Dr. Suman Sahai
Genetic Engineering, also called Genetic Modification (GM) or Genetic Transformation is a revolutionary new technology. It allows scientists to change the characteristics of living organisms by transferring genes from one organism , across species barriers, to another , to create a genetically modified organism (GMO). Genetic modification technology can transfer genes between organisms that can not breed in nature. Thus genes from humans have been put into mice, from fish into tomatoes and from bacteria into cotton producing transgenic organisms.
GM technology has been most successfully applied to the field of agriculture giving rise to what are called GM crops or transgenic crops. The other area of application is in the production of vaccines and medicines. The field of vaccine production has been interesting because it is now possible to introduce vaccine producing genes into plants like bananas and potatoes as also in the milk of animals like sheep and goats. This has significant implications for developing countries where immunisation against common diseases like polio, cholera, hepatitis has proven to be difficult and expensive. One of the major problems has been maintaining a reliable cold chain from where the vaccine is produced to the villages where it is required. Having a vaccine expressed in a food like banana or potato which can be grown everywhere, would make the availability of vaccines in interior, inaccessible areas quite easy. This would make a major difference to rural health.
Whereas the application of GM technology to the field of vaccines and medicines has gained public acceptance, its application to agriculture and food production has raised a swarm of controversies. Resistance to GM foods is strongest in Europe , followed by Japan and the US where large scale demonstrations and protests target the practitioners of GM technology, both in the laboratory and in the field.
The opposition is aimed at two aspects of GM technology . One is the science itself, primarily its safety, the other is the policy governing the use of GM technology . There are misgivings about the Intellectual Property Rights regime associated with it and the ironclad control of the multinational corporate sector.
Whereas it is undeniably true that GM technology has the potential to increase food production and improve the nutritional quality of food , it is not being used by its dominant practitioners, the private corporations to produce either more or better food . It is only the public research institutions , financed by public money, that are trying to apply GM research to crops of interest to poor farmers in developing countries. The Rockefeller Foundation has financed research which will add vitamin A and iron to rice which is otherwise nutritionally a poor cereal. Research institutes in India are working to include protein genes from Amaranth (Chaulai) into potatoes in order to increase the nutritional quality of this primarily carbohydrate food. Public sector institutions in other developing countries are now beginning to apply GM technology to rice cassava, yam, and sorghum to produce improved varieties that will increase the production of staples needed by the poor. However, despite its promise, there are real and credible concerns about GM crops. These concerns exist at various levels.
DIRECTION OFGM RESEARCH
The fact is that the Life Science corporations like Monsanto, Novartis, Aventis and Du Pont control research on GM crops because of the enormous resources they command. The focus of their research is on commercial agriculture and the goal is to maximise corporate profits. Corporate research is not targeted towards the needs of small farmers. GM crops are not targeted towards helping to alleviate hunger and poverty . GM crops are also a problem area, if one looks at it from the point of view of sustainable agriculture. The increase in the number of GM varieties will strike a further blow to genetic diversity in the field and exacerbate genetic erosion. Loss of genetic diversity in food and cash crops is well documented following the introduction of high yielding varieties at the time of the green revolution. GM crops will strengthen this trend.
If we look into the direction of corporate funded GM research, we find that the focus of the research is on commerce, not on food. The bulk of the research in the private sector is aimed at Round Up Ready or herbicide tolerant varieties of soybean; Bt corn, that is corn with a bacterial gene for disease resistance; Bt cotton, a cotton variety carrying the same bacterial gene for resistance against the bollworm pest and the flavr savr tomato, which has an increased shelf-life . If there is research on corn, then the research is targeted at yellow maize, which is used for animal feed and for making sugar-syrup. This research is not targeted at the white maize, which is a staple food in Africa and which is very susceptible to disease.
Apart from fears about its safety, the public rejection of GM crops is strongly influenced by the perception that GM crops are neither targeted at farmers nor at hunger but only at maximizing corporate profits. This technology is today fully controlled by six multinational corporations through instruments of protection like Intellectual Property rights and trade secrets. In such a situation, it is only logical that society will judge this technology to see whether it can address social goals, whether it can address the needs of developing countries where widespread hunger persists and whether it can help to increase productivity for small farmers. Society, before accepting this technology will determine whether these crops will have any role to play in increasing food security and nutritional security for the vulnerable populations of the world.
