Dusting off my master’s thesis: The social implications of GMO food

It’s a long time since my master’s thesis has seen the light of day, but a current online debate about the value of Golden Rice has prompted me to dust it off. So here it is, written for my MA in Applied Anthropology and Development at Macquarie University, under the supervision of a man I admired immensely – Dr Nick Modjeska.

Anyone looking for the references to Golden Rice might want to search using Ctrl+F

The Social Implications of Genetically Modified Food (2000)


Recombinant DNA; genetic engineering; biotechnology — whatever the label, this new science is a modern marvel, effectively placing evolution in the hands of those who posess the right knowledge and resources. It is also explosively controversial. Biotechnology is one of those captivating issues which exists where science, social values and commerce collide.

Because the stakes are high, scientists and agricultural researchers have perhaps been too quick to label their opponents views as “unscientific” and, therefore, worthless. On the other hand, the opponents of biotechnology have perhaps been too quick to label its products “unnatural” and, therefore, wrong in every sense of the word.

In the centre of the debate, the multinational agricultural companies — the holders of the right knowledge and resources — are masquerading as the saviours of humankind, boasting of benefits stemming from biotechnology which do not actually exist. At least, not yet.

Where DNA technology is concerned, the “truth” is very much a subjective entity. Are the products of biotechnology safe for human consumption? Do moral arguments hold a legitimate place in what is ostensibly a scientific debate? Could genetic engineering finally end starvation?


What is genetic modification?

What is genetic modification? As we enter the 21st century, the simplest answer to this very topical question may well be: “controversial”. Genetic modification is nothing if not controversial. However, before entering into discussion on the possible and probable ramifications of genetic modification — especially as it relates to agricultural products and their producers and consumers — it is useful to understand something of the science involved.

The science of genetic modification has been hailed by its proponents as one of the “great success stories in the 20th century” (Tribe, 2000). However, the term “genetic modification” actually covers a broad range of processes, from basic selective breeding and hybridisation, right through to recombinant DNA technology, also known as “gene splicing” (Levine, 1993).

Hybridisation takes place every time two different strains of one species, or (more rarely) members of two different species, reproduce. As a result, “genes change every day by natural mutation and recombination, creating new biological variations” (Jones, 1999 p581). The mule — a product of a female horse and a male donkey — is one example of genetic modification which has been exploited by humans for at least three thousand years (Levine, 1993).

Currently, though, the term “genetic modification” is popularly used to refer to laboratory-based biotechnology, or recombinant DNA technology, which allows the direct alteration of genetic material, most commonly in agricultural products.

At the base of all genetic modifications are, logically, genes. A gene is the unit of heredity in a chromosome, controlling a particular inherited characterisitc of an individual (The Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary, 1978)

Genetic modification is possible only because the genes of all organisms (except some viruses) are made of the same chemical — DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid. This basic similarity allows the DNA from two different organisms to be cut and spliced together (Jones, 1999 p585). Once the recombined or spliced DNA is introduced into another organism, it “permanently changes the the genetic makeup of that organism and all its descendants” (Levine, 1993).

The chemical DNA plays a central role in protein synthesis. Protein, in turn, is “one of the most fundamental building substances of living organisms” (Purves et al, G23). Different proteins — including enzymes and antibodies — are required to build and maintain different tissues and organs. Nevertheless, within an organism the cells in each of these very different tissues and organs contain identical sets of genes. Hence, in the cells of any given tissue or organ, some genes must be active, while others are not (Clarke, 1993). In other words, some genes are “switched on”, while others are “switched off”. The specific activation of genes is very important to the science of recombinant DNA technology (see “What can be done with gene splicing?”).

The processes of gene activation are still obscure. However, it is believed that near each gene is a segment of DNA known as the “promoter”. This is the site at which “transcription” begins. Transcription is the production of a strand of mRNA, or messenger ribonucleic acid. mRNA is a chemical which carries information for the synthesis of one or more proteins (Purves et al, G17). Hence, the promoter is responsible for activating a gene, or switching it on.

Between the promoter and the gene, however, there is a further segment of DNA called the “operator”, where another protein — the “repressor” — can stick. When the repressor is present, the gene is inactive, or switched off.

What can be done with gene splicing?

For many thousands of years, humans have practised the manipulation of genes to create combinations that would never have occured otherwise. The selective breeding of plants and animals is a form of genetic engineering. In selective breeding, only plants or animals with desirable characteristics are chosen for further breeding. An example of this technique can be seen in any one of the more than 130 recognised dog breeds in the world. Another example is maize, or corn, which has been selectively bred for about 7000 years in attempts to increase kernel size and number (Levine, 1993).

Laboratory-based DNA manipulation can be seen as “an extension” of selective breeding (Jones, 1999 p581). The basic objective of genetic modification remains the same: to develop a more “desirable” product. Of course, desirability is a highly subjective concept, but within agriculture this typically means producing plants capable of higher yields, containing increased nutritional value, or with greater inherent pest or chemical resistance.

The new techniques resulting from genetic modification technology differ from selective breeding practices in at least two significant ways. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously (or even alarmingly), DNA technology has enabled the transfer of genes between unrelated species. For example, the bovine gene for rennin has successfully been transferred from cattle to industrial yeast, fungus and bacterium. These microbes are then grown in fermenters, producing rennet on a commercial scale. The resulting bioengineered rennet (used in making cheese) has been able to effectively replace the conventional product obtainable from slaughtered animals (Jones, 1999 p582).

Another way in which DNA technology differs from conventional breeding is that the new techniques offer much greater control over the process of genetic modification, reducing the “likelihood of unexpected results” (Marwick 2000, p191). Now, specific genes can be “identified, copied, and introduced into other organisms in much more direct and controlled ways” (Jones, 1999 p581). For instance, foreign or “trans”-genes can be introduced into plants and expressed in specific locations (such as in the roots or leaves) while not being expressed elsewhere (such as in the seeds or fruit). This has useful applications in, for example, combatting pests that attack only roots or leaves.

