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Every year in early June, the major players in the biotech industry meet to discuss recent developments, to partner with other companies, and to plan for the future at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) conference. This year, in San Francisco, they were joined by around 500 protestors, who wanted to shut down the conference. While the conference continued without problems, this interaction showcases the current state of biotechnology.

Most of the conference, and most of the protests, were focused on the same thing: Genetically Modified (GM) Crops.

Hailed as the solution to world hunger, a way to help the poorer farmers of the world raise yields, and a way to increase nutritional content of common foods, GM crops have driven biotech companies like Monsanto and Syngenta to pursue a wide variety of methods to genetically modify agricultural staples. Protesters and concerned consumers, on the other hand, warn against unforeseen long-term effects, destruction of natural wild-type crops, and reduction of diversification, while worrying about corporate greed. Some few protestors add the admonition against "playing God" and foresee moving on to animal and eventually human genetic manipulation. Between these two extreme viewpoints lies the truth about the utility of GM crops and the need to regulate them.

A Brief History

Taking a look at the history of genetic engineering can be a very short trip or a very long one, depending on where you start. Some trace the history of biotechnology as far as back as 8000 BCE, when humans first began domesticating plants for food. Others point to Charles Darwin and his The Origin of Species, which detailed natural selection and evolution in 1859. A little later, in 1865, and without knowing about Darwin's publication, an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel discovered the rules of inheritance of genes by experimenting with pea plants. Using Mendel's rules, breeders were able to significantly improve their success at breeding for specific traits. Examples of early genetic breeding include the Burbank potato, bred for blight resistance in the late 1800s for planting in Ireland, and Cabernet Sauvignon, the result of crossbreeding Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. However, all of these efforts took many generations of crossbreeding before the desired genetic traits arose.

Modern genetic engineering did not begin to get off the ground until the discovery of the structure and components of DNA in 1953 by James Watson and Francis Crick. DNA codes for the many genes that determine the makeup of every life-form on earth. In 1973, Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer completed the first successful genetic engineering experiment by inserting a gene from an African clawed toad into bacterial DNA. While the gene did not change the overall function of the bacteria, it was passed down from generation to generation. So, for the first time, a gene from an unrelated organism was added to another. This was a giant step forward from needing to breed closely related species from the same genetic background.

Frederick Sanger and his team were the first to fully sequence the genome of an organism, a bacterium, in 1977. A genome is the full set of chromosomes which carry the majority of an organism's DNA and hence its genes. This initial discovery led to a quick explosion in the sequencing of genomes. The human genome, thanks to many companies and research teams working together, was completely sequenced by the end of 2000. However, most of the main agricultural crops (maize [corn], soybean, rice, etc.) have not been fully sequenced.

Current Work in Genetically Modified Crops

There are two kinds of research in GM crops currently: industrial and academic. Industrial efforts are carried out by companies with the intent to sell modified seeds to farmers and have the GM foods bought for either animal or human consumption. Academic research is carried out on a smaller scale in universities, often just to show that it can be done. Most small research groups hope a company will note their efforts and want to buy the technique for full commercial exploitation. Taking a look at two academic projects shows some of the interesting prospects in GM crops.

Dr. Eduardo Blumwald, of the University of California Davis, had previously shown that mustard plants were tolerant of high salt content soil when a specific gene was overexpressed. [1] He and his team then moved that gene into a tomato plant and overexpressed it to create tomatoes that could grow in salty soil. Not only that, but Dr. Blumwald's team was able to show that their plants drew the salt out of the soil and stored it in the leaves, leaving the fruit untainted. This advancement is valuable because much of the soil that used to be available for agricultural crops has been fouled by salt and is no longer useable. Planting these tomatoes could reclaim lost fields while still creating cash crops for farmers.

The work of Dr. Colin Lazarus, of Bristol University, is a prime example of inserting material into a GM crop from an unrelated organism, or in this case organisms. Dr. Lazarus led a group who inserted three different genes, two from an alga and one from a fungus, into a relative of cabbage, called Arabidopsis, whose genome has recently been sequenced. The result: a plant that produces the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids prized in fish for their purported nutritional benefit. Many believe our oceans are being overfished, and this development could relieve some of that pressure. However, this cross-kingdom breeding is just the kind of tinkering that makes opponents of GM crops question whether or not there are any other unintentional results.

