The Killing Fields of Monsanto

More than 650 organisations – including Greenpeace and the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements – have recently filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the United States over the approval of crops genetically altered to contain the natural insecticide known as Bt. Their action coincided with a meeting in Colombia of delegates from 170 countries who were negotiating agreement on such genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Environmental, consumer and public health groups are concerned that the environmental impact of such organisms had not been adequately studied and therefore should not be certified and available on the market.

Protests against Genetically Altered Cotton

In India, the end of last year saw protests by farmers in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh against permission granted by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) to an US Transnational Corporation, Monsanto, to field test a genetically altered variety of cotton. The protests turned violent in places with farmers organisations burning down fields where the controversial variety had been planted. As a consequence the AP government has now stopped trials on farmers’ fields. It has asked Monsanto and the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Limited (MAHYCO), its Indian partner, to carry them out only in the research stations of the N G Ranga Agriculture University under the direct supervision of government scientists.

At the center of the controversy is the genetically altered variety of cotton called Bolgard Cotton or Bt Cotton. The variety has been designed by Monsanto to withstand attacks against a common pest that has been known to ravage vast tracts of cotton plantations, called the Bollworm — hence the name coined for the new variety that guards against Bollworm is “Bolgard”. The new variety has been designed by inserting the genes of a bacteria called Bacillus thuringeinsis (Bt) into cotton. This bacteria which is found in the soil produces a toxin that is lethal to the Bollworm. Farmers in the U.S. have traditionally used this property of the Bt bacteria to guard against infestation by the Bollworm. They periodically dust the cotton crops with dried extracts of soil rich in the bacteria. When a gene of this bacteria, which is responsible for producing the Bt toxin that is lethal to the Bollworm, is inserted into cotton, the altered cotton variety continuously produces the toxin. This provides continuous protection against the pest and Monsanto claims that the technology would minimise pesticide usage and increase production by 20-25%.

The technology used to produce the genetically altered variety is commonly known as genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is the process whereby genes of one species are implanted in another species, to give new traits to the recipient. For thousands of years hybrid varieties have been created by farmers by cross breeding of plants and animals, in order to propagate beneficial traits. But till now the movement of genes has only been possible between closely-related species. There was no method, for example, by which dog genes could get into cats. Unlike conventional breeding, in which new species are created more or less at random, genetic engineering allows specific genes to be identified, isolated, copied, and introduced into other organisms in much more direct and controlled ways. It allows scientists the theoretical possibility to remove genes from a snake or a mosquito and implant them in a tomato or a cow.

Global Criticism of Bt Cotton

On the face of it the technology that has been used to develop the Bt variety of cotton appears elegant and useful. But it is now facing global criticism for a number of reasons. By making the cotton plant produce the cotton continuously, the technology ensures that the pest (Bollworm) is exposed to the toxin 365 days in a year. It is like spraying a pesticide on a field every day. Such a ploy is fraught with an obvious danger. Prolonged use of any pesticide results, finally, in the pest becoming resistant to the particular pesticide. New “super -pests” develop, which have the ability to resist the action of the pesticide. In the past we have seen a number of pesticides losing their usefulness after sustained use, as pests develop resistance to them. DDT is a classic case in this regard – a pesticide once consider lethal to a variety of pests, it has now largely lost its effectiveness. In the case of Bt Cotton, we have for the first time a case where a pest is being exposed to a pesticide throughout the year. It is akin to pumping a person with antibiotics every day, 365 days in a year, to protect against infections! It does not take a genius to deduce that a such a situation would greatly accelerate the process of resistance being developed by the pest. Critiques of the Bt Cotton argue that at most it would take 5-10 years before the Bollworm becomes resistant to the Bt toxin. Thus at the end of it all, we would have lost the services of an useful ally in the battle against the Bollworm. The loss would be doubly unfortunate as the Bt toxin is obtained from bacteria that reside in the the soil, and is thus largely free of the ill-effects of synthetic chemical pesticides. The only gainer would be the company that supplies the seeds of Bt Cotton, i.e. Monsanto, who would have made killing in this period of 5-10 years because they have exclusive access to the technology.

This is not all. It is believed that the Bt toxin can have adverse effects on other species too, prominently insects like bees which play a vital role in pollination. This is not a major problem if the cotton crop is sprayed only periodically, as has been the traditional practice. But in a situation where these insects are continuously subjected to the toxin, there could possibly be major consequences for the survival of many of these. Destruction of naturally occurring insect species can be a major environmental disaster, as they play a crucial role in maintenance of the overall ecosystem. Moreover pests susceptible to the Bt toxin may also change their diet to prefer other plants to eat, thus disrupting the local ecosystem and perhaps harming a neighbouring farmer’s crops.