Certainly, “most applications” of the recombinant DNA technology currently available, or likely to be available in the near future, relate to “commercially important” agricultural traits (Jones, 1999 p582). From a biology text-book point of view, this is because:
“the greatest potential for improving human welfare with modern biological
technology lies in the search for economically feasible crop plants that are
higher yielding; more nutritious; disease resistant; drought, salt, and pollution
tolerant; and otherwise able to meet the challenges of our overextended planetary
resources” (Purves et al p324)

As will be discussed later in detail, this purely scientific view is somewhat idealistic and ignores the political and commercial factors which already govern much of the world’s food distribution. Nevertheless, as a scientific concept, DNA technology has real merit in its potential to boost agricultural productivity.

In summary, when it comes to the application of biotechnology to agricultural crops, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recognises three distinctive types of genetic modifications. These are:
1) “Wide Transfer”; where genes are transferred from organisms of other kingdoms (e.g. bacteria, animal) into plants,
2) “Close Transfer”; where genes are transferred from one species of plant to another,
3) “Tweaking”; where genes already present in the plant’s genome are manipulated to change the level or pattern of expression.

Some specific examples of DNA technology applications which are already possible are:

More nutritious rice: Rice is a staple food within many populations where deficiencies in vitamin A and iron are common sources of malnutrition. Rice is naturally low in both beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A) and iron. This nutritional “deficiency” in rice is a problem which can now be overcome.
In an attempt to make rice more nutritious, scientists have created a transgenic rice strain containing two daffodil genes and two bacterium genes, each encoding proteins for the production of vitamin A. These genes give the rice yellow-tinted kernels.
Furthermore, to simultaneously increase the rice’s iron content and bioavailability, scientists have introduced appropriate genes from such diverse sources as a French bean, a fungus, and basmati rice. This total of seven foreign genes is yet to be transferred into a common commercial variety of rice and tested for “possible risks to human health and the environment”. As a result, the so-called “golden rice” is not yet commercially available (Friedrich, 1999).
Interestingly, and very unusually for a GMO, this rice variety is being produced by a not-for-profit organisation, namely the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Unlike other GMOs which are currently in production, golden rice will be available “free of any restrictions and free of charge to farmers” (ibid)

Herbicide resistant soybeans: A multinational chemical corporation, Monsanto, is currently marketing a genetically engineered soybean which is tolerant of the herbicidal compound glyphosate. Glyphosate is also marketed by Monsanto, under the brand name “Roundup”. This new glyphosate-resistant soybean is known as “Roundup Ready” soybean. Roundup is a highly effective, broad spectrum herbicide used to “combat an assortment of yield-robbing weeds”. However, according to Monsanto, the chemical cannot distinguish between “weeds and plants”, and would normally kill soybeans.
Roundup Ready soybeans are modified by the addition of a single protein: a glyphosate-tolerant enzyme originally found in soil-based bacteria. This added enzyme enables the soybean plant to tolerate being sprayed with Roundup between the time it emerges from the soil, until it finishes flowering (Monsanto, 2000).

Pest-resistant cotton: Monsanto is also the company behind the development of insect-resistant “Bt cotton”. This transgenic cotton incorporates a gene from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (hence the label, “Bt”). The Bt gene encodes the production of a protein which paralyzes the digestive tracts of destructive caterpillars and bollworms, causing the insect pests to starve. Whilst this inbuilt pest-resistance can be viewed as a desirable characteristic, there are real concerns as to the plant’s long-term efficacy.

Firmer tomatoes: Tomatoes contain a substance called pectin which “cements” the fruit’s cells together and acts as a natural thickener in tomato pastes. Over time, the pectin is digested by an enzyme within the tomato called polygalacturonase, causing the tomato to soften. Scientists have been able to underexpress or “turn down” the gene that is responsible for the production of polygalacturonase, resulting in tomatoes which retain more of the pectin as they ripen. These tomatoes, containing their own thickener, have been used in a tomato paste which is now commercially available in Britain (Jones, 1999 p583). A similar product, known as the “Flavr Savr”, is currently in US supermarkets, and has a longer shelf-life than traditional tomatoes.

Non-browning fruit: Many fruits have a tendency to turn brown on surfaces where they have been cut or peeled. This is due to the damaged cells releasing an enzyme (called “polyphenol oxidase”) which, in turn, catalyses a reaction resulting in the brown pigment being formed. Scientists have been able to switch the gene for polyphenol oxidase off, hence preventing the spoilage by discolouration. This technique could significantly reduce the need to use chemical preservatives in food (Jones, 1999 p583).

Where do people fit in the genetic modification picture?

Food is quite clearly fundamental to life. More than simply being a necessity, however, food is rich with symbolic significance. Indeed, food can be seen as “a matter of identity as well as economy; culture as well as nurture” (Margaronis 1999).

Nevertheless, it would probably be fair to suggest that the majority of people do not think about food production until it affects them directly. In major cities, and in entire developed nations, this is rarely. The science of recombinant DNA technology, in its real, potential, or imagined impacts on food, is remarkable in many ways, but not least because it seems to have firmly captured the collective imagination of the general public. The genetic modification of food has become an extremely controversial issue.

People who have easy access to food, and who have always had enough to eat, take their rights to choice regarding food very seriously. This is clearly evidenced by the recent public backlash against the genetic engineering of food which, when closely examined, can be seen as a strong retaliation against having the right to choose denied.

Consumer choice was denied — perhaps by stealth, perhaps by sheer ignorance of the fury and indignation that would ultimately be provoked — when food produced from genetically engineered plants started landing (unlabelled as having been genetically modified) on supermarket shelves in the mid 1990s.

