Genes, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO),
Cloning and DNA Fingerprinting
Horticulture Youth Adventure Program
David Wm. Reed, Instructor
Department of Horticultural Sciences
Texas A&M University
What is a Gene?
Every plant and animal obtain their genes from their parents; 1/2 from the female parent and 1/2 from the male parent. Genes are made up of DNA. Genes determine everything about a plant or animal. For example, if you have blue eyes it is because you have the gene that determines blue eyes. How do genes do this? Genes contain DNA which is the blueprint for how to make special compounds called enzymes. Enzymes are special types of proteins that are responsible for making compounds, such as the blue pigment in blue eyes. Thus, if you have the gene for blue eyes, then you can make the enzyme that makes the blue pigment and you will have blue eyes. There is a gene that determines everything about every plant and animal.
What is genetic engineering and a GMO?
Up until recently, a plant or animal could only get its genes from its parents. However, genetic scientist, which are often called molecular biologist, have learned how to take genes out of one organism and put them in another organism. So now genetic scientist can change plants and animals by giving them new genes. This is called genetic engineering, which is the manipulation of an organism's genes. If a plant or animal has its genes changed or if it gets new genes by genetic engineering, then it is called a genetically modified organism or GMO.
Example of a Plant That is a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)
There is a bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis that causes a disease in certain types of caterpillars. When the caterpillar comes in contact with the bacteria, its gets the disease and dies. Genetic scientist took the gene that is responsible for the disease out of the bacteria and put the bacteria gene in a cotton plant. So now the cotton plant contains the gene that causes the disease and when caterpillars eat the cotton leaves the caterpillars will die. The cotton is called BT cotton. Thus, genetic engineering is used to make BT cotton plants poisonous to caterpillars and farmers do not have to spend money to spray pesticides to kill the caterpillars.
Genetic Engineering is Very Controversial
Genetic engineering is very controversial. Why? Because some people believe that it is not natural and unethical for scientist to change the genes in a plant or animal. For example, genetic engineering can make hybrids between two totally different kinds of organisms, such as the Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria and a the cotton plant. Some people feel these kinds of genetically modified plants can be dangerous. Others believe that genetic engineering is an excellent way to make plants grow faster or be more nutritious, so they may help prevent world hunger. Each person has to come to their own conclusion as to whether or not they are for or against genetically modified organisms.
Cloning is where cells are taken form an organism and the cells are tricked into making a duplicate organism. The duplicate organism would be called a clone. We have been cloning plants for centuries. You can go in to a vegetable garden and cut the stem off a tomato plant. If you put the tomato stem in a glass of water in the window of your kitchen, the stem will make new roots and produce a new plant. The new plant will be a clone of the tomato plant in the garden. If you cut-off 10 stems, then you will have 10 new tomato plants that are clones of the tomato plant in your garden. If you used tissue culture to grow the new plants, you could produce hundreds of thousands of clones in one year. We do this all the time with plants.
A greenhouse full of poinsettia clones.
Recently, genetic scientist have developed the ability to clone animals. The first cloned animal was Dolly the sheep. Since then cattle, goats, pigs, cats, rats, monkeys, and others have been cloned.
Animals that have been cloned.
Each plant or animal is unique because because they each have their own set of genes. There is only one David William Reed in this world because no other person has exactly my set of genes. Genes are composed of DNA, therefore each plant and animal's DNA is unique also. Scientist can take a few cells from a plant or animal, remove the DNA and determine its pattern. This pattern is a unique as a person fingerprint. Thus, the DNA fingerprint can be used to very accurately identify a plant or animal.
What are some uses of a DNA fingerprint:
1) To learn what genetic engineering means.
2) To learn that a plant that has its genes altered or new genes added is called a genetically modified organism or GMO.
3) To learn how genetic scientist use genes and DNA to finger print plants.
4) To tour a genetic engineering lab to observe what genetic engineers do.
