Engineered rice strains produce human proteins commonly found in breast milk. Photo: USDA.
In 1997, 30 million acres worldwide were planted with genetically modified (GM) crops. Almost 15 percent of the 1997 US soya harvest was grown from GM seed and China is thought to be growing over four million acres of GM tobacco and tomatoes. Twenty-three GM crop varieties have reached the stage where strict regulations are no longer required for field testing in the US. Until last year, most commercial transgenic crops were engineered for single gene traits, mostly herbicide tolerance and pest resistance. But in 1997, for the first time, crops were marketed with “stacked gene traits,” i.e., more than one engineered trait in a single variety.
Likely future developments include:
Continued development of herbicide-tolerant, virus- and pest-resistant crops.
Methods to speed up traditional plant breeding.
Further development of fruit and vegetables in which the production of ethylene is suppressed so that they take longer to ripen.
Modification of oils, fats and starches to improve processing or dietary characteristics.
Improvement of flavour, texture, bio-absorbability, nutritional content and elimination of genes for toxic substances and allergens.
Identification of genes controlling salt tolerance, resistance to drought, flood, and extreme temperatures, and response to day length.
GM crops that fix nitrogen with greater efficiency, thereby reducing the need for fertilizers.
GM plants that produce vaccines or therapeutic agents.
GM biodegradable plastics grown in plants such as oilseed rape could begin to replace plastics from fossil fuels within a decade.
- GM plants for bioremediation, i.e. removing toxic chemicals and agrochemical residues from the soil.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that food output must increase by 60 percent over the next 25 years to keep up with demand. In a report on the bioengineering of crops written for the World Bank and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in October last year, a group led by Henry Kendall, chair of the Washington DC-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said that transgenic crops could improve food yields by up to 25 percent in developing countries and could help to feed an estimated additional three billion people over the next 30 years.
In terms of major food crops, maize and soya have been the targets of most genetic manipulation to date. Wheat and rice are a little more complicated, but GM versions of these already exist — they are not far behind. It is possible, therefore, that the maize- and soybean-growing areas of the world will see the first effects of the “biotech revolution.”
At a meeting of the UK Food Group in April, … Indira Jaising of the Supreme Court of India noted a trend in TNCs (transnational companies) such as pharmaceuticals moving from the developing world to the US, with the contingent drain of capital, because the US allows patenting of life forms. Whether or not the rest of the world falls in line with the US in accepting life patents, researchers predict that with advances in biotechnology there will be a switch in centers of production away from the developing world, accompanied by loss of export income. For example:
Rapeseed engineered to produce lauric acid, which is used in soap and cosmetics, is already being grown commercially and the lauric acid sold to Procter & Gamble, one of the world’s largest buyers of the substance. Lauric acid is traditionally derived from coconut and palm kernel oils produced in the tropics. The Philippines, the world’s largest exporter of coconut oil, accounts for around two thirds of global exports. The coconut industry also provides employment for about 30 percent of the county’s population.
Farmers in the US are expected to plant twice as much GM soybean in 1998 as in 1997, and with resistance to GM soya in Europe, there are concerns that it will be dumped in countries like India [which has a good harvest of its own].
In April, the Africa News Service reported that tomato growers in Kenya will soon have access to the longer-ripening FlavrSavr tomato, provided it meets Kenya’s safety measures and guidelines on biotechnology transfer.
Property rights — control of knowledge
There are various issues to be considered here, but the central, over-arching debate (or lack of debate) concerns ownership of resources and how to reconcile the rigid, individualistic patenting system of the developed world with the community-held knowledge systems of poorer countries.
1. Food security
If foreign researchers and TNCs can patent indigenous crop plants without making recompense to the communities who provided them, there are fears that farmers will end up paying royalties on the products of their own knowledge, products on which they rely for survival. The following are examples of such patents:
In 1994, two researchers from the University of Colorado received US patent number 5,304,718 on male sterile plants of the traditional Bolivian ‘Apelawa’ quinoa variety. They claim they were the first to identify and use a reliable system of cytoplasmic male sterility in quinoa for the production of hybrids, although Andean farmers have long known that the male flower of the Apelawa variety is sterile. Quinoa is a high protein cereal and an important dietary component in Andean countries. The value of Bolivia’s export market is estimated at about US$1 million per annum. The US patent claim covers any quinoa hybrid that is derived from ‘Apelawa’ male sterile cytoplasm, including, but not limited to, some 36 traditional varieties cited in the patent application.
