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Issue 34, January 1999

Manipulating life: genetically engineered crops

A DEBATE IS raging over the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops. Food based on modified crops, including tomatoes, corn and soya, has been on sale in Britain for two years. A number of British farmers are growing experimental plots of modified crops - which in some cases eco-activists have removed.

Recently the companies pushing modified crops have announced a three year delay in their commercial introduction into Britain, although experiments continue. What is this debate all about?

As knowledge about genetics has increased, there have been moves to modify the properties of organisms, including plants, animals, and bacteria, to change their characteristics. A major area has been crop experimentation.

Research has been driven by a few large chemicals and food companies such as Monsanto, ICI and Hoechst. They claim genetically modifying or engineering organisms is simply a continuation of breeding which has taken place for thousands of years.

However, breeding is based on reinforcing desired existing features that are already within the range of an organism's characteristics. Consequently people have bred plants (apples, roses) and animals (dogs, cattle) to enhance particular features through selection and reproduction over generations.

By contrast, GM is not based on the selective breeding of existing features, but on introducing a feature from another organism which does not exist in the recipient organism. Genes from bacteria have been applied to cotton, fish genes introduced to tomatoes, and scorpion genes added to a virus.

The genetic engineers claim it will increase food production, create new medical drugs and develop bacteria that could clean-up toxic waste. There are also suggestions that modifications to human genetics could reduce some diseases. The European Union regards genetic engineering as a 'key technology' which will spur economic growth and new products.

  So far research and development has focussed on producing plants that resist chemical weed and pest killers, and crops with a longer shelf life. The idea is, if the crop can survive spraying, then the entire field can be sprayed, killing all weeds or pests without affecting the harvest.

GM crops are usually designed to be resistant to the manufacturer's own sprays. Thus Monsanto engineers its soya to withstand Monsanto weed-killer Roundup while Ciba-Gigy soya is modified to withstand its spray Atrazine. This may increase the use of these chemicals, destroying other plants and washing into the soil and water system, killing further plants and animals. It would also threaten human health. Already a million people a year suffer poisoning from crop spraying, with thousands dying.

The companies claim that the engineered organisms will not crossbreed with other organisms, so the modification will not 'escape'. But this is already happening. Oilseed rape grows in a milieu of related wild plants farmers considered a weed. Engineered rape has crossbred with these varieties producing super-weeds resistant to sprays. Given the precedent of insects, where a number of super-species are now resistant to almost all sprays, this is hardly surprising. There are proposals to produce bacteria to clean up oilspills. But what would happen if they multiplied, spread and began to break down the worlds's oil reserves?

If GM crops become common they are likely to further reduce crop diversity. Increased commercialisation in agriculture has reduced both the number of varieties grown, and their inherent genetic variation. Thirty years ago Sri Lankan rice farmers grew 2,000 varieties; today there are only five. Coffee trees in Latin America derive from a single imported African tree. Narrow crop variation means they are more disease-prone. In 1970 a virus attacked US corn (maize), killing over half the crop and costing $1 billion. Most of the corn was grown from seeds developed from a single line so that almost all the crop was identical.

The continued 'chemical warfare' approach to agriculture has long been criticised. During the last 50 years, pesticide use in the US has increased 33 times and yet losses from pests have actually grown. Over 30 years ago in her book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson highlighted the damage widespread crop spraying causes to plants, animals and people. Yet it has increased. She also pointed to numerous other, more effective and less damaging approaches. These have been ignored.

There are even doubts whether GM crops will deliver the results claimed. Monsanto modified cotton, saying it would produce a chemical poisonous to the major pest bollworm. Yet the subsequent level of infestation was over 20 times the level at which farmers would normally have started spraying. For this privilege, they had to pay a higher price for the seed and an extra technology fee to Monsanto.

  THE COMPANIES' PRIMARY motive is to make money. The engineered crops are resistant to specific sprays, so as well as paying extra for the special seeds, farmers have to buy the companies' sprays.

GM businesses also claim they own the seed patents, thus farmers are not allowed to save seeds for re-planting, but have to buy new ones. In many countries seeds have traditionally been exchanged. This will also be illegal.

This desire to protect profits is one reason the chemical companies have pushed so hard for patent laws to be extended world wide, and to include living organisms. This has been an outcome of recent world trade negotiations, through GATT and in the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (See Socialism Today No.26).

At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, agreements included protection of the major companies' patent rights. Big business aims to turn life and knowledge into a commodity to buy and sell. They are also trawling the world to find new organisms to patent and exploit and have incorporated specific human genes into their patents, often without the consent of the people involved. Under 'intellectual property' law, 'products of nature' cannot be patented. To get around this the companies claim they have produced new and distinctive 'invented' organisms. Yet, in a different context, they also argue crops are indistinguishable from non-modified products. Thus Monsanto claims it is impossible to separate the two types of soya, so imports from the USA, where engineered soya has been grown for two years, include both. As soya contributes to 60% of processed food, most people in Britain have no way of knowing if they are eating engineered products.

Genetic engineering is based on flawed reductionist science that views genes in isolation from the organism, and the organism in isolation from the environment. This leads to ignoring the likelihood that a change in a gene will have unexpected knock-on effects on the organism and the environment - and that the modified organism may respond in an unexpected way in an environment different from the laboratory. It also takes the view that life behaves, and can be treated, in a similar way to a machine - typified by the word 'engineering' - which is hardly surprising given the way capitalism treats people.

  The drive for profit means the results of genetic engineering are not properly tested before use. Having gained a patent to protect their profit on the basis of a claimed invention, the companies then hypocritically argue tests are unnecessary, as the organism is natural.

Already there are cases where the results of engineering are different from what was expected, and examples of chemicals being released into the environment with destructive effects only discovered years later.

Genetically engineered organisms reproduce, affect, and are affected by, the environment, leading to a greater likelihood of unforeseen results than using inert chemicals. But the companies insist long-term tests are unnecessary.

Genetic engineering may offer benefits for society, but not on the basis of private companies driven by the profit motive. The growing international opposition to genetically engineered crops raises the important issue - who runs society and to what end?

Bill Hopwood

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