In the USA, food products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA considers that “the important thing for consumers to know” about genetically engineered foods is that “they will be every bit as safe as the foods now on store shelves” (FDA, 1998). Ironically, the FDA — which openly supports the commercialisation of GM foods — offers no solid evidence to provide the level of consumer assurance it alludes to, as will shortly be explored in further detail.

In Australia, the FDA’s equivalent is ANZFA, or the Australia New Zealand Food Authority. On the issue of proving food safety, ANZFA exaplains that:

“Historically, foods prepared and used in traditional ways have been considered safe on the basis of long-term experience … In principle, food has been presumed to be safe unless a significant hazard was identified”
(ANZFA, 199X).

To further explore the US situation: the FDA allows the introduction of GM foods (excluding additives, such as sweetners) to supermarkets under the “postmarket authority” of the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act. Under this authority,

“foods made up of proteins, fats and carbohydrates with a history of safe use in food can be sold once companies are satisfied the new product is safe without first getting FDA permission” (FDA, 1998).

To recap on the composition and roles of genes and DNA: genes are made of DNA, and DNA controls protein synthesis. Hence, most genetic modifications are, fundamentally, the result of transferred or altered proteins. So, by the reckoning of the FDA, if a certain protein found in, for instance, a bean, has never caused any harm to humans in being consumed as a part of that bean, then that same protein is assumed to be “every bit as safe” if it is transferred to a rice plant (as has been the case with so-called “golden rice”). Over time, this assumption may be vindicated, or it may be seen to be false. In either case, the vital element in proving food safety — “long term experience” — is missing.

At this stage in time, the fundamental question being asked by those people opposed to the immdediate, broad scale and commercial use of genetically engineered agricultural crops is: “What’s the hurry?” (Tudge, 1999 p11).

There is no shortage of support for the continued genetic engineering of food crops from within the broadly “scientific” community. Sources ranging from university biology text books (Purves et al) to articles published in the British Medical Journal (Jones, 1999) produce convincing arguments to suggest that genetic engineering offers a safe, effective and immediate way to feed the under-nourished people of the world and to increase agricultural productivity in line with population growth.

The arguments taking place in the public arena both for and against genetic engineering, however, are characterised by their extremely emotive language. Clear and simple scientific fact is very often conspicuously absent from both sides of the debate.

The people who argue in favour of genetic engineering express extreme frustration at the “concerted campaign” being waged in opposition to genetically modified foods (Marwick, 2000). This campaigning is, argue the scientists and their supporters, “a gross case of bad facts masquerading as science” (Tribe, 2000). Nevertheless, the “uproar”, supposedly containing only “disinformation and deception about GM organisms”, has been successful enough to place the “entire biotechnology industry at potential risk” (Marwick).

Interestingly, the most vocal defenders of genetic engineering have no clear target for their anger — they specify neither precisely who they think is conducting these campaigns, nor, perhaps more importantly, why. This doesn’t stop the scientific community accusing the “campaigners” of “hysteria and villification”(Tribe), or from calling them “Luddites” and thus harking back to those English textile workers who, in the early 19th century, organised riots against the introduction of labour-saving machinery . These are insults which appear to be inspired largely by contempt, and display no useful insight into the motivations of biotechnology’s opponents. The scientists and their supporters, apparently overwhelmed with annoyance, have offered the campaigners no real opportunity to calmly express their own annoyance and fears. As a result, the supporters of agribiotechnolgy have tended to provoke absolute outrage in their detractors.

The “campaigners”, in turn, are only slightly less vague in their accusations. Those who are opposed to the genetic modification of food blame, typically, the “men in white coats and men in grey suits” for the current level of corporate and government acceptance of GM organisms (Margaronis, 1999). At the heart of most protesters’ concerns is the perception of “legendary arrogance” displayed by the creators and supporters of GM foods (Margaronis).

By creating combinations which would never occur by chance, and by manipulating single genes within organisms, scientists have successfully eliminated the “randomness of nature” (Dixon, B — BMJ 1999:318; 547-548). Ironically, it is this very elimination of randomness which simultaneously delights many scientists and disgusts many lay consumers.

So, while the scientists are calling their opponents “Luddites”, the protestors are determined to keep what has become a slanging match alive by comparing all genetic engineers to Dr Frankenstein, and labelling everything these scientists produce as “Frankenstein Foods”, now commonly abbreviated as “Frankenfoods”.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) — a novel coincidentally written in the same period that witnessed the Luddite riots — tells the story of a scientist obsessed with discovering the secret of life. Similarly, modern scientists are seduced by the “startling discoveries and new insights into DNA which seem to promise a complete understanding of life itself” (Suzuki, 1992 pxxii). The fictitious Dr Frankenstein eventually creates, by mistake, a murderous monster made up of parts stolen from various corpses. In a line from the novel, which encapsulates the concerns many sceptics hold regarding the potential risks of genetically modifying food, the uncontrollable monster ultimately taunts Frankenstein with the assertion that:

“You are my creator, but I am your master” (Shelley, p162).

The critics of agribiotechnology, in labelling its products “Frankenstein Foods”, clearly believe that the scientists involved are naïvely tinkering with a source of power which could prove to end up beyond their control. Even the Prince of Wales, a “self-described organic farmer” has “lent his prestige to the campaign [against genetic modification], speaking out at the immorality of playing God” (Paarlberg, 2000 p20).

As a result of the strong public opposition to agribiotechnology, the term “Frankenfoods” — which can only be viewed as projecting a negative image of genetic engineering — has appeared in headlines the world over. A few examples of these headlines are:

“Healthier Frankenfoods?” (Regaldo, 2000), in Technology Review;

“Who’s Afraid of Frankenfood?” (Golden, 1999), in Time; and

“The “Frankenfood” Monster Stalks Capitol Hill” (editorial, 1999), in Business Week

There has been no conclusive evidence to show that genetically engineered food causes harm to humans. Conversely, though, as discussed earlier, there is no proof that genetically engineered food will not cause harm. Clearly, having an absence of proof of harm is quite different to having the proof of absence of harm. The long-term evidence and experience needed to prove an absence of harm simply does not exist in relation to agribiotechnology, which has only been in commercial use since the mid 1990s (Paarlberg, 2000 p19).

