Promises and concerns

Published : Apr 13, 2002 00:00 IST

The fears and concerns about the environmental and health risks of genetically modified plants point to the need for a public debate and focussed investment in the research and marketing of safe alternatives.

THERE has hardly been a time in human history when the use and application of science has not been fraught with the fear of "imponderables" and uncertainties. Yet, the basic strength that the pursuit of science has relied on is its standards for conclusive findings, and elimination of uncertainties to the extent possible. While a total elimination of uncertainties has not been possible in every scientific endeavour, concerns about the uncertainties and the "grey" area in science mandate exercise of a highdegree of caution. How would the threshold limits of "caution" and "adequate risk assessment" be defined and determined in such situations constitute, in a nutshell, the basic challenge for law and policy.

One of the recent contexts in which the debate on the levels and standards for precaution and the thresholds for risk assessment has arisen is that of the science of genetically modified organisms or GMOs. This is one area where the promise of "miracles" is perhaps as high as the foreboding of "disaster". Proponents of genetic modification would argue that genetic engineering is perfectly safe and will soon become an essential tool for feeding the world's population with more nutritious food, for treating dreaded diseases and for understanding nature and the human body better. Sceptics, on the other hand, would point to a number of studies that indicate that this technology is not without risks for human health and the environment and that it is critical to devote research and attention to these risks before it may be too late. The debate becomes even more crucial in view of the recent approval given by the Genetic Environment Approval Committee under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, for commercial production of genetically modified cotton. This is the first crop to get clearance and the genetically modified varieties of plants such as mustard, soyabean and corn are likely to come up for clearance in the near future.

All organisms are composed of cells that contain DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) molecules. Molecules of DNA form units of genetic information known as genes. Each organism has a genetic blueprint made-up of DNA that determines the regulatory functions of its cells and thus the characteristics that make it unique. Genetic engineering allows scientists to move genetic material between organisms with the aim of changing their characteristics and making them display certain desirable characteristics.

Prior to the development of genetic engineering, the exchange of DNA material was possible only between individual organisms of the same species. This could occur through natural selection, mutation, and even selection through human intervention and controlled breeding. With the advent of genetic engineering, it has, however, been possible to identify specific genes associated with desirable traits in one organism and transfer those genes within and beyond the boundaries of species into other organisms. For example, genes from bacteria, viruses, or animals may be transferred into plants to produce genetically modified (GM) plants having changed characteristics. This method, therefore, allows mixing of genetic material among species that cannot otherwise breed naturally.

Some current research into GM plants include:

* Developing plants that are resistant to diseases, pests, and stress:

* Keeping fruits and vegetables fresh for longer periods of time than usual;

* Producing plants that possess healthy fats and oils;

* Producing plants that have increased nutritive value;

* Producing soybeans with a higher expression of the anti-cancer proteins naturally found in them;

* Developing a whole range of higher value added feed;

* Other applications such as lignin modification in trees that could greatly increase fibre extraction rates in the paper and pulp industry;

* Producing new substances from plants, including biodegradable plastics, and small proteins or peptides such as prophylactic and therapeutic vaccines.

Each of these sounds laudable and full of promise. What then could be the fears that exist? Fears and concerns have been expressed about the environmental and health risks of GM plants.

WHAT are the issues and controversies in the use of GM plants? The need for a public debate on them is important.

Field trials of Bt cotton by Mayhco (in which, Monsanto, a biotechnology multinational, has 26 per cent holding) have been widely reported in the media. But there has not been much information on 22 other plants whose GM versions are at various stages of testing in various research institutions and companies in India1. According to the website of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), a large variety of plants, including bell pepper, mustard, rapeseed, brinjal, cabbage, cauliflower, chilli, potato, tomato, tobacco, and rice, are at various stages of field trials in India.

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil bacterium. It contains a gene responsible for manufacturing a protein that is toxic to insects such as caterpillars and beetles, which gnaw at crops. A number of crops have been genetically modified by introducing the Bt gene into them, the logic being that if a plant itself has inherent characteristics of being a Bt pesticide, it would lead to a decrease in the use of any other pesticide.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reportedly claims a perceptible drop in pesticide use on Bt cotton crop, almost 21 per cent. However, the basic unanswered questions in relation to the Bt crop, as is the case with most GM plants, are as follows:

* What could be the effect of GM plants on non-target organisms such as bugs birds and worms that otherwise do not affect the plant?

* What effect will GM plants have on nearby plants once their pollen spreads the gene into the wild? Could it lead to the proliferation of "super weeds" that cannot be easily eliminated?

* What are the possibilities of target organisms developing immunity to the GM plant, which, in effect, would mean that the plant would be rendered vulnerable?

* Would the unpredictable nature of answers to these questions, still outweigh the promised benefits of the GM plant? Or are these only temporary benefits?

* At what threshold level of risk should law and policy trigger the exercise of precaution?

