Presented to the AGM, Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, Formosa, ON 28 Nov 98
The explosive growth in genetic engineering (GE) in field crop agriculture presents organic growers with potential risks to be sure, but may also confer considerable opportunities upon those with a broad and creative perspective. And if I may be so bold, I would further state that a post-GE agricultural landscape is no longer utterly unimaginable, despite all appearances to the contrary. Some chinks are already appearing in that seemingly impenetrable armour, chinks which will widen into gaping crevasses as more producers come face-to-face with the agronomic and economic realities of growing GE crops.
Risks? What Risks? As discussed in other talks (see Clark, various), the environmental and agricultural risks of GE are both direct and indirect. Indirect risks arise because GE prolongs and sustains a style of resource-intensive, power-concentrating agriculture which has proven to be unprofitable to farmers, as well as being unsustainable from both an environmental and a societal perspective. An unlikely credit for this statement is the 'life science' giant Monsanto, which boldly asserted in its most recent annual report that "current agricultural technology is not sustainable" (NY Times Sunday Magazine, 25 October 98). Imagine that.
|The Edmonds Institute has recently published a Manual for Assessing Ecological and Human Health Effects of Genetically Engineered Organisms. Because they "reproduce, disperse, and evolve", GE entities pose entirely different types of risks than those from an herbicide or a pharmaceutical product. Basically, once they are out, not only can they not be withdrawn, but they are entirely capable of mutating and evolving into something wholly unpredictable, or conferring their genes upon other organisms able to do the same thing.|
1. unintended environmental impacts, as on soil decomposer organisms and on beneficial insects, on horizontal gene flow among wholly unrelated organisms, biological pollution of neighboring fields (see below), and on the creation of herbicide resistant weeds, just to name a few (see Clark, 1998b).
2. uncontrollable agronomic impacts, as through inadvertent contamination
of organic crops via pollen from neighboring GE fields, as well as foreseeable
shortages in purchased seed which can be guaranteed to be non-GE
|Surprise, surprise. Consider
the case of Tony Huethers, who farms near Sexsmith, Alberta. In 1997, he
planted two fields, separated by 30 m, to canola. On the west side,
he planted Quest, a Roundup (glyphosate)-resistant cultivar,
while on the east side, he planted 20 acres of Innovator, a Liberty
(glufosinate)-resistant cultivar, and the rest of his 140 ac field
to 45A71, a cultivar that is resistant to Pursuit (imazethapyr,
an ALS inhibitor) and Odyssey.
Then along comes the 1998 season, and two applications of Roundup to the east field - the one sown in 97 to Innovator and 45A71 - killed all his weeds, except for a healthy population of blooming canola! It was apparently, and predictably, Roundup resistant canola, and was thickest near the road.
Because the fields were harvested at different times, the grower contends that contamination could not have occurred via the combine. The biotech manager for Monsanto in Saskatoon - Aaron Mitchell - said "We always expected a level of natural outcross would occur within the species", and that the source was likely native pollinators. The closest commercial hive was 13 km away (MacArthur, 1998a).
In a related article, Gary Stringam, a professor at the University of Alberta was quoted as saying that the ability of canola to outcross and create volunteer herbicide-resistant canola was entirely expected (MacArthur, 1998b). In studies conducted in the 70's, researchers had found that canola could outcross and produce 5-6% contaminated plants up to 400 m from the original source. Pollen can travel up to 8 km if there are lots of bees to carry the pollen.
A 25 October 98 article in The Mail, a UK newspaper reported that an experimental plot of oilseed rape (canola) had had to be destroyed, with the owner - Monsanto - vulnerable to prosecution for allegedly contaminating the environment, because they had allowed a pollen barrier or buffer of only 2 m instead of the required 6 m around the site. One who has questioned the tendency of industry to draw inferences from small plot work and apply them to field-scale realities is Jeremy Sweet, a researcher with the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in the UK. He noted that in traditional small plot trials, pollen rarely travels more than 3 m, a distance which rises to 2 km on commercial-scale fields (Brookes, 1998).