In all likelihood — and especially if we believe regulatory bodies such as ANZFA and the FDA — food produced by genetically modified plants will cause no physical harm to humans who consume them. But quite apart from the issue of safety are the fuzzier and even more contentious issues of ethics and beliefs.

In 1962, Rachel Carson, a genetic biologist, issued a warning to humanity in her book Silent Spring. It exposed the “unexpected consequences of one of technology’s great achievements — chemicals that killed insects”. Carson’s book “touched off an outcry that was the beginning of what we now call the modern environmental movement” (Suzuki, 1997 p3).

In Silent Spring, Carson comments on the inherent value of genes:

“For mankind as a whole, a possession infinitely more valuable than individual life is our genetic heritage, our link with the past and future. Shaped through long aeons of evolution, our genes not only make us what we are, but hold in their minute beings the future – be it one of promise or threat”.
(Carson, 1962 p185)

In the context of the current furore over genetic engineering, Carson’s words seem both quaintly sentimental and eerily prophetic. However, it is probably fair to surmise that Carson would be profoundly surprised at the degree of scientific progress which has been made in the field of genetic engineering over the course of the past few decades.

What we do know for certain, from the closing paragraph of Silent Spring, is that Carson has a comparison for scientists which leaves the rioting Luddites sounding positively modern, and rather tame as the source of an insult. She contends that:

“The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man … It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons”
(Carson, 1962 p257)

Clearly, quite apart from the issue of whether humans can genetically modify foods which are safe for consumption is the compelling but rather explosive issue of whether we should. For a variety of reasons, most people (at least at this point in time) seem to think we should not.

In May and June of 1999, ANZFA undertook a survey to “guage the views of stakeholders in Australia and New Zealand on the issue of extending the labelling of foods produced using gene technology to include “substantially equivalent” foods” ANZFA 1999). More than nine out of every ten respondents strongly favoured the mandatory labelling of all foods produced using gene technology, regardless of whether or not they are different to their conventional counterparts.

This perception by consumers of the need-to-know (by way of access to clear labelling) could be viewed as a real indictment — or, at the very least, suspicion — of the technology involved in genetic engineering. Survey participants most frequently cited the right to make informed choices as their reason for supporting labelling. A “significant number” expressed concern relating to potential health and environmental threats stemming from genetic modifications. These concerns indicate that, if given the choice, this “significant number” of people would choose not to buy and eat foods which are the products of genetic engineering. Indeed, this assumption echoes the stated concern of “industry” that the mandatory labelling of GM foods would be “perceived by consumers as a warning statement and imply a health risk for such foods” (ANZFA 2000).

In support of this concern within the food industry, ANZFA has decided that “mandatory labelling could indeed be perceived to be a health warning and was relevant only where foods derived from gene technology were substantially different from conventional counterparts”. ANZFA, then, has strongly implied that consumer concerns relating to GM foods are not relevant. In this way, and by aiming to serve the interests of industry (while simultaneously claiming to protect public health), ANZFA has somewhat ironically “undermined the golden rule of consumer-friendly capitalism: Let them have choice” (Margaronis p13).

In summarising its survey results, ANZFA concludes that “the submissions demonstrated that many individuals have a lack of understanding”, regarding both food safety regulations and genetic engineering. Individual consumers may well have a lack of understanding, but this is not to say that the consumers are necessarily alone in their ignorance. As geneticist David Suzuki points out:

“Despite the enormous benefits of any technology, our knowledge about how the world works is so limited that we can seldom predict all the consequences of that technology for the world around us”

So, to sum up, in the words of entomologist Chris Geiger (2000):

“True, transgenic crops hold a great deal of promise. But let’s remember that we are tinkering with one very complex system (the genome) and introducing it into another very complex system (the ecosystem). I believe that the precautionary principle should be followed with all transgenic introductions, that is, err on the side of caution …. I have not yet seen a transgenic crop product for which there is a truly compelling need, a need that outweighs the unknown risks.”

Agribiotechnology, farmers, and world hunger. What’s the real deal?

The scientific community seems to believe — probably with a fair degree of accuracy — that the opponents of agribiotechnology tend also to oppose broadscale social inequity and environmental destruction. This is evidenced by the fact that the majority of published arguments in favour of recombinant DNA technology repeatedly focus on the ability of these new techniques to both feed the world and reduce agricultural chemical usage. These assertions seem to be targetted specifically at changing the attitudes of the most vocal opponents of agribiotechnology, and might be seen as an unbeatable strategy — if only those claims were, in reality, completely true.

Scientists involved in agribiotechnology, by the very nature of their work, often seem to take a reductionist view of the world. In an extreme display of physical reductionism, they are able — rather astonishingly — to isolate single genes from dynamic organisms. Furthermore, with those single genes now under their control, the engineers envisage creating solutions to world hunger and agri-chemical pollution. This view might be admirable or arrogant, but in the context of a world where starvation and pollution are both products of extremely complex social, political and biological systems, the idea that genetic manipulation holds the single key to solving these problems is naïve and simplistic.

In the USA, the National Centre for Public Policy Research has gone on record warning that “if the activists have their way, thousands if not millions of people in the developing world could starve to death or suffer serious and often permanent disability due to malnutrition. These are people who could be helped or saved through biotechnology” (Comtex Scientific Corp 1999). The accusation that, by opposing GM foods, activists will cause mass starvation, is every bit as hysterical and unhelpful to public debate as the counter-accusation that all genetic engineers are comparable with Frankenstein.

The claim that agribiotechnology will, in itself, save millions of people from starvation or permanent disability in the foreseeable future is extremely dubious. There are two main factors which sustain this doubt. The first factor relates to the current causes of starvation in the world today; the second relates to the current and most likely applications of agribiotechnology in the field.

