal or fugicidal compounds that are introduced into crops to inhibit pests may unintentionally kill non-target and beneficial insects and fungi. Transgenic crops used to manufacture drugs or industrial oils and chemicals could potentially harm animals, insects and soil microorganisms.

The possible chemical contamination of surface-water and ground-water by microorganisms or plants with unusual or accelerated metabolic processes is a special concern because of the crucial importance of water for all life. It may be impossible to recall and difficult to control harmful GEOs, especially those that may contaminate ground-water.

This statement adds that developing countries in particular face special risks:

Third World countries face even greater environmental risks than countries of the North because, in contrast, they have many wild relatives of many crops and thus there are more opportunities for various kinds of rogue species to be created.

Moreover, most Third World countries currently have less scientific expertise and legal or regulatory capacity to monitor, assess and control activities involving genetically engineered organisms, and are thus even more vulnerable to adverse impacts.

Developing countries can learn from the experience of Argentina, a country which took up growing GM Soy in a big way in the late 90s. This was supposed to lead to a reduction in the use of herbicides and pesticides. But GM Soy growers registered a 10-fold increase in the use of herbicides (compared to conventional farmers) in five years— Charles Benbrook, former Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture of the US National Academy of Science commented:

Argentina faces big agronomic problems that it neither has the resources nor the expertise to solve. The country has adopted GM technology—based on the current use of RR (Roundup Ready, a herbicide made by Monsanto). I don’t think its agriculture is sustainable for more than a couple of years.

TRANSGENIC contamination (contamination of the natural environment by GM crops, or genetically modified organisms or GMOs) by cross-pollination, by wind or in other ways is well established. The unintended effects of GM crops on environment and normal crops are of crucial significance. As a writ petition in the Supreme Court of India by Aruna Rodrigues and others has argued,
The GE (genetic engineering) process itself is achieved through Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT) because it moves genetic material between organisms, which are asynchronous with the reproduction of the organism, so genes can also be transferred between distant species that would never interbreed in nature. For example, human genes are transferred into rice and those from pig, sheep, fish and bacteria are transferred into plants. Thereafter, secondary, unintended HGT can take place from GE crops released into the environment and several serious examples of this insidious hazard connected with the GE process are available as evidence of the grave risks they pose for human and animal health and for the environment, including new strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria, new viruses and bacteria arising from those introduced into the transgenic plants, random secondary insertion into other unrelated organisms, causing harmful effects including cancer, reactivation of dormant viruses etc. For these reasons, concerns with HGT make the technology of GE highly unpredictable and also extremely dangerous and puts in doubt the safety of the GE process itself.

Due to the threat of contamination, it is difficult for normal crops or organic crops to remain free from the impact of GM crops once these have been released. As worldwide concern for food safety grows, it is likely that there will be increasing demand for organically grown crops and crops which are not contaminated by GM crops. Therefore we will be surrendering premium world markets if we allow our crops to be contaminated by GMOs. This is why organisations like those of rice exporters have also got involved in the campaigns against GMOs.

It also needs to be pointed out that it can be enormously expensive and difficult to recall a GM crop.

Star Link (corn engineered to contain a Bt toxin pesticide) was planted on less than 0.5 per cent of the US corn acereage, but its recall cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and even then the recall was not entirely successful.

In a widely quoted paper titled ‘The Biotechnology Bubble’ Dr. Mae-Wan Ho (who heads Bio-Electrodynamics lab of the Open University in the UK), Joe Cummins (Professor Emeritus of Genetics in Canada) and Hartmut Meyer have summarised the results of several experiments, trials and commercial releases of GMOs.

They write:

There are many signs of the problems caused in genetic engineering organisms. For every product that reaches the market, there are perhaps 20 or more that fail. It is particularly disastrous for animal welfare.

• The “superpig” engineered with human growth hormone gene turned out arthritic, ulcerous, blind and impotent.

• The ‘supersalmon” engineered, again, to grow as fast as possible, with genes belonging to other fish, ended up with big monstrous heads and died from not being able to see, breathe or feed properly.

