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Genetically Engineered Plant Crops:
Potential for Disaster
by Dr. David Kennell
Transgenic crops will greatly accelerate the decline of biodiversity in the plant world. Reason: Seed corporations demand farmers buy seed from them each year—replacing the millennial practice of farmers selecting seeds best suited for their specific environments. By coercing governments of developing countries to plant genetically modified (GM) crops, much of the native crops are replaced by a monoculture of the GM crop for export to meet the country’s debt.
The country then has to import food to replace their native crops. Once GM plants are introduced, farmers may be unable to grow non-GM crops. The Percy Schmeiser case in Saskatchewan, Canada has dramatized what is occurring on farms all over the world. The unintended spread of glyphosate-resistant pollen from Round-up Ready (RR) canola plants (possibly by wind, birds, trucks, etc.) contaminated Schmeiser’s non-GM canola fields. Even though the court agreed that he never planted or wanted Monsanto’s GM seeds, it ruled that he had to pay a huge patent fee to Monsanto.
This experience was not unique. The University of Manitoba found that 32 of the 33 commercially available seed lots of native canola have been contaminated with RR seeds. The canola of the Great Plains is rapidly becoming a monoculture variety, which carries the potential for disaster. The RR plants have even invaded other crop species—becoming a “super-weed.”
Why is biodiversity important? The great Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov traveled the world collecting and categorizing plants and seeds. He proposed that there are eight centers of origin of the major species of food plants, all in Third World countries, e.g., corn, Mexico; rice, India; Andes mountains, potatoes, tomatoes; China, soybeans. There have been dozens of major crop disasters in our world in the last 150 years following the great potato blight famine in Ireland in the 1840s. A few examples:
- 1870s: coffee rust in Ceylon, India, East Asia, Africa (the reason England is a nation of tea drinkers).
- 1890s: cotton epidemic.
- 1904: 1916, 1954, stem rust in US wheat (75% of wheat lost in 1954).
- 1940s: brown spot disease of Indian rice (Bengal famine).
- 1940s and again in 1950s: 80% of US oat crop.
- 1940s: USSR wheat crop; led to huge Russian grain deal.
- 1970s: corn blight (Bipolaris) in US destroyed 15% of corn crop.
- 1980: French grapes; aphid powdery mildew (France turned to the US for resistant germplasm).
- 1990s: Russet Burbank potato (Phytophthora infestans blight) is high in mass/water (the reason it is used for McDonalds fries); the blight spread over the world.
Each time resistance was needed. Each time it was most likely found in centers of origin in landraces that had escaped “homogenization.”
Vavilov observed: “These centers are also centers of greatest diversity of varieties and also a rich source of genetic alleles for resistance to specific crop diseases, having evolved varieties during millions of years through many different environments and diseases.”
For example, a worthless-looking primordial wheat plant from Turkey is the primitive progenitor in all breeding programs for US wheat. By 1984, 58% of US wheat used original germplasm—it was only 7% in 1969.
GM plants disrupt the normal ecology selected in millions of years of evolution with some unknown and some known consequences. The incorporated foreign resistance genes provide only short-term advantage. Nature selects for strains resistant to them. Resistance to Round-up is increasing: goosegrass in Malaysia, Italian ryegrass, Australian ryegrass, horseweed in US. Now, over 500 species are resistant to pesticides and over 100 weed species are resistant to herbicides. Pesticide use is up more than 1000 fold on corn since 1945 but corn crop losses increased from 3.5% to 12% in the same period of time.
Now, over 500 species are resistant to pesticides and over 100 weed species are resistant to herbicides.
Concurrently, many beneficial insects and microorganisms are killed by the pesticides, and by the added “inerts” that account for most of their bulk (they are not identified even though many are toxic). Bt toxin from engineered plants is much more stable than the natural toxin from B. thuringiensis. It can remain potent for months in the soil. A teaspoon of soil contains millions of bacteria and fungi, as well as arthropods and earthworms. Soil is a living environment that is unique for each specific place on the planet after millions of years of evolution. It is estimated that one inch of topsoil took 500 years to evolve.
Solutions: Return to the practice of crop rotation. In 1945 corn was grown in rotation with soybeans, wheat and other crops. Corn on corn (increased with GM agriculture) promotes survival of disease vectors and weeds specific for corn. Also, there is increased water runoff and soil erosion. Data for cases where yields have been reduced from GM crops compared to non-GM crops are accumulating. Also, rotation provides more home-grown food and self-sufficiency.
The United Nations World Food Program concluded that there is 1.5 times the food needed to feed all people.
Hunger is a problem of food distribution and of returning land to native farming. GM-crops have nothing to do with solving hunger; in fact, there is a good chance GM agriculture will lead to catastrophic famine in the world by greatly decreasing the gene pool of plants and by major disruption of the ecology of life that has evolved over millions of years. Foreign genes inserted at random sites automatically cause two or more unknown mutations in a host genome, creating unknown phenotypes.
No one knows the consequences of hundreds of man-made life forms being spread across our planet! It is a completely uncontrolled experiment that has no boundaries.
The only purpose of the promotion of GM plants is to control the world’s food supply and thus guarantee continuing and increasing profits for the multinational agrichemical corporations.
Dr. David Kennell is Professor Emeritus, Department of Molecular Microbiology, Washington University School of Medicine.
[18 oct 04]