Genetic Engineering in Agriculture
Whose Risks? Whose Gains?

by Nicholas Hildyard

first published 2 November 1998


This summary of the ecological risks of genetic engineering in agriculture and suggestions for resisting its introduction was a presentation to the North Dorset branch of the Wessex Organic Movement.



To read today's newspapers or to listen the television, it would seem that "Genes R Us". Being gay is now ascribed to a "gay" gene -- even though the gene has yet to be discovered (the scientists who claimed to have found the gene subsequently said they had got it wrong). Manic depression, schizophrenia, being a "bad" mother, world hunger, homelessness -- all are now all increasingly viewed as "genetic problems". The impression given is that genes control everything.

And along with this new super simple "explanation" of the explanation-defying richness of human behaviour, there comes a new technology aimed at putting everything "right": genetic engineering. Whether in medicine, in society or in agriculture, biotechnology -- the deliberate manipulation of human, plant and animal genes -- is increasingly touted as the solution to humanity's problems. The promise, in the words of the Monsanto ad, is of "Food. Health. Hope."

Nor is the Genetic Age some far off futuristic vision. It is already on us. Last summer, on of the largest field trials of genetically-engineered crops in Britain took place just a few miles from here. Other trials have taken place previously -- and more are in the offing.

There is deep public concern about such trials - and about the introduction of genetically-modified foods. Opinion polls show that 70 per cent of the public oppose the technology. What I would like to do this evening is share with you some of these concerns that have been raised by environment groups, development groups, human rights groups, scientists, academics and the man and woman in the street. I am going to concentrate on genetic engineering in agriculture - but I would argue that many of the same concerns also apply to the use of genetic engineering in medicine and in society.

It is a big subject - so I am afraid it is going to be a bit of a canter through the issues. I hope that you will forgive me if I don't give chapter and verse for each of the points raised. Hopefully, the details -- and the nuances -- can come out in the discussions. I am going to concentrate on genetic engineering in agriculture - but I would argue that many of the same concerns also apply to the use of genetic engineering in medicine and in society.

My Own Position

Before going further, I think it only right that I should position myself in the debate. I am in favour of a moratorium on further deliberate releases of genetically-modified organisms. I don't think that genetic engineering offers hope for the future. On the contrary, I think it is leading in a direction that will cause immense social and ecological suffering.

I take that view not out of technophobia or because of fear that GMOs -- that's genetically modified organisms -- sorry for the jargon -- are somehow "unnatural" but out of concern over the environmental risks and human rights implications of genetic engineering. For me, the issue is primarily one of democracy, power, social justice and environmental sustainability. It is about who decides how far humans should intervene in nature, for whose benefit and in what ways.

In fact, I think the "natural/unnatural" debate is a little simplistic and potentially misleading. Just because something is "natural" doesn't mean that it is safe or desirable -- salmonella is a case in point.

And many of the foods we take for granted wouldn't take the form they do were it not for the intervention of humans.

But genetic engineering introduces a range of new ecological risks that are orders of magnitude greater than those associated with conventional plant breeding -- risks that arise in large part from the largely unknown but potentially devastating consequences of crossing species barriers by engineering self--reproducing organisms from plants and animals that would not normally interbreed -- for example by inserting fish genes into vegetables. These are risks that even insurance companies are unwilling to underwrite. If ever there was a time to take the precautionary principle seriously, this is it.

Ecological risks aside, genetic engineering also carries huge social risks - risks that arise from the nature of the human intervention that genetic engineering requires. You can't do genetic engineering in your back garden. It isn't the same as conventional breeding. It requires laboratories, stringent safety precautions, special waste drums for unused material, and the intervention of an elite group of humans - the laboratory scientist - and the backing of an elite group of economic actors - those with large sums of money.

And because it needs all of these things, it has significant social implications:

Who will control the technology?

Who will bear the risks?

Who decides what risks are acceptable?

Whose environment is to be reengineered for whose benefit?

A Crude and Rudimentary Technology

Many of you may share these concerns. Some of you may not. Either way, you may have written to our local MP, in which case you will have received this fact sheet from the government's Joint Food Safety and Standards Group.

