Comment on biotechnologies by User Kirkleon
This is a summary statement of risks associated with genetically engineered (GE or “biotechnology”) crops. My purpose here is to suggest an RSB principle supporting a clear application of the precautionary principle regarding GE crops, and a ban on certain types. I do not address the question of genetically modified organisms for biofuel processing. There are three parts here, first a statement of the agricultural risks; second, a statement of broader risks, including some human and animal health risks; and third, a comment on banning three types of GE crops.
It has been said, accurately, that discussion of the issue of genetically modified organisms becomes “emotional.” I would assert that the primary reason for that is insufficient scientific evidence of either their safety or danger, for two reasons. First, there has not been sufficient time or experience with GE crops or GMO’s to assess long term effects; and second, there has been insufficient funding of research efforts, for commercial reasons. In the absence of good information, with insufficient time, experience and research, opinions and emotions are all we have, but based on the indicators, some of which are cited here, I believe we have enough information to firmly apply the precautionary principle.
Risks associated with genetically engineered crops were summarized nicely in an August 2003 report prepared by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, “Have Transgenes: Will Travel.” The full report, a good, short read, is available at www.pewagbiotech.org I add some current comments after this excerpt.
“Gene Flow,” the transmission of GE germplasm to wild or hybrid crops is the principal source of crop risks. From the report:
“Gene flow is not something peculiar to transgenic plants. In the world of living creatures, gene flow is as old as life itself. It happens any time one organism breeds with a related species, thus passing along their combined DNA to the offspring. That said, gene flow that involves genetically manipulated organisms raises a new set of issues for scientists and policymakers to consider.
“ECOLOGICAL ISSUES. Investigators interested in fleshing out the particular risks posed by gene flow from GM plants generally are interested in the ramifications of several distinct scenarios. One widely discussed scenario among ecologists is whether a transgenic plant might breed with a wild relative, and perhaps forever alter the wild plants’ genetic identity. Another issue is whether the transgenic plant might endow a wild relative with a so-called “fitness” gene, making it hardier and giving it the potential to become a kudzu-like “superweed.” In addition, there is a separate environmental concern related to the conveyance of pest-killing properties. While such a trait might be desirable for a domesticated crop, could its presence in a wild plant alter the ecosystem by killing off beneficial insects and soil organisms?
“ECONOMIC ISSUES. Somewhat separate from the analysis of these potential ecosystem effects are efforts to evaluate the economic implications of GM crops spreading their transgenes to other, conventional crops. The concern here is that if pollen or seed travels from a field of transgenic corn to a field of conventional corn, it could hinder efforts to maintain distinct varieties of crops for the marketplace. This may be of particular concern if farmers are trying to grow and market “GMO-free” commodities.”
This report also cites the Mexican corn contamination observed early in this decade – illegally imported GE corn genes were found in non-GE crops. The researcher’s methods were criticized but their transgene contamination conclusions stood. Mexico is the world’s keeper of original maize germplasms.
Quoting again from the report: “A widely discussed instance of crop-to-crop gene flow occurred in 2000 in Canada, where discovered growing on the roadside and as a weed or “volunteer” in a farmer’s field, was a variety of canola that, due to gene flow between different fields of canola, had come to possess resistance to three herbicides.” Clearly, transgenes travel uncontrollably, even profusely in some conditions.
A significant “superweed” problem has emerged with continued use of glyphosate-resistant corn and soybeans in the US, so much so that Monsanto, the primary purveyor of “RoundUp Ready,” glyphosate-resistant crops, is now about to introduce dicamba-resistant GE crops. Dicamba is an older, much more dangerous chemical, known to be hazardous to humans and more broadly toxic than glyphosate.
Bt cotton has been banned for use in three US states by USDA because of fears of contamination of wild species. It is only grown where no wild species are present. Noteworthy here is this ban is from a US agency that has otherwise refused to acknowledge the risks of GE crops. Bt crops also leave a lasting, toxic residue in soils, with unknown effects.
There have been several instances of organic growers losing substantial market value for their corn crops because of GE contamination in the US, and other nation’s prohibition of the import of conventional US crops in addition to corn because of GE contamination, so economic damage has been observed, as well.
