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Are GMOs spiralling out of control?

By Darryl D'Monte

To argue that genetically-modified crops will solve the problem of hunger thanks to their higher productivity, is like saying that Bill Gates developed Microsoft software to solve the world's illiteracy problem. And what if the technology runs amuck?

At the ninth bi-annual conference of the International Society of Ecological Economics, held recently in Delhi, two sessions were devoted to genetically-modified (GM) crops. This was only partly in the theoretical context of economists who view environmental (and social) costs as "externalities". Thus, the dangers of cross-contamination of conventional crops by GM varieties would be seen as one such consequence. A price would be attached to such risk and, presumably, would be seen as being outweighed by the higher productivity of GM seeds, as well as the supposed reduced use of pesticide.

Walter Pengue from the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina cited how transgenic soybean was now planted in 15 million hectares in his country, and is now one of its major exports, grown on the Pampas, some of the most productive grasslands in the world. As he said: "The intensification of Argentine agriculture has resulted in the homogenisation of production and landscapes based on transgenic soybean as the dominant crop. The present export-oriented commodity-production system is most likely to drive smaller farmers out of business because they are not able to face the competition.

"The overwhelming dependence on transgenic soybean makes farmers and the country especially vulnerable to changes in the global commodity markets. Argentina is growing more efficient in terms of soybean production, but also going fast into monoculture and dependence. Soybean intensification has produced social and economic consequences... In ten years, the country lost its food sovereignty and concentrates on a few commodities for agro-export without an added value. Poor people cannot afford, any more, a diverse diet. The protein basis of their meals has changed from high-quality meat protein to vegetable protein like soybean. Twenty per cent of Argentine children have become undernourished... An increase of contamination risks, fertiliser supplies, biodiversity loss, and monoproduction must be discussed to assure the future sustainability of the Pampas and the environment of the whole country."

The situation is no different in Brazil, which is the fourth largest exporter of food but where 40 million people go hungry every night. At the session, an Australian documentary titled Unjust Genes: Life & Death for Sale drew a comparison with the claims made regarding the safety of GM foods with those of the tobacco industry in the early 1950s, which pooh-poohed any health hazards. In the film, academics and activists asserted that "science has been colonised by GM crops," and how this technology amounted to "the greatest act of larceny". Even in a developed country like Australia, a member of the Union of Concerned Farmers mentioned how 80% of the country's farmers were confused about the merits of GM canola. David Suzuki, the well-known Canadian scientist and broadcaster, comments on how those who claim that GM crops are safe "are either stupid or lying".

Alejandro Nadal, an economist from the College of Mexico, made a strong plea for a moratorium on GM crops. Mexico, like China and India, was a centre of "mega-diversity" for most crucial food crops of the world. Mexico is home to 59 races of corn, with "thousands of varieties". However, it also "has experienced the worse case of contamination of local seed varieties with GM material in 2002. This episode took place as biotechnology companies mounted pressure to open Mexico's rural landscape to the planting of GM crops". Last year, Mexico approved a Biosafety Law for Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOs). "The new law was tailored to the needs of the biotechnology companies and its foundational premise is that GMOs are innocuous for the environment and for human health," Nadal said. "It establishes a very flexible procedure for the approval of permits, both for experimental and commercial planting. The liability and damage redress system adopted by the new law is based on a traditional civil law regime (no objective liability).

"But the new policy regime did not replace provisions in the Federal Criminal Code regarding the release of GMOs into the environment. Also, the law includes a special protection regime for crops that have their centre of origin in Mexico, and it explicitly identifies maize for this type of policy regime. It also has special provisions for natural protected areas, for regions that host centres of origin of crops, and for areas that can be designated GMO-free. It is argued that these components of the policy regime need to be fully developed and put in place before any permits are granted... Recent events in Mexico concerning the request of permits for experimental planting of Bt (GM) corn by three multinational companies (Monsanto, Pioneer and Dow) help understand the mechanics and risks of the new legislation."

Speakers observed how the IUCN congress in Bangkok in 2004 passed a resolution, after considerable opposition, calling for a moratorium on all further release of GMOs till "these can be demonstrated to be safe for biodiversity and for human and animal health, beyond reasonable doubt". Nadal illustrated how Mexican small farmers typically planted different seeds over their two-hectare plots, to minimise the risks of crop failure due to pests, weather and the like. This was no longer possible with commercial plantation on a large scale. In response to a question from this columnist, Suman Sahai, who heads the Gene Campaign in Delhi and chaired the first session, clarified that the bulk of farmers weren't committing suicide in Vidarbha and elsewhere because they had planted GM cotton but the new commercial varieties in a neo-liberal economic regime.

As for the argument that GM crops will solve the world's hunger, due to their higher productivity, along with the vitamin-enriched 'Golden Rice', it is like saying that Bill Gates developed Microsoft software to solve the world's illiteracy.

According to Dr V Santosh of the Town and Country Planning Organisation of the urban development ministry in Delhi, the economic value of medicinal plants in Kerala alone amounts to a staggering Rs 41,000 crore. There were 2,000 such plants, including 55 that possessed anti-cancer properties. As is well documented, these plants are in imminent danger of becoming extinct due to widespread plantations of supposedly more lucrative cash crops in "God's own country".