Tour the genetic engineering laboratories in the Norman Borlaug Crop Biotechnology Building
The class a tour of the laboratories in the Norman Borlaug Crop Biotechnology Building. During the tour we will see:
What are the overall risks of GMOs?
In 2003, 7 million farmers in 18 countries grew GMO crops on 167.2 million acres, an increase of over 20 million acres from the previous year. Many health professionals around the world have sounded the alarm on GMOs. The American Public Health Association, for example, has called for mandatory labeling.
The hazards of GMOs include:
The majority of genetically engineered crops are designed to withstand unlimited applications of chemicals. Two of the major chemicals, bromoxynil and glyphosate (RoundupTM), have been linked to developmental disorders in fetuses, tumors, carcinomas, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. In addition, Monsanto’s recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) leads to increased levels of a potent chemical hormone that has been linked to cancer in humans when at elevated levels.
Poisoning the Environment.
In an article published December 1999, scientists reported their findings on Bt corn, a plant that has been genetically engineered to produce the Bt toxin and kill insects. It was reported that the toxin persists in the soil for at least 234 days, the longest time studied. The authors concluded that “there is no indication of how soil communities might be affected” and that “non-target insects and organisms…could be affected.” Furthermore, research indicates that Bt corn may have dire consequences for such species as the Monarch Butterfly.
The Terminator Gene.
Some GMO plants have been engineered to produce sterile or nonviable seeds. This trait, labeled the “terminator” gene, was engineered to force farmers to buy new seeds from agribusiness giants every year. The potential for these traits to spread into the natural environment, or onto organic farms, could have horrific consequences.
The novel proteins in GMOs can cause unexpected allergic reactions. For example, in 2000, StarLink corn, a form of genetically engineered corn, was found in the U.S. food supply. StarLink was not approved for human consumption because of its potential for triggering allergic reactions, such as vomiting, diarrhea, and anaphylactic shock. Scientist advisors to the EPA raised concerns that all Bt proteins, meaning over 30% of U.S. corn, could act as "antigenic and allergenic sources."
Creation of "Superweeds" and "Superbugs".
Genetically engineered plants are exotic species that can take over a new landscape, creating “superweeds” or “superbugs” that may in turn require even more toxic chemicals. The EPA has recognized this fact, a January 2000 Press release required new measures on farmers, some who have to plant as much as 50% of their field with non-GMO varieties. However, the ultimate safety of this technology is in the hands of industries whose sole concern is making money. As Phil Angell, Monsanto’s director of corporate communications said about genetically engineered food, “Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible.”
Contamination of Organic Crops.
The pollen from GMO plants can drift onto neighboring farms & cross-pollinate with similar crops. This problem has led to the demise of some seed-saving organic farms since organic standards do not allow the use of GMO seeds.
Genetic engineering is an imprecise technology. It is impossible to determine where the new gene will position itself in the host DNA. These unpredictable effects can translate into significant health risks, namely increased levels of toxins in food. One FDA scientist noted in an internal memo, "GMO plants could contain unexpected high concentrations of plant toxicants". In a 1999 study, GMO potatoes were found to weaken rats' immune systems and adversely affect their kidneys, thymuses, spleens, guts and brains.
Because genetic engineering is such an imprecise science, scientists use a marker gene to help them determine if the gene they are trying to insert into the organism has actually made it. Frequently, the marker gene used is one that codes for antibiotic resistance. The World Health Organization warned in September 2001 that humans are building up dangerous levels of resistance to modern antibiotics that could leave them vulnerable to killer diseases.
There is evidence that some GMO foods have reduced nutritional quality. For example, research published in 1999 revealed that GMO soybeans have significantly less phytoestrogens, which research suggests may protect against breast cancer, osteoporosis, and heart disease. In addition, Monsanto's own research shows that their GMO soybeans contain about 28 percent more Kunitz trypsin inhibitor, a known antinutrient and allergen.
