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Transgenic Travesty

Fred Schwarz            

Genetically modified crops should be a green activist's dream. They can increase productivity per acre, reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides, improve plants' ability to survive unfavorable conditions, and deliver key nutrients to prevent disease in those who eat them. Nowadays, with food in short supply, GM crops can be especially helpful, as they alleviate shortages where the shortages exist, literally at ground level, with no need to rely on charity from abroad.          
Instead, greens hate GM crops. Here's a typical assessment from the Huffington Post: "There have been few experiments as reckless, overhyped and with as little potential upside as the rapid rollout of genetically modified crops." In support of these claims, opponents trot out a constantly shifting set of scientific findings that purport to demonstrate how GM crops harm the environment.

The first to be widely cited was a 1999 paper supposedly showing that pollen from GM corn was toxic to monarch butterfly caterpillars. This laboratory study was swiftly and conclusively dismantled by other scientists, who demonstrated that it bore no relation to actual conditions in the wild. As John Foster, an entomologist at the University of Nebraska, has pointed out, "traditional pesticides are actually a much bigger threat than biotech corn ever will be. A lot more monarchs die on the grills of 18-wheelers than they do from farmers who plant biotech crops." Another experiment, which suggested detrimental effects on honeybees, also turned out to be deeply flawed. Neither study has been duplicated (though greens still cite them), and no new evidence of significant harm to non-target insects has been found.

Another common charge against GM foods is that they could cause problems with allergies. The evidence: In the mid-1990s a soy plant with a Brazil-nut gene added was found to be potentially allergenic in humans. This happened long before the plant reached the market, and even though it was intended as animal feed, it never went on sale. As this incident shows, allergenic proteins are fairly easy to recognize and test for; that's why no GM food has ever caused allergies in consumers. In fact, genetic engineering is currently being used to remove allergens from foods, raising the possibility of allergy-free peanuts and even seafood.

Do GM crops reduce biodiversity -- for example, by displacing other plants or eliminating parts of the food chain? Evidence for this is weak at best. A 2001 article published in Nature purported to show such a decrease caused by GM corn in Mexico, but the study was so problematic that the journal's editors retracted it the following year. Unsurprisingly, GM opponents continue to tout this paper and portray its authors as martyrs (unlike those who dissent from scientific orthodoxy on global warming, who are mocked as "deniers"). Overall, there is at least as much evidence that GM crops increase biodiversity (by reducing use of pesticides and herbicides, among other things). Here, as with the other charges against GM crops, the purported effects are tiny if not illusory, and no different from what occurs with many common practices in non-GM agriculture, while the benefits are large and quantifiable.

The closest thing to a legitimate objection has to do with the risk of promoting resistance to pesticides and herbicides. One type of GM crop produces a substance that is lethal to certain pest species but safe for humans. The most common such substance is Bt, an insect-killing protein produced in nature by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. As a natural product, it is widely used by organic farmers, who worry about the possibility of Bt-resistant pests.

GM plants can also be made resistant to a given herbicide. Monsanto sells a number of "Roundup Ready" crops that are immune to the company's Roundup herbicide. This greatly simplifies weed control for farmers, reducing the need for tillage and, in many cases, the amount of herbicide applied. Opponents say that herbicide-resistant traits could migrate from Roundup Ready crops to the wild through wind-borne pollen, creating "superweeds" that would be hard to kill.

There's a grain of truth in these criticisms, because anytime you use herbicides and pesticides, some organisms will develop immunity. That's a fact of life in farming, and there are ways to deal with it, such as rotating crops or using a different herbicide or pesticide. But the problem of pests' developing resistance through natural selection is no greater with GM crops than it is with non-GM ones. As for "superweeds," such hybrids are very rare and far from super. In one widely publicized study, researchers collected 95,000 seeds from wild plants and found exactly two that showed GM-induced herbicide resistance. When the researchers returned to the same field the following year, they found none. As agricultural scientists have long known, random cross-breeding almost never yields offspring that can reproduce, let alone flourish.

For an example of how anti-GM activists grasp at straws, consider the case of MON 863, a corn variety modified by Monsanto to make it resistant to rootworms. It has been approved for use as animal fodder by the regulatory bodies of ten nations and even the foot-dragging European Union. A group of anti-GM scientists examined one safety study using rats and found (in the words of a sympathetic article) "a highly significant and sustained 3.3 percent decrease in body weight in males, and a 3.7 percent increase in females." A male rat weighs roughly a pound, and a female perhaps two-thirds of that, so we're talking about half an ounce; and even so, other studies found contradictory results. Yet Greenpeace still has on its website a document called "MON 863: A Chronicle of Systematic Deception."

