Pesticide & Toxic Chemical News

(published by CRC Press in Washington D.C. Available for $957/year)

May 14, 1998

Scientists at AAAS forum question whether risks of genetically engineered
crops outweigh benefits
Scientists warned last week that the potential risks of agricultural
genetic engineering may outweigh any benefits to consumers - unlike biomedical
applications of recombinant DNA technology, which appear to have clear
and lower risks.
"I've come to believe that the potential power of genetic engineering
dwarfs that of nuclear power," Liebe Cavalieri, professor of environmental
science at State University of New York - Purchase, said at a public forum on
genetically modified organisms sponsored by the American Association for the
Advancement of Science and the British Embassy.
Recombinant DNA techniques applied to medical advances carry less
risk and
uncertainty than do agricultural applications of genetic engineering, said
Cavalieri, a member of the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and author of the
book, The Double-Edged Helix: Genetic Engineering in the Real World.
Cavalieri warned participants at the May 8 meeting in Washington, D.C.,
that society "shouldn't be carried away with fantasies" promised by scientists
and companies engaged in biotechnology research. The potential harm from
misbegotten genetic engineering of our basic foods is so great that scientists
should ask themselves fundamental questions: "What is it that we want? Do we
need it? We have about 20,000 plants that can be used as foods, and we are
using maybe about a dozen of them --- they're all there [in nature]," he said.
Robert Horsch, vice president and manager at Monsanto, countered that the
safety issues Cavalieri raised "are very old issues. ...They were all raised
more than a decade ago." Since genetically modified plants were first
16 years ago, there have been 25,000 field tests of 60 crop species in 45
countries, he said.
Horsch said that this year more than 65 million acres of genetically
engineered crops are expected to be grown around the world, with most of the
cultivation in the United States, though Monsanto plans to transfer biotech
crops to developing nations. "The paradigm we're developing is to develop the
new technologies at home, and then transfer them to developing countries when
they've proven more cost-effective," he noted.
Roundup Ready soybeans, which Monsanto genetically engineered for
tolerance to the company's Roundup herbicide, are expected to make up 30% of
U.S. soybean acreage in 1998, Horsch said.
The biggest benefit of growing Roundup Ready crops "is what it allows you
to do with soil conservation," said Horsch, referring to no-till agriculture,
in which farmers use Roundup to kill the weeds instead of plowing. No-till
agriculture results in a significant reduction in gasoline use and reduces
erosion by 90%, he added.
St. Louis-based, Monsanto is currently working on ways to increase carbon
fixation from photosynthesis and working on transgenic methods for inhibiting
the growth of fungal spores in wheat, Horsch added.
Margaret Mellon, director of agriculture & biotechnology for the Union of
Concerned Scientists, cautioned that agricultural biotechnology is "not a
miracle technology. It's had lots of mistrakes. It's an expensive technology
that's problematic."
Mellon said that there are "alternatives to biotechnology for feeding the
world and achieving a truly sustainable agriculture, which are worthy goals,
but the hype of biotechnology is obscuring the path."