To this date, the only real winner in GMO food production has been big agribusiness. From terminator genes to Roundup resistance to built-in pesticides, little or no effort is invested in health or environmental benefits. Furthermore, some family farmers, who save their own seed, have become victim of costly lawsuits over pollen drift from GMO seed. Such was the case in Monsanto Corporation v. Percy Schmeiser when his crop of canola oil was contaminated and Monsanto Corporation was awarded $140,000. Percy Schmeiser spent $230,000 trying to defend himself.
Finally, the biotech industry claims that this technology is needed to feed the growing world population. Currently there is enough food to provide 4.3 pounds to every person every day, and yet still millions go hungry. The real problems are poverty and inequality. In addition, the National Research Council has reported that alternative farming systems actually use less pesticides and have the same or higher per acre crop yields. In data collected from 1998 for example, farmers growing Roundup Ready soybeans, genetically engineered to be resistant to the chemical Roundup, had a decreased yield of 5.3 percent.
Is Genetically Modified Food Good for You?
Genetically modified foods may be greener than organic ones.
By Lee Silver
March 20, 2006 issue - Farm-raised pigs are dirty, smelly animals that get no respect. They're also an environmental hazard. Their manure contains phosphorus, which, when it rains, runs off into lakes and estuaries, depleting oxygen, killing fish, stimulating algae overgrowth and emitting greenhouse gases. During the 1980s, phosphorus pollution killed all aquatic life in the 42km-long Mariager Fjord of Denmark—an ecological disaster that prompted European governments to impose strict regulations on pig farming. It didn't solve the problem.
Doing away with the pig is not an option. Pigs provide more dietary protein, more cheaply, to more people than any other animal. Northern Europe still maintains the highest pig-to-human ratio in the world (2-1 in Denmark), but East Asia is catching up. During the 1990s, pork production doubled in Vietnam and grew by 70 percent in China—along densely populated coastlines, pig density exceeds 100 animals per square kilometer. The resulting pollution is "threatening fragile coastal marine habitats including mangroves, coral reefs and sea grasses," according to a report released in February by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
As it turns out, there is a solution to the pig problem, but it requires a change of mind-set among environmentalists and the public. Two Canadian scientists have created a pig whose manure doesn't contain very much phosphorus at all. If this variety of pig were adopted widely, it could greatly reduce a major source of pollution. But the Enviropig, as they call it, is the product of genetic modification—which is anathema to many Westerners.
The Enviropig is one of many new technologies that are putting environmentalists and organic-food proponents in a quandary: should they remain categorically opposed to genetically modified (GM) foods even at the expense of the environment? Pigs can also be modified to digest grasses and hay (as cows and sheep do), reducing the energy-intensive use of corn as pig feed. Elsewhere, trees grown for paper could be made amenable to much more efficient processing, reducing both energy usage and toxic chemical bleach in effluents from paper mills. The most significant GM applications will be ones that help alleviate the problem of agriculture, which accounts for 38 percent of the world's landmass and is crowding out natural ecosystems and species habitats. GM crops that can be produced more efficiently would allow us to return land to nature.
Standing in opposition to these advances are advocates of an organic food philosophy that holds to the simplistic notion that "natural" is good and "synthetic" is bad. Genetic modification is unacceptable to organic farmers merely because it is performed in a laboratory. Says Charles Margulis, a spokesman for Greenpeace USA, "We think the Enviropig is a Frankenpig in disguise."
Technically, however, all domesticated plants and animals were created by human selection of random mutations that occur in nature. High-energy cosmic rays break chromosomes into pieces that reattach randomly; in this way, nature sometimes creates genes that didn't previously exist. Lab work, however, is more nuanced than nature: scientists can make subtle and precise changes to an organism's DNA. Canadian biologists Cecil Forsberg and John Phillips, for instance, have constructed a novel DNA molecule that, when planted in a pig embryo, imbues the Enviropig with the ability to secrete a phosphorus-extracting enzyme in its saliva. The results so far are dramatic—the new pigs can extract all the phosphorus they need from grain alone, without the phosphorus supplements that farmers now use. This reduces the phosphorus content of their manure by up to 75 percent.