• The latest clones of the transgenic sheep Dolly are abnormal and eight times as likely to die at birth compared with ordinary lambs.
Even products that reach the market are failing, including crops that have been widely planted.

• The Flavr savr tomato was a commercial disaster and has disappeared.

• Monsanto’s Bt-cotton, engineered with an insecticide from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, failed to perform in the field in both the US and Australia in 1996, and suffered excessive damages from Bt-resistant pests.

• Monsanto’s 1997 Roundup-resistant cotton crops fared no better. The cotton balls drop off when sprayed with Roundup and farmers in seven states in the US are seeking compensation for losses.

• The transgenic “Innovator” herbicide-tolerant canola failed to perform consistently in Canada. This has led the Saskatchewan Canola Growers Association to call for an official seed vigour test.

• A number of different viral-resistant transgenic plants engineered with a viral gene actually showed increased propensity to generate new, often super-infectious viruses by recombination.

• There is widespread instability of transgenic lines; they generally do not breed true.

Further this paper says:

• In a field trial of Bt-cotton in Thailand, 30 per cent of the bees around the test-fields died.

• Unilever used tissue culture techniques to regenerate oil palms for planing in Malaysia several years ago. This has now been abandoned as may plants aborted in the field or failed to flower.

The authors of this widely quoted paper (published in the Ecologist, May/June 1998) concluded:

It is important to realise that the failures are not just teething problems. They are very much the result of a reductionist science and a hit or miss technology. The transgenic foods created are unwholesome, because they involve stressing the developmental and metabolic system of organisms out of balance. There are bound to be unintended effects including toxins and allergens, which current risk assessments are designed to conceal rather than reveal. The major problem is the instability of transgenic lines.

PERHAPS the most controversial application of genetic engineering in agriculture relates to what has been called the ‘terminator technology’. In another widely discussed paper (published in the Ecologist, September/October 1998) Ricarda A. Steinbrecker (Science Director of the Genetics Forum UK) and Pat Roy Mooney (widely acclaimed winner of the Right to Livelihood Award) summarise the implications of this most controversial use of generic engineering.

On March 3rd, 1998 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a little-known cotton-seed enterprise called Delta and Pine Land Company, acquired US patent 5,723,765 - or the Technology Protection System (TPS). Within days, the rest of the world knew TPS as Terminator Technology. Its declared goal is to promulgate plants that will produce self-terminating offspring-suicide seeds. Terminator Technology epitomises what the genetic engineering of food crops is all about and gives an insight into the driving forces behind the corporate campaign to control and own life.

The Terminator does more than ensure that farmers can’t successfully replant their harvested seed. It is the “platform” upon which companies can load their proprietary genetic traits—patented genes for herbicide-tolerance or insect-resistance and get the farmers hooked on their seeds and caught in the chemical treadmill.

Further this paper says:

Most alarming though is the possibility that the Terminator genes themselves could infect the agricultural gene pool of the neighbour’s crops and of wild and weedy relatives, placing a time bomb. Temporary “gene silencing” of the poison gene or failed activation of the Terminator countdown enables such infection.

Between 15 and 20 per cent of the World’s food supply is grown by poor farmers who save their seed. These farmers feed at least 1.4 billion people. The Terminator “protects” companies by risking the lives of these people. Since Terminator Technology has absolutely zero agronomic benefit, there is no reason to jeopardise the food security of the poor by gambling with genetic engineering in the field. Whether the Terminator works immediately or later, in either instance it is biological warfare on farmers and food security.
The Terminator also portends a hidden dark side. As a Trojan Horse for other transgenic traits, the technology might also be used to switch any trait off or on. At least in theory, the technology points to the possibility that crop diseases could be triggered by seed exports that would not have to “kick in” immediately—or not until activated by specific chemicals or conditions. This form of biological warfare on people’s food and economics is becoming a hot topic in military and security circles.

Clearly the threat from GM crops to natural farming systems and environment is so serious that any commercial release cannot be allowed. Even any experimental trials should be asked to wait till definite ways to avoid hazards can be found.

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