Genetic Modification

(aka Genetic Engineering)

A technique for modifying the genetic make-up of an organism by inserting into it a gene bearing a desired trait extracted from another organism.G13

Several applications of gene technology are being developed—e.g., in medicine—but this entry discusses only the case of its use on plants and animals with a view to increasing agricultural yields, improving pest resistance and generating other characteristics which are thought to be desirable.G14

 

The promises

1. Increased yields

In fact, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not at present designed to increase yields directly—to produce, for instance, more beans or corn cobs per plant. Instead, they are designed to work indirectly—by, for instance, improving plants’ resistance to herbicides so that stronger doses can be used to deal with persistent weeds. But the cost of this interference in the gene is high, and so the direct effect of GMOs on yields can be to reduce them. GM yield is highly variable but, for example, studies indicate that the yield of GM rapeseed and soya is around 10 percent lower than that of conventional varieties—though other much greater declines in yield have also been reported—and that where an increase has occurred it has often been due to a conventionally-bred trait in the plant, rather than a GM one.G15

Moreover, GM crops have been explicitly designed for industrial agriculture and are used (and trialled) in almost monocultural systems. With just one crop growing at a time, it is unable to take advantage of the substantially higher yields and improved weed- and pest-resistance that can be obtained from diverse polycultures, such as the root vegetable arracacha along with onions (Brazil), or wheat along with faba beans (Ethiopia). And the focus on GMOs has tended to close down the use of rotations and intermediate (aka appropriate, or agroecological) approaches, including green manures, cover crops and animal manures, and the substantial improvements in soil health and crop yields that they make available.G16

That, in turn, locks agriculture into a simplistic understanding of the meaning of “yield”, a rich man’s throwaway ethic which no resilient community could ever afford. As the agronomist Vandana Shiva summarises it, the narrow definition of yield required by industrial agriculture . . .

. . . focuses on partial yields of single crops rather than total yields of multiple crops and integrated systems; focuses on yields of one or two globally traded commodities, not on the diverse crops that people eat; focuses on quantity per acre rather than on nutrition per acre; has very low productivity judged on the basis of resource use; and undermines food security by using up resources that could have been used for sustainable food production.G17

GMO technology intensifies and deepens these properties of industrial agriculture.

2. Improved resistance to pests

The design of ways of defending crops from attack by pests such as lepidopterans (butterflies and moths) and their larvae is a main objective of agriculture. Industrial agriculture generally relies on chemicals for the protection which its crops cannot provide for themselves. Organic cultivation uses a systems approach and a living ecology—soil fertility, rotations, a large repertoire of species and varieties, timing, companion planting and local habitats for predators—to build crops’ resistance.

Genetic engineering uses the science of gene transfer. For instance, it inserts into the crop a gene for a toxin which is lethal to pests, but not to the animals and people that eat it. One toxin which is used for this originates in a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Bt was discovered in 1911 as a pathogen of flour moths in Thuringia in Germany, and its cells contain a powerful insecticidal crystal protein. It is claimed to be safe for humans and for all other higher animals, and the most widely-used strain (kurstaki) is claimed to be safe also for insects—and yet, Bt is lethal for the lepidoptera larvae (caterpillars). Newly-developed strains of Bt are effective also against the larvae of other pests, including mosquitoes, some flies and gnats, Colorado beetles and elm leaf beetles. But how come it is safe for animals but not for the pests it targets? The reason for this is clever: the protein containing the toxin itself (delta endotoxin) is insoluble in normal conditions; it is only in the highly reducing conditions (with a pH of 9.5 or more) which exist in the gut of lepidoptera larvae and other bugs that eat the crops that it becomes soluble—and when it dissolves, it releases the toxin.G18

And yet, there have to be some concerns about combining this long-established insecticide with gene technology. Although Bt does not secrete its toxin when it is eaten by us, the health effects of eating food containing the bacillus have not been tested. In the past, Bt was sprayed onto crops, but there was little of it left by the time anyone ate it, since Bt quickly breaks down in sunlight.G19 But when it is genetically-engineered into a plant, the bacterium is of course present on a different scale—integrated into every part of the plant. The effect of substantial daily doses of a powerful bacillus unfamiliar to the bodies of humans and animals is unknown.