There can be no doubt that the world’s population is increasing. The United Nations World Health Organisation (WHO) states that during October of 1999 world population reached 6 billion, having doubled in size within 40 years. Currently, an average of 78 million people are added to the world’s population each year. WHO’s estimated projection for 2015 is that the world will by then be supporting 7.2 billion people. This is, irrefutably, a large number of new people to feed. To that end, the FAO states that (due to the lack of new land available for cultivation) “the increases in food production needed to feed the world’s growing population must come from increasing the amount of food per hectare”. Agribiotechnology is one source of real promise in relation to increasing plant productivity.

However, to suggest that frost-resistant strawberries, or firmer tomatoes, or cheese made with genetically engineered rennet will — either alone or collectively — save millions of people from starving to death is simply absurd. It is estimated that 800 million people currently suffer from chronic undernutrition. Given that chronic malnutrition and starvation overwhelmingly occurs in the world’s warmer regions (WFP 2000), it is extremely unlikely that a single one of these desperately unfortunate people will ever see a strawberry genetically engineered to withstand frost, let alone be saved by one.

Furthermore, the United Nations World Food Programme, in a paper entitled “Tackling hunger in a world full of food” states quite simply that there is already “sufficient food produced at a global level to meet the needs of every individual alive” (WFP, 2000 p1). Apparently, then, agricultural productivity is not the only problem creating starvation.

So, to what do the supporters of genetic engineering refer when they proclaim the life-saving properties of agribiotechnology? Often, they are referring to crops with inbuilt (or genetic) resistance to either insects or agricultural chemicals. It is a source of extreme irony that one of the two main crop types supposedly offering potential salvation for the world’s hungry people are, in fact, plants which are specifically designed to withstand a degree of chemical usage that would kill similar, non-genetically engineered crops.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that in 1999, 39.9 million hectares of land were planted with transgenic crops. Of this, fully 71% were crops “modified for tolerance to a specific herbicide” (FAO 2000). This means that for the genetic modification within these crops to be of any practical use whatsover, the crops must be sprayed with the herbicide to which it is resistant. Clearly, herbicide resistance is not a source of agribiotechnology used to reduce chemical usage.

GMOs – THE answer, or just a quick (and profitable) fix?

Those supporters of genetic engineering attempting to sway their opponents state that, “from a strictly environmental viewpoint, GM crops” provide the “distinct advantage” that they will “reduce the use of chemical pesticides by millions of kilograms” (Tribe, 2000).

Pesticides — which technically encompass both insecticides and herbicides — are designed to kill pests, of both the insect and weed varieties. So, to suggest that GM crops will significantly reduce the use of chemical pesticides is to conveniently ignore the fact that more than 70% of GM crops currently in production are designed specifically to encourage chemical pesticide use.

Moreover, while it is indeed true that cotton has traditionally been a crop heavily reliant on chemical insecticides, and that inbuilt insect resistance in cotton is environmentally beneficial in its short-term impact on pesticide use, genetic engineers rarely mention the problematic issue of the swiftly developing insect resistance to Bt crops.

Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, presents no known immediate threats to the environment or human health. It is a bacterium found commonly in soil, and produces a toxin deadly to worms and other insect pests, but is harmless to mammals. As pesticides go, Bt is considered very safe. Indeed, to illustrate the benign nature of this bacterium, it has been stated in the print media that “organic farmers use Bt spray liberally” (Specter 2000, p24).

It is true that Bt is an accepted pesticide within the organic farming community, but to suggest that organic farmers use the spray “liberally” and en masse is to stretch the truth. The National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA) is one of Australia’s organic certification bodies. Within its Standards for Organic Agricultural Production (1993), NASAA defines four categories of pest management practices, under the ranked headings:
The recommended strategies for controlling insect pests include the use of plant rotations and the “preservation and enhancement of biodiversity, particularly provision of predator habitat” (p17). NASAA does not recommend the use of Bt, but places Bacillus thuringiensis within the “permitted” category of pest management, as a form of “biological control”. However, all organisms genetically modified by recombinant DNA — including those plants genetically modified to produce Bt — are prohibited under NASAA certification.

So, to link Bt modified crops with organic farming is yet another case of falsely attempting to prove honour by association. By implying that Bt modified crops are safe and “good” because Bt is used by organic farmers is to ignore the complexity which actually characterises organic agriculture.

To be effective in the long term, insecticides need to be used sparingly. The many-faceted approach to pest control known as “integrated pest management” or IPM, recognises this fact. Experience has shown that the liberal use of pesticides paradoxically creates an environment which, in the long term, actually favours insect pests. Within any population of insect pests, it is usually the case that a very small percentage of the population will be naturally resistant to the chemical intended to kill it. The pests that survive being sprayed live on to breed and produce offspring which, in turn, inheret the insecticide resistance. The result is that, in true Darwinian style, “only the strong and fit remain to defy our efforts to control them” (Carson p229).
Bt provides no exception to this rule. A fundamental principle of IPM is that pesticides should be used only in a “timely” manner (that is, they should be applied when pest infestations are sufficient to cause significant economic loss if they are not checked). Furthermore, if the use of an insecticide becomes necessary, it should, according to IPM methods, be “applied at the lowest feasible rate and at the weakest stage in the life of the pest” (Williams UWSH p18).

Contrary to the long-sighted and conservative approach favoured by IPM, the incorporation of Bt into a plant’s DNA means that the chemical is present at all times and, as such, is indiscriminate in its effect on insects. This ironically provides an ideal environment for encouraging pest resistance. Indeed, as long ago as mid-1996, Monsanto made the announcement that “up to 20,000 acres of Bt cotton were failing in eastern Texas” as a direct result of bollworm resistance (Kaiser 1996 p423).