The fact sheet is supposed to reassure. In fact, it does nothing of the sort, not least because many of its facts are highly controversial and disputed.

For example, it states: "Conventional plant breeding procedures are very time consuming and unpredictable. Now that the function of individual genes is understood, it is possible to insert specific genes into a plant to create a new variety."

There are two untruths here. First that "the function of individual genes is understood." It isn't. Scientists really haven't got a clue how most genes work - or why. What is known is that very few genes carry single traits. Most carry multiple instructions which vary according to their context and place on strands of DNA.

The second is that genetic engineering is a precise science. It isn't. It is a very hit and miss affair. When genes are taken from one species and put into another, the scientists can't place them exactly on the genome. They just drop them in, or rather they blast them in using something rather like a gun, and they land at random. Some break, some mutate, some shatter in the process. And the scientists have no idea where the genes will end up -- and at the moment they can't get around this.

Let me try and illustrate the problems this gives rise to.

One way of understanding genes is to think of them as the letters of the alphabet. They carry instructions, but the meaning of those instructions depends on how they are placed. Think of those magnets you get to stick of fridge doors. When placed at random, they convey nothing. It is only when they are arranged into words that they have meaning.

Very few words however have much meaning in and of themselves. There are some, like "Stop", just as there are some genes that carry specific, limited instructions (for instance to determine the colour of one's eyes). But most words only really mean anything when they are strung together as sentences. Context is everything.

Take this string of words. Bent. Knock. Till. And. Men. But.

Meaningless. But when taken in context, we know them as the opening lines of one of the world's most famous anti-war poems: Dulce et Decorum est.

And their meaning is more than the sun of the words alone. Their arrangement as a poem gives them even greater power and significance, allowing them to impart a whole range of emotions as well as mere descriptions.

Now, say you are a genetic engineer who wants to cheer this poem up a bit, by inserting a bit of good British charm. Obviously, you aren't going to find much of this in the "species" known as "War poems", so you look elsewhere - and take a few lines (read genes) from, say, John Betjeman's Night Train.

Here we go. Let's splice out the line: "The shop at the corner and the girl next door." That sounds cheery enough.

Now let's blast it into the Owen poem. And what do we find. Well sentences that no longer make sense - read genetic instructions that no longer make sense. Words that out of the frame - read genes that are there but inactive -- but could well become active in the future. And of course, a poem, whose meaning is dramatically changed.

And it is precisely these problems that make genetic engineering so fraught with danger. You think you've engineered one thing - and suddenly, perhaps two or three generations down the line, by which time it is too late to recall the genes, you find you've engineered something completely other.

In one recent experiment, for example, scientists engineered petunia plants so that, as they thought, the gene responsible for the colour of the plant was permanently switched on. When they came to grow the plants out, however, they found that in 50 per cent of cases, the flowers were white: that is to say, the gene has not been switched on but had been switched off.

In another experiment, scientists splice in a gene from maize intended to make all the petunias red. But they found that other things happened too. The genetically-engineered plants had more leaves and shoots. They had a higher resistance to fungi. And they had lowered fertility.

My point is that the science, far from being precise, is unpredictable. You don't know what you are going to get. You could find for example that waste products from a genetically-engineered plants were far more toxic than you had thought. Or that the roots affect soil organisms in way that were unforeseen.

The story of the Killer Bee provides a cautionary tale -- from conventional breeding. Scientists had a bee that produced a great deal of honey but had a vicious sting. So they crossed it with a bee that produced no honey but had no sting. They hoped to get a bee that produced a lot of honey but without a sting. What they got was a bee that produced no honey and whose sting was deadly. This killer bee then escaped and proceeded to wipe out its more docile fellow bees from South America to North America, killing some humans en route.

Unpredictability is just one concern. Others relate to the risks that genetically engineered plants will cross out to other plants, that they will lead to the evolution of superbugs and superpests and that they will reduce biodiversity.

Let's look at these in turn.

