Technology is a word that describes something that doesn’t work yet.
– Douglas Adams (Author, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series)
Some months ago, my family was busy making arrangements for a trip to Seattle, USA. An inherited medical condition left us little choice beyond a radical medical trial entailing gene therapy to try correcting the unfortunate condition. I do not recall feeling any misgivings about how the procedure may go or its eventual outcome. It’s only much later that it hit me (I have a dark-ish sense of humor)—I now have a family member I could officially call a genetically modified organism (GMO). Given my educational qualification in environmental engineering and 15 years of experience in environmental management, I started wondering how I “missed” it all somehow. The gene therapy trial involved inserting a specially engineered working copy of a gene into the body of a loved one with the help of a “safety-modified version” of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which would insert the modified gene into the volunteer patient’s body (given the propensity of the virus to make inroads into the human body) but without harming him/her. The trial does not promise a cure (hence, it is called a “trial” and not a “treatment”), and it was/is a complete shot in the dark. Yet, we participated in it willingly and not once did I think at the time that “this is genetic engineering and I should decline (because that is what most environmentalists would do).” My real issue after the fact dawned upon me was that if someone asked me to eat genetically modified (GM) foods, I would decline, because I would have thought I do not know enough about it. To my confused mind, there are so many parallels between this medical trial and the exercise of creating a genetically modified food form (too many unknowns, “tinkering with nature (?),” and the possible use of other life forms to genetically modify another related or unrelated life form), and yet, I did not blink an eye at the first (the gene therapy trial) and I’d still say no to the second (eating a GMO). Does such a choice sound logical? Although the trial and GM foods sound worlds apart, we are talking about the circle of life and human health.
Every living thing contains genetic information and therein lies the common thread.
To unmuddle myself, I spoke to some friends and family about this, and I realized that most of them felt the same way; they would refuse GM foods because they are worried about what they’d be putting inside their bodies and they feel that it is not a good idea to “tinker with nature” (I found that these words just kept popping up no matter whom I spoke to). A (very tiny) minority of my sounding boards were less cautious. They were not strictly against GM foods but confessed they did not know enough to provide a technically convincing answer one way or another.
Funny how once you start thinking of something in earnest, you begin to see things connected with it everywhere. So, when I read about India’s “Review Committee of Genetic Manipulation” (one of the five committees defined as part of the country’s GEAC or Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee clearances), it struck a negative chord with me. Genetic engineering, modification, therapy, and editing sound more refined and learned, and or at least, much less ominous than genetic manipulation. As we well know, a section of society would beg to differ. Any change with the genetic code of crops, which is the area we tend to refer to most commonly when we speak of genetic engineering today, is anathema. And yet these terms differ ever so slightly in meaning, especially with all the advances that are being made this field even as you read this.
What is genetic engineering and who controls it?
Genetic engineering refers to techniques used to change the genetic composition of an organism by adding specific genes. The enhancement of desired traits has traditionally been undertaken through conventional plant breeding, the oldest known instance being Gregor Mendel's pea plant experiments conducted between 1856 and 1863, which established many of the rules of heredity, now widely known as the laws of Mendelian inheritance. Today, genetically engineered crops are broadly sub-divided into two categories: herbicide-tolerant crops (HTCs) and plant-incorporated protectants (PIPs).
