Genetically modified crops:Fears and excitement (2008)

 Foundation Day Lecture of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,

delivered at Bangalore University 25 Jan. 2008

A shorter version appeared in  The Hindu, 24 Feb. 2008


Genetic engineering constitutes the second industrial revolution. The first one involved physics and went hand in hand with colonialism. The present one involves biology and is being accompanied by globalization. Biotech  is in fact the most revolutionary of all revolutions. So far, right from the making of stone tools to landing on the Moon to the development of  the internet, humankind  has been arranging and rearranging building blocks provided by the nature. Now it has become possible to modify these building blocks themselves. This development is unprecedented in human history and raises questions of ethics and consequences that have never risen before. So far questions of ethics have pitted man against man. Now it is humankind against nature. Any meaningful discussion on genetic engineering cannot be confined to its science; it must incorporate the other dimensions also.


Plants owe their characteristics to their genes, which they inherit form their parents. Since ages, it has been possible to cross-breed closely related varieties. Such exercises have been carried out in the fields and have involved evolutionary timescales that are reassuringly large. It has now become possible to quickly change the genetic composition of a plant, working in the lab itself. Genes can be added or silenced. They can come from totally unrelated sources: other plants, microbes or even animals. Some people prefer to use the term “genetically manipulated” rather than “genetically modified”, because modification denotes a soft concept, while manipulation carries a negative connotation.


It is an extraordinary situation that the most momentous scientific development in the whole history of humankind, concerning the vital commodity of food,   is not driven by curiosity but commerce. The State and the international agencies have no role. The entire agri-biotech business is controlled by no more than five companies.  The lead player is the American company Monsanto, with 90% of the business. The remaining 10% is shared by Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, Dow, and DuPont. Only four genetically modified crops are in commercial production: soybeans, maize, cotton and oilseed rape (canola). The next in line is sugar beet. The genetic manipulation in these crops has been at two levels. A gene from a bacterium with the abbreviated name Bt has been transplanted in maize, cotton and others to give them insecticidal properties. Secondly, plants have been engineered to develop immunity to herbicides so that chemicals sprayed on the crops will kill weeds but leave the main plant un-touched.


Since  the 1995  introduction of Bt maize  cultivation  in US , GM acreage in the world has been expanding at an annual rate of 10%, but the country-wise distribution is extremely non-uniform. According to 2004 figures,  merely five countries account for 96% of the world’s fields under GM crops :   US ( 59%): Argentina (20%);Canada (6%); Brazil (6%); and China (5%) (India has only 1% of the world area under GM. Next to US, China is the most enthusiastic about plant biotech. Given its political system it is the least deterred by concerns about the consequences. Australia, a big agricultural producer and exporter, makes a clear distinction between commercial crops (like cotton) where  it has adopted GM and foods like wheat which are strictly kept out of the orbit. Europe is dead set against GM foods. Its  opposition influences many countries attitude toward GM crops. Exit of agri-biotech companies from the European market has increased pressure on the developing countries to become more receptive. India on its part is extremely sensitive to the dangers inherent in the technology.


Currently, the most important task before the agri-biotech giants is to attain financial viability. Developing a marketable transgenic strain is  an expensive proposition, like  developing a new drug. The companies need a captive market and a big market. To recover initial costs, prices must be kept high and farmers made to buy GM seeds every year. Technology can become cheap only if it becomes widespread, which means that it must conquer the developing countries.  However, the technological developments so far have been driven by conditions in US.


Is GM safe? We do not know. The Nobel prize winning geneticist Brenner notes  wryly  that most scientists are unwilling to say that GM is completely harmless lest they are proven wrong in their own lifetime.  In October  2007, the chairman of the Scientific Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms of the European Food Safety Authority, Harry Kuiper, said very cautiously  : “So far, we have not detected a risk for human life  or the environment, not yet”. The significance of use of terms such as “so far” and “not yet” will not be lost on anybody.


Even at the best of times it is difficult to assess a cutting-edge technology. GM represents a major intervention in nature and can truly be a turning point in civilization. Its assessment is inherently difficult and impossible on short timescales. It is not possible to anticipate all possible consequences that will arise if GM technology is extensively used across the world.


GM crop technology may in fact be un-testable, on methodological grounds. Scientific analysis pre-requires that the system under investigation be isolated. But,it is not possible to isolate GM from the non-GM. The pollinators like the  birds, bees, butterflies and  wind, move from one agricultural field to another unmindful of whether a conventional crop is being grown or a modified one. In a lighter vein, may be as a first step,  bees, birds and butterflies should be genetically modified to be able to distinguish between GM and non-GM vegetation. A senior New Scientist reporter, Andy Coghlan, wrote in 2003: “Commonsense tells me that contamination only matters if it materially alters the quality or safety of the harvest of a processed food”. Sounds reasonable. But the problem with commonsense is that it is capable of telling different things to different people. Brenner has pointed out that though biological systems are complex they are unique in the sense that they carry an internal description of themselves in the form of their genes. But this cannot be said of the environment. It is an easy matter to modify crops at  the genetic level; it is impossible to predict their effect.


Plant biotech is controversial. It is not that positions are being taken on the basis of evidence (there is hardly any). Rather, arguments are being proffered in support of known positions. For many critics, GM agriculture is a frontier post to be defended. If GM crops are permitted, what next?



