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THE GENIE IN THE TEST TUBE

The worst nightmares of genetic engineering opponents in India seem to be coming true. Asia's burgeoning food market, and declining consumer and farmer confidence in genetically engineered products in Europe, Japan and the United States has made Asia the key target of the biotech industry, according to the international environmental group, Greenpeace. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will soon hit the urban markets in India, it warns.

Americans have been eating genetically engineered food since 1996, and if agrochemical giants like Monsanto have their way, Indian consumers may soon lose their right to choose between genetically engineered and natural produce. Already genetic engineers have produced foods such as strawberries with fish genes, potatoes with chicken genes, and other combinations thatcould never have occurred through natural breeding. There is no evidence that these foods are safe in our diet or the environment in the long run.

Dangers to the environment, warn scientists, include the loss of biodiversity, potential dangers to human health, loss of income and opportunities for small farmers, and control of the world food supplies by a few big seed companies.

GUINEA PIGS IN A GE EXPERIMENT?

While there are serious doubts about how rigorous governments are in their testing requirements for biotechnology products, critics also argue that the safety assessment methods available today are not sufficiently reliable, especially in the case of long-term effects. It was decades before the full dangers of pesticides such as DDT were known, or the ability of BSE (the agent that causes 'mad cow' disease) to also infect humans. Environmentalists demand that the precautionary principle -- that these products are presumed guilty before they are ruled innocent -- be followed, especially in the case of the new, relatively untested genetic engineering technology.

Fears that GM food is a "huge experiment with the human race as guinea pigs" are not totally unjustified. Tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers are some of the products now being produced on a vast scale. In the United States and Canada, genetically engineered potatoes and corn, which produce their own pesticide, are on the market. The long-term effects for entire populations eating foods containing the insect toxin are unknown. A long-suppressed U.S. Government memo dating to 1993 revealed an experiment in which 4 of 20 female rodents fed the FlavrSavr (a GM tomato now owned by Monsanto) suffered gross stomach lesions.

In the US, cows were given a genetically engineered hormone, rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), to produce more milk until fears of a link with breast cancer were reported. No other country besides the U.S. has approved rBGH for use within its borders. Despite these revelations, Indian officials had plans to introduce rBGH, or BST (bovine somatostatin), for use in India.

Eating genetically engineered food containing antibiotic resistance genes, could transfer these genes to pathogenic bacteria, that could acquire resistance to valuable antibiotics and become a health hazard. A number of observations have indicated this might indeed occur. Totally unrelated pathogens are now showing up with identical virulence and antibiotic resistance genes.

Most GM crops contain genes from non-food organisms including viruses, bacteria, insects and exotic animals. It is possible that in crop plants engineered with viral-resistance genes, natural genetic recombination and other biological processes, could give rise to new viruses,that could cause famine by destroying crops, or cause virulent human and animal diseases, say scientists. These fears were reinforced when fragments of viral genes inserted into foods and fed to baby mice, were detected in the mice's brain cells.

Genes from Brazil nuts introduced into a soybean, to improve its protein content, unknowingly transferred life-threatening allergens. With 2 percent of adults and 8 percent of children allergic to common foods, consumer advocates argue that GM foods need proper labelling. Labelling GM food as such, will allow food buyers to choose for themselves whether or not to accept this risk. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require labelling, but labelling of genetically engineered foods is required throughout Europe, and in Japan, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and other countries.

Insects are also being engineered to cause fatal abnormalities in crop pests or to be flying syringes that vaccinate people with every bite. Yet once released into the environment, the unintended side effects, or "biological pollution" from GM insects could lead to even greater problems than those they are intended to resolve. For example, the delivery of vaccines by altered insects could not be controlled, leading to harmful or even deadly adverse reactions in sensitive people. Just this month, scientists reported that when they attempted to develop a vaccine by genetic engineering, they accidentally developed a deadly bioweapon instead.

RECIPE FOR ECOLOGICAL DISASTER

GMOs pose the greatest risks to ecosystems, since they can become dynamic living parts of them. Our current knowledge does not provide us with the means to predict the long-term ecological effects of releasing organisms into the environment. Critics who worry that seeding farmland with transgenic food crops could spread genetic pollution and damage the biosphere are right, says environmentalist and author of "Biotech Century," Jeremy Rifkin.