In September 1997, the US company Ricetec, Inc., was granted a patent on Basmati rice. The patent is for a variety achieved by the crossing of Indian Basmati with semi-dwarf varieties, and it covers Basmati grown anywhere in the Western hemisphere. Ricetec can also put its brand on any breeding crosses involving 22 farmer-bred Basmati varieties from Pakistan and, according to RAFI [Rural Advancement Foundation International], on any blending of Pakistani or Indian Basmati strains with the company’s other proprietary seeds. Ricetec also claims the right to use the Basmati name. The Indian government has challenged Ricetec’s claim, arguing that the patent jeopardizes India’s annual Basmati export market of around US$277 million, and threatens the livelihood of thousands of Punjabi farmers.
The ability of farmers to save seed is seen as crucial to food security. According to RAFI, up to 1.4 billion poor farmers in the developing world depend on saved seed and seeds exchanged with farm neighbours, and up to 50 percent of soybean in the developing world is planted with farmer-saved seed.
TNCs such as Monsanto require farmers who buy their GM seeds to sign contracts agreeing not to save seed. In March 1998 RAFI reported that Monsanto had taken legal action against more than 100 soybean growers in the US, and had hired Pinkerton investigators (hired police) to identify those saving seeds.
In 1997, Farmers’ Weekly reported that the Biotechnology Working Party of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) in the UK was seeking legal advice on the status of contracts between farmers and agrochemical firms under UK law. British farmers were reported to be unhappy with the US-style technology fees, licenses and contracts for GM crops.
In 1998 the US Department of Agriculture and the Mississippi-based Delta and Pine Land seed company were granted a patent on the so-called “terminator technology”, which involves engineering seeds so that they do not germinate if planted for a second time.
2. Bioprospecting — biopiracy
In a report prepared by RAFI for the United Nations Development Program in 1994, it estimated that biopiracy of plant genetic resources and knowledge cost developing countries $4.5 billion per annum. Most bioprospecting to date has been carried out for the pharmaceutical industry, but in the future it is expected to play a greater role in research for GM crop plants. The following are some examples to date:
In April 1997, two Australian government agencies applied for patents on two strains of chickpea, samples of which they had borrowed from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) at Hyderabad. ICRISAT subsequently told the Australian agencies that it would be wrong to patent plants that should be owned universally, and on 13 January 1998 they withdrew their applications.
W.G. Grace & Co. [was granted] a series of patents on extracts from the neem tree, whose seeds and bark have been used for centuries in India for natural pesticides. Grace has estimated that the global market for the pesticide could reach US$50 million a year by 2000, and while there are no hard statistics on the impact on Indian farmers to date … [but] farmers in the south of India, where neem is harvested, are already losing out because the processing and exporting of the seeds and oil is no longer available to them.
In 1995, two Mississippi doctors were granted a patent for the traditional use of turmeric as a healing powder. India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) petitioned the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) on the grounds that the ‘discovery’ was not original, but had been chronicled in traditional Indian texts. In August last year, the PTO rejected the patent holders’ claims.
3. Conservation — sustainable agriculture
International genebanks for seed samples were originally set up in response to concerns about the loss of genetic diversity. Essentially they are vast refrigerators where seed samples are stored under controlled humidity and temperature conditions. But apart from issues of biopiracy there are practical problems with these genebanks:
- many of the seeds lose viability because they are not grown out regularly,
- they are poorly catalogued and costly to run,
- and their material may not be accessible to farmers.
In recent years, there has been a push towards on-farm conservation, and farmer-scientist partnerships are being encouraged in countries including Ethiopia, the Philippines and Chile. Over the last few years research has brought to light highly innovative, informal systems of agricultural research being carried out by indigenous farmers in developing countries. But landraces [primitive cultivar of crops] are not fixed. They shift with evolution to suit local conditions, and although many TNCs claim that the genebanks will provide them with all the basic genetic material they need to feed the world for the next 200 years, over a longer, evolutionary timeframe they may need to draw on landraces.
Environmental health impact
Examples of the impact [on the environment] to date:
1. Bt [genetic manipulation through biotechnology]
- Research at the University of Hawaii has shown that insects which survive Bt transmit genetic resistance to their immediate offspring. If Bt becomes useless as an implanted pest control strategy within one insect generation, as this suggests, then organic farmers, who have been using it effectively since the 1940s, will be robbed of a valuable biopesticide. Regional cases of Bt resistance have already been reported.