HTCs are supposedly designed to tolerate specific broad-spectrum herbicides, which should kill the surrounding weeds but leave the cultivated crop intact. Currently, the only HTC varieties cultivated in the US, known in the market as Roundup Ready crops, are engineered to be tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate, also called Roundup, which was introduced in the market in 1974 after DDT was banned. Roundup is produced by the American multinational company, Monsanto, a name synonymous with agri-biotechnology and a “sustainable agriculture company” (as per its website). Roundup Ready crops are resistant to Roundup, so farmers who plant these seeds must use Roundup to prevent other weeds from growing in their fields. I suppose the original idea was that using Roundup alone would prevent the need for other pesticides, provided farmers planted Roundup Ready crops. Roundup Ready crop seeds (by now, you must have guessed that these too are a monopoly of Monsanto) have notoriously been referred to as “terminator seeds”; the crops produced from Roundup Ready seeds are sterile. Each year, farmers must purchase the most recent strain of seeds from Monsanto if they wish to continue growing their crops. Therefore, farmers cannot reuse their best seeds, as they normally would, for planting future crops. Roundup Ready crops have become the mainstay of American agriculture; 93% of soybeans, 82% of cotton, and 85% of corn planted are engineered to be glyphosate-resistant. Ironically, this increase in glyphosate-resistant crops has led to herbicide resistance, driving the rash increase in herbicide use accompanied by numerous other environmental and human health impacts. In 2015, the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen.” So, the world’s most widely used herbicide (and its main constituent, glyphosate) has been getting a lot of bad press recently (see Box 1).
Box 1. Documented evidence pointing to the threats posed by glyphosate use
A US-based study from 2012, titled “Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. — the first sixteen years,” notes that HTCs worked extremely well in the first few years of use, but over-reliance has led to shifts in weed communities and the spread of resistant weeds, forcing farmers to increase herbicide application rates and to add new herbicides. The study determined that HTC technology has led to a 527 million pound increase in herbicide use in the U.S. between 1996 and 2011. Resistant species like ryegrass and horseweed were found in crop and non-crop areas, and now grow robustly even when sprayed with four times the recommended quantity of Roundup.
A recent study (published in March 2016) shows that 99.6% of Germans are contaminated with glyphosate. Meat eaters displayed higher levels of glyphosate contamination than vegetarians, possibly pointing to the high levels of glyphosate found in the Roundup ready GMO soy and corn used in animal feed. The study’s results were released amidst the news of the EU government putting off a crucial decision on whether to re-authorize the chemical, described by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as “probably carcinogenic,” until 2031.
Sources: Beyond Pesticides and The Ecologist.
Ironically, the U.S. government continues to view the herbicide as being safe.
On 24 May 2015, tens of thousands of people across close to 400 cities in 40+ countries from the Americas to Africa and Europe marched against Monsanto. The underlying themes of the marches were people’s refusal to accept GMOs in their food supply and their demand that Monsanto’s Roundup be scrapped from markets. Detractors of Monsanto’s GM crops demanded a moratorium on the planting of Monsanto seeds in their countries so that independent research can be conducted into the technology’s effects.
While Monsanto calls itself a “relatively new company,” its reach, as evidenced by its operations in 68 countries, is evident. The massive amounts it invests in R&D have led the company to use seed patenting and royalty payments as its revenue generating model, a practice reviled by most and denounced as “biopiracy.”
PIPs refer to crops wherein foreign DNA is used to encode a desired trait into an unrelated plant species. The technique is also known as transgenesis. For instance, the Bt brinjal is a suite of transgenic brinjals created by inserting a specific gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into the genome of the brinjal cultivar. Such transfers are typically accomplished by a plant-infesting microbe, which can insert the gene at a semi-random location into the plant’s DNA. Despite industry claims that PIPs would lessen pesticide dependency, insects have exhibited resistance to the engineered crops. So much so, that in March 2016, a government panel on genetically modified Bt cotton (a technology approved for commercial cultivation in India in 2002), recommended a steep reduction in royalty fees payable to Bt cotton seed technology providers such as Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Pvt. Ltd., a 50:50 joint venture between Mahyco Seeds Ltd. and Monsanto Holdings Pvt. Ltd. The committee suggested a 70% decrease in royalty (or trait fees) as the Bollgard II technology’s ability to resist pests has weakened over the years.