If — or more probably, when — insect pests become widely resistant to Bacillus thuringiensis, Bt will be lost to organic farmers as a useful source of biological control. But, unlike genetic engineers and their supporters, organic farmers will not have the option of simply moving on to another, more powerful chemical alternative.

In effectively damning their opponents for stupidity by using such disingenuous arguments themselves, the proponents of genetic engineering only serve to damage their own credibility. But does this mean that agribiotechnology is a bad thing, per se? Or does it rather imply the existence of a hidden agenda?

If genetic engineering is not providing an immediate solution to world hunger or chemical pollution, what is it doing? To uncover an answer to this question, it may be pertinent to suggest that “although the technologies and the problems created may [or may not!] be new, the human obstacles to solving them are as old as greed, vested interests, power structures and property interests”(Suzuki, 1997 p3).

Greed, vested interests, power struggles and property interests. A cynical view would be that these traits neatly sum up the multinational agricultural chemical and engineering companies which are behind the vast majority of GMOs.

For instance, Monsanto — the multinational chemical corporation behind Roundup Ready Soybeans — earned revenue of US$10.1billion (in turn producing a profit of US$575million) in 1999. Clearly, Monsanto is a company which takes business seriously. It is certainly not a philanthropic organisation. To Monsanto, genetic engineering is all about profit.

There is no doubt that, as the world’s population continues to increase, so agricultural productivity must also increase. The FAO acknowledges this in explaining that (as mentioned previously) “the increases in food production needed to feed the world’s growing population must come from increasing the amount of food produced per hectare”, given that “most land suitable for agriculture is already in use”. Furthermore, the “degradation of land already in use, due to overgrazing, deforestation and poor farming practices, is an increasing problem globally” (FAO p4). The World Food Programme (WFP) echoes these views. While sufficient food may exist currently to feed the world’s population, the WFP argues that “food aid alone will not be able to adequately address the scale of hunger that will face us in coming decades”. One part of the potential answer to widespread hunger is for “efforts aimed at raising agricultural productivity and output [to] be stepped up” (WFP p.8). To this end, the genetic engineering of food crops could be a real boon. So, wherein lies the problem?

The problem may be that the best indicator of future success often lies in past success. And, to date, science has been unsuccessful in eliminating starvation. Logically, “if Western science really could deliver the promised benefits for humankind, then the quality of human life should have vastly improved during the 1960s and 1970s, as science grew explosively. Yet we know that in spite of impressive developments in space travel, nuclear power, telecommunications, genetic engineering, and computers, life has become significantly better only for a small – and diminishing – proportion of the world’s population” (Suzuki 1992 xxiii).

And yet, we are told by scientists that “ultimately, we all depend on science for almost everything in our lives” (Tribe) as if this supposed universal dependence is ample reason to accept the genetic engineering of food without question. The scientists call for a more “balanced debate” (Tribe), implicitly presenting themselves as well-balanced while ignoring the tendency for science, once it reaches the public arena, to very quickly lose any neutrality it may have begun with. Indeed, “no so-called technical solution for any problem remains technical longer than about 5 minutes. Any innovation is going to have far-reaching consequences on people’s lives” (George 1976 p89).

If it is true that we can gain insight into the future from examining the past, it might be helpful to analyse some past uses of agricultural technologies and their social implications.

Modern genetic engineering is considered by some to be the “new agricultural revolution” (Margaronis), and, as such, is the natural successor of the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution, in turn, was the result of breeding crops (by the traditional and relatively time consuming methods of hybridisation) to bear more edible grain. The Green Revolution was funded by the philanthropic Rockefeller Foundation, and the products of its research — namely “high yielding, fast growing, semi-dwarf varieties of wheat, maize and rice” (Derek Tribe p19) — were first introduced to developing countries in the mid-1960s.

As a result, between 1965 and 1990, rice, wheat and maize enjoyed annual productivity increases of 2.6%, 4.4% and 3.4% respectively. So, even though the developing world’s population has almost doubled since the early 1960s, per capita food production has (with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa) actually increased. This increase in productivity indicates a clear scientific succes, and brought about significant gains to many people, especially in the reliably watered areas of Asia which were most suited to the new varieties of rice.

Agricultural advances are widely acknowled as providing the initial driving force behind national economic development (Mentz and Slater p59). This is because, while the immediate impact of agricultural development is felt in the rural sector, agricultural growth also stimulates growth in non-agricultural sectors. So, agricultural developments result in “increased employment and reduced poverty far beyond the farm gates” (Serageldin p22). For example, between 1970 and 1990 the incidence of absolute poverty in the Philippines fell from 35 per cent to 21 per cent. In Indonesia, the incidence of absolute poverty halved over two successive decades, from 60 per cent in 1970, to 29 per cent in 1980, and down to 15 per cent in 1990 (Johansen 1993 REF Lipton p36). Africa, on the other hand, has been characterised by “no progress” in income poverty reduction until recently (Lipton 1999 p7). These advances (and indeed, Africa’s lack of progress) in poverty reduction have been at least partly credited to the Green Revolution.

However, the benefits of the Green Revolution certainly did not come without trade-offs, in areas including health, environmental degradation, and increased reliance on chemical inputs. Ironically, several clues to the problems caused by the Green Revolution can be found in the glowing praise of one of its enthusiastic supporters who claims that the Green Revolution has been “one of development’s real success stories”. This “success” is attributed to the fact that “The improved grain seeds that were needed – primarily wheats and rices – were developed. Water for irrigation, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides, also were made available to help farmers bring the new crops closer to their yield potential” (Derek Tribe p19).