And then there is the immunity problem—for, if the whole crop has a constant content of the toxin, the bugs can build up their immunity at leisure. Bt is claimed by the agronomists to be a miracle, but for the pests with predatory designs on the crops, it is at first a tricky problem in chemistry—then, all too soon, it is lunch. The conventional pesticides (such as the organophosphates: Food Prospects) established the pattern: as pests develop a resistance to the toxins that are designed to destroy them, the pesticides have to be made more powerful, so the pests adapt, and the technologies raise their game yet further . . .G20 GMOs, in the end, make little difference to this arms race other than to speed it up. As the environmentalist Jonathon Porritt writes,

It is astonishing that serious scientists can be so childishly enthusiastic at the prospect of swapping today’s chemical treadmill for tomorrow’s genetic treadmill, all in pursuit of the unattainable dream of pest-eradication.G21

3. Other characteristics

Other intended benefits include the following:G22

• Vitamin A-enriched GM crops have been promised for many years—but vitamin A is sustainably provided by improved crop diversity, and there are other ways of increasing the content of vitamin A in crops which do not involve genetic modification. Moreover, this GM promise (golden rice) is yet to be fulfilled.G23

• Drought-resistant GM crops have been promised, but they, too, have failed to materialise. In fact, drought-resistance is sustainably provided by varieties which have been bred for generations for that purpose and which have by some miracle survived the species-genocide committed by industrial agriculture.G24

• Salt-tolerant GM crops have been promised, and they have been produced for some crops, but the performance of non-GM varieties has been shown to be better.G25

• A new strain of soybean from Monsanto is promised that contains Omega-3 fatty acids. If soya oil from this strain were eaten regularly for year after year (and assuming it is successfully cultivated on a commercial scale, and that the benefits were not outweighed by lower yields), it could increase the “omega-3 index” in the blood from 4 percent to 5 percent, and this, according to William Harris, professor of medicine at the University of South Dakota, would be associated with a drop of about 50 percent in the risk of heart attacks. But so would more exercise and less fatty food. Its real significance is the hope that it will break down consumers’ resistance to GMOs, as Monsanto’s vice-president for consumer traits explains:

We’ve shown for years that GM crops can control pests. That’s important to consumers, but not in a personal way. Hopefully this will be personal enough to make a difference.G26

• Tomatoes genetically modified to contain more antioxidants are being tested. But the plainest and safest way of getting the antioxidants you need is to have a varied diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables—preferably organic.G27

 

The problems

1. Immunity

The predators, the viruses and the weeds learn to cope, and the example of this which is most evident and current in the case of GMOs is the problem of weeds. These are becoming increasingly resistant to herbicides, to the point where the dose of pesticides needed to kill the weeds is enough to kill the crops too. The response offered by GMOs—to insert a gene into the crop which confers resistance—is applied to such widely established weedkillers as glyphosate, aka “Round-Up” (Monsanto), glufosinate (Aventis), and imidazolinone (Cyanamid).G28

TOUGH WEEDS I
Weeds that rise to the challenge of GMOs

Horseweed, a prolific weed in the soya crops of Mississippi, quickly developed an immunity which required a six- to thirteen-fold increase in the amount of glyphosate to achieve the same level of control as normal horseweed. Velvet leaf developed a tolerance for quantities of glufosinate larger than many farmers could afford; water hemp’s response to glyphosate application was simply to delay germination until after it had been applied. In Iowa, after a few years of GM use, the 10 percent most heavily-treated fields required at least 34 times more herbicide than fields in which GM varieties were not used.G30

Higher doses > greater immunity > higher doses . . . (see “Tough Weeds I” sidebar). The limit comes when the quantity of herbicide makes the crop unfit for consumption, or when the soil becomes so degraded that it is unable to support crops, or when herbicides contaminate the drinking water, or when farmers can no longer afford to buy the quantity of herbicide that is needed.G29

It seems at first to be a problem to which there is no technical solution. But the technologists do not give up easily. Industrial agriculture is starting to turn to the development of completely new toxins: just moving genes around is no longer enough; it is necessary to start from scratch—and that means nanotechnology. This opens the way to toxins that have never previously existed, which will stimulate the rapid evolution of organisms that can deal with them.