Crossing Out

One major concern is that cross-pollination between genetically-engineered crops and non-engineered varieties or wild relatives could create a range of problems. Many of the new generation of genetically engineered crops, for example, have been engineered to be resistant to herbicides - other than those produced by the company selling the seeds. The transfer of herbicide resistance to other plants could lead to the emergence of new species of weeds which would be difficult to eradicate and which could disrupt ecosystems by displacing existing flora. Such hybridisations have already been demonstrated in field experiments with wild radish, wild turnip, hoary mustard and mustard greens. In the case of genetically-engineered potatoes, hybridisation readily occurred with non-engineered varieties over distances up to one kilometre.

The resulting hybrids will not necessarily die out quickly. Recent studies in Denmark reveal that the transgene for herbicide resistance in genetically-engineered oilseed rape not only spread easily to weeds but produced fertile, weed-like plants after just two generations of hybridization and backcrossing.

In fact, the sheer numbers of genetically-engineered organisms now being released into the environment through field trials and commercial growing make it almost inevitable that at least some of the novel genes -- particularly those that confer survival advantages to plants such as herbicide tolerance and pest resistance --will cross out, persist, spread out of control and affect ecosystems in unpredictable ways.

Acknowledging these concerns, the industry proposes to insert genes that will prevent crops the offspring of genetically-engineered crops from germinating - the so-called Terminator technology. When the genetically-engineered plants cross-pollinated with wild relatives, the resulting plants would be unable to survive, argue the technology's proponents. But the terminator technology could spread to neighbouring crops, with potentially calamitous effects on food production. Farmers growing crops from farm-saved seeds in fields adjacent to genetically-engineered crops with the Terminator gene would not know from one harvest to the next whether or not their crop will germinate. For many, the result could be bankruptcy.

And it is not just to plants that transgenes could be transferred. A recent study has shown that they can be transferred to soil bacteria as well, which could then be picked up by insects, birds and animals, and carried into water supplies. Who knows what the results will be.

Superweeds and Superbugs

There are also fears that Genetically-engineered crops will stimulate the evolution of "superweeds" and "superbugs" which will necessitate higher doses of chemicals and make food supplies more vulnerable to pest damage.

A common application of genetic engineering in agriculture is the development of crops which produce their own insecticide. The most common way of achieving this has been to splice into a plant a gene derived from a soil bacterium, known as Bt. This organism produces a protoxin which, when eaten by some insects and their larvae, destroys their digestive tracts and kills them.

Continuous production of the Bt toxin by genetically-engineered plants is likely to create a strong selection pressure on insects to develop resistance. The evolution of "superbugs" which are resistant to the toxin or which switch to eating other plants is thus highly likely. Once this occurs, farmers will have to return to using chemical insecticides -- until the pests evolve resistance to these too.

Some scientists, meanwhile, are seeking to engineer plants to be resistant to fungi, bacteria and viruses. Field trials involving tomatoes, potatoes, squash, cucumber and cantaloupe have already taken place. Evidence is accumulating that engineering viral resistance in plants could lead to the development of new viruses, which could give rise to potentially more serious diseases.

Reducing Biodiversity

A further concern is that genetic engineering in agriculture will hasten the further erosion of food genetic diversity, no matter how many "new" types of crop are created.

As a matter of business principle, corporate plant breeders and seed companies (in tandem with food processors and retailers) are set on creating uniform national (and now international) markets for just a few standardized seeds and chemicals. Seed varieties suitable only for a specific locality are neither promoted nor developed. In Indonesia, 1,500 local varieties have become extinct in the last 15 years.

The inevitable result is that the genetic base of agriculture will continue to be narrowed down to only a few types of crop. This will erode long-term security of agricultural yields and therefore the very basis of human nutrition.

Increasing Chemical Use

"Ah yes", say the proponents of genetically-engineered crops, "sure there are these problems, but the benefits far outweigh the risk." Firstly genetically-engineered crops will enable farmers to reduce the use of chemicals on the land. And secondly, without genetic engineering, future generations are likely to starve: it is the only way of increasing food supply.