According to Rifkin, the risks in releasing these GM crops are similar to those in introducing exotic organisms, which could wreak havoc, as there is always a small chance that it will run amok. It's the equivalent of letting the genie out of the bottle. Genetic pollution is irretrievable, as GMOs once released into an ecosystem, can never be recalled.

In field tests in Europe, genetically engineered rapeseed plants caused "biological pollution" and spread their mutant DNA characteristics to neighbouring plants. A researcher found that a gene had transferred from GM rapeseed to bacteria and fungi discovered in the gut of honeybees. Industry had previously claimed such a transfer was highly unlikely or impossible.

In September 2000, a GM maize variety ("Starlink") banned in the USA for human consumption (because of fears of allergic reactions) but permitted as a livestock feed, showed up in taco shells served at Taco Bell restaurants. The Aventis variety raised new concerns about industry's and government's capacity to regulate and manage GM products. In October 2000, the Taco Bell scandal spread to Kellogg's corn flakes as the giant cereal company closed down one plant for fear that the illicit GE StarLink maize had infected breakfast cereals.

Crops engineered to produce their own pesticide have also been found to kill beneficial insects and pollinators such as monarch butterflies, ladybugs and honeybees. The pollen of the GE corn variety known as Bt corn, has been found to be toxic to monarch butterfly caterpillars.

A genetically engineered bacterium, Klebsiella planticola, killed wheat planted in test units. Another variety reduced, by half, the amounts of beneficial fungi crucial for nitrogen fixation in the soil. If such an organism survived readily and spread widely, it would be devastating, and would require expensive measures to control.

Companies are putting human and bovine genes into salmon in an attempt to produce super salmon. If these fish were released into the ecosystem, the "genetic pollution" they would introduce could destroy the species.

SUSTAINABLE FARMING UNDER THREAT

Plants engineered for survival and propagation in arid or marginal environments, have the potential to become noxious weeds. If the flow of genes from one plant species to another, mainly through cross-pollination, passed on these "weedy" characteristics to wild relatives of crop plants, the hybrid "superweeds" would resist the herbicides that were designed to kill them -- something biotech companies have ignored as a remote or non-existent possibility. In 1996, the transfer of a gene from a transgenic crop to a wild weed was indeed observed. Another study confirmed the organic farmer's worst nightmare, revealing that GM crops have spawned a new generation of prolific and aggressive superweeds, with inherited resistance to herbicides.

Growing herbicide-tolerant GM crops requires the use of toxic weed-killers, and could result in the increased use of these herbicides, which could be harmful in itself. Widespread introduction of these crops and use of herbicides could wipe out indigenous plants, threatening many birds and insects that depend on them for food and cover. Hence, rather than help wean agriculture from its dependence on toxic chemicals, herbicide-tolerant crops will perpetuate and extend the chemical pesticide era and its attendant human health and environmental toll, argue critics.

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a natural soil microorganism, is the world's most important natural pesticide, used by organic and sustainable farmers worldwide to repel plant pests such as the potato beetle, cotton bollworm, or corn borer. By making this natural pesticide an integral part of cotton and other crops, such as soybeans and corn, Monsanto and other biotech firms have hastened the evolution of Bt-resistant insects, like the diamondback moth, which is reported to have become resistant to the Bt toxin after prolonged exposure. Widespread resistance would affect organic and low-input farming, which rely on the Bt toxin in its naturally occurring, bacterial form, and agriculture would then lose one of its safest, most valuable bio-control agents.

Genetic engineering, with its focus on high marketable yield, represents an extension of intensive, industrial agriculture, and therefore reinforces environmentally damaging, non-sustainable farming, say critics. In the long term, it is incompatible with low-input, sustainable farming methods (e.g. Integrated Crop Management), say environmentalists. In addition, since GM crop plants are designed to yield a uniform product (monocultures), promoting them will further aggravate the worldwide loss of agricultural biodiversity, and displace and eradicate traditional cultivated varieties with greater genetic diversity and potentially desirable traits. In India, with its great genetic and specific diversity of crop plants, all these ecological risks will be felt most poignantly.