IN the case of India, the situation is slightly more complicated. Let us consider the case of the cotton plant, the genetically modified version of which Monsanto seeks to commercialise in India. Vast areas of central and western India are devoted to cotton cultivation and, consequently, the livelihood of many depends on it. Of late, there have been frequent reports about farmers committing suicide following bad cotton crop and indebtedness (Frontline, February 1, 2002). Bt cotton, therefore, apparently presents a miracle solution. However, is it the solution or only a misleading temporary relief?

The history of the transformation of many of these areas into cotton fields and the motivations behind this dates back to the late 18th century. A historical perspective is imperative to understand the reason for the "choices" made and the impact of such choices when they are short-sighted and to see how the situation can be remedied2. An in-depth historical analysis is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it can be surmised from available facts that a series of misguided steps were arguably responsible for vast areas being devoted to cotton cultivation. These steps can be summarised as follows:

i. A misguided en masse shifting to cotton cultivation because of the promise of huge cash returns;

ii. The shift, during the colonial period, from the short staple cotton variety that is indigenous to India to the higher- yielding long-staple variety imported from the West, primarily because the spinning machinery of the British textile manufacturers was more suited to American cotton; changing Indian cropping patterns to grow long-staple American cotton was a cheaper alternative to investing in new machinery for using the arguably superior Indian cotton3;

iii. Post-Independence policies in India directed towards import substitution of the long-staple variety, with large inputs of chemicals and fertilizers;

iv. Intensive and indiscriminate use of pesticides, which has had a deleterious effect on the soil and led to the growth of pesticide-resistant pests and, as a consequence, to the introduction of new pesticides with various side-effects for the ecology, resulting in a self-sustaining and harmful cycle;

v. The failure of the state to avert the disaster.

In such a situation, it becomes difficult to take a clear stand on a genetically modified crop that promises to be self-resistant to a dreaded pest. The temptation to give it a chance is, therefore, high. But is Bt cotton the answer?

SEVERAL risks have been identified with the Bt modified crop. Most of these risks, briefly discussed here, could hold true for any genetic modification taken up on a large scale.

i. The monarch butterfly issue: Studies on the harmful effects of Bt on non-target organisms have been reported from universities in Switzerland and the U.S. These studies, conducted under laboratory conditions, revealed that pollen from the Bt corn had detrimental effects on a species of caterpillars and the larvae of the monarch butterfly4. While proponents of Bt crops concede their detrimental effects on certain organisms, they cite some recent field research studies that conclude that caterpillars are not likely to be exposed to levels of pollen high enough to be harmful; one exception is a type of corn that has a particularly high level of toxin in its pollen but it is being phased out anyhow5. However, defenders of the studies that suggest clear risks to monarch butterflies argue that the new studies do not address the issue of long-term exposure.

ii. Super weeds: Another threat that has been pointed out is the growth of "super-weeds", that is, wild relatives of GM plants, which could accept the resistant gene and, in effect, become resistant to any pesticide. While proponents of GM crop argue that this possibility could be averted by adopting careful resistance management techniques, sceptics wonder as to what extent controlled management can be exercised in the fields of farmers worldwide. And if such "control" is not feasible, how would a cost-benefit analysis still weigh in favour of the GM plant?

In the U.S., for instance, it was found that GM cotton sown has no close relatives in the regions where they grow with the exception of wild cotton growing in Hawaii and southern Florida, which, being similar to GM cotton, can accept the GM pollen. To separate the wild from the GM plants, the EPA has ordered companies not to sell GM cotton in this region. Is this precaution good enough? Who is responsible for keeping track of the spread of the GM plant and how can this be done in a field setting? How feasible is this, especially when GM plants and their pollen travel, by human or natural intervention, outside the limits of where they are supposed to be? As succinctly expressed by a plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), "How do you keep GM crops out of places where they're not supposed to be?"6

iii. Reduction of genetic diversity: This was the exact question that environmentalists, researchers and governmental authorities found themselves asking recently when the Mexican government discovered that some of the country's native corn varieties have been contaminated with genetically engineered DNA. The "surprise" was because GM corn, the presumed source of the foreign genes, has not been approved for commercial planting in Mexico. GM corn is, however, legally imported by Mexico for use in food. Scientists have expressed concern that the foreign genes could act to reduce the genetic diversity of the native corn varieties and the wild progenitor of domesticated corn. There is also the realisation that crop genes might be able to spread across geographic areas and varieties more quickly than researchers had guessed.

iv. Genetic contamination and monitoring: Genetic "contamination" was a serious issue that arose in the case of the GM StarLink corn. StarLink is a variety of corn that has been genetically modified to contain an insecticidal protein derived from Bt. In 1998, the U.S. Government granted the company Aventis registration for StarLink as a plant pesticide, and approved its commercial use in animal feed. The EPA, however, set a zero-tolerance level for its use in human food on the basis of the fact that this particular Bt protein does not break down easily in the human digestive system, is heat-resistant, and could prove allergenic. Two years since its cultivation in the U.S., Star Link corn showed up in food products (such as corn chips) within and outside the U.S., leading to the recall of massive quantities of "contaminated" food products.

