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BIOTECHNOLOGY

Potential Hazards from Transgenic Crops

  • the hazard is posed by the transgenic crop itself,
  • the hazard is posed by introgression/ gene-flow and
  • the hazard is posed by horizontal gene-transfer.

The term genetically-modified refers to plants and animals containing genes transferred from other species to produce certain characteristics, such as resistance to certain pests and herbicides. But fears about GM organisms remain. For instance, genes that make crops herbicide-resistant could spread by pollination to weak relatives, creating ‘superweeds’. Or genes injected in fish, to make them grow faster, might affect the native fish population in their efforts to find food or mates.

However, the road to the setting up of this protocol has not been smooth. The US position on GM food throughout the negotiations was governed by its trade policies, and not environment protection. In February 1999, the US blocked the first attempt to reach an agreement in Cartagena, fearing that the agreement was too broad and would damage trade in commodities such as corn and soybean, a large amount of which is GM.

Many analysts feel that the pact has been watered down to suit US trade interests. For instance, GM product labels will just say ‘may contain’ and not specific details on what GM materials are in the shipment. Had it been so, it would have affected major US grain exporters such as Cargill Inc and Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. Many European delegates and environmentalists complained that the pact had been unduly weakened. The protocol also does not include labelling of grain or animals once they are processed into food products such as flour or cooking oil. For example, cornflakes made from GM corn will not be labelled when they appear on store shelves

Suman Sahai, convenor of the Delhi-based non-governmental organisation, Gene Campaign, says that in the absence of adequate labelling, developing countries like India will become a dumping ground for tonnes of GM food waiting to be exported from Canada, Australia and the US. In a press statement, she said that there are reasons to be concerned because a shipment of GM maize was mixed with the maize imported from the US to India last year

Moreover, developing countries, that are rich in diversity, should be careful of genetic pollution: foreign genes from GM crops could get mixed with wild relatives of crop plants. And if they contain sterile seed technologies, seed production of major crops will shift into the hands of foreign biotech companies that possess ‘terminator’ technologies, adds Sahai.

Sahai says that developing countries must now focus their attention on formulating domestic rules and guidelines to check any move to import GM food. However, the controversy over GM food, its environment implications and health effects has not ended. As Juan Mayr, Colombia’s environment minister, said at the end of the negotiations, "This is just the beginning. We have still a great challenge ahead of us."

Now with the emergence of biotechnology developing countries pose potential grave risk to environment and human health. The risk of a particular biotech product lies with the nation which imports it. And in this trade the importing nations consists mainly of the developing world. The industrial countries dominate the market. The term genetically-modified refers to plants and animals containing genes transferred from other species to produce certain characteristics, such as resistance to certain pests and herbicides. But fears about GM organisms remain. For instance, genes that make crops herbicide-resistant could spread by pollination to weak relatives, creating 'super-weeds'. Or genes injected in fish, to make them grow faster, might affect the native fish population in their efforts to find food or mates. Moreover, developing countries, that are rich in diversity, should be careful of genetic pollution: foreign genes from GM crops could get mixed with wild relatives of crop plants. And if they contain sterile seed technologies, seed production of major crops will shift into the hands of foreign biotech companies that possess 'terminator' technologies.

US position on GM food throughout the negotiations was governed by its trade policies, and not environment protection. In February 1999, the US blocked the first attempt to reach an agreement in Cartagena, fearing that the agreement was too broad and would damage trade in commodities such as corn and soybean, a large amount of which is GM.

New study on the spread of genetically altered traits in plants confirms fears of genetic pollution

Gene-flow

-Also recombinant DNA-sequences- can spread from crops into wild populations and vice versa, even if they are not closely related (Mikkelsen et al. 1996). The probability is high in centres of origin and at any location where crops have weedy relatives (two recent workshops have addressed this problem, Frederick et al. 1995 and Serratos et al. 1995). From this it can be assumed, that gene-flow in both directions occurs since ancient times - and continues.

CRITICS ON THE GENETICALLY ENGINEERED SOYA BEAN

It's not REAL food. Instead, the genetically engineered soya has been radically manipulated to insert foreign genes which, given the choice, we would almost certainly not want to eat. Genes from bacteria, a virus, and a petunia..... We have never before eaten these "ingredients" in the human diet. Yet the makers assure us it is safe. How do they know? They have done no long term tests to prove it. Instead they have disregarded scientists fears that more allergies could be caused by the added "foreign" proteins. Other health problems are entirely unpredictable.

The genetically engineered soyacrop could devastate our environment, with experts predicting that our countryside could be changed irreversibly. Weedkiller resistance for example- built into the soya by the genetic scientists - could spread into the environment creating super weeds that need more or stronger chemicals to control them.

