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The GMO debate

Print edition : Jun 09, 2001

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Are genetically modified seeds the solution to the problems of poverty and environmental degradation across the world?

EVEN by the standards of the very dynamic 20th century, the recent innovations in biotechnology, especially those relating to agriculture, appear startling in their rapidity. And for those of us who are relatively uninformed laypersons, these changes appear as not just happening at breakneck in speed but very confusing.

Thus, modern bio-technology, especially the creation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), is often presented as a magic solution or universal panacea for the problems of poverty, inadequate food access and nutrition and even environmental degradation across the world. Conversely, there are people who present the picture of Frankensteinian monsters and major human health hazards being created by science, which interferes too rapidly and too intensively with long-term natural processes of transgenic evolution.

The reality, as always, is far more complex than either of these two extremes. Even today the total food production in the world is adequate to feed the hungry of the world; the problem is rather one of unequal distribution, which deprives a large part of the population of even their minimal nutritional requirements. Similarly farmers, especially in developing countries, face many problems that biotechnology does not address, much less solve: lack of infrastructure, poor or unstable market access, volatile input and output prices, and so on.

And, of course, recent problems with the effects of new methods of livestock rearing in European agriculture in particular - such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalo-pathy (BSE) (or Mad Cow disease) and hoof-and-mouth disease - have underlined the problems that many of the technological changes currently in the process of being utilised in agriculture can have unforeseen consequences, and their safety and future viability are far from secure.

It is true that transgenic plants can offer a range of benefits which are above and beyond those which emerged from more traditional innovations in cultivation. It is suggested that such new technology offers more effective pest resistance of seeds and crops through genetic control mechanisms, which also reduces the need for pesticide use, leads to improved yield, improves tolerance to biotic and abiotic stress, and offers nutritional benefits in areas where traditional breeding methods have been unsuccessful. All this also means that such technology can reduce the adverse environmental impact, by producing crops that tolerate cultivation in stressful conditions, introducing GM traits that control disease (especially root disease) and allow farmers to cultivate where reduced tillage is essential.

A basic question, of course, is whether the new GM technology is safe, and this is absolutely crucial since the effects may only be known much later. The jury is still very much out on this matter, and the controversy does not appear to be resolved quickly.

On the pro-GM side, it is argued that this is a valuable technology for all the reasons outlined above and is essentially an extension of traditional breeding methods, which encouraged the combination of desirable traits within species. It is further argued that all GMOs have been tested and demonstrated to be safe prior to their reaching the market and their final consumption, and that they have been consumed for some years now in the United States and there is no evidence to indicate that they are harmful.

The opponents of this technology argue that in any new technology, it is always possible that harmful side-effects may occur, and therefore there need to be long-term tests on health and environment before its implementation. Similarly, unlike traditional plant breeding methods, the new technology uses artificial laboratory techniques to combine genes that would never occur in nature, which really means altering genetic patterns that have developed over millions of years. Similarly, the pre-testing of GMOs has generally been on laboratory animals rather than on human beings, and the effects may be quite different, especially over time. It is pointed out that the effects of BSE on beef consumption and its implications for human health also appeared after a very long time-lag and was not something that would have been evident through short-term laboratory tests, and therefore that great caution needs to be exercised in this matter.

The trouble is that most governments in developing countries have relatively low food and beverage regulatory standards, and public systems for monitoring and surveillance of such items are poor or non-existent. This leaves them open for entry and even dumping of a range of agricultural products of the new technology, which may not pass regulatory standards in the more developed countries. Currently the international systems for ensuring some degree of uniformity in this do not exist, and therefore citizens of poor developing countries will be relatively disadvantaged in this matter.

There are also problems of sustainability for farmers in developing and tropical countries that may arise from the newer lab-based technologies. In developing country agricultures, there is a greater need to tailor agricultural technologies to their variable but unique circumstances, in terms of local climate, topography, soils, biodiversity, cropping systems, market insertion, resources, and so on.

For this reason, farmers have over millennia evolved complex farming and livelihood systems which balance risks - of drought, of market failure, of pests, and so on - with factors such as labour needs versus availability, investment needed, nutritional needs, seasonal variability, and so on. Typically their cropping systems involve multiple annual and perennial crops, animals, fodder, even fish, and a variety of foraged wild products.

When transgenic varieties are introduced into such cropping systems, the risks are much greater than in Green Revolution, large and wealthy farmer systems, or farming systems in Northern countries. For example, in the Third World there is greater likelihood of pollen transfer to weed populations of insecticidal properties, virus resistance and other genetically determined traits, with possible food chain and super-weed consequences. This can make horizontal transfer of genetic material more risky.