Both arguments are nonsense. It is rubbish, for example, that chemical use will be reduced. Some individual farmers may well be able to reduce (but not eliminate) their use of herbicide by growing, for example, Roundup Ready seeds. But if more farmers use these seeds, particularly those who do not currently use Roundup or other weedkillers, more herbicide is likely to be applied overall.

Moreover, just as bacteria which cause illnesses in humans have gradually developed resistance to antibiotics, so too weeds in or near fields of genetically-engineered crops will become resistant to the herbicide. Such "superweeds" will require higher and higher doses of herbicide, leaving larger and larger amounts of chemical residue behind on crops.

Moreover, the herbicide sprayed on fields growing the genetically-engineered crops may well be more toxic than the chemicals applied to fields of non-engineered seeds. Oilseed rape, for instance, has been engineered by AgrEvo and Plant Genetic Systems to tolerate the herbicide, glufosinate. Glufosinate is a broad spectrum herbicide and thus affects more plants than other more specific weedkillers.

Most damning of all, the industry itself does not appear to expect a decrease in herbicide use. On the contrary, it is expanding the number of plants producing herbicides. As GeneWatch points out that:

"Any reduced usage claim seems even less convincing when AgrEvo have increased production facilities for glufosinate in the US and Germany and expect sales to increase by $560 million in the next five to seven years. Indeed, the introduction of glufosinate resistant crops to increase sales of its herbicide products is considered to be AgrEvo's underlying aim in entering the GE market in the first place."

Feeding the World?

The claim that genetic engineering is needed to feed the world is equally riddled with falsehoods.

In fact, far from staving off world starvation, genetic engineering it looks set to increase hunger and malnutrition

Let me explain why.

  • 1. It is a technical fix that obscures the political causes of hunger

    There is more than enough food in the world. And there are many ways to increase output without genetic engineering.

    If people starve, it is because they do not have land to grow food for themselves or money to buy it.

    Genetic engineering will do nothing to address these underlying causes of hunger -- and much to exacerbate them. Not surprisingly, the Feed The World campaign being undertaken by genetic engineering companies is viewed with anger by many in the Third World.

    This is what Tewolde Egziabher, a member of the government of Ethiopia, has to say on the subject: "There are still hungry people in Ethiopia but they are hungry because they have no money, no longer because there is no food to buy. We strongly resent the abuse of our poverty to sway the interests of the European public."

  • 2. The companies are interested in money not philanthropy

    The research programmes of the companies belie the claim that they are motivated by a concern for the hungry. Their concern is to make money. Few of the foods produced so far are likely to benefit poorer people in the Third World

    • Feed not Food

      For example, a prime focus of genetic research is on crops intended for animals not people.

      This will be of little use to a country like India, where the bulk of the population is vegetarian.

      And even in those countries where meat is generally consumed, it is typically consumed by the better off.

      Moreover, and this is key, the expansion of livestock in Third World countries has generally been at the expense of poorer people. Egypt is a case in point. Encouraged by the US government's Agency for International Development (USAID) and other development agencies, the Egyptian government has invested heavily in livestock. Egypt now grows more food for animals than for humans -- almost 40 per cent of the total agricultural land is under animal fodder crops. This is hardly a formula for feeding the world

    • Engineering for Retail Convenience

      Other genetically engineered crops are similarly aimed primarily at making money rather than feeding the poor. Much genetic engineering research, for example, has been directed at meeting the commercial needs of food processors rather than the nutritional needs of poorer consumers. The European Union is funding research into engineering the leaves of cauliflowers to stay green for longer so that the vegetables appear fresher -- even though people don't usually eat the leaves.

      Engineering for longer shelf life is a major goal, chiefly to enable the long distance transport of processed foods. Yet study after study shows that a major cause of food poverty in the West is rooted in poorer people lacking access to nutritionally superior fresh food.

      The truth is that the interests of all consumers would be better served not by promoting genetically-engineered food but by encouraging food to be grown and consumed as close as possible to the point of production, giving consumers and growers, not transnationals, greater control over their markets.