The opponents of GM technology legitimately ask the question, why does GM research in the hands of the companies not target food crops? Why are there no research investments in legumes and pulses, in sorghum, millets and yam? In many developing countries a legume called Lathyrus sativus (known as khesari dal in India) is eaten since it grows on marginal lands and provides much needed protein. Lathyrus sativus contains a toxin gene and prolonged consumption leads to a wasting of the limbs, a condition called Lathyrism, . Why is GM research not targeting crops like Lathyrus. There is no significant work being done by the corporate sector on drought resistance and salinity tolerance .
Making GM research more responsible
In addition to forging new collaborations, it is crucial that the level of public spending in agricultural research be maintained and increased. Regrettably, in the last years we have seen a sustained withdrawal of funds from public sector research. This is a highly detrimental development and targeted against the ongoing struggle in developing countries to achieve food security. Public research funds should not be withdrawn from food and from agricultural research. Particularly as we are witnessing that research on pro-farmer, pro-poor, pro-developing country crops is not been undertaken by the private sector.
SAFETY AND SUSTAINABILITY OF FOOD PRODUCTION
With respect to GM Foods, there are widespread concerns that are being raised, primarily in two areas, the first concerning human health, the other concerning the environment. A third area of concern in this context, of special relevance to developing countries, is its impact on sustainable food production and self reliance of farmers. Our experience of the Green revolution shows that with the introduction of new technology, like high yielding varieties, small farmers tend to get marginalised. GM crops will also tend to marginalise small farmers.
In addition, GM technology will establish the dominance of corporations, more so if the kind of IPR regimes and seed patent demands are acceeded to. This will result in seed production and ultimately food production being controlled by corporations, posing a great threat to self reliance in developing countries and their ability to feed themselves.
Finally, the introduction of GM crops will strike at sustainable food production by increasing genetic erosion in the field, unless we take very determined steps to counter this effect.
HUMAN HEALTH CONCERNS
Horizontal gene transfer. With respect to the environmental, concerns have been expressed about genetic pollution by genes being transferred along with pollen. The extent of pollen transfer is different under different climatic conditions. Pollen will travel great distances under dry, arid conditions and not such great distances in wet humid conditions.
What we do know is that horizontal gene transfer actually happens. According to Tappeser and colleagues (Institute for Applied Ecology, Germany), " Horizontal gene transfer is now recognised to be the main avenue of exchange of genetic material in the microbial world and of the exchange and spread of antibiotic resistance genes ". Michael Syvanen ( Nature Biotechnology , 1999) provides evidence that mechanisms for the transfer of antibiotic genes (markers) to bacteria in nature do exist.
Evidence that gene transfer happens in the field by transfer of pollen, comes from the well documented transfer of genes from oilseed rape to its relative, the wild radish. Gene transfer through pollination is known between wheat and rye and between different varieties of oilseed rape, specially low erucic acid and high erucic acid varieties.
Although we know that horizontal gene transfer actually happens in the field , we do not know the implications of this kind of gene transfer. Therefore there is a need for a far greater number of studies, specially for crops of relevance to the developing countries. So far whatever pollen transfer and gene transfer studies have been done , have been in the crops grown in the industrial nations. So pollen/ gene transfer data are available only for these crops. We in developing countries must compile baseline data for the crops that are important for us, and under our climatic conditions.
NEGATIVE IMPACT OF STRUCTURAL CHANGE
Another important environmental concern relates generally to the application of new technologies. Past experience shows us that whenever structural change has been brought in to rural areas, the impact on the environment has been destructive. We should be very careful that biotechnology or GM technology does not make this situation worse. This technology should be very precisely and carefully targeted so that its use is aimed to reduce poverty and to minimise the damage to the environment.
In order to counter increasing genetic erosion and maintain genetic diversity in the field, our efforts will have to be directed to developing multi-strategy agricultural technologies that are based on genetic diversity and environmental sound practices .Then we will have an approach that will be far superior to the kind of single point, single crop approach that we are using today.
IS GM TECHNOLOGY REALLY NECESSARY FOR INDIA ?
Post harvest losses
GM research targeted at pulses would make sense but GM research targeted at brinjals , as is the case in a premier research institution in Delhi, makes a mockery of science and the social responsibility of science. Public money must be conscientiously and carefully spent to achieve the maximum public good.
And finally, in focusing the direction of GM research, it would be important and meaningful to consult with researchers and with small farmers, specially women. This will help to identify the needs of farming communities and the kinds of improvements they are looking for. What are the problems they face in cropping patterns ? What sort of crops would help to produce more food and better food as seen from their perspective? This could be an important contribution in giving greater relevance to the direction of GM research.
GM disease resistance
The Bt approach is showing that insects are quickly developing resistance. So now it is recommended to grow Bt crops with large refuges where vulnerability of the pest can be maintained. Is this really a viable approach for us in India where every inch of arable land is needed to produce food ? Can we afford to divert land to maintain this artificially constructed, disintegrating method of introducing disease resistance ?