The response of the Saskatoon rep for Monsanto, Aaron Mitchell, to all this was that the potential for cross pollination was already well known to seed companies and researchers, and that "farmers need to talk to their neighbors about the canola they grow".
|Jeremy Rifkin, well-known commentator
and critic of ecological and social trends, observed that insurance companies
have quietly declined to provide insurance (to the life sciences companies)
for anything but short-term crop damage and negligence (Rifkin, 1998).
Why? Because there is no way to assign risk - there is no "predictive ecology"
or way of assessing longterm risk from GE.
He wondered why the life sciences companies have not gone to Congress for a Price Anderson Act exemption, which would provide protection from liability, as it has done for the nuclear industry. The answer, of course, is that to do so would be to admit the need for insurance against catastrophic outcomes. So, this entire life science colossus is running without long-term catastrophic insurance - leading Rifkin to predict that "agricultural biotechnology will be one of the great disasters of corporate capitalist history."
And be quite clear, the threat of "genetic pollution", as Rifkin (1998) calls it, is not limited to canola. Strong evidence of long distance crossing in potato and other crops has already been demonstrated as well. For a particularly balanced, and extensive treatment of this subject, see Brookes (1998).
3. predictable marketing/processing impacts, such as the inability to procure GE-free inputs for processing of organic foodstuffs, as well as the not inconsiderable effort of the life science companies, and those who benefit from their patronage, to actively discredit organic and ecological alternatives to chemical- and GE-based production systems.
|In recent months, mainstream news organizations,
including several national TV networks in the US and Canada have broadcast
reports, consumer advisories, and quality comparisons that have been unusually
biased against organic growers and organic produce. Typical of some broadcasts
is a pronouncement by Monsanto spokesman Gary Barton,
"You can't feed the world with organics. Organics are a niche market, and not necessarily better. These people call themselves environmentalists, but they are really antis. They are against everything that's not organic. We are trying to feed the world...to produce double the food with no more land or new water, we have to be more productive" (Grossfeld, 1998).
Holistic farm management, which designs systems to avoid problems rather than to deal with them after the fact, is therefore perceived as an active threat. You should anticipate and be prepared for this, especially in light of growing consumer interest in organic foodstuffs.
So, What is the Good News? The story is not wholly bleak, not by a long shot, especially for organic growers. Opportunities presented by this scenario include:
1. a whole lot of new customers. You'll be the focus of a whole new segment of the consuming public, namely, people seeking GE-free foodstuffs. Such a clientele may or may not worry about chemicals, may never have heard of endocrine-disruptors, and may be unable to distinguish a beef bull from a dairy cow, but they will have heard about genetic engineering and they will be leery of both the unknowns (Table 1) and the anti-labelling and other forceful tactics of the proponents. The more people learn about what is going into these crops, such as the original host of the newly transplanted transgenes, the less comfortable they will be in consuming GE food.
Rifkin (1998) stated that it is the "middle class" that sets consumer
food trends in Europe, Japan, and North America, and to it's great misfortune,
the life science industry has misjudged them. Rifken contends that the
middle class is heading towards organic foods.
|Perhaps this is why the life sciences companies are sparing no effort to win public support for GE foodstuffs, including expending 1 million British pounds for full page ads in all British newspapers this summer. Evidence from two leaked Monsanto memos, reportedly acknowledged as genuine by Monsanto, suggest that they are losing the battle. In the memos, Stan Greenberg, Chair and CEO of a major polling organization was quoted as saying "The broad climate is extremely inhospitable to biotechnology acceptance and, absent political support in government, Monsanto would surely face unfavorable decisions on its key products. Over the past year, the situation has deteriorated steadily and perhaps at an accelerating pace" (for full text of the leaked documents, see http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/monsanto)|
Table 1. Partial list of GE foodstuffs (36) currently on the market,
included the modified trait and the biological source of the transgenes
used to confer the trait (adapted from ICTA, undated)
||Crops and attributes||Source of transgenes|
|Agrevo Inc||glufosinate tolerant canola and corn||Streptomyces viridochromogenes|
|Monsanto Co.||glyphosate tolerant canola, cotton, and corn||Agrobacterium sp.|
|DeKalb Genetics Corp||glufosinate tolerant corn||Streptomyces hygroscopicus|
|Monsanto; NK; Ciba Geigy; or Calgene||insect-protected corn, cotton, and/or tomato||Bacillus thuringiensis|
|Calgene||bromoxynil tolerant, insect-protected cotton||Klebsiella pneumoniae and Bacillus thuringiensis|
|Dupont||sulfonylurea tolerant cotton||tobacco, Nicotiana tabacum|
|Seminis Vegetable Seeds; or Asgrow||virus resistant squash||cucumber mosaic virus (Seminis only); zucchini yellow mosaic virus; and watermelon mosaic virus|
|Agritope||modified fruit ripening tomato||E. coli bacteriophage|
|Monsanto||improved ripening tomato||Pseudomonas chloraphis|
Organic seed will be doubly valued for another reason as well - as a germplasm reservoir or repository for ongoing evolution and selection of contemporary crops in response to changing local conditions. With a few companies controlling most of the trade, each striving for the least number of very widely adapted cultivars or hybrids to maximize profit (Table 2), the seed trade will become increasingly rigid and unable to respond to climatic changes, including increasingly variable local weather.