"Most biotechnology companies use microorganisms rather than food plants as gene donors, even though the allergenic potential of these newly introduced microbial proteins is uncertain, unpredictable and untestable." (Dr. Nestle (1996) Allergies to transgenic foods. New England Journal of Medicine 334: 726-728

Monsanto like to say their mutant bean is a "green bean" because only one herbicide will be needed to control weeds and the killing chemical in glyphosate breaks down in soil.

But the "built-in" herbicide resistance of their crop carries even greater risks to the environment. If the herbicide resistant gene is passed on to local weeds, the new soya could help create super weeds impossible to control without greater use of ever more toxic chemicals. If farmers are tempted to use more glyphosate because their crop is immune to it, this could add to the spread of herbicide resistance, as well as building up more harmful chemicals in the environment.

The chemicals in glyphosate are lethal to most vegetation. While Roundup Ready soya will keep on growing, everything around it that is green will die. Rare plants, trees, and other flora will be killed, along with beneficial animals such as ladybirds, lacewing-flies and earthworms.

GLYPHOSATE IS KNOWN TO:

  • damage soil .... maple trees and clover damaged after treatment with it are thought to have suffered from lack of nitrogen in the soil. Beneficial bacteria, fungi and micro-organisms that live in the soil, are affected by the toxic chemical in glyphosate.
  • destroy natural vegtation .... even tiny amounts of drifting glyphosate is dangerous to non target plants. Wild plants can be damaged or killed by less that 10 micrograms per plant. Even ground based spraying can cause damage at 100 metres.
  • destroy habitats and food sources for birds and amphibians such as toads. This changes the make up of an entire ecosystem.
  • damage trees. The UK Forestry Commission believes glyphosate can affect hedgerow trees causing dieback. In the US it is linked to reduced winter hardiness and resistance to disease in trees.
  • damage fish and aquatic invertebrates. Glyphosate becomes even more toxic in higher water temperatures.
  • Others are being designed to be glyphosate resistant - oilseed rape, sugar beet, maize, potato, tomatoes, cotton and flax, for instance. This means more and more glyphosate will be used in the environment, causing more unecesssary damage to plant and animal life, and an ever increasing build up of residues in the soil.

    Butterflies

    The GM crop BT corn produces a pesticide that is supposed to just kill pests that feed on it. But in 1999, researchers at Cornell University found that it could also kill caterpillars of the harmless Monarch butterfly. When they dusted BT pollen over milkweed – the plant on which Monarch caterpillars feed – half the sample died.

    Attack of the super bugs

    BT crops that produce their own insecticide could create populations of super bugs - pests that are resistant to the toxins produced by these GM crops. Pests with genes for toxin resistance are more likely survive their encounter with BT toxin and pass on the resistance gene to their progeny. In time, the resistance gene becomes widespread in the pest population, making them immune to the pesticide. However, superbugs can also develop as a result of the use of chemical pesticides.

    Runner genes

    Environmentalists are worried that GM crops could pollinate wild plant species, introducing foreign GM genes into non-GM species. This could transfer herbicide resistance to weeds, making them difficult to wipe out. US farmers currently keep GM crops 100 m away from other plant species, but some scientists think that this isn’t far enough. In 2001, US researchers said they had found GM DNA in wild maize growing on a remote Mexican mountain.

    GENETICALLY ENGINEERED CORN

    Ciba Geigy's corn is resistant to the herbicide, Basta, and Monsanto's soya is immune to their own product, glyphosate.

    Herbicide tolerance could lead to a host of problems: increased use of chemical herbicides and wide spraying which could affect other plants growing in the area; an increased risk of creating super-weeds should the herbicide resistance jump from the corn to neighbouring weedy relatives; and the possibility that the corn itself, unaffected by herbicide may get out of control and become a weed, choking natural plants out of existence. In this case greater and stronger applications of chemicals might be needed to deal with the new problem.

    Ciba Geigy's corn contains an antibiotic, scientists fear that the antibiotic gene could be passed to harmful bacteria.Considering a bacteria which is naturally produced in the soil, and adding its poison gene to the corn has provided a built-in pesticide. The bacteria, Bacillus thurigensis (Bt), kills insects and is widely used by organic farmers trying to avoid the use of chemicals. Now their natural pest controller has been hijacked by the gentic engineers and could be rendered useless because of it.

    With the publication of new research in Germany highlighting the dangers of genetic engineering in agriculture, the Natural Law Party has repeated its call for a complete ban on all genetically altered foods since they pose great hazards for human health and the environment.