GM crops are a relatively young field of research. The first GM crops were not planted commercially until the mid-1990s. NewLeaf Potato, marketed by Monsanto, was the first such crop approved for human consumption in the United States, in 1995. This potato produces a protein toxic to the Colorado potato beetle and significantly reduces crop loss while saving on the use of pesticides. However, the sale of seeds for this crop was discontinued in 2001, after sales failed to capture more than 5% of the potato seed market.

Partially, this was due to the higher initial investment required of potato farmers, as the seeds were more expensive than non-GM seeds. The idea, however, was to save in the long run on pesticide use, but a greater part of the reason was the public's resistance to buying the NewLeaf potatoes. For a time, McDonald's did not care if the potatoes used in their fries were genetically modified or not. However, in 2000 they refused to buy GM French fries, which resulted in J.R. Simplot Co., the major supplier of French fries, instructing its farmers to no longer grow the GM potato. Monsanto, however, says the reason they stopped pushing their NewLeaf potato seeds was to concentrate on larger markets for GM seeds, including cotton, soybean, and corn.

GM soybean has the largest market share of GM crops. In 2001, the US planted 54% of its soybean acreage with Monsanto's Round-Up Ready (RR) soybean, which is tolerant to Monsanto's herbicide Round-Up. Monsanto also has RR corn, sorghum, and alfalfa. While there is much contention over whether or not there are increased yields from using the GM crops, there is a large agreement that the use of such crops saves the farmers money overall and, due to the lessened need for other pre-emergence herbicides [2], helps reduce environmental impact.

Another major company in the GM crops arena is Aventis, which created StarLink Corn. StarLink Corn produces an insecticide, called Bt, to combat infestations of European Corn Borer, a small beetle. While StarLink corn grown from these plants was not approved for human consumption, it was allowed for use in animal feeds. There was a significant increase in yields of the corn produced from the StarLink seeds.

Finally, Zeneca, now Syngenta, announced in 2000 that it would provide "golden rice" seeds, GM rice which produced an increased amount of beta-carotene, for free to poorer farmers in third world countries. Golden rice promised to reduce the incidence of blindness and other diseases, as many of the people in third world countries were suffering from malnourishment.

Problems in Paradise

But not all is roses in the GM crops industry. The NewLeaf potatoes being shelved is merely one example. Aventis discontinued the sale of StarLink corn in 2000, and Monsanto recently shelved its exploration into RR Wheat. Golden rice is hardly grown in less-developed countries. A case by case look at these examples provides the answers.

StarLink corn was shelved as a result of the genetic material being found in kernels and plants not from Aventis nor labeled as GM crops, including corn supplies slated for human consumption. It was shown this proliferation was the result of the GM corn crossbreeding with nearby, and farther away, corn.

For Monsanto, the decision to discontinue research into RR wheat was the result of market forces. Japan, a major importer of US wheat, had decided that if the wheat strains were brought to market they would not buy GM wheat. They saw very little gain for consumers in becoming involved in the GM debate. Opponents of GM crops cited this as a sweeping victory against GM crops in general and giant Monsanto in specific.

Golden rice has not been the cure-all that it was touted to be, partially because just providing an increase in beta-carotene was not enough to combat the targeted malnutrition. In order for their bodies to use the beta-carotene, consumers also needed leafy, dark greens. Furthermore, sequencing of the rice genome has begun, and has shown that rice produces beta-carotene naturally. It would be easier, and cheaper for companies, to jump-start that natural mechanism than to insert genes into the rice. Finally, a Cornell researcher, Mark Chong, found that farmers, specifically in the Philippines, were not aware that golden rice was available for them to grow. Nor were many aware of what GM crops were, even though anti-GM organizations in the area stated that farmers were against using GM crops.

Beyond these specific examples of the failures of GM crops, there are other, more general, concerns.

One hot topic is the possibility of increased resistance among insect populations targeted by pesticide-producing crops. Currently, GM crops are planted with "refuge" plants, which are normal, non-GM crops of the same variety. The theory is that having the refuge plants will provide enough of the "wild" type to prevent resistance from building against the toxins produced by the GM crop. There are regulations as to how deep the refuge plants have to be and the minimum distance between GM crops and the refuge plants, and further regulation as to the distance to the next field.