The Bt Cotton technology has also been criticised for its promotion of monoculture. This is a broader problem, not limited only to the issue of Bt Cotton. Widespread propagation of genetically altered varieties of a particular type precludes the use of different varieties of crops in the same area. It leads to huge areas being planted with the same variety. Such cropping techniques are especially vulnerable to extensive damage by pests and sudden climatic changes like drought. This happens because if the variety becomes vulnerable to a certain pest, crops in the whole area may be destroyed. We have seen this happen last year in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, leading to a spate of suicides by farmers, whose crops had been so ravaged. In mixed cropping patterns, where different varieties are grown in the same area, a pest may kill one variety while a different variety would still survive. Exotic varieties (i.e. varieties imported from a different country or region, like the Bt Cotton) are particularly prone to such disasters, as unlike local varieties they’ve not developed resistance to local pests.

Response of the Deptt. of Biotechnology

The Department of Biotechnology, which is responsible for granting permission for biotechnology trials, has reacted to the controversy in a typically ham-handed manner. P K Ghosh, adviser DBT, is quoted as having said, “Activists should at least get their facts straight before going to town. If we are accused of working in secrecy, what are they doing? Creating panic without cause?” (quoted in the Down to Earth Magazine) Manju Sharma, secretary DBT adds, “what is good for the US is good enough for” (quoted in the Down to Earth Magazine). The Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Limited (MAHYCO), has gone a step further. “Let the trials speak for themselves. Why should we inform the public?” asks V R Gadwal, consultant with MAHYCO (quoted in the Down to Earth Magazine). In other words the Govt.’s defence is that the criticisms are motivated and baseless, they (the Govt.) have no obligation to inform the people about what is going on, and, most interestingly, if the US is allowing this technology, who are we to complain? The DBT has gone on to lament that such attacks will give a bad name to Biotechnology and would set back research in this field by a decade.

The DBT needs to realise that if this happens, it is they who should be held responsible. Biotechnology has immense potential, especially in a country like India. But the DBT needs to ponder as to what kind of service they have done to its potential by one, promoting a dubious technology and, two, by associating with Monsanto – the company which possibly has one of the worst track records in the World. And then by finally claiming that a Sovereign country need not worry about the applicability of a certain technology, if it has already been accepted in the US. This is naivety of the worst kind, or double-speak, or possibly both.

Skeletons in Monsanto’s Cupboard

First a brief recapitulation of Monsanto’s antecedents. It is a giant conglomerate that straddles different sectors – seeds, food products, agro-chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, Monsanto employs 45,000 people and peddles over eight billion dollars a year in chemical products. It owns the drug firm G.D. Searle and Company, a major pharmaceutical supplier. Add to this branches which manufacture a whole range of fibres, plastics, resins, rubber and metallised materials. It has the dubious distinction of pioneering the technology to produce Agent Orange, used by the US to carry out a sustained chemical genocide campaign in Vietnam. Agent Orange sprayed by the United States during the Vietnam War has contaminated the country’s food chain, creating serious environmental and health problems. The chemicals destroyed 14% of South Vietnam’s forests, according to official U.S. reports. Vietnam says half a million people have died or contracted serious illnesses over the years because of the spraying.

Monsanto is unquestionably a world leader in agricultural genetic engineering. It has moved aggressively with R&D, takeovers, mergers and lobbying. Their purchase of seed companies, their contractual prohibitions on farmers’ traditional practice of saving seeds from one season to the next, their opposition to smaller companies trying to avoid bovine growth hormone (another Monsanto product), all speak of a company anxious to create a Corporate monopoly over agricultural practices.

Monsanto’s forays into genetically altered crops are aimed at bolstering sales of its own herbicides. Its Roundup Ready soyabeans, for example, are designed to tolerate applications of Roundup, which is Monsanto’s trade name for glyphosate – a herbicide. Roundup is Monsanto’s most profitable product. Monsanto’s patent on Roundup runs out in the year 2000, but any farmer who adopts Roundup Ready seeds must agree to buy only Monsanto’s brand of Roundup herbicide. Monsanto has consistently refused to indicate in the labels of its agricultural products, what percentage is made up by genetically altered products. Recently this has fuelled demands in Britain that Monsanto’s food products be banned.

For years, in the face of sustained opposition from health professionals, Monsanto’s subsidiary G.D.Searle, continued to promote its ant-diarrhoeal Lomotil for use in children in Third World countries. Tens of thousands of children are believed to have died due to Searle’s unethical promotion of Lomotil syrup, till it was banned in most countries by the early nineties.

