Genetically Engineered Controversy
by James Faber
One of the main thrusts of biotechnology research has been in the arena of agriculture, with corporate leaders holding up the promise of someday being able to feed the world. This is at least part of the thinking behind the new hybrid corn, cotton, and potato seeds introduced to farmers in 1996, that promised bigger yields with less pesticide. These hybrid seeds contain genes of corn, cotton, and potato plants that are spliced with a protein derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. The Bt genes are transferred to the cells of the plant by using a gene gun that shoots tiny particles carrying genetic material.
Bt is a naturally occurring soil bacterium that was first isolated —from diseased silkworm larvae — in 1901, in Japan. Bt produces toxic crystal proteins that selectively kill specific groups of insects. The toxin causes paralysis of the insect’s gut and mouthparts within minutes, then kills the insect by general body infection and food deprivation.
The concept behind Bt crops is to end the use of the highly toxic synthetic pesticides that have characterized post-WWII pest control. But recently, some major problems and concerns have risen about the use of the Bt seeds.
"The trouble is that the companies that produced these genetically modified organisms and the government authorities who are supposed to check their safety before approving them don’t know [their impact], said Benedikt Haerlin, Greenpeace genetic engineering coordinator.
In its June 19 issue, New Scientist reported on a strain of Bt newly discovered by researchers in Egypt and found to be the most powerful strain yet. The strain was found in the dead larvae of the pink boll worm, an enemy of the cotton plant. It produces eighteen toxins, which kill a multitude of insects. The new strain has already been patented for commercial application; plans are in the works to license the use of the genes in GE crops.
Also cited was the Canadian health ministries reported results of a study which showed bacteria in some Bt strains can kill human cells. The report included a suggestion that farmers wear protection when using it. French scientists isolated a strain of Bt that reportedly destroyed cell tissue in the wounds of a soldier in Bosnia. The same strain was also found to kill mice that inhaled the spores.
Last May, Nature magazine published results from a Cornell University study showing that pollen from Bt corn deposited on the leaves of the milkweed plant killed fourty-four percent of monarch caterpillars that fed on it.
"It would be tragic if genetically engineered crops decimated populations of monarch butterflies similar to the way that DDT decimated populations of bald eagles and other birds," said Dr. Rebecca Goldburg, an Environmental Defense Fund senior scientist. "We urge the EPA to severely restrict farm acreage planted in Bt corn until a plan can be developed to protect butterflies."
Aside from significant health and environmental risks, the modified seeds, they are still a risk for farmers. The Biotech Industry Report concluded that "the farmer must incur the costs of the technology before knowing the levels of pest infestation during the growing year or the price that will be received for the crop at the end of the year."
The report also stated that "in the aggregate, corn farmers gained $72 million in income in 1997, while they lost $26 million in income in 1998 from the planting of Bt corn. Since 1998 was a light infestation year and a year of low corn prices, on average, the value of the increased corn yields did not cover the extra cost of the Bt corn seed."
According to USDA data released in June‘99, GE crops do not generally offer farmers either increased yields or decreased use of pesticides. There is also scientific consensus that GE insect-resistant crops could lead to pests that are resistant to the world’s safest, biological insecticide.
"The rest of the world is taking responsible precautionary measures before releasing these untested crops into the environment," said Charles Margulis, Greenpeace genetic engineering specialist. "The EPA should not have allowed millions of acres of these crops to be released without knowing more about their impact."
In fact, use of Bt-modified seeds is gaining popularity in the U.S. According to statistics from the‘99 Biotechnology Industry Organization report on Bt crops, in 1998, eighteen percent of U.S. corn acreage was planted with Bt corn.
Corn is the largest acreage crop grown in the U.S.; it covered eighty million acres in 1998. All forty-eight linked states have corn acreage, though production is centered here in the Midwest, where ten states account for eighty-five percent of the U.S. acreage. Illinois and Iowa count more than ten million acres of corn each.
Indeed, food production from GE crops is already underway, though consumer safety of GE foods is under question. Some early studies have shown no adverse affects from GE foods, but critics are quick to point out that the studies were done by groups with a financial interest in positive results.
"We need real long-term testing done by independent researchers, not by companies with a vested interest in deciding that these foods are safe," said Margulis. Arguing a point that should be painfully obvious, he added, "We need mandatory labeling for all engineered food."