The promises to genetic engineer crops to fix nitrogen, resist drought,
improve yield and to 'feed the world' have been around for at least 30
years. Such promises have built up a multibillion-dollar industry now
controlled by a mere handful of corporate giants.
But the miracle crops have not materialised. So far, two simple
characteristics account for all the GM crops in the world. More than 70%
are tolerant to broad-spectrum herbicides, with companies engineering
plants to be tolerant to their own brand of herbicide, while the rest are
engineered with bt-toxins to kill insect pests. A total of 65 million
acres were planted in 1998 within the US, Argentina and Canada. The latest
surveys on GM crops in the US, the largest grower by far, showed no
significant benefit. On the contrary, the most widely grown GM crops -
herbicide-tolerant soya beans - yielded on average 6.7% less and required
two to five times more herbicides than non-GM varieties.
The same GM crops have already given rise to herbicide-tolerant weeds
and bt-resistant insect pests. Worse still, the broad-spectrum herbicides
not only decimate wild species indiscriminately, but are toxic to animals.
One of them, glufosinate, causes birth defects in mammals, while another,
glyphosate, is now linked to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. GM crops with
bt-toxins kill beneficial insects such as bees and lacewings, and pollen
from bt-maize is lethal to monarch butterflies.
According to the UN food programme, there is enough food to feed the
world one and a half times over. World cereal yields have consistently
outstripped population growth since 1980, but one billion are hungry. It
is on account of corporate monopolies operating under the globalised
economy that the poor are getting poorer and hungrier. Corporations
already control 75% of the world trade in cereals. The new patents on
seeds will intensify corporate monopoly by preventing farmers from saving
and replanting seeds, which is what 85% of the farmers still do in the
Third World. Christian Aid, a major charity working with the Third World,
concludes that GM crops will cause unemployment, exacerbate Third World
debt, threaten sustainable farming systems and damage the environment. It
predicts famine for the poorest countries.
What about GM crops with enhanced nutritional value, such as putting
soya protein into rice, or incorporating genes to increase iron content?
The major cause of malnutrition worldwide is the substitution of
industrial monocultures for the varied diet provided by traditional
farming/foraging systems. Moreover, intensive agricultural practices
deplete and leach nutrients from the soil, thereby changing the
nutritional values of all food crops for the worse within the past 40
years. No amount of genetic engineering can reverse this trend, which can
be achieved only by re-introducing sustainable farming methods and
recovering agricultural biodiversity.
It is clear that GM crops offer no benefits and cannot feed the world.
There are also enormous risks. The most immediate are random and
unpredictable. Dr. Arpad Pusztai, an eminent scientist in the Rowett
Institute of Scotland, lost his job when he released findings that showed
two GM potato lines were toxic to rats. A more insidious danger is
horizontal gene transfer - the transfer of genetic material directly to
unrelated species. It is inherent to the way GM organisms are constructed
that the foreign genes introduced (transgenic DNA) may be more likely to
transfer again to unrelated species. Such horizontal gene transfer can
give rise to new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases and spread
antibiotic and drug resistances among the pathogens.
It was because of these concerns that the pioneers of genetic
engineering called for a moratorium in the '70s. Unfortunately, commercial
pressures cut the moratorium short. Since then, drug and antibiotic
resistant infectious diseases have returned with a vengeance. New viruses
are appearing at alarming frequencies, while life-threatening bacteria are
rapidly becoming resistant to all antibiotics and are hence untreatable.
New evidence also indicates that transgenic DNA from dust and pollen in GM
crops can spread to organisms in all environments, including the human
Another hazard is that the transgenic DNA can jump into the genomes of
cells, resulting in harmful effects which include cancer. In its interim
report (May 1999), the British Medical Association called for an
indefinite moratorium on the release of GM crops pending further studies
on new allergies, on the spread of antibiotic resistances and on the
effects of transgenic DNA. These concerns are shared by at least 100
scientists from 20 countries who have signed a World Scientists' Statement
calling for a 5 year moratorium and a ban on patents of life-forms.
While the 'benefits' from GM crops remain illusory and hypothetical, the
successes of sustainable, organic farming are well-documented, in the
Third World, as well as in Europe and North America. There is also an
enormous 'health bonus' in phasing out agrochemicals which are linked to
many forms of cancer, to reproductive abnormalities and degenerative
The current obsession with gene manipulation may be entirely misplaced.
Indeed, genes and genomes can remain relatively stable and constant only
within a stable, balanced ecosystem. Organic agriculture is predicated on
such a balanced ecosystem. The requirements for genetic health, similarly,
are no different from those for physiological health: unpolluted
environment; wholesome organic foods free from agrochemicals; sanitary and
socially satisfying living conditions. Those are the real choices for
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho is Reader in Biology at the Open University and author of
best-selling book, Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare? The Brave New
World of Bad Science and Big Business, Gateway Books, Bath, 1998, 1999