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Cotton Picking Blues


What a difference a gene could make - cotton farmed intensively in Australia
Cotton picking blues
Ricarda Steinbrecher finds that Nature has a few tricks up her sleeve
when faced with biotechnology’s attempts to control her.

There is a Gene Revolution going on. The ‘revolutionaries’ are promising a new kind of agriculture; one that will change the world so radically that nothing will ever be the same again. They see themselves as the advance guard in the war against the diseases, viruses and insects which attack our food crops.

‘Green Biotechnology’ is what they call it. It can alter and improve seeds and plants so that they can resist nature’s onslaught. The new crops will also be able to tolerate certain kinds of weedkillers (herbicides) so weed control will become easier for farmers and the need for dangerous chemical cocktails will be reduced. At the same time, these new biotechnology developments will improve the environment, strengthen crops, create more sustainable farming practices and provide more and more of us with abundant, fresh food.

So who are these revolutionaries? You might have already heard of some of them: names like Monsanto, Novartis, Cargill. Unlikely guerrillas somehow – they are all transnational corporations. Their motivation? Higher yields, improving food, reducing hunger – and finding new markets in the Third World.

So what’s the catch? Let’s look at this Gene Revolution more closely. It is no coincidence that it sounds so much like the much-vaunted ‘Green Revolution’; the promise to improve agriculture for the citizens of the Third World by selling them ‘high performance’ hybrid seeds together with tons of chemicals like fertilizers, high strength pesticides and herbicides. The so-called improvement to agriculture was a promise which left a trail of disasters in its wake.

Biotech companies intend to replace all our current crops with genetically engineered varieties of species like wheat, maize, oil seed rape, peanut, potato, squash, strawberries, trees and so on. They will shuffle the genes around, from flounder to strawberry, from human to pig, from virus to soya.

Whilst the art and knowledge of conventional plant breeding reaches back thousands of years, there is very little experience of genetic manipulation of plants, or knowledge about genes and their behaviour. Nor can the side effects of genetic engineering be predicted. Nature’s own research and development program, otherwise known as evolution, has been going on for about 4.6 billion years and can tell us a lot about the unpredictability of nature and about the length of time needed to get good results for research. For example, the dodo seemed to be a really good prototype for a flightless bird until another species (humans) came to the island and the whole experiment failed.

The problem is that in nature there are always so many variables. Unfortunately humans seem to be the most problematic of all the variables, especially now that we are adding in a few extra ones of our own making.

Not surprisingly, whilst trying to emulate nature, biotech scientists have had equally unpredictable results. For example, when they took a gene for red pigmentation (colouring) from maize and put it into petunia flowers they expected, quite reasonably, that the petunia would go red. But life is not so simple: the plants did go red, but they also showed other unexpected characteristics such as more leaves and shoots and lowered fertility. In another similar field test petunias that were expected to turn a darker shade of red suddenly lost the red pigmentation completely on some flowers or petals. Others reverted back from red to white. These results raised all sorts of questions about the nature of genes. Do they behave differently depending on where they are and what their neighbouring genes are? Does it matter if there are one or more copies of the same gene in one plant?

There are some things which can be predicted. Nature has perfected flexibility and always reacts to changes and interference. All ecosystems and their member species are under constant pressure to adapt to new situations. If they fail to do so they go under or only survive in a particular niche. So the natural evolutionary response to the constant presence of the same weedkiller or pesticide is to develop tolerance or even resistance to it in order to survive. Thus an Australian farmer found that the rye grass on one of his fields wasn’t reacting to Monsanto’s all-purpose weedkiller Roundup any more, and he couldn’t get rid of it. After only ten sprayings over a number of years the weed had developed resistance. Similarly, the new ‘super-rice’ developed by the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines is ‘an agricultural horror story, not a panacea’, according to the Genetic Resources Action Group (GRAIN). Not only did the rice not produce the high yield expected but farmers had to use high levels of nitrogen fertilizer. GRAIN says that the super-rice also presented ‘serious concerns for pest control and disease management’. 1

Traditional cotton-pickers from Peru.