British field trials 2000-2002

Some years ago when the British government planned to introduce GM crops it was taken aback by the backlash. As a way out it decided to carry out extensive field trials. Large plots were planted half with herbicide-resistant GM crops and half with conventional varieties to monitor their effect on bees, weeds, insects and other farmland wildlife. The trials which took place between 2000 and 2002 showed that in the case of beet and oilseed rape the level of weeds, their seeds as also the insects in fields of GM crops was markedly lower than in the   ones with conventional varieties. Since birds feed on these populations, their numbers would also go down markedly.


The study makes it clear that root of problem is not genetic modification but the associated herbicide spray regime. Since conventional crops also get damaged along with the weeds when chemicals are sprayed, farmers apply less powerful weed-killers, and more often. This gives the weeds a chance. But since the GM crop is herbicide resistant farmers sprayed the field only once or twice with broad-spectrum weed-killers that removed almost all weeds from a field. One could argue that since the problem lies with the spray than with the GM crop one can easily devise a suitable regime for herbicide spray. But since there is already intense public opposition to transgenic agriculture the field trials have been seen as a vindication of public opinion. Note that these trials were ordered in the first place because of public backlash.  Indeed, Bayer CropScience which owns the patent for herbicide-resistant oilseed rape has abandoned its proposal for growing the crop in Europe.


The resistance to new initiatives complements opposition to existing practices. In January 2008, much to the annoyance of US, France, “Europe’s agricultural powerhouse”   has banned the cultivation of modified corn in view of “the need for additional analyses on the health and environmental effects of the genetically modified product MON810 in the long term.” It has been the only GM crop grown in France. Such is the pressure of public opinion against GM  that the Italian government has been charged by the pro-GM lobby of suppressing results of field trials that show GM in favourable light.


Austria has steadfastly refused to let GM corn in notwithstanding the fact that it has been    declared safe by the European Union. US, backed by Argentina and Canada, has threatened to  impose trade sanctions against  EU if ban on GM products is not removed. US and WTO notwithstanding, Austria has declared that it has no plans to lift its ban on corn.  The Wall Street Journal has noted that in Austria’s case “the facts don’t line up with their fears”.  Austria    appears to be quite comfortable with its fears. It is curious that  battles over a new technology instead of being fought in labs and seminar rooms are being fought in the corridors of WTO.


Do GM crops kill bees?

Since late 2006 USA has reported that its bees are dying in large numbers. This phenomenon, since termed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been seen in Germany and other countries as well. It has been suggested that pollen from GM crops is the cause of honey bee deaths. A little thought will show that this is unlikely. If GM were responsible then the severity of the problem should be proportional to the intensity of GM cultivation.  But,  while the field area under GM crops in Germany is negligible compared to that in US, CCD incidence is not.


This argument has been gleefully made in pro-GM blogs,  but the issue does not get closed. There can be no doubt that the decimation of bees is due to a man-made reason. Whatever human activity is found to be the culprit, the fact remains that when it was initiated this particular consequence was not anticipated. (When it was decided to feed animal parts to cows, which are vegetarian by nature, it could not have been predicted that beefeaters could die of CJD. Similarly when South Asia introduced diclofenac as a cheap painkiller for the cattle no one could have imagined that it would  damage the kidneys of the vultures and bring them to the verge of extinction.)


It has recently been reported in the American journal Science that imported viruses are likely to be the cause of mass bee deaths. In 2005 US decided to import honey bees from Australia. Majority of these are infected with a virus known as Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV), so-called because it was first isolated in Israel in 2002.Large-scale bee deaths have not occurred in Australia, no doubt because of different living conditions there. “In addition, the Varroa mite, which is widespread in the US and Europe and which has been shown to weaken the bees’ immune system, is not found in Australia.” It may be some consolation that GM is not to be blamed for the bees’ death, but a bigger issue is involved. When it was decided to import bees from Australia into US, colony collapse was not foreseen. Will other actions of today produce catastrophes tomorrow? Surely, a scientific post-mortem report does not condone death.




Nobody views GM technology as the fruit of collective human effort. Rather it is seen as a handiwork of localized commercial interests. The more perspective of the analysts have noticed that “many of the arguments that are used against GM crops are really arguments against the misuse of power by large multinational companies”.  GM crops have become a symbol of broad opposition to globalization and American domination.


Agriculture is the basis of the present phase of human civilization as we know it. If world agriculture becomes a child of high technology owned by a few big companies, what happens to local freedoms.  I am sure if agri-biotech was in public domain, with the option of take-it-or-leave it, the world response would be different.  In 1839, the French government purchased the pioneering daguerreotype technology of photography and gave it free to the world. (It is a separate matter that the inventors’ patent was retained in Britain.) In the same spirit the international agencies such as FAO should buy out the patents on  GM crops  and make the technology freely available to one and all. Give freedom to different countries  to  modify plants    to their own requirement and at their own pace, as happened in the case of green revolution.


It is unlikely that biotech companies read poetry or appreciate poetic wisdom. In the 19th century, when quantum mechanics and relativity were still in the future, and scientists were enamoured of a mechanistic, deterministic world, it was left to William Blake to record for posterity that “ To be an Error & to be cast out is a part of God’s design”. A bird or a bee or a weed may be an error from the point of view of a commercial crop, but they are certainly an inseparable part of nature’s design.




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