We have seen these things happen in the first decade of wide GE crop cultivation, and more effects are cited below. What might happen if biofuel feedstock production using them is added to worldwide farm crops?
What follows here is excerpts, adapted from an Organic Trade Association (US) Fact Sheet on Genetic Engineering in Agriculture, available at www.ota.org.
UNKNOWN EFFECTS OF GMO’S? The varieties and uses of genetically modified crops have grown much more rapidly than the ability to understand or appropriately regulate them, according to a report from the Wallace Center at Winrock International…. For instance, it urged greater attention to traits that are of potential long-term environmental benefits, such as crops with greater tolerance of pest damage rather than tolerance to pesticides, and crops with lower water and irrigation needs. From "Transgenic Crops: An Environmental Assessment," Wallace Center at Winrock International, Arlington, VA, February 2001.
A crop science expert at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, Peter Rosset warned that GE crops are likely to do more harm than good in developing nations. The GE approach, for instance, is to produce single, genetically uniform varieties, which ignore the needs of farmers in complex habitats. "Hands-on participatory plant breeding, where farmers themselves take the lead, has been shown to be far more effective in producing the multiple crop varieties needed by poor farmers in marginal environments. From "Genetic Engineering of Food Crops for the Third World: An Appropriate Response to Poverty, Hunger, and Lagging Productivity?," by Peter Rosset, 2001.
The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research has warned that the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) disrupts the natural processes of evolution. In the report, the U.S. think tank argues that there is a serious gap in the understanding of how the entire genetic structure of a living being functions within an ecosystem. From “Ecology and Genetics: An Essay on the Nature of Life and the Problem of Genetic Engineering,” by Arjun Makhijani, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Apex Press, 2001.
In a report released August 2000, Plant Research International BV at Wageningen University and Research Centre found "Controversies and knowledge gaps appear to be present at all levels of biological organization ranging from the levels of DNA and cellular metabolism to organism and ecosystem levels." From "Crops of Uncertain Nature? Controversies and Knowledge Gaps Concerning Genetically Modified Crops, An Inventory," by A.J.C. de Visser, E.H. Nijhuis, J.D. van Elsas and T.A. Dueck, Plant Research International BV, Wageningen, August 2000, Report 12.
A study at the Max Planck Institute for Soil Microbiology in Germany has shown that planting genetically modified potatoes changed the bacterial communities in soil. Although admitting the findings do not indicate whether the observed alterations will be detrimental to future plantings on the site, researchers urged that GM crops should be removed from field planting until the changes are evaluated. It is already known that subtle changes in microbial ecology can have devastating long-term effects on soil fertility, the availability of nutrients, and even on the promotion of pathogens such as nematodes, fungi, and harmful bacteria. From "Use of the T-RFLP technique to assess spatial and temporal changes in the bacterial community structure within an agricultural soil planted with transgenic and non-transgenic potato plants," by Thomas Lukow, Peter F. Dunfield, and Werner Liesack, FEMS Microbiology Ecology, Vol. 32 (3), pages 241-247 (2000).
A study by researchers at New York University and the Instituto Veenezolano de Investigaciones Cientificas in Venezuela has shown that plantings of Bt corn can result in the release of the Bt toxin into soil through the plant roots. They also found that the toxin persists in the soil for at least 234 days after the crop is harvested. From "Transgenic plants, Insecticidal toxin in root exudates from Bt corn," Nature 402, page 480 (Dec. 2, 1999).
A scientific study by a University of Bordeaux professor has found that sediment in the Richelieu River, a tributary of the St. Lawrence River in Canada surrounded by fields of genetically engineered Bt corn, contains concentrations of Bt that are five times higher than in nearby agricultural watersheds. From Le Devoir, Dec. 18, 2001, "Pollution par les OGM dans le fleuve Saint-Laurent: La toxine du maïs transgénique Bt a contaminé les sédiments fluviaux," by Pauline Gravel.