Of course, stringent testing is needed to show that a genetic modification works and that the product is not harmful to humans. Scientists can do both of these things with techniques that allow them to examine and compare the structure and activity of every one of an animal's genes. An added advantage with the Enviropig, in particular, is that the single extra enzyme in its saliva is also present naturally in billions of bacteria inhabiting the digestive tract of every normal human being, which suggests that the Enviropig will be as safe for human consumption as non-GM pigs.
Organic farmers have always boasted that their approach to agriculture is, by its very nature, better for the environment than so-called conventional farming. The European Commission states that "organic farmers use a range of techniques that help sustain ecosystems and reduce pollution." But if you think that concern for the environment will ever persuade organic farmers to accept the Enviropig or any other animal modified to reduce pollution, you'd be wrong. According to self-imposed organic rules, precision genetic modification of any kind for any purpose is strictly forbidden. If conventional farmers begin to grow Enviropigs, organic pig farms will cause much more pollution per animal—unless environmental protection agencies step in and shut them down.
Even in the realm of health, organic food doesn't measure up to the hype. Consumers tend to assume that all organic crops are grown as advertised without chemical pesticides. This is false. Organic farmers can spray their crops with many chemicals including pyrethrin, a highly toxic pesticide, and rotenone, a potent neurotoxin recently linked to Parkinson's disease. Because these substances occur in nature—pyrethrin is produced by chrysanthemums and rotenone comes from a native Indian vine—they are deemed acceptable for use on organic farms.
In fact, although all commonly used pesticides dissipate so quickly that they pose a miniscule health risk to consumers, allergic food reactions to natural products kill hundreds of children each year. Genetically modified foods could greatly reduce this risk. U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Eliot Herman has already created a less-allergenic soybean—an important crop for baby foods. Through genetic surgery, Herman turned off the soy gene responsible for 65 percent of allergic reactions. Not only was the modified soy less allergenic in tests but, as Herman explained, "the yield looks perfectly normal, plants develop and grow at a normal rate and they seem to have the same kinds of protein, oil and other good stuff in them." Other scientists have reported promising results in shutting off allergy-causing genes in peanuts and shrimp. Should these advances be turned into products, organic soy or peanut products will be certifiably more dangerous to human health than comparable nonorganic products.
Unfortunately, this won't happen any time soon. Because no society has ever banned allergenic foods, conventional farmers have no incentive to plant reduced-allergy seeds. And many members of the public have been led to believe that all genetic modifications create health risks. In this climate, much of the needed research isn't being pursued. Chances are, farmers will continue to grow their polluting organic pork, their allergenic organic soy and their neurotoxin-sprayed organic apples. Worse still, they will make sure that no one else gets a choice in the matter of improving the conditions of life on earth—unless, that is, others rise up and demand an alternative.
Le Monde diplomatique
Monsanto has declared a state of emergency. Following a bomb threat at its Peyrehorade site in the French department of Les Landes, the world's second largest farm seed producer launched a security protocol on its Intranet network to safeguard its computer systems and protect its employees from physical attack. Personnel must report all suspicious behaviour, anonymous telephone calls and persons not wearing security badges; they must lock all doors, use passwords to block access to computer screens and not use modems to connect to the outside world. Only persons expressly authorised to do so may talk to journalists. Monsanto-France's present director of communications, Armelle de Kerros, is in fact no stranger to a culture of secrecy, since she was previously with the Compagnie générale des matières atomiques (Cogema). But this does not prevent Monsanto presenting an image of "transparency".
Since the scandal surrounding Terminator, the first killer plant in the history of agriculture (1), the company has been divided between defensive paranoia and aggression. Its troubles started when it bought Delta & Pine Land for all of $1.8bn. This brought into Monsanto's hands a patent for a method of genetically engineering seed so that it will no longer reproduce from one year to the next. The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) dubbed this sterilisation technique Terminator. The ensuing international outcry forced Monsanto president Bob Shapiro to withdraw the product and resign.