GM companies argue that the technology is not different from the genetic engineering that triggered the Green Revolution in wheat and rice. One departure is that while this technology was in the public domain, GMOs are, for the most part, in the private sector (although the US department of agriculture co-owned the patent of the infamous "terminator technology"). Speakers pointed out that biotechnology is radically different because it removes genes from one source and places it in another plant or animal. Genes from jellyfish are being transplanted into pigs to boost their growth and render them immune to certain diseases. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (the same acronym exists here) in Australia experimented with transplanting genes from beans into peas, but later abandoned it. This "unnatural" process involves using a vector to transfer the genes, which is a virus like e-coli: being irreversible, how could it be removed if it ran amuck? In biological terms, the "cell equilibrium" is destabilised, amounting to a radical upheaval. It was an "immature, unstable technology".

In Ghana it had led to a change in diet, where rice was promoted at the cost of cassava, yam and plantains. Furthermore, Ghanaians were "not educated enough to join the debate" -- a familiar phenomenon in this country too (where GM cotton field trials have been destroyed under the erroneous impression that terminator or genetically-sterile seeds were involved). A new and disturbing global trend is for companies to go in for GM energy crops on the assertion that they reduce global warming. Thus, BP (now reinventing itself as 'Beyond Petroleum') is going in for bio-fuels, while DuPont is growing GM corn to produce ethanol for cars. If cropland is diverted in this manner, quite apart from the threat to biodiversity, it may well raise the prices of agricultural produce. In Mexico, Nadal said, it was "a war-like attack on traditional farmers". GM technology is thus an unjust and inefficient system, speakers alleged.

They referred to Canada's 'Enviropig', the first animal engineered supposedly for environmental benefit. Scientists and pork producers were thrilled, since proposed government limits on phosphorous output -- contained in conventional pig manure, causing global warming -- threaten the industry's growth. Five years ago, Mother Jones magazine reported how Ontario Pork, a trade association representing pig farmers in the Canadian province, calls the Enviropig "the biggest breakthrough in pig farming since the invention of the trough". Environmentalists weren't impressed. The Sierra Club's genetic-engineering committee, which has made controls on pig manure pollution the focus of its clean water campaign, called the Enviropig a load of hogwash and just another quick fix. It stated that the way to solve the problem was to stop factory farming. Greenpeace and other environmental groups have echoed the Sierra Club message, arguing that the only real solution is moving away from massive industrial-style hog-growing and instead raising fewer pigs in bigger outdoor spaces.

There was considerable discussion in Delhi on the semantics of GM technology: the research establishment and industry deliberately employed innocuous terms like "engineering" which connotes everything that is scientific and safe. Similarly, "improved" seeds might lead the uninformed public in any country to imagine that it is not much different from the natural selection that farmers (and particularly women) have been practising since agriculture began. Hence the soft term, "intervention" as distinct from "interference" or "manipulation". While the industry claims that it is possible for GM crops to "co-exist" -- in fields at a suitable distance of a few metres -- from conventional crops, activists are talking about "bio-colonisation". Vandana Shiva, who chaired the second GM session at the conference, has patented the expression "monocultures of the mind".

The EU was trying to withstand the depredations of the US and biotech companies, which want to enter this huge market. Witness, for example, the international furore when France banned the import of hormone-enriched US beef, prompting Americans to retaliate, childishly, by banning the import of Roquefort cheese and other traditional French produce. In the EU, farmers are not entitled to subsidies for GM crops, which acts as a strong deterrent to growing them. Consumer organisations are solidly against their introduction in the foodchain and insist on the indication of origin on all produce, unlike in the US. In Italy, a municipality even boasts of being entirely "GM-free". The worldwide movement has prompted McDonalds and some supermarket chains to drop GM food (not to mention Monsanto's own cafeteria!). Activists are promoting the slogan "food sovereignty" like its energy counterpart and are borrowing another from the anti-abortion campaign: "My seed is mine!"

Lim Li Ching from the well-known Third World Network in Penang detailed the critical issues in regulation. It ought to cover not only crops, but also animals, insects, trees and biological weapons. The technology continued to harbour scientific uncertainties. Its long-term effects were not known, since it is so new. This is what prompted Science magazine to comment seven years ago that, "there were many opinions, but few data" -- presumably on the part of critics as well. Li Ching, however, emphasised the need to adopt the precautionary principle in something that affects the very fibre of life, a tenet that ought to serve as the basis for regulation. Developing countries, in particular, were particularly susceptible to this technology because they lacked biosafety laws or a strong regulatory mechanism. They had no capacity to undertake risk assessment and could serve as a dumping or testing ground. To compound the problem, most biodiversity hotspots existed in these countries, as we have seen in the case of Mexico and Kerala.

There was the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which 135 countries had signed. This was the first international recognition that the technology was inherently different, posed specific hazards and should therefore be subject to international regulation. It covered trans-boundary movement and addressed the needs and vulnerabilities of developing countries. It recognised precaution as the basis for decision-making, and risk assessment and scientific uncertainty.

Precaution implied prior consent and the right to refuse. Nations were sovereign in their decision-making in this context, and there was an obligation on the part of producers or exporters to be accountable for risk. There was need for much greater public participation. Li Ching cited how the negotiations on the protocol were extremely acrimonious, with the US government (which seldom camouflages its commercial interests) banging on the table and shouting: "This is a multi-billion-dollar industry you are talking about!"

In conclusion, speakers at the Delhi sessions wondered: "Are we regulating the unregulatable? What is the worst-case scenario -- what if the technology runs amuck? Can its negative impacts be reversed?" It is, after all, a self-replicating technology, unlike an oil spill. One has only to see the spiralling incidence of cancer in the most industrially advanced countries to know that there is something radically wrong with the foodchain, for which GM technology has to assume its share of the blame.

InfoChange News & Features, January 2007