MORE PESTICIDES, NOT LESS? Roundup Ready (RR) soybeans "clearly require more herbicides than conventional soybeans, despite claims to the contrary," Charles Benbrook of the Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center has written, also citing data showing that "RR soybean cultivars produce 5 percent to 10 percent fewer bushels per acre in contrast to otherwise identical varieties grown under comparable field conditions. From "Troubled Times Amid Commercial Success: Glyphosate Efficacy is Slipping and Unstable Transgene Expression Erodes Plant Defenses and Yields," 2001.
The use of genetically altered Bt corn should be handled with restraint and thoughtfulness, cautioned researchers John Obrycki of Iowa State University and colleagues (including John Losey at Cornell University) in an article… “the use of transgenic corn will not significantly reduce insecticide use in most of the corn-growing areas of the Midwest," they concluded, adding that data suggest "that the Bt plantings (of corn) are not being used as a replacement for insecticides but in addition to them." From "Transgenic Insecticidal Corn: Beyond Insecticidal Toxicity to Ecological Complexity," 2001.
"Since the introduction of Roundup Ready crops, glyphosate use has soared. It was applied on 20% of U.S. farm acreage in 1995; four years later, on 62%…Some farmers now plant Roundup Ready crops year-round, rotating corn and soybeans; they may apply glyphosate four to six times a year on a single field." From "Biotech Soybeans Plant Seed of Risky Revolution," by Stephanie Simon, Los Angeles Times, July 1, 2001.
Triple-resistant canola weeds have been found on a farm in northern Alberta, Canada, from inadvertent crossing of three different canola systems genetically engineered for the herbicides Roundup (glyphosate), Liberty (glufosinate-ammonium), and Pursuit (imazethapyr). Pollination via bees and wind between two fields was blamed for this occurrence. From "Triple-resistant canola weeds found," by M. MacArthur, Western Producer, Feb. 10, 2000.
HUMAN AND OTHER ANIMAL HEALTH EFFECTS? The common use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in Bt plants is a concern. The British Medical Association has stated, "There should be a ban on the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM food, as the risk to public health from antibiotic resistance developing in microorganisms is one of the major public health threats that will be faced in the 21st century." From British Medical Association, "The Impact of Genetic Modification on Agriculture, Food, and Health, May 1999, London, U.K.
The American Medical Association has also expressed concerns about antibiotic resistance market genes: "…the use of antibiotic markers that encode resistance to clinically important antibiotics should be avoided if possible." From American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs, "Genetically Modified Crops and Foods," Chicago, IL, 2000.
The Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) has cautioned health authorities to consider the increased consumption of genetic modified foods as a possible explanation for the two- to ten-fold increase in food-related illnesses in the United States in 1999 compared to 1994. From Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS Report, Nov. 3, 2001, Institute of Science in Society.
Feeding genetically engineered (GE) Bt corn to pigs has resulted in reports of sow breeding problems in Iowa, according to an article in the April 29, 2002, edition of the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman. The article noted that Shelby County, Iowa, farmer Jerry Rosman observed farrowing rates in his sow herd had plummeted nearly 80 percent. A follow-up article on May 13 reported that shortly after the first story appeared, Rosman was flooded with phone calls from other producers with similar experiences. From Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman, April 29, 2002, and May 13, 2002.
End of OTA excerpts.
Finally, I propose that RSB take a clear stand against three types of GE crops, for which risks and damage are clearly demonstrable.
The first is pesticide-resistant crops, those based on the application of pesticides. The only long term study I have seen of the effects of these crops shows that not only do they not produce increased yields over time, they result in the increased application of pesticides, not less (www.biotech-info.net/technicalpaper7.html). Volume use of pesticides is known to damage both soil and watersheds, in direct violation of two RSB principles, and they increase both farm energy use and GHG production.
Second is “terminator” crops, which produce no viable seeds for farmers to harvest and use, thwarting centuries-old farming practices, essential in developing countries.
Third is so-called “traitor” crops, which require the application of specific chemicals to support seeding or fruiting. Biofuel crops should not require new chemical input requirements. The latter two GE types are dwindling in the world market, I believe, but I think it is appropriate for RSB to be clear in opposing them.
The consequences of these three GE crop types are clear. For others, we just don’t know, and will not for decades. Indicators are not positive so far – increased caution is needed.