WHAT SHOULD BE DONE TO IMPROVE THE SAFETY OF GM FOODS
Before we can decide on the introduction of crops into areas where wild relatives are found, we need a lot more studies about pollen transfer, and horizontal gene transfer in crops relevant to us in developing countries. So far pollen and gene transfer studies have primarily been conducted on species relatives of European crops, under European and American conditions, so whatever data there is on pollen and gene transfer, is only for crops of relevance to the west. As we know, it is the developing countries where most of the genetic diversity is located and where very great caution will have to be exercised in order to prevent accidents leading to genetic pollution.
CONCERNS ABOUT POLICY GOVERNING THE USE OF GM TECHNOLOGY
At the level of the policy governing GM technology and general access to it, there are also grave objections and unless these objections are addressed it is unlikely that this technology will gain acceptance.
The purveyors of GM technologies and products are quite rightly accused of a severe lack of transparency in their operations. One of the reasons for the protest against the Monsanto cotton trials in India was ignorance on the part of some maverick farmers. However, the broader resentment was because of the complete lack of transparency about what exactly Monsanto was doing . The public had no idea and information was difficult to get. The farmers in the area where the tests were being conducted were kept in the dark about the nature of the trials. This kind of attitude will lead to an increasingly severe backlash against Monsanto and other Life Sciences corporations.
It is necessary to create open and transparent systems so that information about GM technology is available to people who want to ask questions. The debate on the risks and benefits should be publicly conducted. Reasonable data should be accessible to the public that wants to satisfy itself about the safety or desirability of a particular crop.
Field trails of GM crops must be conducted by independent experts. At the moment the trend is in -house testing so that the agencies interested in releasing a particular variety, conduct their own trials . This is not really a very transparent way of going about the business.
A near fatal flaw in the practice of GM technology by the corporations, specially Monsanto, is the impression of overweening corporate greed that has been firmly entrenched in the public mind. Launching the concept of the 'Terminator' technology to induce seed sterility as an instrument of establishing complete control on the farmers seed has caused the kind of public outcry that such a notion of greed deserves. The use of sterile seed technologies as an instrument of control must be banned.
'Variety' not 'Sequence' protection
Exemption from IPR regimes for poor farmers
Since their assets and resources are practically unending, private corporations should be willing to share GM technology for use in developing countries where the acute need for producing more food and better food remains a critical requirement.
Improving access to the new technology.
Access of developing countries to the new technology is being limited by two
Until now, public sector research centres ,both national and international, have played a vital role in the improvement of agriculture in developing countries, particularly since the 1960s, when international agricultural research certres (IARCs) provided them with major technological inputs and breeding material. This was possible because a) these centres had a mandate to support the growth of agricultural development in developing countries and b) these centres were at the forefront of technological advance. In other words, they had both the technology and desire to transfer it to developing countries.
This situation has changed. With the emergence of biotechnology, private sector firms have emerged as technological leaders. On the other hand, international agricultural research centres are comparatively minor players in biotechnology. This has affected their ability to provide technological support to developing countries.
Agricultural biotechnology research is almost exclusively carried out by firms in developed countries. A handful of these firms have a stranglehold on new agricultural technologies. Much of this control is maintained by patents. Consequently, a number of commercially important technologies are already closed to newcomers.
While the patent holders are prepared to license some of their patented technologies, they are keen to maintain monopoly positions in what they consider to be strategically crucial areas. For example, Calgene has licensing arrangements with a number of firms such as Plant Genetics Sciences, Monsanto and AgrEvo under its canola patents. However, all the licenses are outside the area in which Calgene is primarily interested, namely rapeseed oil modification. It intends to keep this technology to itself.
GM technology applied to the field of agriculture has inherent potential. Unfortunately the science has been derailed by corporate greed so that suspicion and rejection instead of curiosity and enthusiasm greets this exciting if still immature technology. Instead of its application to the needs of the poor and hungry , GM technology is now viewed as an unsafe and unnecessary tool which will oppress rather than help farmers as it rakes in money for the corporations.
The fact is that this technology has been pushed far too prematurely on to the market place. Much more research is needed to clean up the science and make the technology pro- poor. Data for crops relevant to developing countries who should be but are not, the greatest beneficiaries of these new food production technologies is very inadequate. This must change. GM technology will only be an acceptable technology for developing countries if the science is made safer and if there is a commitment to transparency and equity in the practice of this technology.
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Last Updated on 7/13/00
By Karen Lutz Benbrook