The USDA has also reported contamination by StarLink of non-StarLink seeds intended for sale. A number of countries, including the members of the European Union and Japan, have banned on import of products using StarLink.

The presence of StarLink corn in food has become a test case of contamination of the food supply by a GMO. A report of the U.S. congressional proceedings on Star Link (dated January 2001) said that following the crisis, several issues were raised at Congress, including whether the current statutory or regulatory framework was equipped to address the food and environmental safety issues related to agricultural biotechnology.

Another aspect being addressed before the U.S. Congress is, who is responsible for StarLink's illegal appearance in food products? EPA officials have said that Aventis, as a condition for its licence, had the responsibility to ensure that the corn did not get into the human food supply. Aventis has said that it has asked farmers growing StarLink to sign agreements to use the corn only for animal feed or in industries and to treat non-StarLink corn harvested from buffer strips as part of the StarLink crop. In addition, Aventis has claimed that seed bags carried a label detailing these requirements. But there was no monitoring system in place to ensure whether farmers adhered to these conditions. The issue of liability remains unresolved.

This incident has raised serious questions about the adequacy of monitoring, evaluation and enforcement even in a country like the U.S., which has fairly advanced regulatory systems.

In the Indian context, the recent discovery of illegally cultivated GM cottonseeds three years since they entered the farming cycle raises serious questions about the feasibility of a regulatory mechanism to keep tabs on what happens in the fields of individual farmers. (Frontline, December 7, 2001).

v. Immunity in target organisms: The target insects developing immunity/resistance to the GM plant is another risk that has been identified. This problem is not 'unique' to GM plants. Insect pests eventually develop resistance to all insecticides, leading to the development of new means of biological or chemical control of pests. The long-term sustainability of a GM crop is, therefore, difficult to establish conclusively.

Maintaining "refuge" areas within or around a field where a GM plant is being cultivated and growing crops that have not been genetically modified in these areas is accepted as an important method of diluting the possible resistance developed by target organisms. Refuge areas would also enable the GM-free varieties to survive and contribute their genes to the next generation. The EPA, for instance, mandates Bt crop growers to set aside a portion of their farmland for crops that have not been genetically modified. However, the practical value and feasibility of creating refuge areas in small landholdings in developing countries such as India, remains doubtful. Another aspect is the practical effectiveness of monitoring and offering redress against farmers who do not maintain refuge areas.

A FUNDAMENTAL question is, what really are the options and viable alternatives to GM plants? In other words, is there a way of achieving the same benefits that they have without the accompanying risks? Is adequate research being done on this aspect? It would be trite to state that careful plant rotation and organic farming methods, as opposed to pesticide-dependent or GM plants, hold the key to long-term agricultural sustainability. If this is true, then why is there not enough funding and research to examine these aspects?

For instance, natural Bt has been used by organic farmers as a traditional pesticide in sprays to kill agricultural pests when needed. A plaint filed in a U.S. Court in 1999 refers to studies in the U.S. that estimate that 57 per cent of all organic farmers use foliar Bt sprays frequently, occasionally or as a pest control method of last resort. This has been hailed as a perfect pesticide because it can specifically target certain pests without having a detrimental effect on mammals, birds or most non-target insect species and micro plants. Bt spray leaves no poisonous residue on crops or trees and is readily degraded by sunlight and the environment within a week after application. Its effectiveness and safety compared to that of the pesticides it displaces makes Bt spray significant pesticide.

Why is there no focused investment in the research and marketing of the Bt insecticide, if it is proved to have positive implications, without the side-effects of the Bt crop? There seems to be no logical explanation for that. Could it be because of the lack of intellectual property right protection for such a spray? Such considerations would be significant for a private entity. However, it raises questions regarding the role of state entities in exploring more environment- friendly technological alternatives.


See, for instance, the analysis by C. Shambu Prasad, "Suicide deaths and quality of Indian cotton", Economic and Political Weekly, January 30, 1999.

Ibid., for a historical analysis of the motivations of British manufacturers, and how policymakers ignored voices of dissent.

Information about these studies have been reported in Kathryn Brown, "Seeds of concern", Scientific American, April 2001.

Andrew Pollack, "Data on genetically modified corn," The New York Times, September 8, 2001; Andrew Pollack, "New research fuels debate over genetic food altering", The New York Times, September 9, 2001.

Stephen Duke, as quoted in Kathryn Brown, "Seeds of concern", Scientific American, April 2001. `

R.V. Anuradha is a lawyer who has worked on issues pertaining to environment and trade laws.

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