Abuses of Biotechnology posing Threats to Survival

Monday 22 February 2010, by Sailendra Nath Ghosh

The following is the lucidest possible exposition of transgenic genetic engineering. There has been no other exposition anywhere with comparable lucidity of this intricate subject. Since this kind of engineering poses a threat to life’s survival on earth, it has become a crucial political issue. This article was published in Mainstream Annual 2001 (dated December 22, 2001). It is being reproduced here, with minor alternations by the author, in view of the latest controversy surrounding Bt brinjal.

Despite this massive evidence that harmony with Nature gives plentitude and permanence, the practitioners of “nature-conquering science” are now embarking on an yet more dangerous course—namely, “transgenic genetic engineering”. Bioscience—whose purpose was to understand the interlinkages between and among plant and animal species and to find thereform the clues to least expensive agri- and other cultures and cures for diseases—has long been hijacked by commercial interests to enthrone biotechnology, in which the emphasis is on mass production rather than production by the masses. Hybridisation, tissue culture, even cloning to a limited extent of endangered species to repair the damage of near-extinction already done to bioresources, was permissible. But what is now being attempted in the wake of the failure of the “Green Revolution” is a hydra-headed disaster, a biological holocaust, more insidious than nuclear holocaust because it is silent and, in the initial stages, imperceptible.

The “bright” idea is to transfer genes to unrelated species that never interbreed in nature, such as inserting toad genes into potatoes or genes of some bacteria into crop plants. Scientists have taken the gene in a firefly that emits light and inserted it into the genetic code of tobacco plant. Anti-freeze gene from the “flounder fish” has been inserted into the genetic code of tomato plant to protect the plant from cold spells. Insecticide producing gene from bacteria and viruses are being inserted into plants. Attempts are being made to create novel life forms that have not existed before.

In the State of Karnataka, the US company Monsanto, in the name of fighting the bollworm nest in cotton, took a gene from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and inserted it into the cotton plant. The purpose was to convert the cotton plant into a constantly insecticide producing plant from within its cells. No thought was given to the fact that although it would thwart the existing strains of bollworm pests, it would poison all other insects, bees and birds. Simultaneously, it will be paving the way for far greater mischief. A plant which releases poison throughout its growing life provides the greatest possible advantage for pests to develop resistance to it. Inevitably, cotton will be vulnerable again and new strains of Bt-tolerant super-pests will attack other crops like potato and maize as well, creating an agricultural crisis all around.

In some Western countries pest-resistant corn and tobacco seeds are already in use. ‘Pest-resistant’ is a sweet word but at its core is the bitter truth that every plant from these seeds keep producing insecticides from each of its cells. What havoc it is surreptitiously causing to the health of consumers of corn or tobacco is not knowable. In India also, we do not as yet know what will happen to those cattle of Karnataka which will be fed on oilcake from the Bt-gene-implanted cotton seed or on the fodder from Bt-crop. A study in the USA has shown that soybeans containing a gene from a Brazil nut could now create, on a wide scale, allergic reaction to people who were inherently allergic to the nuts. The arena of allergens is thus spreading far and wide. Only faint murmurs are being expressed now. Tomorrow will see storms of protests in the face of full-blown health hazards.

Unconcerned about such Frankensteinine outcomes, some giant chemical companies of the West together with ambitious scientists eager to play God (or to substitute Nature) are setting up yet another trap. To increase their share of the growing global market for herbicides, they are creating transgenic crops that tolerate their own company’s herbicides. The purpose is to convince the farmers that they can spray herbicides in any quantities to kill the weeds without the risk of harming their crops. The resulting increase in the use of herbicides will inevitably lead to the weeds developing immunity and giving rise to super-weeds. This will introduce a new cycle of greater use of herbicides to control the more resistant strains, causing far greater harm to the environment and all species of life.

