Refuting Marketing with Facts and Proper Science
I was involved in an online argument (I wouldn’t call it a discussion, debate, or conversation – it was mindless for the mostpart – at least for my part) regarding biotechnology (agricultural, I don’t know enough to weigh in on medical biotech). It seemed that the number of industry supporters (whether paid or incidental) were far more vocal than those who opposed it. Most arguments in favour of biotech were tired, worn out, and long disproven tropes: it’s the same as selective breeding, it’s necessary to feed the world, you fear it because you don’t understand genetics, etc…
I’ve been collecting a number of articles that provide more scientific weight to the argument against biotechnologies. Granted, some articles are better documented than others, and I hesitate to quote anything that is poorly referenced.
but in the end, Biotech, Genetic Modification, Genetic Engineering, despite the amazing feats of scientific accomplishment, are an unnecessary risk to which the majority of us are exposed without agreement. If you eat processed food, you’re eating GMOs. No labels. No questions asked.
My principal argument against GMOs, and introducing them to the food chain so quickly, is that they are ultimately unpredictable. Many studies are private, and the companies that have conducted them keep the results under wraps. At least they assure us that everything’s okay. There’s nothing to worry about. Nothing to see here. It has been about a generation (depending on how you measure these things) since we’ve been exposed to this stuff full steam ahead. There hasn’t been any long term study (how could there be?), nor has there been any safeguarding by political representatives (a perfect combination of a human and a spineless jellyfish).
How safe are these alien species to us and our biosphere?
Mutated pests are quickly adapting to biotech crops in unpredicted and disturbing ways
Genetically modified crops are often designed to repel hungry insects. By having toxins built into the plant itself, farmers can reduce their use of environmentally unfriendly insecticide sprays. But as any first-year evolutionary biology student can tell you, insects are like the Borg in Star Trek: they quickly adapt. And this is precisely what is happening – but in ways that have startled the researchers themselves.
The discovery is a wakeup call to geneticists because it has highlighted the importance of having to closely monitor and counter pest resistance to biotech crops. The development also raises the question of the potential futility of having to change the genetic structure of crops in perpetuity; given that insects are constantly evolving, to what degree will geneticists have to go to ensure crop immunity to pests? And what does that say to the ongoing safety of such crops as far as human consumption is concerned?
Case in point are cotton bollworms. To deal with these pests, genetic scientists have developed an insect-killing cotton plant that produces toxins derived from the Bt bacterium (geneticists say that these toxins are harmless to most other creatures, including humans). But the bollworms are developing a resistance. Scientists have observed that a rare genetic mutation in bollworms makes them immune to Bt – and that the mutation isn’t so rare any more.
One scientist who predicted that these insects would adapt is Bruce Tabashnik, head of the department of entomology at the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-author of the study making note of these findings. To stay ahead of the game, Tabashnik studied bollworms in the lab just to see how they would adapt to the toxin. Then, expecting to see the same sorts of adaptations in the real world, he took a look at bollworms in China.
What he found there was a bit disturbing. Yes, he discovered bollworms that exhibited the exact same mutations as the ones in his lab – but the Chinese insects also showed some adaptations that were completely unexpected. Speaking through a University of Arizona release, Tabashnik noted that, “[W]e also found lots of other mutations, most of them in the same gene and one in a completely different gene.”
A particularly big surprise was that the real world mutations will be more challenging to deal with from a genetic perspective. They identified two unrelated, dominant mutations in the field populations – and by dominant they mean that one copy of the genetic variant is enough to confer resistance to Bt toxin. This kind of dominant resistance cannot be readily slowed with refuges, which are specially designed plants that work to dilute the population of susceptible insects (this process makes it difficult for two resistant insects to mate and produce resistant offspring).
That said, Tabashnik acknowledged that his discovery will set the ball in motion to propel the development of new countermeasures.
As far as the real world mutated bollworms are concerned, they’re starting to take off in China. The researchers discovered that resistance-conferring mutations in cotton bollworm were three times more common in northern China than in areas of northwestern China where less Bt cotton has been grown.
In northern China, however, farmers haven’t noticed the emerging resistance yet. According to Tabashnik this is because only about 2% of the cotton bollworms there are resistant.
But he cautions: “As a grower, if you’re killing 98 percent of pests with Bt cotton, you wouldn’t notice anything. But this study tells us there is trouble on the horizon.”
This “trouble on the horizon” indicates that geneticists are in the midst of an arms race with insects. Each measure they enact will likely be countered by the ever-adapting insects. It’s difficult to know at this point just how modified the crops will have to be to withstand these pests, or how these new crops could impact on human health and the very constitution of the insects themselves.
the full study: Asymmetrical cross-resistance between Bacillus thuringiensis toxins Cry1Ac and Cry2Ab in pink bollworm
What, me adapt?