Wresting Control of Third World Agriculture

Next the argument that we are safe in following the United States’ lead in genetic engineering. The US has consistently argued for liberal laws regarding trials on genetically altered varieties and at the same time is pushing for strong patent protection for seeds, plant varieties, and genetically modified plants, animals and micro-organisms. It does so for its own interests. The world today consists of the bio-diversity rich (or gene rich) South and the Patent rich South. What it means is that an overwhelming majority of plant and animal species reside in the countries in Africa, Asia and S.America while Patents for a variety of technologies are largely held by corporations in the U.S., Europe and Japan. Till recently there was a general consensus that life form patenting is a subject that should not even be considered. But the US has tried to alter the rules of the game by aggressively promoting the concept of life-form patenting. Even the European Union was reluctant to fall in line, but major concessions have now been provided in this area in the last couple of years, though strong opposition to life-form patenting persists in many European countries. The US wants life form patenting in order to wrest control over the remaining biological resources of the globe. It also wants to wrest control over agricultural production all over the world.

If something doesn’t change soon, it is safe to predict that a small number of corporations — the majority of them American and the remainder European — will have a monopoly on the seeds needed to raise all of the world’s major food crops. Then the hungry, like the well-fed, will have to pay the corporate owners of this new technology for permission to eat. Companies like Monsanto are the cutting edge of the drive by the United States to wrest control of global food production — and hunger.

Prospects and Safeguards in Genetic Engineering

Genetic alteration of living organisms, it is predicted has the potential to revolutionise many aspects of food production, as well as production of chemicals and pharmaceuticals. The technology has made it conceivable that we can design food materials with improved keeping and processing qualities and reduced or eliminated natural toxicants or allergens (such as allergenic proteins in nuts). It can lead to better understanding of responses of crops to environmental stress and development of varieties that can grow in areas currently too inhospitable. It can lead to production of high value drugs such as vaccines in high volume agricultural crops such as oilseed rape or livestock such as in milk of dairy cattle. It could also lead to the development of renewable and sustainable sources of new materials (such as plastics based on starch or vegetable oil) in designer agricultural crops such as oilseed rape, potato, and maize.

But at the same time the technology is still to be fully controlled. Genes don’t necessarily control a single trait. A gene may control several different traits in a plant. Without careful study, plants with undesirable characteristics may be released into the global ecosystem. And biotechnology is not like a chemical spill that can be mopped up — once you release a new gene sequence into nature, your grandchildren are going to be living with it because there’s no taking it back. How a gene affects a plant depends upon the environment. The same gene can have different effects, depending on the environment in which the new plant is growing. What appears predictable and safe after a few years of observation of a small test plot may turn out to have quite different consequences when introduced into millions of acres of croplands, where conditions vary widely. Genes can travel to nearby, related plants on their own (called “gene flow”) with unpredictable consequences.

The last fear almost come true in one of Monsanto’s experimental fields in Britain. In October 1998, an experimental crop of oilseed rape that was altered to be resistant to herbicides had to be destroyed after it pollinated nearby plants. The fear was that, left unchecked, a new breed of superweeds which normal chemicals could not destroy might have resulted with devastating effects for Britain’s agriculture. The British Government is now prosecuting Monsanto and British based sub-contractor Perryfields Holdings Ltd. It is being alleged that Monsanto and Perryfields failed to prevent genetically modified winter oilseed rape cross-pollinating with another field of their normal oilseed rape. A pollen barrier, or buffer zone, of only two metres instead of the required six surrounded the test site.

Rushing in Where Angels Fear to Tread

The issue then is what, are the boundaries to be set for research related to genetic engineering. And probably more important, who are going to set these boundaries. Today predatory TNCs seem to be controlling the use and misuse of this technology. It is precisely because of the uncertain nature of this technology that many European countries continue to tread warily in this area. Several have been particularly cautious, for example, of allowing Bt crops (crops like cotton and corn which have been genetically altered to incorporate the Bt gene) to be grown within their borders. Britain recently announced it would wait three years before approving such crops. In December 1998 the highest court in France upheld the suspension of the growing permit for Bt corn there and Austria, Luxembourg, and Norway also banned the corn. Greece recently voted against EU approval of Bt corn, based on “reservations about possible effects on the environment and public health.” But the Dept. of Biotechnology in India feels that “what is good for the US is good enough for us.” Surely a case of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread!

The cause of research in Biotechnology in India would be better served if we first think through the necessity and nature of safegaurds. It will be served if the likes of Monsanto are recognised for the villains that they are. Finally, instead of rushing forth to accuse public wariness of motivated slander, some transparency on the part of the Deptt. of Biotechnology might help clear the confusion.