Since then, the multinational has abandoned its ambitious slogan, "Food, Health, Hope", and is seeking to rebuild its reputation. Producing genetically modified organisms or GMOs (now modestly referred to as biotechnology) is a highly risky undertaking in terms of both image and investment. Not to mention the possibility of biological accidents: threats to biodiversity and the appearance of mutant insects resistant to the insecticides incorporated into transgenic plants (2). In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now encourages farmers to devote at least 20% of their land to conventional crops so that insects that are not resistant to the transgene bacillus thuringiensis can develop.
All this goes to explain why, in the maelstrom of mergers, acquisitions and restructurings, agrochemicals, including plant biotechnologies (GMOs), are being systematically isolated from the other sectors so as to compartmentalise the transgenic risk. In the same way, Aventis is trying to dissociate itself from its agrochemicals branch, CropScience. The firm used to market the transgenic maize Starlink, which can cause allergies in humans. Although intended only for use as animal feed, the maize turned up on a large scale in US consumers' crisps and cornflakes and in Homemade Baking brand cakes sold in Japan. The same process resulted in the creation of the world's largest agrochemicals group, Syngenta, in October last year; the outcome of a merger between Switzerland's Novartis and the Anglo-Swedish firm Astra-Zeneca, its turnover is expected to approach $7bn.
After merging with pharmaceuticals giant Pharmacia & Upjohn, Monsanto is now concerned only with agriculture, turning over $5.49bn last year. It has made its flagship anti-arthritic drug Celebrex over to Pharmacia in order to specialise in the production of plant health products, agricultural seeds and, more especially, genetically modified seed. Monsanto is now the world's second largest seed producer after Pioneer, the second largest plant seed producer after Syngenta, and the number one in herbicides. Its Roundup is the world's best selling herbicide, with $2.6 bn turnover last year, nearly half that of the group. It is now trying to get its transgenic products accepted by persuading consumers it is better to eat a genetically modified plant than one that has been sprayed with pesticides (3). To overcome the remaining obstacles, the strategy is now taking on a philanthropic and ecological guise.
CASHING IN ON ETHICS
Keen to cash in on the ethical approach, this January Monsanto published a new Pledge containing five commitments to its customers; dialogue, transparency, respect, sharing and benefits. According to Monsanto-France's chief executive Jean-Pierre Princen, European consumers, who are the most cautious about GMOs, need to understand that a genetically modified organism is a genetically improved organism. Hence the birth of the new Monsanto, referred to internally as Monsanto M2: its seeds are ecological and healthy. Anyone who doubts that is simply ill-informed. We need a clean break with the past. Who remembers that Monsanto made the Agent Orange defoliant used by American bombers during the Vietnam war? Now the multinational's teams meet in Ho Chi Minh City to sell their herbicides and establish useful contacts with the media, scientists and members of the Vietnamese government. From the Philippines to Argentina, they are looking for unlimited freedom of action: to be, in house jargon, "free to operate"
For outside consumption they are therefore pushing the ecological benefits of GMOs, two kinds of which are sold by the group: the Bt gene, first of all, which is obtained from the bacterium bacillus thuringiensis and produces its own insecticide toxins. This makes additional pesticide spraying unnecessary: a crop of Bt cotton will need only two sprayings instead of six or eight. The second variety is Roundup Ready, designed to be resistant to the Roundup herbicide. The farmer buys a "kit" containing both the seed and the weed killer. The firm describes Roundup as biodegradable, as a result of which the Directorate General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Prevention (DGCCRF) in Lyons, France, is taking them to court for misleading advertising.