What’s most disturbing in the following article from the Hindu is how they refer to the rash of suicides by farmers as rather matter-of-fact. This in and of itself if an argument against biotech business practices. Bt Cotton requires more irrigation than natural cotton, and in parts of India where rainfall is unpredictable, shortfalls can be devastating.
Study questions sustainability of Bt cotton in water-starved Vidarbha
Lack of irrigation is one of the major causes leading to cotton farmer suicides in Maharashtra, a new study by the Council of Social Development (CSD) has stated. Titled ‘Socio-economic impact assessment of Bt cotton in India,’ the study has yet again raised the question of whether the marginal land of Vidarbha is suited for Bt cotton at all.
Commissioned by the Bharat Krishak Samaj, the study points out the dependence of Bt cotton farmers on rainfed agriculture, the increasing irrigation costs and the lack of institutional credit.
The study, in which farmers and farm labourers in Jalgaon and Yawatmal districts were interviewed, says, “70 per cent of the farmers stated that irrigation expenditure was more on Bt cotton than on non-Bt cotton.” Though it claims that productivity increased by 4.49 per cent from the pre-Bt to post-Bt period, costs too increased: especially fertilizer costs, which increased from 29 per cent in the pre-Bt period to 71 per cent in the post-Bt period. In all 140 farmers and 40 agricultural labourers were a part of the study.
“Farmers in the central Indian region blamed the suicides mainly on low and erratic nature of rainfall as this was a rainfed region,” it states. This adds to many of the recent indicators that question the sustainability of Bt cotton in Vidarbha.
Vinayak Deshpande, member of the Kelkar Committee, appointed by the Maharashtra government to study the agrarian crisis in Vidarbha region and professor at the RTM Nagpur University said productivity of Bt cotton is closely linked to irrigation. “The region faces the largest irrigation backlog in the State, at 57.3 per cent. In physical terms, the irrigation backlog is at 10,76,000 hectares. The cost of this in 2008 was Rs. 10,767 crore,” Dr. Deshpande told The Hindu on Thursday.
The irrigation against potential in Vidarbha is only 40 per cent, whereas in the rest of Maharashtra it is more than 70 per cent, he added.
Dr. Deshpande said subsidies for fertilizers and pesticides were also given more in irrigated areas. “High yielding varieties of crops like Bt cotton need more water as well, along with fertilizers. In the end, it is all linked to irrigation,” he said.
The government itself has acknowledged that irrigation is mandatory for Bt cotton. Speaking at an event organised by seed giant Monsanto in Pune in March this year, Maharashtra Agricultural Commissioner Umakant Dangat urged farmers to plant Bt cotton only in irrigated areas. “The farmers should use their discretion and plant BT cotton on irrigated land. The amount of water needed is definitely more,” he had said.
In the last few months, the water scarcity situation in the State highlighted issue of irrigation backlog, forcing the State government to announce that a white paper on the costs and expenditure of irrigation projects will soon be brought out. Even as that is awaited, Dr. Deshpande states that the priority will be to take up projects in Vidarbha. “Along with big dams, water conservation projects and drip irrigation must be introduced,” he said. Though the final report of the committee headed by economist Dr. Vijay Kelkar has not been submitted yet, Dr. Deshpande said these would be recommendations.
Another element in the study states that as opposed to farmers in the rest of the country, a majority of whom had heard of Bt cotton from neighbours and relatives who had benefited, in Maharashtra 79 per cent of the farmers had heard of Bt cotton from seed dealers. In Yavatmal’s Hiwra village, this correspondent was told by cotton farmers that non-Bt cotton seeds were not available. “The cotton prices have gone down. There is no water for the Bt cotton needs. We cannot afford planting Bt anymore. But, we cannot buy non-Bt seeds in the market. The dealers tell us that there is no supply,” Sumant Meshram, a farmer said. Pointing at the nearby Pachpahur irrigation project that lies unfinished, another farmer Dharmaji Pendhur says that there is no water for cattle too. “We have to sell our cattle, we cannot afford to keep them anymore,” he said.
Kishore Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS) said the government was not serious about clearing the irrigation backlog of the State, even as it continued to affect the farmers. “Only two per cent of irrigated land was added in Vidarbha from 2006 to 2011. Obviously Bt cotton is not sustainable in such a scenario. The farmers themselves have realised that now, after so many years. The distress continues as there is no proactive help from the government,” he states.
Dr. Deshpande suggests that the Maharashtra government draw up a separate policy for the Vidarbha region. “It needs to be discussed whether Bt crops, which have entered into the market, are suitable for a particular region. We have lagged behind in providing these extension services which monitor agriculture at the micro level. The level of social awareness is not matching the movement of the market,” he states. “Is the government able to provide a cushion for its farmers?” he asks.
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171 Days to Dec 21st 2012