GE V/S TRADITIONAL BREEDING

The proponents of genetic modification in agriculture, use two main arguments to justify it. Firstly, they argue, only GE crops can meet the needs of the world's ever expanding population in a sustainable and environmentally conscientious manner. This claim is unproven, whereas extensive studies have shown that with better management of resources and minimal chemical inputs, yields can be tripled using conventional crops. A second, more fundamental point is that GE represents a natural extension of traditional breeding methods, only it is more precise and safer. Critics like molecular biologist Michael Antoniou, would say that this is an oversimplification of the way genes work.

Antoniou explains that genes have evolved to exist and work in families. Therefore, the claim that the reductionist approach of GE, which moves one or a few genes between unrelated organisms, is a precise technology, is highly questionable. With traditional breeding methods, different variations of the same genes in their natural context are exchanged. This preserves tight control and complex inter- relationships between genetic and protein functions that are vital for integrity of life as a whole. On the other hand, GE of animals and especially plants, always results in a loss of the tight genetic control and balanced functioning which is retained through conventional cross breeding. It is the imprecise way in which genes are combined and the unpredictability in how the foreign gene will behave, that results in uncertainty, he says.

REAPING A BITTER HARVEST

Agricultural biotechnology is being sold as a solution to world hunger. But the performance of GE crops has not held up to the exaggerated claims of crop companies. Although genetic engineers like to claim that genetic engineering is an "exact science," field results tell a different story, and GE crops have produced very variable yields. In the US as well as globally, a pattern of agricultural biotech failures have emerged.

"Data from across the world shows that small farms which base their agriculture on many different sorts of farming can be five or 10 times more productive per unit than large monocultural farms," says Dr. Vandana Shiva. A study of "sticky" rice varieties in China and the Philippines showed that planting a number of diverse varieties increased yields by 89 percent while reducing disease by 98 percent. Their conclusion: diversity outperforms genetically uniform GM varieties.

Greenpeace argues that in a predominantly agrarian economy like India's, a monopolistic hold over the farmers' seed systems could have a "devastating impact" on small farmers. The lack of corporate liability or responsibility in the case of contamination of seeds by genetically manipulated varieties is another issue of serious concern, as it would intensify the risk of genetic pollution of India's agro-ecosystems, critics say.

In November 2000, the first meeting of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's Ethics Panel (a group of world-renowned agronomists and ethicists) concluded that GM crops are risky, Terminator technology is immoral; and that patenting genes and other genetic material leads to crop genetic erosion and unacceptable monopoly.

BACKDOOR ENTRY FOR BIOTECH?

At the recent Bright Sparks Biotechnology tour organised by the British Council in India, several proponents of GE spoke to invited audiences of biotech professionals and scientists, often in closed sessions. "It is alarming to see the manner in which a number of institutions and forums such as these are being indiscriminately used to promote GMO's. Simultaneously, due to very little public awareness on the issue, there is no real debate," said Michelle Chawla, Greenpeace's Genetic Engineering Campaigner in India. "There is an urgent need to demystify the issue of GMO's to enable citizens to understand and raise issues in forums like this one," she added.

"In India, the Government has already declared biotechnology as a flagship program and is actively promoting field testing of Monsanto's genetically modified cotton. Despite an ongoing Supreme Court case questioning the legality of Monsanto's initial application for field testing, the Ministry of Environment and Forests recently granted permission not only for field testing, but also for seed production. This is in total disregard of the irreversible environmental and human health risks and despite the glaring absence of the capacity to respond adequately to genetic pollution," says a press release from Greenpeace.

Earlier this month, a delegation of 10 judges and scientists from the Maryland-based Einstein Institute for Science, Health and the Courts, a non-profit organisation dedicated to educating the judiciary on scientific issues such as transgenics, raised eyebrows when it visited the Chief Justice of India. The influential Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) recently recommended that India's Supreme Court decide the issue of applying products of genetic engineering, in the wake of the uprooting of Monsanto-Mahyco's cotton plants from a farmer's plot in Karnataka.

India is yet to have laws requiring that GE products are suitably labelled to warn an unsuspecting public, as in many other countries. Like many developing countries, we lack the technical, financial, and institutional capacity to address biosafety issues. The possible dangers of genetic engineering are too real to ignore. Its time we as consumers took measures to learn about them, and to demand our right to the kind of choices that will best protect our health and preserve bio-resources for future generations.

 

 

Read more about Genetic Engineering in our Resources section

Take action on this issue in our Campaign section

Browse a selection of books on Biotechnology and Organic Farming in the MIG Bookstore

 


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