They in turn will present challenges which will require the convergence of four technologies: genetics, robotics, information technology and nanotechnology (GRIN). GRIN has the potential to build prodigiously small robots, or “assemblers”, which can in turn build materials and nanoscale instruments capable of tasks which would be impossible on a larger scale. And, as you might suspect by now, there are some problems here, too. There could be some resistance by consumers to a daily diet of foods which contain robots, even very small ones. And there is the problem of the technology not going according to plan. GRINs will escape into the wild ecology. And, since GRINs are an information technology, it will be possible to hack into and insert or develop a virus designed to cause trouble.

2. Escapes

Once genetically modified crops have been planted on a farm, it is certain that the modification will spread into the wider environment. The pollen will spread on the wind to fertilise related varieties; the seeds will fall from trucks and be dropped by birds. Why should that matter? Well, consider some of the modifications that are now possible. Here are four examples (although only the first is yet in commercial use):

Pesticide resistance. Weeds with high resistance to herbicides—superweeds—are virtually indestructible unless removed by hand, or by the application of very powerful pesticides consisting, for instance, of some 70 percent of Agent Orange.

Terminator genes. These are genes which sterilise the plant’s reproductive system, making it necessary for the farmer to buy new supplies of seed for each season; he cannot use the seeds he has saved because they are sterile. For evident reasons, it would be advisable to be make sure that this terminator gene does not contaminate close cousins of the crop, and from there spread beyond them to other plants, and in due course to animals.

Cheater gene. Varieties of seed containing an inserted gene which prevents them from producing seeds until they have been sprayed with a particular chemical, controlled by the supplier of the seed.

Zombie gene. Although the plant with this gene is able to produce a seed, the seed will not germinate until it has been sprayed with the proprietary chemical.

Unfortunately, contamination is unavoidable. Tree pollen can travel 600 kilometres in a season, and pollen from all plants is industriously spread through the locality by birds, bees, insects, fungi, bacteria and rain. When this year’s pollen has gone as far as it can, it fertilises the plant which will be the starting point for next year’s journey. And, not far behind the pollen come the seeds, spread by the wind, by birds, by the transport of grain, and by the contamination of grain elevators and combine harvesters.G31

Then there is the matter of the wandering gene. When a gene is inserted into the DNA of an organism, it is bundled together in a “construct” with other genes needed for various functions such as the insertion itself and the activation and identification of the inserted gene. These constructs are designed to be mobile—and that mobility persists so that, when the gene has moved in, it is reasonable to suspect that it could all too easily move out again, in a process known as “horizontal transfer”.G32 It is not yet known to what extent genes can continue to function after such a transfer, but among the accessible organisms into which the wandering gene could migrate are the gut bacteria of the animals (insects, bees, cattle and humans) that eat the GM food. There is also evidence that modified genes can migrate into the microorganisms and fungi that sustain the soil and the natural environment.G33

And then there is competition between plants. GM plants do not necessarily have a competitive advantage in the natural world with non-GM plants—clearly plants with a terminator gene wouldn’t—but in some cases their advantage could be decisive. GM trees containing insecticide-producing genes, for instance, may be able to invade wild ecosystems with ease, disrupting the system as they go.G34

In large natural systems, events that could occur generally do occur, as we see in nations which have established a large GMO industry. The cultivation of GM-free crops of maize, oilseed rape and soya is, for all practical purposes, no longer possible anywhere in Canada. There is no effective way of containing genetic pollution.G35

For the industry, it is matter of consumer choice: just look at the label. As David Stark, Monsanto’s vice-president for consumer traits, tells us,

Consumers will have a choice: some may choose not to try it, but others will.G36

There is no such thing as containment with respect to GM strains, so there is no such thing as coexistence between GM strains and non-GM strains. Once released, they will spread everywhere.

