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How Technologies Go Bad: Nukes and Genetically-Modified Crops

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When I first heard of GM crops, they were not yet in commercial production. I saw that they might help modern agriculture become sustainable, a prospect I mentioned in print ( An Ecological History of Agriculture, Iowa State University Press, 1992).

Maybe GM crops would help get farmers off the treadmill of ever-increasing dependence on monocrops and purchased agricultural chemicals. Brazilian researchers were working on transferring to corn and other cereals the capacity of leguminous plants such as soybeans and alfalfa to draw nitrogen from the air. If successful, the technology could slash the use of nitrogen fertilizers. There was talk of improving the way crops take up phosphorus from soils, reducing the need for phosphorus fertilizers, a limited resource.

Twenty years later, research along those lines is still in its early stages. Big money has gone elsewhere.

There are potential hazards in GM technology. First a disclaimer: despite what some critics claim, GM crops are not universally toxic or avoided by wise animals. Plants are what their genes command them to be. Problems can only arise from specific transferred genes, not from the simple fact of being created in a laboratory.

Nonetheless, that danger is real. If a transferred gene is potentially harmful, safety depends on controlling the crop's use and spread, so that that no harm reaches consumers or the environment. Unwanted genes sometimes hitchhike on intended transfers. The risk that any one hitchhiker is harmful is slight, but not negligible.

Whether their transfer was intended or inadvertent, the genes may cause a GM crop to produce exotic proteins or related peptides. Some GM crops produce proteins that kill insects, a trait intentionally transferred from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). It is not known to be toxic to humans, but the effects of long-term exposure are little known. Among hitchhiking genes one concern is that an exotic protein will cause the GM crop to trigger allergies, as most allergens are proteins.

Genes can spread from GM crops into wild populations, in which case they would pose a threat to the survival of the wild populations or to animals that consume them.

The industry claims that adequate safeguards are in place. To the contrary, Bt- tainted foods have turned up on supermarket shelves. In most countries the firm that stands to profit from a GM crop does field testing and laboratory testing for toxicity. The approved safeguard against the spread of exotic genes into wild populations is planting non-GM crops in areas adjacent to GM crops. The US requires it, but there is little effective enforcement, and at best it can only slow down the spread of exotic genes.

What most concerns me about GM crops is the singular approach being taken to a complex battle between crops and pests. Most GM crops under cultivation today either produce Bt insecticidal proteins or have resistance to an herbicide used to control competing weeds. The herbicide is generally either glufosinate or glyphosate, better known under the Monsanto brand Roundup.

The more pest populations you expose, and the longer you expose them, the more opportunities they have to evolve and spread resistance. Just as insects developed resistance to DDT and o ther insecticides, weeds are developing resistance to glufosinate and glyphosate. GM proponents claim one win, that there have been only two reliable reports of insects developing resistance to Bt. Nonetheless, there is reason to believe resistance will spread. The biggest losers would be organic farmers, who have long used sprays containing Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria or proteins isolated from cultures, but in targeted applications that minimize selection for resistance and reduce the odds that residues remain in food for human consumption.

GM proponents say they will counter the development of resistance by shopping through nature for new genes to transfer. It's happening already; firms are seeking approval for GM crops resistant to the herbicide 2, 4-D, to use where the other s no longer control weeds. Theirs is a logic we have heard before, applied to antibiotics, that when resistance develops to existing products, science would come up with new ones. Read on.

And So Forth

If taking risks boosts profits, it will happen.

Antibiotics are one example. From the start biologists and medical researchers warned that overuse would lead to the spread of resistance. Commercial interests shouted down the science, promoting antibiotics for an ever-widening range of applications. Incredibly, drug and livestock interests endorsed feeding antibiotics to healthy livestock confined in crowded pens, providing ideal conditions for resistant bacteria to evolve and spread, and in the US lobbyists defeated repeated attempts to curb the practice through law. We are suffering the consequences; the CDC warns that each year at least 23,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant infections in the US alone, a number they predict will grow. The new antibiotics that were supposed to solve the problem are not keeping pace.

I wanted to make fracking exhibit C in this article, but found the details veiled in secrecy usually reserved for weapons development.

That's a problem. The public has a right to know where fracking affects groundwater supplies, what is being pumped underground, what drilling methods and drill casings, if any, can eliminate methane leaks into the atmosphere. The industry withholds information they say is proprietary. In the US, state regulating agencies that have relevant information stonewall requests for disclosure. The y want us to take their word that they are protecting public health and the environment.

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Dan Vasey is a home brewer and reformed academic, living in Australia and retired from teaching after stints in Colorado, Papua New Guinea and Iowa. An anthropologist and human ecologist, his research specialty has been population and agriculture. (more...)
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