The GM food story in India
While Bt cotton is the only GM plant allowed to be cultivated in India, private firms have been looking at introducing different kinds of GM seeds, including rice, tomato, wheat. The newspapers carry reports of the Indian government’s willingness to support the commercial release of GM mustard if the GEAC, India’s biotechnology regulator, approves it. A few years ago, India’s then Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, shelved the release of Bt Brinjal. The GM mustard variety goes by the technical name DMH 11 (Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11) and is the brainchild of Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants. DMH 11 is an HTC that has been made resistant to glufosinate, a herbicide marketed by Bayer. The fate of GM mustard in India remains to be decided. Aruna Rodrigues, a concerned Indian citizen and who is not afraid to show it, has mounted a legal challenge as the lead petitioner in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), contending that mandatory rigorous biosafety protocols have not been carried out and the data pertaining to DMH 11 is being concealed deliberately. Rodrigues’ PIL posits that DMH 11 must be barred on a number of counts, including proven harm to the environment as glufosinate is expected to adversely affect non-target organisms, high potential for contamination of non-GM mustard crops by DMH 11, and the fact that glufosinate is a probable human carcinogen. Most crucially, India’s PPVFRA or Protection of Plant Varieties & Farmers’ Rights Authority states that no national law allows toxins to be introduced into foods/food crops and seeds. The PPVFRA expressly refuses registration of such “injurious” seeds. Thus, the seeds of DMH 11 are ostensibly banned on two counts under the PPVFRA —for being “injurious to life” and for being a technology that includes genetic use restriction technology and terminator technology.
Why is the government willing to support such a case despite the overwhelming regulatory and scientific evidence against it? May be it is because, as Aruna Rodrigues has stated, this is a case of “monumental fraud and unremitting regulatory delinquency.” [Interested readers may like to view the final report of the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC) on field trials of genetically modified crops.]
“Decontrolling” and democratizing genetic engineering: Is it possible?
Unlike most of my friends and family, I do feel that genetic engineering is here to stay. Researchers will continue to make huge strides in this area, be it medicine or crop science. Gene-editing tools such as CRISPR, which have been making headlines recently, have huge potential for practical applications in healthcare and agriculture. As far as the argument of tinkering with nature stands, to my mind (and readers are free to disagree), we have been doing the exact same thing ever since man discovered fire. There is no progress without research. However, the onus lies on us to ensure that the needed system of checks and balances is established and implemented. We need to be absolutely convinced that GM foods are safe to consume and this is not possible without rigorously controlled food safety and environmental assessments, which should address labeling and traceability issues. Government policy and regulation have not maintained pace with the rapid lightning speed of new developments in this area. For instance, would creating a strain of barley that would make its own ammonium fertilizer from nitrogen in the soil (thus doing away with the need for chemical fertilizer) be considered as genetic modification? Should the foods created using these techniques be accepted by consumers? Do they offer proven benefits to all stakeholders? What are their “long-term” consequences? Would a one-size-fits-all approach work?
Presently, GM technology for crops has been a “failed economic experiment,” as an acquaintance aptly put it. Why? Because all the discoveries made in this arena have not been put to the good use of many; rather, they have enriched a few. The notion of public good has never been a consideration in this field, which is a gross oversight given that over 58% of rural Indian households depend on agriculture as their principal means of livelihood. Al Jazeera reports that after Bt cotton was introduced in India, the price of cotton seeds jumped by a whopping 8,000%. According to the Indian government, nearly 75% of rural debt is attributed to purchased inputs. The National Seed Association of India estimates that Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Pvt. Ltd. collected an estimated Rs. 4,479 crore in royalty fees between 2005-2006 and 2014-2015. Do the math…
How can such technology be put to the good use of many rather than benefitting a few?
A small minority of researchers suggest that smaller plant breeders and research organizations be allowed to use genetic modification methods for breeding in locally important crops. The focus should rest on less profitable traits, the goals being improved nutritional quality and sustainable agriculture. Doing so would entail democratization of biotechnology, which is currently monopolized by very few multinationals that concentrate on profitable traits in major global crops.
All the images in this post were sourced from Wikimedia. A slightly lengthier version of this write-up appeared as an article in The Energy Resources Institute’s (TERI’s) TerraGreen magazine (July 2016 issue).