    Herbicide-resistant rape spreads its manipulation

    by Jurgen Voges

    Genetically engineered rape plants on a test field in Gehrden near Hanover have passed on their herbicide-resistance gene to ordinary rape growing in the area. The Niedersachsen Ministry for Ecology (NLV) has been able to show that normal rape situated at a distance of 200 metres from the test field of the Hoechst/Schering subsidiary AgroEvo has been transformed into transgenic, herbicide-resistant rape.

    The Niedersachsen Minister of the Environment, Monika Griefahn, said that the NLV research in Gehrden confirmed her worst fears. "Once the manipulated genes are released into the surroundings, there is no way to contain them," said Griefahn yesterday in Hanover. Bees and wind spread the pollen of genetically engineered plants just as they do with other plants, and in this case they also spread the artificial genes.

    The NLV has so far tested only the rape seed it has collected, for the Basta resistant gene. The seeds were fed a solution containing the Basta herbicide. Seeds that grew into plants in spite of the Basta were then tested for the herbicide-resistant gene. Environment Minister Griefahn is concerned that further tests will show that the resistance gene has been carried over into wild plants as well. Most likely this would occur with plants that are related to rape, such as mustard or wild radish. A transfer of resistant genes to these type of plants would cast doubt on the whole concept of Total Herbicide, by which the seed of the genetically modified plant is sold together with the corresponding herbicide. Wild plants that had absorbed the resistance gene from the genetic rape would then thrive magnificently as weeds and increase, in spite of the use of Basta.

    Following the first NLV findings, it is clear for Monika Griefahn "that in the neighbourhood of transgenic fields cultivated plants can also become transgenic". This would harm also those farmers who declined to use genetically modified crops. They would no longer be able to guarantee to the consumers that their products are not genetically modified.

    Dr Geoffrey Clements, a physicist and leader of the Natural Law Party, U. K. warns the government.

    "The government must listen to the warnings and avoid being driven by short-term commercial interests," Dr Clements said. "Genetic engineering is a novel, untried, and very inexact science. Already there are numerous indications of the potential for great damage to the environment and to human health from genetically engineered foods."

    Dr Clements said that in recent decades the promise of cheap power through nuclear energy was soon dashed not only by the astronomical cost of dealing with nuclear waste but also by the impracticality of storing ever-increasing quantities of radioactive material. "Those problems will seem insignificant compared to the aftermath of genetic pollution on this planet which will result if the rush to exploit the short-term profitability of GE crops is not curbed," he remarked.

    The fourth convention of "Biological Diversity" in Slovakia (4-16 May 2001) intends to conserve biological resources, using them in a "sustainable manner" and ensuring that the profits which arise out of commercialising these resources are shared fairly and equitably amongst the member countries. More than 80 per cent of planet's biodiversity exists in the developing countries and their local communities have made enormous contributions in developing bio-resource based products. But so far the developing countries have hardly taken any initiative. On the other hand, the developed country governments are under considerable pressure from biotech industries to make any firm commitments.

    A Danger to the World’s Food: Genetic
    Engineering and the Economic

    Discussion on genetic engineering’s contribution to securing the world’s food supply turns mainly on particular cases and new high-yield varieties. On this basis it is explained that genetic engineering is able to provide specific technical solutions to the problems of world food.

    “The main focus of attention in this sector has been the reorganisation of the seed market, leading to greater integration with the agrochemicals sector ... Among the marketing strategies for new products, the traditional gene technology suppier option has become vulnerable and is giving way to the strategy of controlling seed markets, or, more importantly, the strategy of moving further downstream into crop output markets, in order to capture the industrial value added (OECD, 1992)

    Genetic engineering is becoming increasingly detached from its real scientific contexts into being an instrument for opening up markets across the whole area of food production.Patent rights have resulted in biological resources being put in a quite new context. As soon as genetic engineering is used, patents enable monopolistic claims – which in many cases stretch all the way from planting in fields to selling in supermarkets – to be successfully made. The manipulated gene implanted becomes built-in copyright protection reaching far beyond its actual technical contribution and covering seeds, crops, agricultural cultivation and foodstuffs. Genetic engineering serves as a vehicle for implementing new monopolistic arrangements.