There is nothing special or unusual about these examples; it is an entirely natural response to an engineered situation, but it could create enormous problems for agriculture.

Insects too can become a problem. They are part of the ecosystem and their numbers are naturally controlled by the abundance or rarity of their food sources and of predators like birds. Our agricultural practices of producing uniform fields of a single crop sends out a loud and clear: ‘Let’s party...!’ signal to insects that live on that particular crop. They turn up in swarms for the feast and this is when insects become ‘pests’.

Pest control was formerly carried out by spraying insecticides but now genetic engineering is coming up with new ‘designer plants’ which produce their own insecticide so that whenever the offending caterpillar or insect takes a bite of a leaf or flower they get a mouthful of toxic poison from within the plant itself. In order to produce these designer plants, biotechnologists extract the ‘poison’ genes from scorpions, spiders or bacteria, alter them and splice them into plants or viruses. Currently biotechnology companies are using bio-toxin derived from the soil bacterium bacillus thuringiensis, known as ‘Bt’. The naturally occurring Bt-toxin gene produces a crystallin protein that will cut into the gut of specific insects and kill them. The engineered Bt-toxin gene, together with other genes, has been spliced into cotton, maize, tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, walnut trees and others, killing off not only caterpillars and hungry insects but a wide range and number of insects and soil organisms, including those that are beneficial in building up soil fertility.

It is not simply a question of biotech companies waving their genetic wand for the pests to disappear. Genetically engineered cotton crops like Monsanto’s NuCOTN failed miserably to live up to their genetic promise. Plants react to heat or cold, drought or salinity and will alter their behaviour as a result, often slowing down and growing the absolute minimum amount necessary for survival. Under the stress of a hot dry summer in the Southern US States the Bt-cotton couldn’t produce enough Bt-toxin and failed to fend off the masses of bollworms and their friends. Many farmers had to resort to pesticides and some had their worst cotton crops in memory. Whilst Monsanto blamed the heatwave, scientists accused Monsanto of rushing their new product prematurely onto the market. Professor Fred Gould of North Carolina State University even reported that the Bt cotton is creating exactly the right conditions for the bollworm to develop resistance to Bt. A toxin that doesn’t finish off all the insects will simply select for resistance in the survivors and hey presto! – the genetic wand produces the Superbug; an insect that is more robust and able to cope with toxins. Insects are notorious for being able to overcome serious insecticides – DDT for example.

So biotechnology companies are engineering crops with ‘benefits’ like disease and pest resistance that will only perform well for a short time – if at all. The creation of superweeds and superbugs will mean a need for more and stronger chemicals to get rid of them. This will also kill beneficial insects and soil organisms and damage the ecology of the soil.

And how will all this affect countries in the South? In its World Food Day brochure, even the FAO admits that ‘several areas exist where modern biotechnology may hinder development or create serious hardship for rural communities.’ Quite apart from the fact that the research, the corporations, and therefore most of the money, are based in the rich world, the biotech fix relies heavily on intensive agriculture and large fields of cash crops. This pushes out small farmers in the Third World who rely on a range of traditional and locally adapted crops to survive.

So why the big rush? Why don’t they stop and evaluate the technology? Examine the global consequences? The quick answer is profit. Corporations have invested heavily in genetically engineered crops and need to make a return on that investment.

But safety, not profit, should be the main concern. And therefore we should be putting the brakes on genetic engineering and reflecting on whether we really want to go down this road before we discover that we are at the point of no return. Once the gene genie is out of the bottle we cannot call it back in.

In the short term the Gene Revolution, like the Green Revolution, is more likely to feed company pockets than the world’s growing population. Existing food, soil and water will be polluted with even more chemicals. In the longer term we face collapsing ecosystems and loss of biodiversity. And we are setting our own unpredictable genetic time bomb.

Dr Ricarda Steinbrecher is a geneticist working with the Women’s Environmental Network biotechnology campaign.

1 International Agricultural Development, Jan/Feb 1997.

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New Internationalist issue 293 magazine cover This article is from the August 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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