    • Substituting Tropical Cash Crops

      A third area of research is likely to be equally damaging to the food security of the poor. Several applications of biotechnology are aimed at growing tropical cash crops in the North, or at producing in laboratories the substances currently derived from such crops. If these applications work, they could have a severe impact on the national incomes of many Southern countries and on the incomes and employment opportunities for many individuals and communities in those countries.

      Approximately 70,000 vanilla farmers in Madagascar, for instance, face ruin because the market for vanilla is being undermined by the growing of vanilla under tissue culture in biotech labs. Vanilla accounts for 10 per cent of Madagascar's export earnings.

      Although some of these vanilla producers will be able to switch to growing other crops, many will not -- either because they lack the money to buy the equipment needed to diversify or because they are unable to service the loans they have incurred in growing the cash crops and must therefore forfeit their land. Still others -- landless labourers on commercial farms, for example -- are likely to find themselves without work. With their income from export earnings slashed, few Southern countries will be in a position to compensate such workers and farmers. They will be left to fend for themselves: many are likely to become malnourished for lack of cash to buy food.

Bankrupting poorer farmers

A further threat posed by genetically-engineered crops to the livelihoods of small farmers, not only in the South but also in the North, comes from attempts by the industry to deny farmers' their ancient right to save and exchange seeds from previous harvests and to force them to buy their seeds every year at a price determined by seed companies.

1.5 billion resource poor farmers rely on saving seeds. If genetic engineering companies have their way, however, they will in future have to buy in seeds -- and pay royalties. Farmers using Monsanto's seeds for example have to sign a contract stating that they will not save any transgenic seed for the next year's planting. In the United States, the company is using private detectives to identify farmers who had violated the contract so that it can sue them. Before the genetically-engineered soybean seeds were introduced, an estimated 20-30 per cent of all soybean fields in the US Midwest are typically planted with saved seed.

Monsanto's ultimate threat comes from the "terminator technology". If it works, would make it almost impossible for farmers to grow food from seeds they have saved.

For farmers who have large amounts of well-endowed land, rises in seed costs may not be problematic. Such farmers may well be able to use their buying power to obtain substantial discounts. Roundup Ready seeds may also bring larger farmers substantial "herbicide-driven" economies of scale, either by reducing the number of times a crop requires spraying to get rid of weeds or by reducing labour costs.

For smaller farmers, however, the increased costs of seeds could prove ruinous. Without land on which to grow food, many will face destitution and hunger -- hardly a policy for "feeding the world".

Promoting inefficient farming

Proponents of genetic engineering in agriculture may argue that if small farmers go to the wall, that's just tough. It is a regrettable but necessary price of greater efficiency in agriculture.

Wrong. In terms of output per unit of labour, small farms do tend to be less "efficient" than large modernised ones. But in terms of gross output per unit of land, smaller farms often outdo larger ones.

Reports from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization repeatedly show that small farms in the Third World are more productive than large holdings. In Thailand, holdings under one hectare have been found to be almost twice as productive as holdings over 40 hectares.

Arguments for replacing "inefficient" small producers with "efficient" large producers also fail to take account of the key role that small farms (particularly household gardens) play in efficiently supplying informal household networks with food, particularly in rural areas of the South -- food which never reaches the market and thus tends to be omitted from official figures of production. To displace such networks would almost certainly result in a dramatic fall in the amount of unmarketed food available to poorer people. Hunger can only increase.

Increasing destitution

If vulnerable smallholder producers are displaced as a result of growing genetically-engineered crops, many would probably find themselves in a saturated labour market.

If they could get jobs, they would no doubt be low-paid, insecure ones in the cities or on larger farms where workers are generally paid piece rates. Real wages for labourers have been rapidly declining in many Third World countries.

Those working as labourers in export crop plantations have been particularly vulnerable to exploitative wages and working conditions.

The overall result of displacing "inefficient" small farmers is thus likely to be increased famine and malnutrition -- not a reduction in hunger as the proponents of genetic engineering promise.

