A scientific conundrum

Print edition : January 30, 1999

The controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms gathers momentum.


NO other scientific controversy in recent times would seem to have polarised opinion as much as the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The advent of GMOs has been hailed as the sign of a 'second agricultural revolution' after India's Green Revolution. However, a controversy began to build up around them in the West some five years ago and it spread to India in mid-1998. The concerns and fears over the use of GMOs came to the fore at a national consultation on "Genetically Modified Plants: Implications for Environment, Food Security and Human Nutrition" organised by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai in January.

Predictable, here environmentalists and activists were at loggerheads with scientists, representatives of seed companies and policymakers. While environmentalist Dr. Vandana Shiva called for a moratorium on GMO research and the entry of GMOs into the country, Dr. J.D. Watson, who is considered to be the father of genetic engineering, said that the future of Indian agriculture lay in biotechnology and appealed to India to go ahead with GMO research. MSSRF chairman Dr. M.S. Swaminathan treaded a middle path: he favoured both the continuation of research and development in the field and the adoption of safeguards.

THE seeds of the GMO 'revolution' were sown less than three decades ago when, in the early 1970s, Stanley Cohen of Stanford University and Herbert Boyer of the University of California, both in the United States, pierced the veil that separates species and created a life form that had never existed in nature until then. The technique, involving recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), set off a revolution by disarranging and recombining gene fragments of different species, leading to the formation of new organisms for utilitarian ends.

The characteristics of an organism are determined by its DNA, which provides the genetic code. The genetic code is divided into functional units called genes. The organisms in which these genes are modified, improved or developed by human intervention in a way that does not occur naturally for specific use are called GMOs. With the help of this technique, it is possible to produce new seed varieties at a much faster rate than would occur in nature. Genetic mutation of crop species is undertaken for a variety of reasons: to change product characteristics, improve resistance to pests and pathogens, and increase the output and/or improve the nutritional value. Modern techniques of genetic modification facilitate the removal of an individual gene from one species and its insertion into another without there being a need for sexual compatibility. Genetic modification has also made it possible to remove or 'switch off' an undesirable gene or modify the metabolism of a plant in order to improve the quality of the food product (for example, genetically modified, or GM, tomatoes remain fresh for longer periods than ordinary varieties).

The development of this technique was at the theoretical stage in the 1980s and was seen as technological trespassing on life. However, it caught the imagination of all walks of life, including the stockmarkets. This was reflected in Wall Street on October 14, 1980 when Genetech became the first privately-held genetic engineering company to make a public opening of its stock. Within the first 20 minutes of trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Genetech's stocks, which were issued at $35 apiece, were being bought at $89. By the time the clamour on the trading floor ended, the firm's market capitalisation had touched $532 million. What is significant here is that all this happened when the company did not have a single product in the market.

The first field trials of a GMO were conducted on tobacco crops in the U.S. in 1982. However, it was not until 1990 that GM food crops were tested out in the fields. In 1996, the first generation of transgenic or GM field crops, which had been developed for insect resistance (maize, cotton and potato), herbicide tolerance (canola, maize, cotton and soyabean) and virus resistance (yellow squash), became commercially available. There has been no looking back since then. By the year 2000 the GMO market is expected to touch $50 billion. Hundreds of biotechnology firms have been set up around the world to capitalise on the new technology, especially in the context of a favourable patents regime.

WHILE GMOs play a major role in enhancing sustainable agriculture, the impact of new recombinant DNA technologies can also be devastating. Consider the case of developing biological warfare capabilities. For instance, the gene that expresses the toxin of cobra venom can be transferred on to E.coli (Escherichia coli), a bacteria in the human intestine. Similar research is going on with other deadly pathogens such as plague and encephalitis. Thus the potential dangers of the technique, and the fear of the unknown - data for much of these dangers are as yet unavailable - have led environmentalists, activists and the general public all over the world to express concern over the use of GMOs.

At the media workshop on "Genetically Modified Plants: Implications for Environment and Food Security and Human Nutrition" organised by The Hindu Media Resource Centre for Ecotechnology and Sustainable Development at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, (from left) Prof. Peter Raven, Director of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, Prof. A. Altman, Director of Hebrew University, Jerusalem, N. Ram, Editor of Frontline, Prof. V.L. Chopra of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and Dr. Ganesh M. Kishore, principal biotechnologist of Monsanto Corporation.-N. BALAJI

The Hindu Frontline

On October 12, 1998, the European Parliament's Environment Committee declared a moratarium "until further notice" on all new GMO releases. This came within two days of the British Parliament considering a three-year moratorium on the commercial planting of GMOs. France, Germany and Greece are to follow suit. In July 1998, Switzerland held a referendum on whether or not to use products that are genetically modified. Since October, Denmark has insisted on suitable labelling of products: "Might contain genetically modified organism". In December, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research banned the use of seeds using the 'Terminator' technology, which is patented by the Delta Pine Land Company and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

India woke up to the GMO threat late last year after reports about the controversial "Terminator" technology and the angry response of farmers' organisations to field trials in India of Bollgard (Bt) cotton seeds, manufactured by Monsanto/American Home Products, appeared in the media.

The U.S. is probably the only country with a vast area under transgenic crops. Such crops are grown on some 30 million acres (12 million hectares), spread across the U.S., Argentina, China, Canada and Australia. Sixty plant species are reported to have been genetically engineered, and field tests have been conducted in the case of 36 of these. Most of the GM plant varieties that have found commercial applications are controlled by private sector giants such as Monsanto.

The main issues of contention vis-a-vis the use of GMOs pertain to the lack of transparency and public awareness about them and environmental and ecological safety. Other aspects of the controversy relate to social and economic equity, legal and regulatory considerations and moral and ethical issues.