In reading the previous sentence, one might fairly ask: who “needed” improved wheat and rice seeds? This is an important question. In answering it, it is important to realise that agricultural research rarely, if ever, takes place in an environment of pure philanthropism towards the populations of underdeveloped countries. Indeed, it is considered “inevitable that others will also benefit” because “knowledge does not recognise national boundaries” (Mentz and Slater p60). For example, it has been calculated that the direct benefit to Australian wheat farmers from the research behind the Green Revolution “has totalled approximately A$3 billion over the past 20 years” (ibid p60). This benefit to developed nations is both a predictable and expected result of most agricultural research, and helps to justify the expense of undertaking research in the first place, while simulatneously guiding the directions research will take. This example supports the idea that “no crop introduced into a society from the outside is “neutral”” (George 1976 p89) and is important to understanding the current and likely future trends in agribiotechnology.

So, while the Green Revolution is most often hailed as a scientific success which “allowed worldwide famines to be avoided” (Tribe 2000), those same scientific advances also benefited grain exporting countries like Australia. Biotechnology, in being the next revolution, is expected to bring about real gains in agricultural productivity. However, in recent times, “public funding for agricultural research has stagnated or declined” meaning that the biotechnology industry has “developed, been financed, and is firmly based in developed countries (especially North America)” (FAO 2000). This in turn means that any benefits to developing countries from biotechnology are highly likely — at least in the foreseeable future — to be incidental side-effects of the real goals of “providing products for developed countries” (ibid).

Chemical and biotech companies nevertheless persist in promoting the products of biotechnology as holding the power to “enhance nutrition, reduce starvation and help sustain the environment around the globe” (Novartis Crop Protection 2000). They obviously want to be viewed as the world’s knight in shining armour. For instance, one criticism of biotechnology is that little or no research is being undertaken on crops which are important to underdeveloped countries in tropical regions. Novartis refutes this claim by stating that biotechnology has “staggering potential in areas like the tropics”. To support this statement they use the example that scientists have discovered a way to overcome aluminium toxicity which can cut crop yields by as much as 80 percent in some tropical soils. But to which crops has this technology been applied? So far, only to the tropical fruit papaya, and to tobacco. Where tobacco is concerned, far from being a potential life-saver, “if you become addicted to cigarettes based on GM tobacco, you have a 1 in 6 chance of dying as a result” — but, of course, the same “is also true for non-GM tobacco” (Lipton p21).

To suggest that agricultural research tends to be directed, at least in part, by national self interest, is not necessarily to be critical of that research. However, while the Green Revolution — as forerunner to recombinant DNA technology — undoubtedly brought about enormous increases in agricultural productivity, it also brought with it some significant costs. For example, the Green Revolution was accompanied by an “admirable public-relations job” (George 1976 p113). That is to say, the high yielding wheat, rice and maize varieties were actively promoted to farmers in underdeveloped countries. As a result of the widespread adoption of these new varieties, two-thirds of food consumption in developing countries currently comes from a combination of “rice (28 per cent), wheat (23 per cent) and coarse grains – mostly maize (about 15 per cent)” (Fischer p25). This situation has brought about a decrease in the dietary diversity of many people most affected by the Green Revolution.

One of the GM crops most often cited as having the real potential to alleviate malnutrition in underdeveloped countries is “golden rice”, which will contain beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) and iron. Novartis Crop Protection, as a multinational company, is not alone in listing golden rice amongst its most compelling arguments in defence of biotechnology (Novartis Crop Protection 2000). But it is important to remember that golden rice is actually the only GMO commonly referred to in the GM debate which is not produced by profit-motivated industry. Golden rice is actually being developed by the not-for-profit Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Admirably, it is anticipated that this new strain of rice will be used to:

“meet the needs of people suffering vitamin A deficiency, the world’s leading cause of blindness, which affects as many as 400 million people”, and to combat “iron-deficiency anaemia [which] is the most common consequence of malnutrition and afflicts some 3.7 billion people” (Tribe 2000 p15).

A golden rice that could prevent blindness and anaemia in the Third World would be a marvellous thing. But, yet again, we are not being told the whole story. There is conclusive evidence to suggest that “micronutrient deficiencies are increasing because of the shift in production from more diverse, traditional food crops to the more productive and reliable cereals”. (Graham p29). This situation has arisen quite simply because “during the push of the Green Revolution towards food security, little thought was given to nutritional value and human health, and certainly almost none to the content of iron and other micronutrients in the new cereal varieties being bred, or to the micronutrient content of the resultant changing diets” (ibid p30)

For example, carotenoids (providing provitamin A) whose presence are indicated by “golden” pigmentation in grains “were common in older wheat varieties” but have been bred out of wheat over the course of the last century in the pursuit of whiter flour (ibid p31).

Another example of diminished food variety can be found in areas of Bangladesh, where people have traditionally been rice and pulse growers and eaters. Now fields are devoted largely to rice, with wheat production also increasing (Graham p29). The concentrations of calcium in pulses are four to twenty times higher than in milled rice, with conclusive links between calcium deficiency and a recent “major occurrence of rickets” in Bangladeshi children. Rickets was “almost unknown 15 – 20 years ago” in what have become the worst affected areas (ibid p29).
Interestingly, pulses are also a good source of dietary iron, while rice is not. So, while “golden rice” may be admirable in its aim of increasing dietary iron, this new variety of rice will, in fact, simply replace some of the dietary benefits that Green Revolution rice took away in the first place.

Just as dietary diversity is essential to human health, so too is biodiversity essential to ecological health. The term “monoculture” refers to the continuous and broadscale growing of one type of crop. The creation of monocultures is a common practise which actually characterises modern, intensive agriculture. In an age where moncultures are being fostered by the current directions of scientific research, biodiversity seems to be increasingly viewed as an unaffordable luxury. Land is clearly a scarce commodity, and food production is very often seen as the number one priority. But “biologists have learned that the most powerful survival principle of life is diversity” (Suzuki p7). Indeed, to create a monoculture is to invite a devastating susceptibility to disease and insect pests. This situation, in turn, leads to a reliance on chemical pesticides — a principle long recognised by organic farmers, and the basic idea informing integrated pest management. But, quite apart from the biological advantages of diversity is the very human notion that “variety is the spice of life”! A life void of diversity would arguably be a very boring and unpleasant one indeed.

