Do the Genes Fit?

by by George Warner

When genetically engineered (GE) crops were first commercialized at the end of the last decade, their potential seemed boundless. Scientists, politicians, and activists alike spoke of developing new plant varieties to solve all sorts of social malaise. Among the list of solutions were minimizing the environmental impact of agriculture, reducing malnutrition in the developing world, and eliminating food shortages and famine.

The promise of genetic engineering crystallized in 1999 with the announcement of ‘golden rice,’ a vitamin-A-rich variety aimed at combating vitamin-A deficiency in developing countries like Thailand and Indonesia. With a photo of co-inventor Ingo Potrykus on the cover of Time beside “THIS RICE COULD SAVE A MILLION KIDS A YEAR,” the world seemed to be on the dawn of a brave new era of genetically engineered prosperity.

Ten years later, GE crops have been normalized into American agricultural practice, but the promises of decreasing agriculture’s environmental impact and solving developing world problems have floundered.

Facts and Claims
The lion’s share of GE crops grown since their commercial introduction in 1996 has not been designed for the developing world, but is instead grown as mainstay commodity crops of global capitalism (corn, cotton, canola, and soybeans) in agricultural centers of global capitalism—US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, India, and China. Likewise, almost all of the world’s supply of GE crops are developed, patented, and sold by three multinational corporations: Monsanto, Syngenta, and Pioneer, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical. As a result, much of the innovation brought about by GE has been limited to problems concerning industrial, monoculture production, and has been geared towards increasing company profits.

Direct evidence can be found in the domination of two GE technologies in US cropland: glyphosate herbicide tolerance (HT) and insect resistance, termed Bt because the added genes have come from sub-species of soil-bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis—a commonly used organic insecticide. Of the 155 million US acres of GE crops in 2008 (over half of all US farmland), over 99 percent had at least one of these two technologies.

Both HT and Bt technology are hailed by seed companies as a means to lower the environmental effects of farming. Allowing crops to better withstand herbicide applications, HT technology allows farmers to spray herbicides both earlier in the season and more broadly, reaching weeds sooner in their life cycle. Seed companies claimed that this would allow farmers to spray less herbicide overall and end the fuel-intensive practice of tilling, long used to stunt early-season weed growth.

Bt crops’ green credentials claimed that by producing toxins in the plants themselves, Bt crops significantly reduce the need for other, more toxic insecticides. Used as a spray since the 1960s, Bt insecticides are considered some of the safest because the proteins only become toxic in the alkaline environment of insect guts. And because different sub-species of Bacillus thuringiensis target different insects, specific Bt genes from various sub-species are used depending on the crop, minimizing the effect on non-damaging insects. In contrast, most other insecticides target the nervous system and have been shown to affect a broad range of species, humans included.

Precautionary tales
When HT plants were first used commercially in 1996, they led to a noticeable decline in herbicide use as promised. HT crops often required only one spraying of glyphosate, known commercially as Roundup, during the whole season, and many farmers stopped the fuel-draining process of tilling their fields.

But as recently reported by The Organic Center in “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops: The First 13 Years,” the dependence on glyphosate-tolerant crops and glyphosate herbicides has inadvertently developed new glyphosate-resistant weeds. New varieties of amaranth, marestail, ragweed, and johnsongrass have renewed the need to till acreage devoted to HT crops in much of the Midwest and South. Rather than spraying once, farmers have increased both quantities and repetitions of glyphosate sprayings, often mixing other, more toxic chemicals into their sprays as well.

Even while Monsanto publically markets HT crops as ending the need for tillage, Monsanto has begun recommending that farmers “always start clean by planting into a weed-free field using either tillage or a burndown application” when planting HT cotton, as published in the Monsanto field manual 2010 Technology Use Guide. While HT plants once used less than half the herbicides of conventional varieties, The Organic Center has documented that HT cotton varieties used over half a pound more herbicide per acre than non-HT varieties during the 2008 growing season. Since the technology’s introduction, increased herbicide use on HT crops has lead to the application of over 318.4 million pounds of additional herbicide since.