Table 2. Percentage of all US soybean, corn, and wheat hectarage occupied
by just 6 cultivars or hybrids in each crop (Duvick, 1984, cited in Soule
et al. (1990))
The number of those actively looking at alternative practices will increase, not because of some large-scale ideological conversion to holistic thinking, but because the "old" linear way of "doing the business of agriculture" is simply driving them "out of business" if not right out of their minds with high-stakes stress. Farmers are a contrary people - they will do the darndest things to stay in farming. True, some will acquiesce and become essentially a pair of hired hands in a vertically integrated mass production system. Others will increase their off-farm employment, to raise the ante in the ongoing subsidy they willingly contribute to keep their farm going. But others, and I would suggest an increasing number, will come looking for a new way - your way - to sustain profitability by lowering inputs. Can you handle this idea? Will you come when you are called?
Chinks in the Armor? Who Are You Kidding?! The perception of a scientific community solidly behind field crop GE, with naysayers dismissed as Luddites, is one that GE proponents have worked hard to cultivate. Industry, government, and university researchers have worked together in a generally cohesive fashion in many countries, with some notable exceptions. Contrary to what private citizens might reasonably expect, the role of government is not that of a disinterested Third Party, objectively assessing the costs, benefits, needs, or risks to society, but rather, that of an active proponent of biotechnology (see Clark, 1998a).
Recent events have made this abundantly clear. The appalling travails of Health Canada scientists attempting to rationally assess such products as bovine somatotropin (also called rBGH or recombinant bovine growth hormone) have raised the profile of this crucial case (Baxter, 1998; McIlroy, 1998). The sponsorship and partial ownership by the USDA of the patent for the so-called "terminator gene" technology, which has enormous potential to further consolidate power and disadvantage hard-pressed farmers both here and abroad, reveals a similar thread in the U.S. government.
Factors which have encouraged this near unanimity in direction have included a shift in federal funding for university research away from grants and contracts and towards industrial partnerships. Thus, to compete for public funds - funds derived from taxpayers, and which one might naively assume should benefit the public at large - university researchers must find a well-heeled industrial partner to shoulder a good-sized share of the total cost. This has the effect of channeling the economic benefits of research conducted at public universities toward a few, well placed beneficiaries.
Novartis, for example, has recently proposed a $50 million "strategic alliance" with the University of California at Berkeley, an offer which the Dean appears ready to accept, reportedly after having weighed and rejected counter-offers by other life science companies. With so many academic institutions and individual researchers, ranging from molecular geneticists to risk management specialists, serving as the willing beneficiaries of significant levels of industry funding, small wonder then that so little in the way of objective, critical analysis of the environmental, societal, or ethical dimensions of GE is coming from university scholars. And if not us, then who?
Another factor promoting a certain single-mindedness among the various parties is the regular cycling of key players among the various stakeholder groups, as discussed by Clark (1997). A new entrant to this revolving door club is Cathy McGlynn, whose six years as a special adviser to a UK cabinet minister responsible for evaluating GE foodstuffs will stand her in good stead in her new position with a British lobbying firm employed by Monsanto (Barnett, 1998).
But despite this patently unlevel playing field, there is room for considerable optimism.