Alternative routes

It needn't be like this. There are many other routes to feeding the world that do not carry the social and environmental risks of genetic engineering.

Farmers all over the world have developed, and continue to develop, highly-sophisticated multiple-cropping systems that are often higher than those from monocultures. Indeed the really cutting edge work in agriculture is not genetic engineering but the research being undertaken worldwide on regenerative techniques, low inputs techniques and organic techniques.

A question of democracy

But genetic engineering companies and their allies are moving rapidly to deny farmers the opportunity of planting non-engineered crops.

Just ten multinationals (including Monsanto) have now cornered nearly 40 per cent of the world seed market. Monsanto itself estimates that half the US grain industry is now using its genetically-engineered seed; it expects that by the year 2000, all soybeans planted in the United States will be of its Roundup Ready variety.

With such near monopoly control, companies will be in a position to force genetically engineered crops onto consumers and farmers alike. Within a few years, for example, the only soybeans Monsanto is likely to offer in Japan will be genetically-engineered ones.

The control that companies like Monsanto are able to exert over agricultural markets also provides them with other means of forcing farmers to adopt genetically engineered crops. If the past is anything to go by, farmers are likely to find that:

  • Government agencies, banks and other credit agencies make the adoption of genetically-engineered crops a condition of obtaining credit. This practice was widely encouraged during the Green Revolution.
  • Seed companies may well take conventional varieties off the market -- a grave threat to organic farmers -- or use existing seed and patent legislation to restrict farmers growing such varieties.
  • Companies will channel agricultural research towards biotechnology through the judicious use of grants to university and agricultural colleges. Research into other forms of agriculture -- such as intercropping and crop rotation -- that are far more effective in alleviating the problem of pests will be starved of money.
  • Finally, companies will hope to create "peer pressure" on farmers to adopt the new crops through public relations campaigns, some of them paid for with public money. In Europe, for example, Hoechst and other major genetic engineering companies have contributed £1 million each to the European Commission's FACTT project which aims to familiarise "farmers, extension organisations, the processing industry, regulatory organisations, consumer groups and public interest groups" with crops incorporating transgenic technologies such that they come to accept them.

This is undemocratic and deeply offensive. Indeed at the heart of the debate over genetic engineering is a debate over WHO controls decision-making in society. Big companies or citizens?

We know from leaked documents where companies like Monsanto stand. They shun the idea that people should have control over their lives and livelihoods. Their strategy is to influence not Joe Public but the "socio-economic elite" -- those presumed to be in a position to force genetic engineering down our collective throat.

Joining together for change

And this is perhaps their greatest weakness. Ultimately no elite can defy the people. And the opposition of ordinary people is already making a difference.

Austria and Luxembourg have banned the import of Bt maize.

France recently brought in a two-year ban on commercial growing of the herbicide-resistant oilseed rape produced by AgroEvo and Plant Genetic Systems.

In Britain, major retailers have banned products made with genetic engineering in their foods, while others are actively seeking sources of soya and maize not produce via genetic engineering.

Many local governments, meanwhile, have banned genetically engineered food from meals provided in schools.

But they have not done so without public pressure. And my plea today would be for those of you who are concerned about the rapid pace of genetic engineering to add your weight to the campaign against GE foods and for policy changes that would:

  • Restrict the monopoly powers enjoyed by companies;
  • Outlaw the patenting of living organisms:
  • Enshrine the rights of farmers to save seeds freely;
  • Promote genuinely sustainable forms of agriculture;
  • Address the issues of landlessness and job insecurity, particularly in the Third World;
  • Ensure a fairer deal for farmers so that they do not feel pressured financially into adopting GE crops; and, last but not least,
  • Promote equity -- for me this is key. So long as one person has the power to deny food to another, it doesn't matter how much food is produced or how few people there are in the world, starvation will continue to be a fact of every day life.

You don't have to be an eco-warrior to make a difference. Writing to your MP makes a difference. Discussing the issue with your friends makes a difference. Refusing to buy GE foods makes a difference. Buying organic makes a difference.

You have the powers to affect the outcome of this debate. I urge you to use it.