Hidden Dangers behind Horizontal Transfer

Since transfer of gene to unrelated species is a new and extremely complicated subject, it is necessary to explain some of its unusual features and far-reaching implications, in a little detail, even at the cost of some digression. A very special kind of genetic engineering is needed to break down the natural defence mechanism against intrusions by any other species. New type of vectors (“carriers”) able to implant the gene by crossing species barriers need to be created, for these do not exist in nature. This process is called horizontal transfer of gene, unlike vertical transfer which takes place from the parent to the offspring. Horizontal transfers are possible only through the agents of infection. Hence, pathogens (bacteria, viruses) which carry infections across the species become the basic building blocks for such creations.

But the natural pathogens, by themselves, are neither suitable nor effective for this purpose. These pathogens need to be purged of their directly disease-producing abilities, for no firm can do business for long if its technique makes the crop-plant palpably diseased. The natural pathogens cannot also be effective because they lack the mechanism to super-impose their gene by overwhelming the plant’s native gene. Hence, pests of several most infectious pathogens are joined together—that is, pests of viruses, plasmids and mobile genetic material are combined—to make artificial vectors designed to overcome the species barrier. The gene of interest is spliced into these vectors. To make the point clearer, combination of parts of different pathogens with strong genetic signals, called “enhancer”, is needed to boost the expression of the foreign gene to well above the normal level. Bacteria and viruses can supply pests with such strong signals. The deployment of foreign-gene-impregnated enhancer is accompanied with yet another diabolical process. ‘Marker genes’—some kind of a tag—are introduced alongwith gene(s) of interest in order to identify, and select, those cells in the plant that have successfully integrated the foreign gene into their genome. Here again, the most commonly used ‘marker genes’ are antibiotic-resistant genes originally isolated from bacterial plasmids and trasposons. These ‘marker genes’ often remain in the genetically engineered organism.

Likely Adverse Consequences

This manner of infusion of transgenic gene is likely to produce the following adverse consequences:

1. Because the gene products introduced into our food crops are from bacteria and viruses and non-food species, the new genes are apt to produce new toxins in foods.

2. Since no gene functions in isolation, the new toxins and allergens and the changes in the concentration of existing toxins will spread and keep going up the food chain. At the same time, the “purified Bt-toxins” in transgenic crops, far from becoming non-degradable by soil microbes, become killers of soil organisms. These are also likely to accelerate antibiotic resistance in varied groups of “pests”.

3. Once released, the genes cannot be recalled and have the potential to multiply and recombine with other infecting viruses (as distinct from crippled or deactivated viruses), uncontrollably for successive rounds of horizontal transfers.

4. The very cellular mechanisms that enable the foreign genes to force-integrate into the genome can also mobilise these genes to jump out. For example, the enzyme integrase, which catalyses the integration of the viral DNA into the genome, also functions as a disintegrase, catalysing the reverse reaction. The integrases being present in all genomes, the foreign genes can re-insert into another site in the organisms by secondary, tertiary and quarternary horizontal transfers.

5. Since the transgenic crop-plants are being engineered to be resistant to broad-spectrum pesticides, there will be a tendency to use more of these pesticides to kill the non-crop plants indiscriminately, which in turn will destroy the insects, birds and other animals that depend on the plants for food and shelter. This will also harm soil micro-organisms which have vital roles in nutrient recycling. Thus, it will, on the one hand, greatly damage the species diversity now obtaining in Nature, and on the other, give rise to super-infectious viruses, super-pests and super-weeds, tearing apart the web of life and shutting out the scope of redemption.

Each of the five dangers constitutes a threat to the survival of life. The extreme nature of the threats would be apparent when the implications of points three and four become clearer. For this, some observed phenomena need to be particularly noted. One, plants engineered with genes from viruses to resist virus attack end up by serving just the opposite purpose. The plants show increased propensity to generate new, often super-infectious, viruses by recombining with infective agents. Two, foreign genes introduced into plants behave differently from the plant’s own genes. Reportedly, the foreign genes are up to 30 times more likely to escape than the plant’s own genes. With this rate of jumping out and invading others, hardly any organism will remain free from toxins. Three, recent researches have shown that the indiscriminate use of antibiotics to trace genetic change, actually facilitate the spread of diseases. The antibiotics are like a type of sex hormone, enhancing reproduction. It has also been reported that the presence of antibiotics increases the frequency of horizontal transfer, ten to thousand-fold.

