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Biotech companies frequently claim that genetically modified organisms (OsMG) - specifically genetically engineered seeds - are indispensable scientific discoveries needed to feed the world, protect the environment, and reduce poverty in developing countries. This opinion is supported by two critical assumptions which
we question. The first is that hunger is due to a gap between food production and the human population density or growth rate. The second is that genetic engineering is the only or best way to increase agricultural production and, therefore, meet future food needs.
Our goal is to challenge the notion of biotechnology as a magic bullet solution to all the ills of agriculture, by clearing up misconceptions related to these implicit assumptions.
1 - There is no relationship between the frequent occurrence of hunger in a given country and its population. For every densely populated and hungry nation like Bangladesh or Haiti, there is a sparsely populated and hungry nation like Brazil and Indonesia. The world produces more food per capita today than ever before. There is enough to supply 4.3 pounds per person each day: 2.5 pounds of grain, beans, and nuts, about 1 pound of meat, milk, and eggs, and another pound of fruits and vegetables. The real causes of hunger are poverty, inequality and lack of access. Too many people are too poor to buy the food that is available (but often poorly distributed) or lack the land and resources to grow it themselves (Lappe, Collins and Rosset 1998).
2 - Most innovations in agricultural biotechnology have been profit-driven rather than driven by necessity. The true driving force behind the genetic engineering industry is not to make third world agriculture more productive, but preferably to generate profit (Busch et al 1990). This is illustrated by reviewing the major technologies on the market today: a) herbicide resistant crops such as Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" soybeans, seeds that are tolerant of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, and b) "B1" crops the which are transformed by genetic engineering to produce their own insecticide. In the first case, the goal is to gain greater market share for a patented product and in the second, to promote seed sales at the cost of damaging the usefulness of a key product in pest management (the microbial insecticide based in Bacillus thuringiensis) trusted by many farmers, including most organic farmers, as a powerful alternative against insecticides. These technologies respond to the need for biotech companies to intensify farmers' dependence on seeds protected by so-called "intellectual property rights", which are opposed to the long-standing rights of farmers to reproduce, share or store seeds ( Hobbelink 1991). Whenever possible, corporations will request farmers to purchase their company's brand supplies and prohibit farmers from saving or selling seed. By controlling the germplasm of seed for sale and forcing farmers to pay inflated prices for packages of chemical seeds, companies are determined to get the most return on their investment (Krimsky and Wrubel 1996).
3 - The integration of the seed and chemical industries seems destined to accelerate increases in the cost per acre of seeds plus chemicals, which provides significantly less profit for growers. Companies developing herbicide tolerant crops are trying to shift as much cost per acre as possible from herbicide to seed via seed costs and / or technology costs. Increasing reductions in herbicide prices will be limited to growers purchasing tech packages. In Illinois, the adoption of herbicide-resistant crops constitutes the most expensive soybean seed-plus-pesticide system in modern history - between $ 40.00 and $ 60.00 per acre depending on price, infestation pressure , etc. Three years ago, the average cost of seed plus pest control on Illinois farms was $ 26 per acre and represented 23% of variable costs: today they represent 35-40% (Benbrook 1999). Many farmers are willing to pay for the simplicity and robustness of the new pest management system, but such advantages may be short-lived as ecological problems arise.
4 - Recent experimental tests have shown that genetically engineered seeds do not increase crop yields. A recent study by the USDA Economic Research Service shows that 1998 yields were not significantly different for genetically engineered crops versus non-engineered crops in 12 of 18 crop / region combinations. In the six crop / region combinations where Bt or HRCs crops thrived best, they exhibited increasing yields between 5-30%. Glyphosphate tolerant cotton did not show a significant increase in yield in any region where it was surveyed. This was confirmed in another study examining more than 8,000 field trials, where it was found that Roundup Ready soybeans produced fewer bushels of soybeans than similar varieties produced conventionally (USDA, 1999).
5 - Many scientists explain that eating genetically engineered foods is not harmful. However, recent evidence shows that there are potential risks in eating such foods, as the new proteins produced in such foods can: themselves act as allergens or toxins, alter the metabolism of the food-producing plant or animal, which causes it to produce new allergens or toxins, or reduce their quality or nutritional value as in the case of herbicide-resistant soybeans that contained fewer isoflavones, an important phytoestrogen present in soybeans, which is considered to protect women from a number of cancers. Currently, there is a situation in many developing countries that import soybeans and corn from the US, Argentina and Brazil, where genetically engineered foods are beginning to flood the markets, and no one can predict all their effects on the health of consumers, most of them ignorant that they are eating such food. Because genetically engineered food remains unlabeled, consumers cannot discriminate between GI and non-GI food, and if serious health problems arise, it would be extremely difficult to trace them back to their source. Lack of etiquette also helps protect corporations that could potentially be liable for obligations (Lappe and Bailey, 1998).