Despite such determined opposition, GM crops are widely cultivated in industrial and developing nations. Roughly half the world's GM farming takes place in the United States, where some 140 million acres are planted. This includes around 90 percent of America's soybeans, more than 80 percent of its cotton, and more than 60 percent of its corn. Other American GM crops include canola, squash, and alfalfa. Argentina and Brazil are the next-biggest GM planters, mostly in soybeans and cotton, with Canada following and India and China coming up fast. About 20 other countries grow GM crops -- including Iran, which recently became the first nation to introduce GM rice.

Yet in the places where food shortages have hit the hardest, and where increased production could do the most good, GM crops are shunned. The only African country to permit GM crops is South Africa. Elsewhere, scare tactics by greens and fears about access to foreign markets (such as the EU, which has grudgingly dropped its prohibition on GM foods but still imposes high regulatory barriers) have led to bans, even in countries where almost all crops are consumed locally. Most Southeast Asian nations also shun GM crops, as do those in the Caribbean and the Middle East. Why do the poorest nations resist such a beneficial technology?

Simply put, it's because poor countries are the easiest for environmental activists to push around. A recent paper by Carl Pray of Rutgers, Robert Paarlberg of Wellesley, and Laurian Unnevehr of the University of Illinois examined the reception given to GM crops in different nations. In one case they studied, a GM papaya resistant to ringspot virus was eagerly accepted in Hawaii, reviving that state's papaya industry after the virus had nearly eliminated it. By reducing the virus's prevalence, the GM variety made possible the renewed cultivation of non-GM and even organic papayas as well.

In Thailand, by contrast, when a similar virus-resistant papaya was developed by Thai scientists to suit local conditions, "Greenpeace partially destroyed GM papaya trials in Khon Kaen and launched a media campaign claiming genetic pollution." Since there was no powerful interest to argue the pro-GM side, Thailand's small farmers were not able to overcome Greenpeace's campaign of intimidation and misinformation. Something similar happened when genetically modified potatoes were tried in Mexico. Green activists prevailed on McDonald's and Frito-Lay -- anxious about their public image, like any big corporation -- to swear off GM potatoes, They then spread a phony biodiversity controversy, and the government program promoting GM potatoes among Mexico's small farmers was abandoned.

To be sure, sometimes there are economic reasons for farmers to avoid GM crops. Travis Kavulla, formerly of National Review and now a Gates Scholar studying African history at Cambridge, says that "many Africans' main sticking point with GM seeds is that they are frequently annuals, with further seeds needing to be bought year-to-year on the returns of the crop." The first GM cotton plant introduced in India was not appropriate for the climate, and many failures resulted. (In addition to the plant's textile uses, cotton seeds are used for cooking oil and animal fodder.) But now GM cotton is spreading rapidly in India. In fact, before GM seeds became widely available, they sold for inflated prices on the black market, just as Brazilian farmers smuggled in GM soy seeds before their government legalized them.

The GM industry is everything that greens hate: big, corporate, technological, and American. That's why two of its biggest opponents in the developing world are Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Yet GM crops yield great benefits, which is why they have been so widely adopted wherever farmers have enough power to stand up for their interests. As Kavulla points out, "Western rhetoric on GM is something of a ruse, especially when many African governments would eagerly sell GM crops (and at higher prices) if only they had a market to do so." In this way, small farmers and consumers in Africa and Asia suffer at the hands of fastidious greens in the prosperous West.

© National Review Online 2008          
Source: National Review                 


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The latest issue of Plant Physiology (July 2008; Volume 147, Issue 3) has a special section on next generation of biotech crops especially on nutritional improvement.  These papers can
be downloaded free!

Influence of Transgenosis on the Plant-Insect- Relationships, in Particular on Chemically       Mediated Interactions

Effect of Transgenes Conferring Enhanced Pathogen Resistance on the Interaction with Symbiotic        Fungi in Rice

Impact on the Soil Ecosystem through Natural and Genetically Engineered Organisms:
      Effects, Methods and Definition of Damage as Contribution to Risk Assessment

The Decomposition of Bt-Corn on the Fields and its Impact on Earthworms and on other        Macroorganisms in the Soil

Environmental Post-market Monitoring of Bt-maize:
       Approaches to Detect Potential Effects on Butterflies and Natural Enemies

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Against the Grains: 'The Terminator Hoax '

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Brazilian Health Biotech: Fostering Crosstalk Between Public and Private Sectors

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Nothing Left to the Imagination

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Hi-tech seed factories: Sowing Seeds of Success

"Indian Seed Industry is Well Placed to Serve Both Domestic and International Markets"
Dr MK Sharma,
Managing Director,
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Metagenomics: Window to the Microbial Universe

Few Checks to Prevent Entry of GM Food

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Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture

RH Nature Reviews Genetics 08- Opposition to Transgenic Technologies

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Bt maize performance in Spain

Arsenic speciation varies with type of rice

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China experts identify gene for yield, height in rice

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