Costs and benefits of Biotechnology

by Danielle Knight

Washington, May 20 -- The great debate over the risks and benefits of biologically-engineered food continues to rage among policy makers and scientists after a breakdown in talks aimed at forging an international treaty on genetically- altered plants, animals and other organisms.

"New biotechnology can be wonderful if it is properly managed," says Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute. "But it is rarely managed correctly and obviously we have to keep aware of the possible risks."

Scientists and non-governmental organisations speculate that these risks range from possible human health effects by consuming the food products to environmental impacts such as spreading genes through cross pollination to other plants.

Seed companies including Monsanto, Novartis and Pioneer Hi-Bred International say altering crops to contain the toxin that kills pests would decrease the need for chemical pesticides and therefore benefit the environment. They also tout claims that genetically altered crops will boost agricultural production in time to adequately feed the world's growing population.

"Worrying about starving future generations won't feed them," said one Monsanto ad campaign. "Food biotechnology will."

Unforeseen negative effects, however, cannot be brushed under the rug, argue environmental groups and many scientists. Research centres meanwhile continue to produce reports on the potential health and environmental risks of genetically-modified organisms.

According to a study published in Nature magazine, the pollen from genetech corn plants are affecting monarch caterpillars and butterflies.

[Another study by the British Medical Association has raised some major unanswered questions about the risks, and has said until adequately studied, if producers and exporters do not clearly separate agricultural products which do not clearly separate natural from their genetech varieties, and embedded products, imports should be banned. Also, the BMA has said, the most commonly used bio-engineering technique of implanting foreign genes through anti-biotic resistant marker genes, should be banned.]

The study published Thursday in Nature magazine, said that pollen from genetically-engineered corn plants has been found to be toxic to monarch butterflies. The corn was genetically engineered by Monsanto to contain a toxin from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, commonly known as "Bt."

In 1998, almost 20 percent of US corn was planted by Bt corn as a means to control insects and use of the seed is expected to increase in 1999.

The Nature study found that close to half the monarch caterpillars fed on milkweed leaves dusted with Bt corn pollen soon died. The survivors were about half the size of caterpillars that had been fed on leaves dusted with pollen from non- engineered corn.

"For too long genetic engineering has been presented to the public as a 'safe alternative to traditional pesticide spraying, but genetically-engineered crops are really just being used as a new means to disseminate chemical pesticides," says Rebecca Goldburg, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

"Monarchs that feed on pollen covered milkweed near Bt corn fields might as well be eating pesticide sprayed milkweeds. Either way the result is dead butterflies," she adds.

She urges the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates pesticides, to severely restrict farm acreage planted in Bt corn until a plan is developed to protect butterflies.

Earlier this year, more than 650 organisations - including Greenpeace and the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements - filed a lawsuit against EPA over its approval of Bt crops.

Bt has been used in a spray form for years by organic farmers who grow crops without using industrial pesticides. Groups warn that with Bt engineered crops the insects are constantly bombarded with the chemical and pests will become resistant to the pesticide in a matter of years.

"The emergence of resistance will mean that Bt-crop growers will likely return to synthetic insecticides and organic growers and conventional farmers alike will lose an irreplaceable, safe biological pesticide," says Jane Rissler, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The groups also warn that the EPA had not adequately studied if the Bt toxin could be carried to other plants through cross pollination, a process known as "geneflow" or "outcrossing." Reports of such cross pollination has been reported by farmers in Germany, the United States and Canada.

Monsanto argues that such risks associated with pest resistance can be minimized by planting nearby refuges of corn or other crops that have not been genetically altered.

Andersen with the International Food Policy Research Institute, however, says that no company is really enforcing that such refuges are kept. "This technology is not currently managed well," he says.

The United States and five other big agricultural exporting nations - Canada, Australia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay - also tout the advantages of the new technology and have rejected a proposed global treaty that would regulate trade in genetically modified products.

"Genetically-enhanced seed varieties are already decreasing pest infestation, increasing crop yields, and reducing the need for pesticides," says a recent letter to President Clinton sent by US Senators representing agriculture-producing states.

Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which funds agricultural research, says that biotechnology is not a panacea for world hunger but does offer certain benefits worth exploring.

"The advantage of biotechnology is that we can begin to target very precisely the kinds of crops that we want," says Conway, an expert in agriculture in Africa and Asia. "Far too much of natural plant breeding is a hit or miss affair."

He says that scientists are very close to successfully get vitamin A into a grain of rice. "In developing countries there are a hundred and twenty million children with vitamin A deficiencies," he says. "Too many children die from this deficiency."

Conway concedes that the rice will have be tested for possible health and environmental risks but "the potential benefits of vitamin A in a grain of rice are sure to be so much greater than possible risks." (IPS)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).