6 - Transgenic plants that produce their own insecticides closely follow the pesticide paradigm, which is rapidly failing due to the resistance of pests to insecticides. Instead of the failed "one pest one chemical" model, genetic engineering emphasizes a "one pest one gene" approach, which has been shown to fail time and again in laboratory tests, as pest species adapt rapidly and develop. resistance to the insecticide present in the plant (Alstad and Andow 1995). Not only will the new varieties fail over the short to medium term ones, despite the so-called voluntary resistance management schemes (Mallet and Porter 1992), but in the process it could render the natural pesticide "Bt" ineffective, in the trusted by organic farmers and others who want to reduce dependence on chemicals. Bt crops violate the basic and widely accepted principle of "integrated pesticide management" (IPM), which is that reliance on a particular pest management technology tends to cause changes in pest species or the evolution of resistance through one or more mechanisms (NRC 1996). In general, the greater the selection pressure in time and space, the faster and deeper the evolutionary response of pests. An obvious reason for adopting this principle is that it reduces the pest's exposure to pesticides, slowing the evolution of resistance. But when the product is genetically engineered within the same plant, pest exposure jumps from minimal and occasional to massive and continuous exposure, dramatically accelerating resistance (Gould 1994). Bt will quickly become useless both as a peculiarity of new seeds as well as as an old aid sprayed when needed by farmers wanting to escape the routine of pesticides (Pimentel et al 1989).
7 - The global fight for market share is leading companies to massively deploy transgenic crops around the world (more than 30 million hectares in 1998) without adequate progress in experimenting with short or long-term impacts on the human and ecosystem health. In the US, pressure from the private sector has led the White House to decree the comparison between altered and normal seeds "without substantial difference", thus evading the normal FDA and EPA testing. Confidential documents released in an ongoing lawsuit litigation revealed that the FDA's own scientists do not agree with this determination. One reason is that many scientists are concerned that the wide-scale use of transgenic crops poses a number of environmental risks that threaten the sustainability of agriculture (Goldberd, 1992: Paoletti and Pimentel, 1996: Snow and Moran 1997: Rissler and Mellon , 1996: Kendall et al 1997 and Royal Society, 1998):
1) The tendency to create large international markets for particular products is simplifying farming systems and creating genetic uniformity in rural landscapes. History has shown that a very large area planted with a single crop variety is very vulnerable to new pairs of strains of pathogens or insect pests. Furthermore, the widespread use of homogeneous transgenic varieties will inevitably lead to "genetic erosion", as local varieties used by thousands of farmers in the developing world are replaced by the new seeds (Robinson, 1996).
2) The use of herbicide resistant crops gradually weakens the possibilities of crop diversification and thus reduces agrobiodiversity in time and space (Altieri 1994).
3) The potential transfer through gene flow of genes from herbicide resistant crops to wild or semi-domesticated relatives can lead to the creation of super weeds (Lutman, 1999).
4) There is a potential for herbicide resistant varieties to become serious weeds in other crops (Duke, 1996, Holst and Le baron 1990).
5) The massive use of Bt crops affects non-target organisms and ecological processes. Recent evidence shows that Bt toxin can affect beneficial predatory insects that feed on insect pests present in Bt crops (Hilbeck et al, 1998), and that windblown pollen from Bt crops found in the Natural vegetation surrounding transgenic fields can kill non-target insects such as the large orange-winged, black-veined rim butterfly (Losey et al, 1999). Furthermore, the Bt toxin present in the foliage of buried crops after harvest can adhere to soil colloids for up to 3 months, negatively affecting populations of soil invertebrates that break down organic matter and play other ecological roles. (Donnegan et al, 1995 and Palm et al, 1996).
6) There is potential for recombination of vectors to generate new virulent virus strains, especially in transgenic plants genetically engineered for viral resistance with viral genes. In plants containing protein-coated genes, there is a possibility that such genes are taken up by unrelated viruses which infect the plant. In such situations, the foreign gene changes the coat structure of the virus and can confer properties such as a changed method of transmission between plants. The second potential risk is that recombination between RNA viruses and a viral RNA within the transgenic culture can produce a new pathogen that leads to more severe disease problems. Some researchers have shown that recombination occurs in transgenic plants and that under certain conditions it produces a new viral strain with an altered host range (Steinbrecher, 1996).
Ecological theory predicts that the landscape of large-scale homogenization with transgenic crops will exacerbate ecological problems already associated with monoculture in agriculture. The unquestionable expansion of this technology in developing countries may not be prudent or desirable. There is strength in the agricultural diversity of many of these countries, and it should not be inhibited or reduced by extensive monoculture, especially when the consequences of doing so result in serious social and environmental problems (Altieri, 1996).