    Capitalisation and concentration of the seed market

    irri riceHalf a century's Green Revolution in Bangladesh and other countries, and the current biotech moves-hybrid seeds plus costly agro-chemicals and irrigation, which apparently yield handsome harvests-is now known to hurt the seed base and the soil fertility in alarming ways. Besides they make crops more pest prone and thus more dependent on pesticides

    Scientists and farmers alike discovered that the package of high-yielding variety (HYV) plus expensive agrochemicals and irrigation turned out to be as much a bane as a boon. No doubt it proved to be extremely profitable for agrochemical and seed conglomerates-but at the expense of the health of the earth's environment and the people it sought to serve. HYVs attract more pests than 'naturally selected' seeds and thus need more dousing with poisons-herbicides and pesticides-but this can kill both friends and foes as well as give human beings a variety of chronic illnesses.

    While we are on the subject it may be mentioned here that powerful interest groups in recent years have reportedly been focusing on the seed sector in Bangladesh, and quietly getting a number of NGOs and commercial companies to popularize genetically engineered seeds

    In 1998 sixty per cent of the world’s market for seeds was controlled by just 35 companies (there are a total of some 1,500). In traditional farming, some seeds from a harvest are saved to plant the following year. But biotech companies force farmers growing GM crops to buy new supplies of seed every harvest. The McKinsey business-consultancy firm in 1997 stated that, of the more than thirty seed cultivation companies active in genetic engineering in 1990, only seven big companies still remained.

    The world market volume for agrochemicals amounts to about 28 billion US dollars. The volume for seeds is estimated at 30-50 billion dollars, but only about a third of this is at present actually traded through markets. When this is compared to the agrochemicals branch, there is thus enormous potential for growth here.

    One of the central means of gaining large market shares is the patent. It destroys functioning legal sysems and the protection of varieties, and secures access to agriculture for foreign economic interests with capital.

    AgrEvo, DuPont, Novartis, Zeneca and Monsanto are among the ten biggest agro-chemical and seed companies in the world. Their activities and cooperative agreements affect the countries of origin of the varities of plants involved as much as they do countries in the northern hemisphere.

    super irriHaving gained the cooperation of the reputable Indian Institute of Sciences in Bangalore, Monsanto in 1998 bought the biggest public seed-growing company in India, Mahyco.One reason control of this seed market is economi-cally significant is that 80 per cent of sowing in Asia, Africa and South America is done by farmers re-using their own harvest. A study made in the Netherlands by the Rabobank puts the total world market for seeds at 45 billion dollars. Only about 15 billion dollars of this is seed that is commercially traded.2 Patent protection can to a very large extent put an end to re-sowing, i.e. farmers using their own crops. In addition, plants’ natural reproductive ability can be blocked by genetic changes, thus making it biologically impossible for farmers to re-sow their own crops ( Christoph Then, 1999).

    The genetics industry promotes the use of chemicals. Ciba-Geigy coats its sorghum seeds with three different chemicals – one of them to protect the seed from a herbicide that Ciba-Geigy itself manufactures

    • US State and Federal agricultural institutions have devoted $10.5 million of taxpayers money to fund genetics research to make crops and trees herbicide-tolerant over the past few years Biotechnology’s Bitter Harvest, Biotechnology Working Group, Washington DC, March 1990). Thirty crop and forest-tree species – including cotton, corn, wheat, rice, potatoes, soybeans and sunflowers – are being modified to withstand lethal or damaging doses of herbicides
    • At least 27 corporations – including Ciba-Geigy, ICI, Monsanto and Bayer4 – have initiated 63 programmes to develop herbicide-tolerant crops, the market value of which is expected to touch $6 billion by the year 2000(The Laws of Life, Development Dialogue Journal 1-2, Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, Uppsala, 1988) .
    • Strong evidence links alachlor – the most popular herbicide in the US – to malignant tumours. It contaminates groundwater in 12 US states.
    GREEN REVOLUTION

    NEEDS OF THE DEVELOPING COUNTRIES

    What is needed? What is being done? What could be done?
    Poor people’s crops need conserving and improving to make them more pest-resistant, more nourishing and higher yielding. Instead of making crops pest-resistant some companies are making them chemical resistant to increase chemical sales. In general only major cash crops are being bred to yield more. Traditional crop varieties could be conserved and new crops selectively bred for hardiness
    Third World people need clean water, preventative health care, improved sanitation and nutrition most of all. Next come new vaccines for tropical diseases. Tools for medical diagnosis (rather than treatment) are being developed, along with hormone production and drugs to prevent aging and cancer. Organ transplants and gene therapy are also top priority. Biotechnology could provide better techniques for water testing and vaccine production.
    Poor people need cheap, nourishing non-perishable food produced in a culturally and enviromentally-friendly way. Raw materials are being reduced or substituted by artificial ones and agricultural products are being produced in factories. Traditional biotechnological methods of food preservation like fermentation could be further developed.

    The Third World needs to conserve its genetic diversity. Poor people need livestock which live longer and produce more.


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