In contrast to HT technology, Bt insect resistance has stood up to its claim of lowering insecticide use on farms. The success of Bt crops has been acknowledged both in the US and abroad, especially in cotton, the most common GE plant in both India and China.
Since Bt cotton’s emergence in 1996 (in a variety also including HT technology), The Organic Center predicts Bt crops have reduced insecticide use by 64.2 million pounds in the US, counteracting about a fifth of the gain associated with HT technology.

In China, cotton is more likely grown on small farms, and pesticides are often applied using backpack systems and without protective clothing. According to a 2004 study in the International Journal of Occupational Environmental Health, the introduction of Bt cotton has lead to significant decline in the quantity of insecticide on farms using the technology, with documented health benefits among cotton farmers.

The continued efficacy of Bt crops has been credited in large part to stringent environmental regulations. In the US, farmers have been required to plant 20% of their fields with non-Bt varieties, ensuring that selective pressures do not result in the development of Bt-resistant insect populations. As Bt crops become widely-accepted in the US and spread globally, environmental groups fear limited regulation enforcement will mean a practical end to these insect-havens, hasting the development of Bt-immune crops.

A hollow feeling
While the hype of decreased environmental impact has failed significantly, genetic engineering has also not developed varieties like drought-resistant crops, nutrient-rich crops, and crops designed for marginal†soil that could be of use to farmers outside of commodity-production agriculture. Ten years after hitting the media spotlight, ‘golden rice’ has yet to be planted for consumption.
The big three GE seed companies simply lack incentive to design novel crops for developing world issues. Seeds targeted towards the extreme poor would ideally limit additional pesticide and fertilizer inputs and be sold at low cost and produce crops for direct, pre-processed, consumption. For companies that have long made profits on relatively pricey seeds, additional pesticides, and fertilizers and crops targeted towards feed-lots and processing, these crops do not offer much apppeal. Without corporate incentive, these crops would have to be developed by the public sector.

Unfortunately, public sector investment in GE has been hampered due to the slew of corporate patents on the most basic GE technologies, including one that allows for the insertion of foreign genes into a target plant’s DNA. The inventors of ‘golden rice’ violated 70 patents held by 34 companies during its development, causing significant delays to field testing from patent negotiations. The public’s backlash against GE technology, rather than the developed applications, has further hindered public investment.
This is not to say that GE seeds haven’t been flowing into developing countries. In India, a Monsanto variety of Bt cotton was adopted in 2002, and a Bt variety of the Indian staple brinjal (eggplant) is currently going through the approval process. Mainly through Bt cotton, one of the larger commodity crops, US multinationals now occupy half of India’s billion dollar organized seed market, demonstrating that GE seeds do travel to the developing world when it means profits.

Because GE seeds are patented, seed companies can—and have—prohibited farmers from saving seed for the following season, meaning that once farmers purchase GE seed, they are caught in a cyclical, often debt inflicting, process. Far from ushering in a new age of prosperity for developing world farmers, the advent of GE has contributed to massive debt among Indian cotton farmers, a phenomena that has lead to an estimated 10,000 farmer suicides each year over the last decade.

Despite GE cotton, four-fifths of Indian farmers still participating in the traditional system of seed saving and bartering, meaning what is now a billion dollar market could become a five billion dollar market for US multinationals. No wonder the holdup in the approval of Bt Brinjal has lead to an intensive lobbying effort in India not only by Monsanto and Dow, but also by Nina Federoff, Hillary Clinton’s technology advisor.

One small success has been the introduction of GE papayas to Hawaii. Developed by a public consortium in response to the uncontrolled spread of papaya ringspot virus on the islands, papaya seeds were given to Hawaiian farmers for free.
While even this venture has run into problems, including the contamination of organic plants, the virus-resistant varieties are largely credited with saving the $45 million dollar industry. Unfortunately, $45 million dollars, and the 1000 acres of GE papaya, is a rounding error in the GE economy.
George Warner B’10.5 is waiting for glow in the dark aubergine.