3. Volunteers

When a farmer plants a new crop, he has to be confident that the crop which grew in the previous year will not try to come back in force; or if it does, he may need to have the option of using herbicide to eradicate newly-germinated plants from that crop (farmers call them “volunteers”). However, if the volunteers happen to be genetically engineered to survive applications of the normal herbicides (glyphosate, etc), he has a problem: the remaining options are to turn to intensely toxic chemicals such as 2,4-D and paraquat, or to weed the fields by hand, or to abandon his model of varied cropping altogether (see “Tough Weeds II” sidebar).G37

TOUGH WEEDS II
When last year’s crop comes back and back

Tony Huether, who farms in northern Alberta, planted three different kinds of GM oilseed rape resistant to, respectively, Monsanto’s glyphosate, Aventis’ glufosinate, and Cyanamid’s imidazolinones. The following year, he found his fields invaded by strains of oilseed rape which had acquired genes giving them resistance to all three herbicides: in order to clear his land, he had to use 2,4-D. In Manitoba, Monsanto has been reduced to sending out teams of students to weed out indestructible volunteer rape plants by hand.G38

4. Uniformity

Hybrid seeds do not breed true, so growers have to buy in first-generation hybrid seeds every time. This produces uniformity, which helps in harvesting, in processing and in the identification of particular varieties and their breeders; it also, of course, helps the sales of seed.

The danger of this uniformity showed up in 1970: corn leaf blight swept through the southern states of America, encountering no genetic resistance for thousands of miles. By opening the way for greater intensification of cropping with a reduction in the diversity of crop types, varieties and systems, GM technology reduces resilience and increases vulnerability to virus and pest attacks.

5. Surprises

The principle on which GM technology is based is the expectation or hope that, when a gene is extracted from the DNA of its own species and implanted in another, it will simply carry on doing the same job as before. But the function of DNA is not as easy as that: it is not a self-service counter at which biotechnologists can pile up their plates with whatever combination of goodies they wish. What the science tells us is that the gene’s activity depends on its interactions with the proteins and other constituents of the cell; when a gene finds itself in a new biological environment this collaboration is disrupted. The biologist Barry Commoner explains,

The living cell is a unique network of interacting components, dynamic yet sufficiently stable to survive. [It] is made fit to survive by evolution; the marvellously intricate behaviour of the nucleoprotein site of DNA synthesis is as much a product of natural selection as the bee and the buttercup.G39

INTERESTING POTATOES
. . . and the scientific community

“After a pointless experiment that involved feeding rats with potatoes modified to produce a poison,” writes The Economist, “parts of Europe developed mass hysteria.”G41

This hyperbole refers to a careful 1998 experiment by Dr. Árpád Pusztai, which compared the effects of feeding rats identical quantities of a protein (not toxic to mammals) either by (a) genetically modifying the potatoes to produce the protein, or (b) adding the protein itself to the potatoes. The rats fed GM potatoes showed significant changes, notably increases in the mucosal thickness of the stomach and the crypt length of the intestines, indicating that the GM process itself has consequences which we know nothing about. Dr. Pusztai noted, “It is therefore imperative that the effects on the gut structure and metabolism of all other GM crops developed using similar techniques and genetic vectors should be thoroughly investigated before their release into the food chain.”G42

Dr. Pusztai’s conclusions were comprehensively rubbished: “Most of the adverse comments on this Lancet paper,” he writes, “were personal, non-peer-reviewed opinions and, as such, of limited scientific value.”G43

It is only to be expected, therefore, that the organisms into which genes have been implanted usually die, and that most of the survivors are damaged. Those with obvious damage are weeded out; the less obvious failures are those that survive but have a defect which becomes apparent later, in subtle ways. Some curious effects are being observed by farmers in the form of unexplained interactions between crops and the animals that eat them (or refuse to eat them). There are the pigs that do not farrow (conceive) when they are fed on GM grain, the cows, elk and rats that refuse to eat it, the soya plants whose stems split open before the harvest, or that fall victim to pests that the farmers have never seen before, or that refuse to germinate, or that prove to be highly unstable in successive generations.G40 The studies which could show for certain whether such effects are due to GMOs or to some other cause, and which could explain why they occur, have not yet been done; all that can be said for the time being is that these effects are linked by experienced observers to the presence of GM crops, and that they are indications that the technology has unintended consequences (see “Interesting Potatoes” sidebar).