In the US the EPA estimates that between 20m and 24m g of glyphosate are spread every year (4). Vast quantities of it are used in growing soya, wheat and hay, and on grazing and fallow land. Its use has increased some 20% a year since 1998. Contained in Roundup, it is the most widely sold herbicide in the world, earning Monsanto around $1.5bn every year. The patent expired last year, but Monsanto will keep some of the monopoly because its genetically modified plants are designed to be tolerant to glyphosate. In Brittany glyphosate is a major and regular pollutant. In October 1999 as much as 172 times the safe level were found in the Elorn River, which supplies one third of Finistere with drinking water. "This proves that calling Roundup biodegradable is a fraud", explains Dr Lylian Le Goff, a biotechnologist with the organisation France Nature Environnement. Pollution of the soil, water, rain, the entire food chain and the atmosphere by pesticides has become a serious public health problem that the French government has been slow to recognise. Hence Le Goff believes that "it's essential that we apply the precautionary principle and stop encouraging the use of pesticides, especially when it's done through misleading advertising that claims glyphosate-based products are harmless and biodegradable."
Consumers would ingest much more pesticides if genetically modified plants were to spread because they contain so much of them. Like dioxins, pesticides, including glyphosate, are not broken down in the human body; they are a form of invisible pollution (5). Their molecules have allergenic, neurotoxic, carcinogenic, mutagenic and hormonal effects and are harmful to male fertility. They have similar properties to female hormones, oestrogens; over all, these hormonal effects could be responsible for a 50% decline in sperm counts over the last 50 years. If that decline were to continue, the human race would have to resort to cloning by about 2060.
Apart from their alleged biodegradability, Monsanto presents its Roundup Ready transgenic seeds as being "climate friendly" because using them would allow farmers to cut back on ploughing, or even stop ploughing altogether; this would allow massive amounts of carbon gas and methane to be stored in the soil, cutting US carbon emissions by 30%. In what way non-transgenic cultivation would be less effective is not explained. One thing is certain: there would be lower profits because an ordinary crop would not need Roundup herbicide. Monsanto's sudden ecological vocation and the zeal of its "sustainable development sector" president, Robert B Horsch, coincide with the interests of people selling rights to pollute, like the Montana landowners who have formed a coalition to sell carbon gas emission rights.
TO THE POINT
If New Monsanto's language for external use is centred on "tolerance, respect and dialogue", the strategic terminology used in-house is far less compromising. The firm's "philosophy" as described by plant development programme director Ted Crosbie to a meeting of Monsanto Latin America executives in January this year is straight and to the point: "deliver the pipeline and the future on the same day." In plain terms, that means flooding available farmland with GMOs in order to occupy the land irreversibly. From this point of view, Latin America is "winning environment": Monsanto estimates there are 100m hectares to be "developed" in Brazil alone.
Unfortunately, Brazil remains stubbornly resistant to GMOs according to Nha Hoang and his colleagues of the Monsanto group responsible for the "free to operate" strategy in Latin America. "It is already the second largest soybean producer in the world, after the US, and will soon probably become number one. It's the largest economy in Latin America and it's the last of the three big powers without legally approved biotech crops. Judges variously declared the regulatory process defective, claimed that the appropriate environmental impact studies had not been done and even held the existing biotech regulatory agency to have been illegally constituted." The amended statutes of the agency in question, CTNBio, are awaiting ratification by the Brazilian Congress. The aim is to unplug the "pipeline" of transgenic soya, paving the way for further marketing authorisations: YieldGard maize, Bollgard cotton and Roundup Ready cotton next year, Roundup Ready maize in 2003 and Bt insecticide soya in 2005. Meanwhile Monsanto is investing $550m in building a Roundup herbicide production plant in Brazil's north-eastern state of Bahia.
The multinational's strategy is based on "biotech acceptance", getting GMOs accepted by society and then, or at the same time, flooding the markets. It involves massive high-profile publicity campaigns. In the US, the sector's propaganda organ, the Council for Biotechnology Information, buys TV commercial spots direct. Monsanto is a co-founder of this organisation, which collects and disseminates information on the "benefits of biotech". "Television is a powerful tool for getting biotechnologies accepted," says Tom Helscher, director of biotechnology acceptance programmes at Monsanto headquarters in Creve Coeur, Missouri. He urges people to get their families and friends to watch out for biotech publicity and is particularly keen to reassure American farmers hesitant about buying genetically modified seed, for fear of losing their foreign markets.