1. Legal Action. On 17 September 97, a legal petition was filed by a consortium of NGO's and others charging the USEPA with the "wanton destruction of the world's most important biological pesticide" - popularly known at Bt. More than 30 environmental and organic agricultural organizations, including the IFOAM, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the Center for Technology Assessment were co-signers of this unprecedented petition. In approving Bt transgenic crops, the USEPA is charged with ignoring such adverse environmental implications as encouraging the rapid evolution of resistance in target organisms, transferring Bt resistance to the wider ecological community, and adversely affecting non-target organisms, including such beneficials as green lacewings and ladybugs (see http://www.icta.org/projects/cfs/bt.htm).
Citizen, consumer, and environmental groups are mounting other legal challenges around the world, to prevent the largescale release of GE crops into the environment. In Brazil, for example, a lawsuit was just filed by the Brazilian Institute for Consumer Defense, to halt the approval and planting of Roundup Ready soybeans. Brazil is second only to the US as a producer of soybeans, and Monsanto Brazil is the second largest source of income for Monsanto, outside of the US. The president of Monsanto Brazil is quoted as stating that Monsanto intends to control 50% of the Brazilian soybean market with Roundup Ready soybeans. The stakes are very very high in this particular case. To lend them your support, see IDEC, 1998.
Individual producers or groups of producers are also filing lawsuits, and winning, against the life science companies for damages when the GE cultivars fail to perform as advertised (see Clark, 1998b). The much larger and more dubious prospect, however, would be recovering costs of rectifying damage to the environment and society at large, should such a calamity occur as a result of GE entities.
2. Scientific Scrutiny. An increasingly number of independent (not industry funded) scientists is finding opportunities to participate in this dialogue. The personal integrity and courage of the "Health Canada Six", for example, has revealed some fundamental flaws in the scientific review process used by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in approving rBGH. The Monsanto-owned version of rBGH is currently under review in Canada.
Reportedly, the FDA relied on trial summaries provided by the proponent, Monsanto, while the Health Canada scientists reviewed the actual trial data. Whereas the Monsanto interpretation of the trials, which was accepted apparently without further enquiry by the FDA, reported no oral activity of rBGH in rats even when fed at high doses, the Canadian review of the original data reached quite different, and unfavorable, conclusions.
Quite apart from the truth of the matter, the publicity surrounding the Health Canada review has underscored two critical issues: a) the apparently uncritical, even collegial review afforded this GE application by US regulators, and b) the degree to which Canadian scientists are reportedly being pressured to bring products into the marketplace with undue haste.
This is not the first time that a proponent interpretation of data has been disputed in prestigious refereed journals by independent scientists (Clark, various). As contrary evidence accumulates, it is becoming increasingly difficult for GE proponents to label as "Luddites" those questioning various aspects of GE dogma.
3. Terminator Technology. The patent for terminator (US #5,723,765), a technology jointly owned by Delta and Pine Land company and the USDA, was granted on 3 March 98. Nine weeks later, Monsanto purchased D & PL outright, giving Monsanto an 85% share of the US cotton seed crop. This is just one of a series of Monsanto acquisitions, including our own First Line Seeds, in Guelph.
The intent of this and parallel technologies currently being developed and patented by other life science companies is quite explicitly and unabashedly to prevent farmers from saving their own seed. Only the seed purchased directly from the company is able to germinate. Seed which is produced from the crop grown from the purchased seed is rendered sterile, unable to germinate. This technology can be inserted (transgenically) into any cultivar, not just the GE cultivars, making it work "retroactively" on the seed of existing (non-GE) cultivars currently for sale. Thus, the obligate dependence of hybrid corn growers upon annually purchased seed will become the fate of all producers buying seed outfitted with the terminator package.
As bad as it sounds, there is a silver lining to this. Specifically, even traditional GE proponents are finally seeing some of the downside of this technology.
b. Even more threatening is the risk of inadvertently transferring the sterility-causing transgenes into indigenous crops or wild species in the Third World, with unimaginable economic and environmental consequences. The prestigious Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) went on record in a 15 July 98 statement as opposing the entry of Terminator Technology into India, on the grounds that it would threaten the livelihood of 400 million farmers, as well as the food security of the entire nation.
Thus, competition within the industry will help to find and publicize potential flaws in GE crops.