Transgenic engineering of seeds pursues terminator technology, that is, to terminate the reproductive ability of the seeds. It gives crops for one season but does not germinate thereafter. It is breeding for sterility of the seeds while increasing the reproductive capacity of the modified genes.

Earlier, scientists, in the name of developing seeds with disease-resistant, drought-resistant, high-yielding, early maturing and such other traits, had succeeded in evolving seeds whose germinated products could not reproduce.

None could, or ever can, get over the natural law that overexpresion of any trait has to be at the expense of certain other clusters of traits. Besides, it suited the seed companies to lure the farmers by promises of high-yielding and disease-resistant crop-plants and thereby reduce them to dependence for seed supplies every year.

Now, a “terminator technology” has been developed to deliberately create sterile seeds. This is done by selectively programming a plant’s DNA to kill its own embryo. This is a sinister plan to tie up the farmer in permanent dependence on the seed corporations.

Inviting Far Greater Losses—Disrupting Nature’s Process of Speciation

There was no need to tread the tortuous path of transgenic engineering and pursue the retrograde “terminator technology” if only the scientists, instead of being confined to their subdiscipline-bound ‘tunnel view’, had cared to remember

i. that Nature keeps throwing newer and newer—that is, differing—populations of any species for adaptation to changing ecological niche; that the differentiating intra-species populations keep evolving to form newer and different species; and that man can never cope with Nature either in creating beneficial species or inordaining their co-evolution;

ii. that the process of natural selection, on the basis of the genetic type’s differential reproduction capacity and differential survival of their progeny, eliminates those with less favourable characteristics and keeps only the most adaptable and the fittest;

iii. that over and above natural selection, the artificial selection by man limits the choice to the most productive individuals of the population of the subspecies, cultures them specially for their multiplication to take productivity to higher levels; and that crossbreeding between genetically different lines that the farmers undertake all the time to bring in hybrid vigour, takes productivity to its peak;

iv. that genetic variability within a population (that is, between individuals) is the very condition of operation of the process of the natural selection; that when this variation is sought to be blotted out or even narrowed, choice of the fittest would be impeded;

v. that the differing genetic structures of different species and sub-species and of different individuals within the population of any species is Nature’s way of storing diversity in populations and individuals; and this is the insurance for sustainability against any sudden ecological change; and

vi. that the highest productivity can be attained only by understanding these laws, observing these processes, and reverentially participating in the process in the Nature-harmonic way.

Man’s selection of the most productive strains and the most productive individuals within those strains has in the past led to highest productivity. Spoiling the genetic structures of different genotypes, subspecies and species will only be throwing a monkey wrench in Nature’s beneficent works. n

The author is one of the country’s earliest environmentalists and a social philosopher. He can be contacted at sailendranathghosh@yahoo.com and sailendranathg@gmail.com

For the Benefit of Manmohan Singh and Jairam Ramesh

Around 1996 when GM soya and canola (rapeseed) were introduced in Canada and vigorously pushed in the prairies of western Canada in the province of Saskatchewan by the Canadian Government the farmers were told that GM would increase yields, be more nutritious, use less chemicals and feed a hungry world. The figures now released by the Canadian Department of Agriculture show that canola yields have decreased by at least 10 per cent and soya by at least 15 per cent, worst of all, farmers are using three-to-five times more chemicals because of the GM superweeds that have developed. The reality is that the nutritional concepts of all crops are down by 50 per cent of what they were before GMOs were introduced and now there are smaller yields and more chemicals used, exactly the opposite of what Monsanto promised.

One-third of Canada’s insecticides, herbicides and pesticides are used in this province alone which has the highest rate of breast cancer and prostrate cancer in Canada.

Percy Schmeiser and his wife say: “Once you introduce GMOs (in any crop), the days of organic farmers (in all crops) are over, the days of conventional farmers too are over.” They also inform that superweeds are ubiquitous through-out Canada—in wheat fields, barely fields, cemeteries, university grounds, towns and golf courses. People in these fields never ever grew GM canola but they are having to spend on trying to control the superweeds and also on the massive increases in the use of chemicals.

[Courtesy: Science in Society (published from the UK), Issue 42, Summer 2009]

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