In April, Greenpeace International demanded an urgent European ban on Novartis’ Bt-maize (which was approved by the EC in 1996) after Swiss research showed it kills insects other than the European corn borer, which it is meant to target.
George Stuber of Greenpeace in Sweden reports that in June 1996 Monsanto planted Bt-potatoes (containing a marker gene for the antibiotic canamicin) in three regions of Georgia, in the former Soviet Union. Georgia lacks any proper legislation controlling the release of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The crops were devastated by fitoptora disease because, says Stuber, the potatoes were not adapted to the local climate.
Similarly, GM FlavrSavr tomatoes were grown in Guatemala, which has hundreds if not thousands of indigenous varieties of tomato, without the consent or knowledge of the authorities. Although the tomatoes were grown in greenhouses, Stuber says there is no way of knowing how rigorously they were contained, and there is no information as to whether the transgenic tomatoes spread beyond those sites.
2. Chemical herbicides
Glyphosate is the world’s best-selling “total” herbicide. It was developed by Monsanto in the early 1970s and its major formulation is Roundup. Largely due to the introduction of Roundup Ready crops, human and environmental exposure to the herbicide is expected to increase.
In health terms, say Friends of the Earth, experiments have shown damaging and long lasting reproductive effects of glyphosate on laboratory animals. In 1995, a study in the Journal of Environmental Science and Health showed that exposure to glyphosate was associated with reduced semen quality, volume and concentration in rabbits.
Herbicide-tolerant members of the bean family produce higher levels of plant oestrogens when grown in the presence of the herbicide, and there is a risk that these could disrupt the developing reproductive systems of children who consume them.
In 1994 a report by the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International Program on Chemical Safety found that glyphosate residues in animal feeds arising from pre-harvest glyphosate treatment of cereals may result in low residues in meat, milk and eggs.
3. Antibiotic resistance
Novartis’ Bt-maize contains a marker gene which codes for antibiotic resistance in E. coli. There is a risk that if animals or humans consume Bt-maize-based products such as cattle feed or starch, some antibiotics would be rendered useless.
4. Nutritionally enhanced crops
When crops such as rice and rapeseed with high Vitamin A concentrations are planted, there will be no way to distinguish them from normal rice, with the contingent risk of liver damage if too much Vitamin A is consumed.
5. Unpredictable crops
Monsanto is facing an increasing number of lawsuits as their GM plants are not behaving as intended. In 1997 farmers who grew Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant cotton saw the cotton balls fall off their crops … In 1996, Monsanto’s pest-resistant Bt-cotton succumbed to a heat wave in the southern US and was destroyed by bollworms and other pests.
Most researchers agree that biotechnology in crops will exacerbate the trend towards monocropping set in train by the Green Revolution, with all the problems that that entails, e.g., higher risk of disease and pest damage.
Jonathan Rigg, a researcher in agricultural development and rural change at Durham University, cites one example from the Green Revolution: in the late 1970s, vast areas of Indonesia planted with a single variety of rice were devastated by the brown plant hopper, an event which has been linked to a subsequent mini famine on Lombok.
In 1996 the FAO reported that the world depends on too few crops and that many thousands of genetic varieties (landraces) have been lost, mainly due to the spread of modern commercial agriculture. The report lists the main causes of plant genetic erosion in 154 countries, and in over 80 of them, “replacement of local varieties” came top. In maize, for instance, Costa Rica, Chile, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand have documented widespread genetic erosion due to monocropping.
“What has been almost entirely overlooked is that throughout that vast continent [of Africa] can be found more than 2000 native grains, roots, fruits and other food plants. These have been feeding people for thousands of years but most are being given no attention whatever today.” [US National Research Council, 1996]
Top biotech players
Consolidation is taking place throughout the global economy. 1996 saw a record volume of mergers and acquisitions and that record had already been shattered for 1997 before the end of the year. According to GRAIN, “Virtually all of the top specialist ag-biotech companies have been absorbed, controlled or are have come under the influence of one or more of the previously controlling transnational (TNC) stock holders in agriculture.” The top ten agrochemical corporations accounted for 82% of all agrochemical sales in 1996.
© 1998, Oxfam GB, “Biotechnology in crops: Issues for the developing world,” excerpts reprinted with permission in 2002. See reprint policy.