5. Bt Corn: a Silver Bullet(?) A dominant criticism of integrating genes coding for Bt endotoxins into crops is the greatly increased risk of resistance development in the target insects - e.g. cornborers for corn. This entirely predictable risk was well known and documented in the scientific literature, yet Bt-crops were nonetheless approved for sale in both the US and Canada without a clear, scientifically-defensible action plan in place to reduce the risk(2). This risk has suddenly been recognized as being so enormous as to warrant unprecedented actions on the part of both government regulators and industry alike (see Clark, 1998a).
The best theory, and one that is not univerally held (see Clark, 1997), is that providing a refuge or acreage of land adjacent to the land sown in Bt-corn (or potatoes, or cotton) that is NOT Bt-corn (or potatoes, or cotton) will produce and feed Bt-susceptible insects which will freely crossbreed with insects from the Bt-treated area, to provide a continual dilution effect and slow the rate of resistance evolution in the target pest population.
In all approvals to date, the US EPA required NO refugia for Bt-corn, and only 20% (4% unsprayed) for Bt-cotton.
Now, the US EPA has decided to require a 40% refuge area (20-30% if not sprayed with insecticide) for newly approved Bt-corn (Novartis Bt popcorn and AgrEvo's Bt field corn). This means that for a producer wanting to plant a 100 acre field to corn, only 60 acres can be in Bt corn if s/he intends to spray with an insecticide, with the remaining 40 acres to be planted in non Bt-corn. Or, they can sacrifice yield on 20-30 acres (no insecticide) and plant Bt-corn to the remaining 70-80 acres. The economic plausibility is so tenuous, and the logistics of actually doing this in commercial agriculture are so daunting that Novartis has actually announced an incentive program (press release, 21 September 98), where large-scale purchasers of their Bt-corn hybrids, YieldGard(R) and KnockOut(R) will receive a substantial discount if at least 20% of their seed purchase is non Bt-corn.
In effect, this means that the oft-repeated mantra "GE will reduce insecticide use", will have to include "on a fraction of the crop acreage", and further, the rosy economic predictions used to sell farmers on Bt-crops will likewise have to pared down - by 40% for purchasers of the newly approved hybrids. And there is still no certainty that this will work, at all.
6. Mainstream Press While by no means universal, it is encouraging to see the number of well respected sources, both scientific and popular, that have provided in-depth coverage of the pros and cons of genetic engineering. The NY Times Sunday Magazine (25 October 98) presented readers with a thorough, balanced, and probing article by Michael Pollan. The 31 October 98 issue of New Scientist featured a series of well-written and thoughtful articles, some of which are referenced in this paper. In Canada, the CBC has done several pieces, both TV and radio, which help to inform and alert their audience to key issues. All of this is to the good, as the more people know what is happening, the better able they will be to control what they choose to eat. The prominent role of the media in informing and influencing public opinion in Britain was highlighted in the leaked Greenberg memos to Monsanto.
In sum, GE food crops present organic farmers - and truthfully, all farmers - with some very real risks. A short list of potential risks would include the effects of ecosystem disruption on the biological processes central to organic farming; the burden of biological pollution from neighboring farms; and the likelihood of heightened propaganda from those threatened by your ability to grow and prosper with neither biocides nor GE crops. But the good news, specifically for organic farmers, is the very likely upswing in consumer demand for your products, and creation of new entrepreneurial opportunities. Demand is rapidly being created for what you have - namely, non-GE seed and expertise in holistic farm management.
Is it at all realistic to contemplate "life after GE"? If not, then why not? If individuals and organizations sit by and assume someone will do the job for them, then their fate may well be sealed. Government is not going to take care of you on this one, and you cannot count on universities to countervail on your behalf either. The people who are carrying the ball in opposition are private citizens and consumer/environmental groups, independent scientists who are willing to publish challenges to GE dogma, and major international organization such as the CGIAR that are coming to see that the costs outweigh even the most optimistic spin on benefits when it comes to at least some GE applications.
As more and more farmers "see" first hand what GE actually has to offer them, and the costs they will have to bear along the way, producer willingness to "play the game" will waver. I only hope that they realize this while they still have a choice, as the life sciences companies already control the majority of the global seed trade.