However, an Arizona-Texas team found that refuge plants are being contaminated with the Bt gene—the gene producing the insecticide in StarLink corn—up to tens of meters away, which is further than the current recommended refuge distance. Those plants will have second generations potentially producing the toxin. If that happens, there is no guarantee resistant insects will breed with non-resistant mates. If resistant insects mate, a spike in the population resistant to the Bt could happen, resulting in resistance to the general insecticide, which is also used on the non-GM crops.

Much of the opposition to GM crops comes from lack of understanding of the safety of these plants. Would it be okay to eat a food that produces an insect toxin? Is there anything else that crop is producing? What are the long-term effects on the environment and on human health? And what happens when—not if—the GM plant is cross-pollinated to a non-GM plant?

Due to the relative youth of the field, long-term studies have not been conducted on human health and safety. Results on the short-term effects differ. Of the 10 studies in peer-reviewed journals, the reported results range widely. The five studies funded by the companies producing the seeds show no ill effects of consumption. However, four other independent studies have shown negative effects that are not explained at the present date. There are many studies and tests that have been conducted and published, but not in peer-reviewed journals, which brings into question their validity and reproducibility. This dearth of adequate reports on the long-term health effects of the GM materials being sold and consumed is troubling to many, even supporters of the technology. Such limited studies would not be allowed for pharmaceuticals, for instance, and many people feel that similar stringent requirements should be applied to GM crops.

An additional problem is the ownership of the intellectual property of the seeds. Farmers have to buy the seeds from the manufacturers. Most companies include a stipulation that farmers are only allowed to save seeds from the grown crop for next year's planting. However, some farmers have been saving the seeds and selling them on the black market, which caused Monsanto to remove GM soybean sales to Argentina.

Farmers in the US and Canada have been sued because Monsanto claims to have found GM crops in their fields, without the farmers declaring the use of the RR crops. Some, like Canadian farmer Larry Hoffman, are fighting back and suing Monsanto for genetic contamination. Larry Hoffman, a dedicated organic farmer, can no longer grow organic canola due to cross-contamination.

At heart of this issue are the intellectual property laws surrounding cross-pollination of non-GM crops. Do companies like Monsanto retain the rights to sue farmers if the winds carry the seeds or do farmers have the right to use those contaminated seeds without paying the license fee? Organic farmers like Larry Hoffman do not want such contamination in their crops, and Monsanto wants to charge a technology fee wherever their patented genetic material is found. Most of the suits are pending, with no clear victor in sight.

Finally, there is the fear of monodiversity within the crops. Wild-type crops are not exactly alike in their genetic structure. There are some that are naturally more or less resistant to pests or diseases. Others are natural producers of larger kernels. However, GM seeds are more or less identical. This could be a problem if most of one of the world's crops were based on a GM seed that was susceptible to a previously unknown disease or pest. This has happened in the past, through selective crossbreeding, as in the case of the great potato blight in Ireland from 1846 to 1850.

A Look to the Future

The public and the governments of the world continue to debate and discuss the merits and dangers of GM crops. Several Asian countries bemoan the lack of attention paid to genetically modifying their staple crops such as rice, cowpea, and millet. The European Commission just gave a go-ahead to Swiss-based company Sygenta to allow Bt-11, a reintroduction of similar technology to the Aventis StarLink Bt corn, to be consumed by humans, when properly labeled.

Many more GM crops are on the horizon, including those that would have healthful characteristics including increased protein content and increased omega fatty acid content. Other interesting crops on the horizon are bananas with an increased shelf life, amylase corn designed to reduce the cost of ethanol production, and crops that produce "bioactive" compounds (drugs).

But without more information as to the safety of these potential foods and the long-term effects of consumption, comparison against normal foods, and regulations to prevent inadvertent crossbreeding, these crops may find a cold reception.


Footnotes:

[1] An overexpressed gene produces more of the related protein than in normal plants and can help researchers identify the exact response of a given gene.

[2] RoundUp is a post-emergence herbicide that does not leave a residual presence in the soil. There are other pre-emergence herbicides that do leave a residual presence in the soil which can be leeched into nearby water sources.



Dawn Burnell is a chemist, reader, writer, and wife. She believes in exploring all of her nonfiction and fiction writing avenues, having been published in Strange Horizons before for her nonfiction. Look for her fiction soon! (As soon as she sells it . . .) Read more by Dawn in our archives.
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