Although the consequence of ecological risks has received some discussion in governmental, international and scientific circles, the discussions have often been practiced from a narrow perspective that has downplayed the seriousness of the risks (Kendall et al. 1997: Royal Society 1998). In fact, the methods for risk assessment of transgenic crops are not well developed (Kjellsson and Simmsen, 1994) and there is a justifiable concern that the current biosafety testing ground says little about the potential environmental risks associated with production. on a commercial scale of transgenic crops. A major concern is that international pressures to win markets and profits are resulting in companies releasing GM crops too quickly, without proper consideration for long-term impacts on people or the ecosystem.
1 - There are many unanswered ecological questions regarding the impact of transgenic crops. Many environmental groups have indicated the creation of an appropriate regulation that mediates between the experimentation and the release of transgenic crops to offset the environmental risks and demand a better evaluation and understanding of the ecological consequences associated with genetic engineering. This is crucial as many results emerging from the environmental behavior of released transgenic crops suggest that in the development of "resistant crops", there is not only a need to test the direct effects on the target insect or weed, but also the indirect effects. in the plant (eg growth, nutrient content, metabolic changes), soil and non-target organisms. Unfortunately, funding for environmental risk assessment research is very limited. For example, the USDA spends only 1% of the funds allocated to biotechnology research on risk assessment, about $ 1-2 million per year. Given the current level of deployment of genetically engineered plants, such resources are not enough to even uncover the "tip of the iceberg." It is a developing tragedy that so many millions of hectares have been planted without adequate biosecurity standards. Globally, such area (in acres) expanded considerably in 1998 with transgenic cotton reaching 6.3 million acres, transgenic corn: 20.8 million acres, and soybeans: 36.3 million acres, aided by market and distribution agreements in the involving corporations and distributors (eg Ciba Seeds with Growmark and Mycogen Plant Sciences with Cargill) in the absence of regulations in many developing countries. Genetic pollution, unlike oil spills, cannot be controlled by throwing a boom around it, and therefore its effects are not recoverable and can be permanent. As in the case of pesticides banned in the Nordic countries and applied in the south, there is no reason to assume that biotech corporations will bear the environmental and health costs associated with the massive use of transgenic crops in the south.
2 - As the private sector has exercised more and more dominance in promoting new biotechnologies, the public sector has had to invest an increasing share of its scarce resources in increasing biotechnological capacities in public institutions including the CGIAR and in evaluating and responding to the challenges raised by incorporating private sector technologies into existing agricultural systems. Such funds would be much better used to extend support for research based on organic farming, since all the biological problems that biotechnology proposes can be solved using agroecological approaches. The dramatic effects of rotations and intercropping on crop health and productivity, as well as the use of biological control agents in pest regulation have been repeatedly confirmed by scientific research. The problem is that research in public institutions increasingly reflects the interests of private financial institutions at the expense of public good research such as biological control, organic production systems, and general agroecological techniques. Civil society should request more research on alternatives to biotechnology by universities and other public organizations (Krimsky and Wrubel, 1996 =. There is also an urgent need to challenge the patent and intellectual property rights system intrinsic to the OCI which not only provide multinational corporations with the right to seize and patent genetic resources, but will also accelerate the rate at which market forces already encourage monoculture with genetically uniform transgenic varieties.Based on history and ecological theory, it is not difficult to predict negative impacts of such environmental simplification on the health of modern agriculture (Altieri, 1996).
3 - Although there may be some useful applications of biotechnology (eg.
drought-resistant varieties or weed-resistant crops), because these desirable traits are polygenic and difficult to engineer, these innovations would take at least 10 years to be ready for use in the field. Once available and if farmers can afford them, the contribution to strengthening the yield of such varieties would be between 20-35%; the rest of the yield increases must come from agricultural management. Much of the necessary food can be produced by small farmers located in the world using agroecological technologies (Uphoff and Altieri, 1999). In fact, new approaches to rural development and low input technologies led by farmers and NGOs around the world are already making a significant contribution to food security at the household, national and regional levels in Africa, Asia and Latin America (Pretty, 1995 ). Yield increases have been achieved by using technological approaches, based on agroecological principles that emphasize diversity, synergism, recycling and integration; and social processes that highlight community participation and empowerment (Rosset, 1999). When these characteristics are optimized, an increase in yield and production stability are achieved, as well as a series of ecological services such as the conservation of biodiversity, the rehabilitation and conservation of soil and water, improved mechanisms of natural regulation. from pests, etc. (Altieri et al, 1998). These results are a starting point for achieving food security and environmental preservation in the developing world, but their potential and future extension depend on investments, policies, institutional support, and changes in attitudes on the part of those who make policy and policy. scientific community, especially the CGIAR which must dedicate much of its efforts to help the 320 million poor farmers in marginal environments. Failure to stimulate individuals engaged in agricultural research and development, due to diversion of funds and practice to biotechnology, will miss a historic opportunity to raise agricultural productivity to socially economically viable and environmentally benign forms of improvement.
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