But in the long run, it is consumer demand that will tell the story. Only consumers wield sufficient power to stop the train directly. Agronomic and ecological problems on the farm may well be sufficiently diffuse as to go unnoticed at least for a few years, particularly without an alert and informed producer/extension community coupled with motivated and committed regulatory personnel. Inform yourself about these issues, communicate with your neighbors and customers, and take a pro-active stance with your elected representatives and trade organizations. The ball is now in your court.
Baxter, J. 1998. In: The Ottawa Citizen, 23 October 98.
Brookes, M. 1998. Running wild. New Scientist (http://www.newscientist.com/nsplus/insight/gmworld/gmfood/super.html)
Clark, E. Ann. Various papers at http://plant.uoguelph.ca/faculty/eclark/
Clark, E. Ann. 1997. Genetically Engineered Crops: A Luddite's View. (http://plant.uoguelph.ca/faculty/eclark/myths.htm)
Clark, E. Ann. 1998a. Genetic engineering - wrong answers to the wrong questions. Presented to the annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, March 1998. (http://plant.uoguelph.ca/faculty/eclark/wrong.htm")
Clark, E. Ann. 1998b. (invited) Environmental risks of genetic engineering in field crops. Presented to Factoring in the Environment for Decisions on Biotechnology in Agricultural Production. A workshop sponsored by the National Agricultural Environment Committee, August 98 Ottawa. (http://plant.uoguelph.ca/faculty/eclark/naec.htm)
Grossfeld, S. 1998. Genetic engineering debate shifting to US. The Boston Globe, 23 September 98
ICTA (International Center for Technology Assessment) http://www.icta.org/legal/biolist.htm
IDCE, 1998. The IDEC is asking for letters to be sent from around the world to the Brazilian government, to underscore the fact that consumers are say "no" to GE soybeans, as well as counteracting Monsanto's claims of environmental safety. Letter should be sent, quickly, to:
Presidencia de Republica -- Exmo. Sr. Prof. Dr. Fernando Henrique Cardoso
Endereco: Praca dos Tres Poderes - Palacio do Planalto, 4 andar
Brasilia -- Distrito Federal, cep: 70.150-900 - Brasil
FAX (55-61) 321-5804; email: pr.@planalto.br
Ministerio da Agricultura -- Exmo. Sr. Dr. Francisco Sergio Turra
Endereco: Esplanada dos Ministrios, Bloco D, 8 andar,
Brasilia -- Distrito Federal, cep: 70043-900 Brasil
FAX (55-61) 225-9046; email: email@example.com
MacArthur, M. 1998a. Canola crossbreeds create tough weed problem. Western Producer, 15 October 98.
MacArthur, M. 1998b. Resistant canola expected. Western Producer, 15 October 98.
McIlroy, A. 1998. Ottawa tried to control scientists' testimony - researchers raised fears about safety of controversial hormone. The Globe and Mail News, 27 October 98.
Meo, N. 1998. 'Organic Methods Could Save Farming', says Charles. PA News, UK
Pollan, M. 1998. Playing God in the Garden. New York Times Sunday Magazine 25 Oct 98
Rifkin, J. 1998. Apocalypse when? New Scientist. http://www.newscientist.com/nsplus/insight/gmworld/gmfood/rifkin.html
Soule, J., D. Carre, and W. Jackson. 1990. Ch. 6 Ecological impact of modern agriculture. In: C.R. Carroll, J.H. Vandermeer, and P. Rosset (ed) Agroecology. McGraw Hill, N.Y.
White, E. and R. Desnomie. 1998. Saskatoon Farmers Says Charge Bees and Wind, Not Him. Western Producer (http://126.96.36.199/current_news/this_week/news/news12.html)
1. USDA spokesman Willard Phelps stated that the goal is "to increase the value of proprietary seed owned by US seed companies and to open up new markets in Second and Third World countries." The USDA molecular biologist and inventor of the technology, Melvin Oliver, stated that his primary interest was "the protection of American technology. Our mission is to protect US agriculture, and to make us competitive in the face of foreign competition."
2. note that the evolution of widespread Bt-resistance in pest communities will not only shorten the effective lifespan of Bt-crops, per se, but will also compromise organic and IPM growers who depend on Bt for pest control