Given the undeniable value of biodiversity, it is alarming that the Green Revolution has been credited (as long ago as the mid 1970s) with placing “many local varieties of food crops in danger of becoming extinct, so that certain genetic characteristics could be lost forever” (George 1976 p121). Recombinant DNA technology, in attempting to focus agricultural production on a decreasing number of plant varieties with specific genetic traits, is only likely to further diminish biodiversity.

These agricultural “developments” resulting in decreased in biodiversity and micronutrient intake have typically taken place in a context where decision makers from developed countries feel justified in foisting techno-industrial “solutions” onto Third World communities. So what place does — or should — biotechnology have in the Third World? There is one point of view which argues that taking “a highly skeptical and precautionary view” of genetically modified foods is a luxury indulged in by wealthy, Western consumers and cannot be afforded by the poor inhabitants of the Third World (Paarlberg 2000). The opposite view is that, in the event of any technology not working according to plan (and insect resistance to Bt crops would be one example of this), “poor farmers are not best placed for swift response” and in fact have much more at risk than wealthier farmers (Lipton p21). Indeed, poor farmers are actually considered “unattractive targets for big private input suppliers” because, on top of being “tiny, diverse, hard to reach, illiterate, or hard to deliver to and recover from”, poor farmers are also typically (and justifiably) “risk-averse” (Lipton p25).

So, what do people in underdeveloped countries themselves want from genetic engineering? It would be foolish to pretend to answer this question on behalf of the billions of people who make up the collective population of the world’s underdeveloped countries. However, what is possible is an examination of the points of view of a mere few of those people.

The FAO has been hosting a web-based forum inviting discussion on How appropriate are currently available biotechnologies in the crop sector for food production and agriculture in developing countries ? (FAO Conference 1).
The debate has been heated, and among the views put forward by scientists from developing countries is a resentment of developed countries, or interest groups from within developed countries, attempting to dictact whether (and how) developing countries should adopt GM technologies.

One scientist frustrated by the slow implementation of biotechnology in underdeveloped countries is Dr Saturnina Halos, a senior development advisor to the Philippines’ Department of Agriculture. As she sees it, “the only alternative technology to chemical pesticides for our farmers who often abuse chemicals are pest-protected GM-crops”. Halos goes on to claim that “the strongest argument for the current GM crops is how they compare with the current extensive practice of using chemical pesticides, in environmental protection and in human health (Halos 2000).

The view that GM crops can provide the only alternative to chemical pesticides is a narrow one. To argue in favour of Bt crops by acknowledging that farmers currently abuse chemical pesticides to the detriment of their own health is to imply that GM crops are immune to failure stemming from similar human abuse or error. In fact, this is not the case. One of the contractual responsibilities farmers currently undertake when buying Bt cotton from Monsanto is to plant a “refuge” of non-Bt cotton, “in an effort to forestall resistance to the Bt toxin among target pests” (Barnett 1999 p649). Under this requirement, farmers must plant at least 4 acres of non-Bt cotton for every 100 acres of Bt cotton. This refuge cannot be treated for target pests by any method. Logic would suggest that farmers who are willing to damage their own health by abusing chemical pesticides would be highly unlikely to implement the proper and cautious usage of a plant which presents no personal health risk.

The UN FAO sees the chronic misuse of agricultural chemicals as a direct — and avoidable — result of the Green Revolution, which promoted pesticides as “a necessary part of crop intensification”. A consequence of this mentality was that “a number of policy instruments were applied to make purchased inputs, including subsidised pesticides, available to the farmer”. The mis- and over-use of pesticides has proven to be increasingly unsustainable and ineffective, “due to the development of pest resistance, the rising costs of pesticide use, pesticide induced outbreaks of insect pests and the negative effects of pesticide use on human health and the environment” (FAO).

In response to these growing problems, the FAO has (since the mid 1960s) advocated integrated pest management (IPM) as the “preferred pest control strategy”. IPM requires a knowledgable and intelligent response to insect populations on farms, and, as such, is seen to be an empowering, farmer driven process which is “about people”. IPM, in promoting only the minimal and timely use of pesticides, also improves ecological sustainability and “offers an entry point to improve the farming system as a whole” (FAO Plant Protection Service). Importantly, genetic pest resistance in plants is considered to be one — but only one — valid component of IPM.

Leaving aside the market-oriented agricultural traits (such as herbicide- and pest-resistance), as well as the rather exceptional example of golden rice, the most commonly discussed potential advantage within the reach of genetic engineering is the drought tolerance of staple crops.

It is the opinion of one FAO forum contributor that, in fact, Africa already “offers a cornucopia of food plants that people are not taking advantage of”: plants that are naturally drought resistant, as well as nutritionally superior to the crops such as maize and cassava which typically attract agricultural development efforts (Reel 2000). But it is the view of others that the drought tolerance of existing staple food crops could (and need to) be significantly improved with the help of genetic engineering. Unfortunately, resistance to moisture stress is a characteristic dependant on many different genes and, as a result, is much more complex to modify through gene transfer than, say, insect resistance (Lipton 2000 p19).

Because of the complexity of the science involved, and because of the enormous potential offered by genetic engineering, it can be seen as imperative that the anti-GM lobby are not given free rein to “demonize, discourage or disallow” GM crop science (Lipton p3). Instead, what is urgently required is a “serious review of the new institutions needed to achieve the antipoverty potential of GM crops safely and swiftly” (ibid p3). These scientific goals are important to the broader goal of poverty reduction because most resource poor people in the developing world live in rural areas and depend on food staples both as their source of income and as their main source of nutrition. Poverty reduction in developing countries is directly linked to increases in production of food staples, because increased output per unit of land leads both to increased labour productivity and income (Lin 2000).

This is not

The End.


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