U.S. regulation of biotech crops not rigorous, UCS scientist charges
Federal agencies charged with regulating genetically engineered crops in
the United States - the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug
Administration, and the EPA - have not been rigorous in testing requirements,
Mellon charged. "The notion that products on the market have been rigorously
tested" is not true, she said. "Overall, it;s not a strong regulatory
Mellon pointed to the problem of unexpected boll drop in Monsanto's
Roundup Ready cotton, which many farmers int he Mississippi Delta experienced
last summer. Scientists who have studied the abnormal boll development in the
genetically engineered cotton plants do not know why the problem occurred
- and
USDA, which approved Monsanto's field tests of the product for commercial
requirement, did not predict the possibility of boll drops.
"About one-to-two percent of the acreage planted last year in the U.S. in
Roundup Ready cotton produced misshapen bolls that fell off," Mellon noted.
"Monsanto is paying off all the farmers for the loss of the crops and the
chemical treatements required," she said, adding that neither the company nor
USDA picked up the potential problem in their tests.
"My issue is that if the testing isn't rigorous enough to pick up
agronomic traits, that, if they fail, is going to cost the company millions of
dollars, how is it going to pick up subtle environmental risks?" Mellon said.
Horsch responded that Monsanto's Bollgard cotton drop incident was
confined "to a tiny patch with unusual environmental stress conditions. We
don't know why this percentage dropped, but we're dealing with it fairly."
Ag biotech benefits going to industry, risks borne by consumers,
scientists say
Some scientists at the AAAS meeting noted that chemical companies, which
have transformed themselves in the past year into "life sciences" companies,
are genetically engineering corn, potatoes, soybeans, sugar beets and a
host of
other major food crops for resistance to insects or to the herbicides
manufactured by those companies. These traits benefit producers, while
potential environmental health risks of the technologies are borne by
and society at large.
"There is a benefit to the manufacturers, but I don't know that the
consumer would have much to say about it, " Cavalieri said. "We have to
balance the risk to humans and the environment. ...I think it's skewed now.
The benefit is largely going to the entrepreneurs.
Mellon warned that the concentration of the multinational chemical
companies driving the revolution in biotech agriculture is taking the power of
choice away from both farmers and consumers. "Things are changing in
agriculture so fast, my head is spinning," Mellon said. "A lot of you might
think that farmers are central players, that there's a lot of competition,
USDA provides extensive breeding laboratories..." However, she said, "There
are virtually no [independent] seed companies left. ...They've all been bought
out by, or are entangled in alliances with, multinational chemical companies."
In addition, there's "enormous consolidation under way vertically," with
companies moving to production "from farm to fork," Mellon added. One example
of this consolidation and vertical integration can be seen in the cotton
industry she said. "Monsanto owns the retail cotton industry. There are no
competing seed companies, except very small ones." With the new "terminator"
patent recently issued by the U.S. government, which will render the cotton
seed sterile so that it can't be replanted, "it's a choke hold on cotton.
...There isn't really a vigorous effort in the public sector to do cotton
breeding, because we are moving the research and sources of innovation out of
the public sector."
Monsanto acquires two seed companies
On May 11, Monsanto announced that it had reached agreements to acquire
two seed companies, DeKalb Genetics Corp., headquartered in DeKalb, Ill., and
Delta & Pine Land Co., based in Scott, Miss., to broaden the availability of
its biotech crops globally. Delta & Pine Land is a leading breeder, producer
and marketer of cotton seed in the Unites States, Mexico, Australia and China.
DeKalb is a global leader in agricultural genetics, with a strong presence in
Latin America, Europe and Southeast Asia, and a top hybrid seed corn
company in
the Unites States, Monsanto noted.
"As we have implemented our life sciences strategy in the last three
years, we have created a network of alliances to provide the depth and breadth
necessary to rapidly develop and commercialize new technologies and to create
new markets for the products of this research," Monsanto Chairman and CEO
Robert Shapiro said in a May 11 news release.
"The acquisitions of DeKalb and Delta& Pine Land provide both technology
and global reach by creating broader seed platforms that enable us to better
connect our traits to the needs of growers and processors, and allow us to
quickly anticipate new markets or marketplace trends," Shapiro added. Since
Monsanto already held about 45% of DeKalb's shares, the total cost to Monsanto
of the acquisition of DeKalb is expected to be about $2.5 billion.
Many Europeans see no benefit of ag biotech for consumers
George Gaskell, professor of social psychology at the London School of
Economics, said that many people in the European Union oppose the potential
risks of biotech agriculture because they see no benefits to consumers.
"There are a lot of people in Europe in favor of biotechnology, who are
prepared to take risks, but a considerable number are resistant and see no
benefits," Gaskell said. "Many people see biotech taking us into the realm of
unknown dangers. ...This is a Pandora's box and a lot of people wonder whether
it's worth opening it."
A large proportion of Europeans share the view voiced by Cavalieri - that
medical applications of genetic engineering may confer benefits that
offset the
potential risks, Gaskell said. However, only a small fraction of Europeans
think that genetically engineered foods are useful for consumer.
"The idea that we need in Europe genetically engineered food to
to the food mountains [already stored there] does not ring true to Europeans,"
Gaskell added.

--- Kathleen Hart

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