It is now recognised that loss of biodiversity, especially because of new cultivation practices, can have very negative implications for the future sustainability of agriculture. There is also recognition that the rate of decline of diverse biological species has accelerated in recent times. There are several reasons for this.

One significant factor has been the rapid expansion of industrial and Green Revolution agriculture, intensive livestock production, industrial fisheries and aquaculture that cultivate relatively few crop varieties in monocultures, rear a limited number of domestic animal breeds, or fish for, or cultivate, few aquatic species. Production systems using GMOs only accelerate this trend. Also, the process of globalisation of the food system and marketing, and the extension of industrial patenting and other intellectual property systems to living organisms have led to the widespread cultivation and rearing of fewer varieties and breeds for a more uniform, less diverse but more competitive global market. This has had a number of consequences which also affect the conditions of biodiversity. These include the marginalisation of small-scale, diverse food production systems that conserve farmers' varieties of crops and breeds of domestic animals, which form the genetic pool for food and agriculture in the future. Similarly, reduced integration of livestock in arable production reduces the diversity of uses for which livestock are needed. As a result, locally diverse food production systems are under threat and with them the accompanying local knowledge, culture and skills of the food producers.

With this decline, agricultural biodiversity is disappearing. The scale of loss is extensive, especially since the disappearance of harvested species, varieties and breeds is also associated with the disappearance of a wide range of unharvested species. Thus, it has been estimated that more than 90 per cent of the crop varieties have disappeared from farmers' fields; half of the breeds of many domestic animals have been lost; and in fisheries, all the world's 17 main fishing grounds are now being fished at or above their sustainable limits, with many fish populations effectively becoming extinct (U.K. Agricultural Biodiversity Coalition, 2001).

The genetic erosion of agricultural biodiversity is also exacerbated by the loss of forest cover, coastal wetlands and other 'wild' uncultivated areas, and the destruction of the aquatic environment. This also leads to losses of 'wild' relatives, important for the development of biodiversity, and losses of 'wild' foods essential for food provision, particularly in times of crisis.

For these reasons, it has been argued that rather than concentrate on genetic engineering as the solution for developing country agriculture, it may be more important to focus on technologies which have pro-poor diseconomies of scale, like agroecology, and organisation into social movements capable of exerting sufficient political pressure to reverse fairly typical policy biases against small-holder agriculture.

Another aspect of the new seed technology that is of some potential concern relates to the so-called "terminator" seeds. Currently, while there is an attempt to ensure patent-style protection for commercial seed companies, the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) regime is vague on this and the only treaty - the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) Convention - is signed by relatively few countries. In this context, the seed industry has sought to develop technologies in which protection is actually concocted biologically, through the development of seeds in which a certain quality collapses or cannot be transmitted through natural reproduction.

The most widespread example of biological protection is hybridisation. The yield factor of F1 hybrids deteriorates in subsequent generations, forcing farmers to buy fresh seed from the company every year or two. Earlier, not many crops could be hybridised in an economically feasible way, but this is changing with the new biotechnology. It is estimated that to date over 60 patents have been awarded worldwide relating to hybrid seed production using genetically engineered cytoplasmic male sterility.

Another related development in biological protection is Genetic Use Restriction Technology, better known as "terminator" technology. This prevents farmers from saving seeds since seeds from the genetically engineered plants will not germinate in subsequent generations or will not express a particular trait (such as herbicide resistance) unless sprayed with specific chemicals that activate the right gene.

After a widespread public outcry when such seeds were introduced in several developing countries, several major companies have insisted in public that they will not pursue the technology. Nevertheless, already 60 patents on such terminator technology have been identified, 25 of them held by a single seed company, Syngenta of Switzerland. Laboratory and field tests of plants transformed with this technology have already taken place in the U.S. and U.K.

It is true that farmers constitute by far the largest sector of seed breeders in every developing country and generate the diversity on which commercial plant breeding is based. Despite this, and despite the greater role of public institutions in funding and carrying out agricultural research, transnational corporations dominate applications for patents in developing countries. Over half the current biotech patents on rice are owned by a handful of mostly Western chemical conglomerates. This is more than bad news for farmers since it means greater seed costs and greater monopoly control over basic food production through this means.

All this means that recent changes in agricultural biotechnology have both good and bad implications for cultivators and consumers, but they are still not adequately understood. This is why it is so crucial to ensure that proper systems of regulation, monitoring, surveillance and discipline are set up to regulate new technologies for cultivation and food production which may have health and nutrition implication, and also may have unforeseen implications in the specific and more complex conditions of our agriculture.

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