6. Oil and gas dependency

GMOs are a development of industrial agriculture. They depend entirely on cheap energy for cultivation, fertilisers, pesticides and transport, and on consumers able to pay for them. When farming turns—as it will—towards more locally-based, low-energy, closed-loop, organic systems, it will find a major barrier in its way in the form of land which was previously used by industrial agriculture and its GMOs. Indeed, when your starting point is profoundly impoverished soil, super-persistent weeds, and seeds which are able to grow true only with the help of chemicals which are no longer available, conversion could prove difficult, even impossible. The land in question could be unable to contribute fully to food production for many years.

7. The death of trust

The companies that provide GM seeds and chemicals press their case with vigour. GMOs, as we have seen, move around, so if one farm in a region uses GM products, they will quickly establish themselves on other farms. The seed and chemical companies—notably Monsanto—are then able to claim that the farmers on whose land the modified crops have turned up are using the patented seed without a licence from the company. Farmers are told that they have an obligation to report any neighbours whom they suspected of using the company’s products without a licence. The company then sees to it that any farmer who is reported in this way is drawn into a legal process involving costs and grief on a scale which may destroy the business. In this way, the seeds of suspicion and mistrust rip through the farming community.G44

A disaster is usually an accident of nature or inattention. A comprehensive catastrophe is more likely to be traceable to a big idea—a self-evident ideology, awash with good intentions. And in the case of GMOs, there is an added fusion of unctuous platitudes about feeding the world, breathless claims about the need to be scientific, and addiction to an intoxicating new technology. The technology is viewed with an awe which has something in common with the primitive forms of response developed by cargo cults, which worshipped the hats of white colonists in the hope that—with the help of the hats—they too might grow rich and powerful. Writing in the context of a related field, the medical scientist David Horrobin tells us something about how it happened:

From the 1930s to the 1960s, biomedical science bore some resemblance to an integrated whole. There were researchers working at every level of biological organisation—from subcellular biochemistry, to whole cells, to organs, to animals, to humans. This was a golden age.

. . . But starting in the 1960s, molecular biologists and genomics specialists took over biomedical science. Everything was to be understood completely at the molecular genomic level. Everything was to be reduced to the genome. . . . Now we have an almost wholly reductionist biomedical community which repeatedly makes exaggerated claims about how it is going to revolutionise medical treatment—and which repeatedly fails to achieve anything. . . . The idea that genomics is going to make a major contribution to human health in the near future is laughable. But the tragedy is that the whole-organism biologists and clinicians who might have helped to unravel the complexity have almost all gone, destroyed by the reductionists.G45

New technologies present scientists with an invitation to develop them as far as they will go. With respect to the applications of gene technology in clinical science, there is at least a case to be made for accepting it. In the context of agriculture, there is not. Food production, shortly to be devastated by energy shortages, is beginning to develop its remaining option—localisation. The promotion of an energy-intensive food technology, wholly dependent on remotely-produced industrial inputs (including seeds), and having to be backed by intensive research and development to deal with the new organisms and threats presented by the technology, is ill-advised. Simply stated: we ought to be building solutions for life after oil; GMOs are working in the opposite direction.

The cost of expertise in science can be high, producing minds which have learned to be brilliant, but have never learned to think. And now, in a further application of that mindset, we have the potential for extension of the technology in the form of GRIN, to fix the problems it causes. This is not a science which we can say with confidence is under control, for GMOs are lining up such unintended consequences that the long march of technical fixes has to continue. And so will the unintended consequences. The convergent technology that follows will be extremely powerful. And then, since this is a dynamic equilibrium, it will be necessary to take the step after that. Science cannot tell us what that step will be.G46

 

Related entries:

Galley Skills, Reductionism, Food Prospects, Lean Food.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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