If Aventis Crop Science, BASF, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis and Zeneca Ag Products have launched massive propaganda campaigns in the US, they are still hesitant to do as much in Europe. In the United Kingdom, Monsanto's sales team is congratulating itself on the success of its biotech advocacy programme; once trained by their firm, reps are able to call themselves experts and sing the praises of transgenic products to farmers and in schools. "There's no such thing as too much communication," says Stephen Wilridge, director of Monsanto Northern Europe.
The educational system is also strategic in the battle for minds. Partly funded by Monsanto, the Biotechnology Challenge 2000 programme saw 33% of Ireland's secondary school pupils produce reports on the role of biotechnology in food production. As he handed out the prizes and trophies, David Byrne, the European Commissioner responsible for protecting consumers' health, said: "There's no doubt in my mind that there is a link between consumers' reluctance to accept biotechnology and the serious lack of information on the subject." Patrick O'Reilly, director of Monsanto Ireland, is hoping for wider participation this year because "these students are tomorrow's discerning consumers and decision-makers".
The multinational is learning to decode and recycle society's messages and expectations. For some months Monsanto has been wavering between a vague attempt at dialogue and a pathological rejection of the main non-governmental organisations that dispute the supposed virtues of GMOs. Greenpeace is the first in line, described as guilty of crimes against humanity by Ingo Potrykus, the Swiss inventor of golden rice who works for Syngenta. Golden rice is a transgenic rice enriched with beta carotene (vitamin A), a second-generation GMO called pharmafood because it claims to have medicinal properties as well as being a food.
The first therapeutic rice in the history of farming, it is just what the big biotech corporations have been waiting for: the last sceptics will no longer be able to doubt the fundamentally virtuous nature of the GMO project. The vitamin A incorporated by transgenics will become the moral harbinger of the world's transgenic food supply: who will dare criticise its merits when so many third world children suffer blindness because of beta carotene deficiency? And who will dare doubt that the transgenic seed business serves a basically nutritive, ecological and humanitarian purpose?
Whether golden rice will have the vaunted effect among the populations concerned is open to question. Greenpeace and others have shown the absurdity of it all by pointing out that to ingest an adequate daily dose of vitamin A would be quite a feat for a third-world child: he would have to eat 3.7 kg of boiled golden rice a day, whereas two carrots, one mango and a bowl of ordinary rice would suffice. Potrykus' public reaction at a press conference at Biovision (the biotechnology "Davos") in Lyons this February was: "If you plan to destroy test fields to prevent responsible testing and development of golden rice for humanitarian purposes, you will be accused of contributing to a crime against humanity. Your actions will be carefully registered and you will, hopefully, have the opportunity to defend your illegal and immoral actions in front of an international court."
To doubt and to dispute are therefore crimes against humanity committed by "Fiends of the Earth", a pun on Friends of the Earth and the domain name of an internet site much valued by Monsanto personnel (www.earthfiends.org). If political protest is "fiendish", that doesn't leave much room for dialogue. And yet, new Monsanto's Pledge says: "We commit to an ongoing dialogue with all interested parties to understand the issues and concerns related to this technology".
This apparent solicitude masks a frank commercial strategy of conformity on two fronts: to create conformity between the image of GMO products and consumer expectations, and to create a conformity of thinking by brainwashing them with intensive advertising and information. Because if Monsanto's only aim is to get its global biopolitical project accepted, new Monsanto will have to show an ethical face; it will be of variable geometry since the multinational itself will write the rules. The company has therefore engaged Wirthlin Worldwide, a business communications specialist, to "find the mechanisms and tools to help Monsanto persuade consumers by reason and motivate them by emotion".