Proponents of biotechnologies such as cell fusion and genetic engineering claim that there is nothing new or different about the techniques that have emerged over the past decade. They argue that these techniques are only an extension of the historical process of continued manipulation and ancient breeding techniques. However, a contradiction arises when patents are sought on engineered life processes. Naturally, opponents of biotechnologies question the validity of the claim to novelty which is implicit in any patent application, since biotechnology is explained as being no different from the historical use of microbes and plant and animal breeding methods. They further argue that the rich biodiversity of Third World countries such as India will be lost. Their fear is that large areas may be covered with just one genotype, which would in turn hinder efforts to revitalise on-farm conservation traditions and the breeding of location-specific varieties through participatory methods.

Secondly, they fear that biotechnology will affect unintended targets. During cross-pollination and out-crossing, pollen from GMOs could get transferred to the wild relatives of the crop species and produce weed species resistant to herbicides.

Thirdly, in order to make a plant resistant to a certain pest, a gene, known as the marker, is introduced into the plant. The marker genes make it easier to select cells in the laboratory, and subsequently the plants in which the genes have been inserted successfully. In the 1980s, a range of antibiotics were introduced as markers. This has given rise to the fear that these genes may be transferred to the bacteria present in the stomach of the consumer. These bacteria may then be transferred to the bacteria that cause disease, making them resistant to antibiotics prescribed for the disease.

Dr. M.S. Swaminathan.-K. PICHUMANI

Fourthly, as research and development of plants that exhibit pathogen-derived resistance moves from laboratory to field, concerns arise about the release of plants that encode viral sequences. For example, viral proteins may trigger allergic reactions; the presence of a transgenic viral sequence in large crop acreage could increase the likelihood of the creation of novel viruses; and virus-coated proteins produced by transgenic crops could combine with natural viruses and produce more harmful strains. Further, to make crop genes resistant to pests and diseases, some chemicals or toxins have to be introduced. But the nutritional implications of consuming such seeds over long periods are as yet unknown.

Fifthly, many crops are hosts to a range of insects that play an important role in regulating pests. Genetically modified crops can upset this balance by killing the pests on which the beneficial insects prey. This can activate a range of other pests that have remained neutral.

The sixth concern is about whether the transferred gene serves any important function in the targeted geographical area. In terms of plant-produced insecticides, the only compounds that are commercialised are proteins that are produced naturally by Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). These proteins are highly specific in their toxic effects. For example, the caterpillars of two insect species, the cotton bollworm and the budworm, are the major pests that affect cotton crops in southern U.S.A variety of cotton developed by Monsanto contains a specific protein derived from Bt, which is highly toxic to these two closely related pests but has no effect on other cotton pests.

Lastly, there is concern over how long the gene will continue to serve its purpose. Insects, disease-causing organisms and weeds are known to adapt to most pesticides and crop varieties that contain resistance genes. In some cases such adaptation occurs in one or two years. If major crops such as cotton and rice that produce these proteins are planted over wide areas, the chances of insect adaptation are high unless measures are taken to develop and deploy other insect-resistant varieties. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has restricted the sale of Bt cotton in order to ensure that in every farm in the U.S., some fields are planted with varieties that do not produce the Bt protein.

THESE are the risks that prompted Vandana Shiva to reiterate her demand for an end to research on GMOs and their import into India. However, Watson, the Nobel laureate who discovered the double-helix DNA structure, said that the possibility of misuse was no reason to ban research on GMOs. He asserted that in the absence of specific data on the risks involved in using GMOs, regulations would only hinder research. According to him, with so much research going on in the country, India may well become the world leader in biotechnology.

Justifying the need for patents on GMOs, Dr. Watson said that a company based in the U.S. spent approximately $ 50 million annually on biotechnology research and only patents compensated it for its efforts. He, however, warned against broad patents; narrow patents, in specific crops or characteristics, could be allowed, he said.

Pointing to the lacunae in monitoring the imports and field trials of GMOs in India, the conference emphasised on the need to regulate the use and spread of GMOs. It recommended the setting up of a national committee - extending vertically from the village level - to develop and enforce a package of measures for safe and sustainable use of GMOs and to create public awareness, besides dispelling fears about the unknown effects of using GMOs. Dr. Swaminathan called for a "precautionary package" on GMOs which would cover issues of safety, ethics, consumer choice and public information and help deal with the environmental and sociological impact of GMOs.

Emphasising the need for public research in GMOs, Dr. Manju Sharma, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology (DBT), said that the DBT had put in place a three-tier monitoring system to prevent the entry of unwanted seeds into Indian agriculture. The system operated at the points of imports, field trials and use in the fields. Brushing aside fears of a threat to the country's biodiversity because of the entry of seeds produced by multinationals, such as Bt cotton, she asserted that the new seed policy did not allow the entry of any seed that would harm the environment. She said that the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources was the only point of entry for any seed. Manju Sharma said that while cotton was grown on 22 million acres in India, field trials were conducted in just 18 acres, and that too under the supervision of the DBT.

At the media workshop organised by The Hindu Media Resource Centre for Ecotechnology and Sustainable Development on the concluding day of the consultation, session chairperson N. Ram, Editor, Frontline, emphasised the need to involve the public in the GMO debate, develop a strong regulatory mechanism and make the process transparent. Although he stressed on the need for a cautious approach vis-a-vis the use of GMOs, Dr. Swaminathan said that a moratorium on GMO research would, however, amount to throwing away the baby with the bath water. He also stressed the need to develop a strong Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) regime, a proper agenda for Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), and a system to protect plant varieties and farmers rights. Without such regulatory mechanisms, he said, India would lose the strong research base it had built over the years.

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