The Greenback Revolution
17 June 2001
The biotechnology industry runs television ads in the United States that, among other things, trumpet a "golden rice" that will provide Vitamin A to the Third World. Recently, however, the industry's claims about golden rice have come under scrutiny. Not only are the claims about Vitamin A overstated, but the patent system has made work on the rice genome a nightmare. The golden rice fiasco is just one of several fiascos for the biotechnology industry in which the quest for profit has obstructed the quest for better food. Genetic engineering could be the best thing for agriculture since Mendel started breeding pea plants, but greed could keep this from happening.
One of the first widespread genetically modified (GM) foods was Bt corn, named for the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, a parasite for many insects. Organic farmers have used Bt against specific pests for years. Bt crops have the genes for specific proteins--aimed at specific insects--that the Bt bacteria would normally produce. There are several types of Bt corn: one from Aventis, called StarLink, expresses protein Cry9C. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved StarLink for use in animal feed, but not in human corn, because of possible allergic reaction in humnas to the Cry9C protein. Among the EPA's requirements were 660-foot buffer zones between StarLink corn and other corn; prohibition against human consumption of the StarLink or buffer zone corn; and a prohibition of export of StarLink corn.
As Consumers Union pointed out in a brief to the EPA, Aventis failed to abide by the EPA's requirements. StarLink famously got into the food chain. Testers first found it in taco shells, then in all sorts of other foods. Bt corn, sometimes even StarLink corn, was in food supposedly made with organic food that was not supposed to be genetically modified at all. Fortunately, the cost in terms of health was minimal. Very few cases of actual Cry9C allergies occurred.
But the StarLink episode shows the deficiencies of GM corn. The buffer zones established by the EPA had three problems. First, the 660-foot requirement was inadequate to prevent cross-pollination of other corn fields. (Genes in corn tend to migrate during the pollination process.) The contamination of organic crops with Bt corn genes is due in large part to pollination over much longer distances than 660 feet. Second, many farmers ignored the buffer zones altogether. Third, the buffer zones might be inadequate to prevent pests like the European corn borer from becoming Bt resistant over time. The buffer zones are intended in part to provide a safe area for larvae of pests. Thus, any resistant larvae from the Bt field would be a small subset of the surviving larvae. If the buffer zine were too small, then, over time, the surviving larvae might be immune to the Bt proteins.
A limited approval of Bt corn would have allowed the EPA to check if its buffer zones were adequate, to gauge the likelihood of contamination of organic corn, and to confirm that farmers and grain handlers would abide by its requirements. Instead, the biotech industry requested, and EPA allowed, national rollouts of dozens of varieties of Bt corn. The StarLink episode was an accident waiting to happen.
Soybeans have become the most popular GM crop in the United States. The category leader is Roundup Ready soybeans from Monsanto: these soybeans are resistant to applications of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's popular herbicide, Roundup. The idea behind Roundup Ready soybeans is that farmers can plant them without having to do anything to weeds other than apply Roundup, which is generally less nasty than other weedkillers. Regular soybeans, of course, are not immune to Roundup, so Monsanto plans to revolutionize how soybeans are grown. Not coincidentally, about 40% of Monsanto's annual sales come from the sale of Roundup and other glyphosate products.
Soybeans do not share genes with one another during pollination the way that corn does. Nonetheless, there are at least two biological problems with Roundup Ready soybeans. First, as noted in an article in Agronomy Journal in May 2001, researchers at the University of Nebraska have confirmed that Roundup Ready soybeans yield about 5% less by area than other soybeans. Second, some farmers have found that persistent application of Roundup on fields encourages resistance to glyphosate herbicides. While this is not a side effect of the GM soybeans, it is a side effect of the herbicide that justified the GM soybeans. Enough Roundup resistance will make Roundup Ready soybeans obsolete. Finally, it is not clear that applying Roundup to a field is better for that field than aggressive mechanical tilling of weeds. Farms are major source of pollution of groundwater and rivers: should federal agricultural policy encourage use of even more herbicides?
In addition to the biological problems with Bt corn and Roundup Ready soybeans, an additional political problem is hitting American farmers in their pocketbooks. Resistance to GM foods in Europe and Japan is stiff, partly through fear of the genetic process, partly through opposition to American multinationals, partly through desire for organic food. Europe and Japan do not want American corn or soybeans if those crops are GM crops. American farmers, who pay extra for the GM seeds, have sometimes found that they cannot export their crops.
The golden rice ads try to portray genetic engineering of foods the industry in the best possible light. Golden rice contains daffoldil genes that make it produce beta-carotene, which humans convert to vitamin A. But critics, including some of the funders of the golden rice project, are beginning to complain that golden rice provides only a small amount of vitamin A, about 10% of the recommended daily allowance per 12-ounce bowl. As Michael Pollen pointed out in the New York Times Magazine, there is a highly nutritious rice available around the world: brown rice, that is, rice without the bran and germ removed.
Furthermore, as a recent article in the New York Times noted, 31 different companies or universities held patents on some portion of the production of golden rice. Simply getting clearance from the patent holders to start experimental research took a full year. Other researchers who have sought to improve rice production by making rice resistant to viruses have found their paths blocked by patent holders for up to three years.
As of 1998, five companies: Pharmacia (which owns Monsanto), Dupont, Syngenta, Dow Chemical, and Aventis, held 975 separate patents on plants. Furthermore, universities hold hundreds more plant patents and have been licensing those patents to companies, sometimes on an exclusive basis. The net effect of these patents is to keep out of the public domain knowledge that could benefit both farmers and hungry people. Food scientists speak proudly of the successes of the 1960s, including high-lysine wheat, that created a "green revolution" in Asia. Today's analogue to high-lysine wheat might not be the subject of research, because the money in agricultural biotechnology is in genetic engineering, not better breeding. Today's advances are increasingly held or licensed for private gain. The greenback revolution could make a very few companies masters of the world's food supplies.
What the biotech industry's ads do not address--and probably should--is that the future could allow genetic testing to better assist and assess traditional breeding methods. Deciphering plant genomes is vital to this program. The current patent system, however, allows companies to patent not only genes, but the methods for inserting and detecting those genes.
It is not, of course, wholly meretricious that patents offer financial incentives for genetic research. What is meretricious is that these financial incentives can stifle useful research, can keep knowledge of plant genomes from researchers, and can inflate marginal ideas like Roundup Ready soybeans or golden rice to near mythical status.
Author's note: I consulted several documents during the writing of this article at Ag BioTech InfoNet, a great resource for many debates about biotechnology and agriculture.
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