Dubbed the Vista project, this survey of opinion is designed to detect consumers' value systems. The data collected will be used to map out people's ways of thinking on four levels: ideas, facts, feelings and values. In the US, this research has resulted in advertising with a real impact on the public, using as a major argument in favour of biotech the slogan "less pesticides on your plates". In France, Monsanto employees took part in this survey in the guise of a confidential interview where they were invited to speak freely about what they felt about biotechnology, good or bad. The aim was to train spokespersons who will use messages designed for the public at large.
Access to genetic material and to markets with total freedom to manoeuvre is the two-pronged strategy of "free to operate". It costs $200-400m to develop a GMO and takes seven to 10 years. The multinational wants a return on this massive investment, which it gets by filing a patent on the plant. People must pay the firm royalties every time they want to sow it. All varieties containing a genetically modified organism will be patent-protected, which means that the farmer will have to buy a licence. The risk, of course, is that the big seed producers will be able to monopolise the world's genetic heritage and take control completely and irreversibly. Farmers will no longer be able to select their own seed.
This could be a problem for Monsanto, because it says in its pledge: "We commit to bring the knowledge and advantages of all forms of agriculture to resource-poor farmers in the developing world to help improve food security and protect the environment." Hence its generosity in granting the patent in the transgenic sweet potato to South Africa in the hope of gaining a greater foothold there: "As to Africa, we could, with patience, widen our position through YieldGard or even Roundup Ready maize. In parallel, we should consider licensing on a free or minimal fee basis some of our technologies adapted to local crops, such as sweet potato or cassava."
This is a double edged strategy, with a show of generous intentions to gain a hold over the least demanding markets - the least creditworthy markets, true, but ones potentially dependent. A similar approach to that taken with Syngenta's golden rice in Thailand (where about 70 patents had to be waived to make it available free of charge) or with Indian cow's milk laced with Monsanto's Posilac, a hormone banned in the European Union, in order to take control of local markets not particularly keen on biotechnology.
RISKS OF GENETIC POLLUTION
Conversely, Monsanto recently got a Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser, fined around $9,000 for "pirating" transgenic rape. He counterattacked by accusing Monsanto of accidentally polluting his fields of conventional rape with its Roundup Ready transgenic variety. Are the courts capable of establishing the origin of genetic pollution? This case, which is likely to be repeated elsewhere, shows the difficulty of containing the accidental spread of GMOs. In France, such incidents are passed over in silence. In March last year several batches of Advanta conventional spring rape seed sown in Europe turned out to be contaminated with another company's GM seed. The plants in question were destroyed. Last August varieties of winter rape checked by the French authorities proved to be contaminated with GM seed. But no GM rape has yet been licensed for growing or consumption in France.
The imperfections of traceability are already evident. Accidental contamination is becoming very frequent. A public health official in Lombardy recently found GMOs in batches of Monsanto soya and maize seed. GMOs have been found in stocks of maize seed stored in Lodi near Milan. Pressure will increase in Europe as imported soya, much of it already transgenic, replaces animal meal, which is now banned.
The firms producing transgenic seed are no doubt hoping to see the end of GM-free varieties, banking on the massive supervision costs involved. In the years ahead, farmers will probably find it increasingly difficult to get hold of non-GM seed. With world research focusing on transgenic seed, it is not impossible that non-GM varieties will become obsolete, unadapted to changing farming techniques.+++ What does Monsanto's much vaunted "transparency" really mean? The consumer has to rely on the information supplied by the firm. Every genetic design is considered a patent, and there is no legal obligation for the company to provide the test to private laboratories so that checks can be made. In France, the description of a genetic design is filed with the DGCCRF, which is the only body to conduct analyses. It is not allowed to do it commercially, so it cannot be used for the purpose by consumers or manufacturers.
The consumer will therefore have to be content with knowing that the firm cannot sell seeds until they have been authorised for human consumption and that it has committed itself "to respecting the religious, cultural and ethical concerns of people throughout the world by not using genes taken from animal or human sources in our agricultural products intended for food or feed." The recent appointment to the board of the US EPA of former Monsanto executive Linda Fischer suggests that even if new Monsanto is not outside the law, it wants to make it.