Commercial Introduction of Transgenics in developing countries - Some points to ponder

- S. Seshadri, K. Kathiravan, S. Ignacimuthu and

#S. Janarthanan

Entomology Research Institute, Loyola College, Chennai 600 034, India. #Department of Zoology, Thiagarajar College, Madurai 625009, India.
*For Correspondence
E-mail: tsseshadri@rediffmail.com
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 12 (2002), 57-59.
Slowly transgenics have been finding their way into the agricultural fields of developing countries. After some debate India has approved use of Bt cotton. Planting of transgenics, ostensibly, are reported to reduce the pesticide use and save much money. There are for1and against2 groups on the introduction of Bt crops, which are commercialized now for the control of insect pests in fields. Howsoever the decision of the countries in introducing transgenics may be, there are some points still, on which the world is still debating. Recently the Ecological Society of America has called for greater scrutiny of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) than those of organisms produced by traditional breeding practices citing the risks including creation of new or hardier pests, harm to non-target organisms and loss or changes to biodiversity. They lay stress on the need for more peer-reviewed research on the potential environmental effects of GMOs3. We hereunder present some of those points that would be useful for discussion and further refinement.

1. Bt crops kill only target pests

The world is divided and is yet to come to a conclusion that Bt crops do less harm to the non-target insect pests. In the Bacillus thuringiensis toxin spray trials most of insects viz. Ploidia interpunctella4, Heliothis virescens5, Plutella xylostella6 are reported to acquire resistance. This kind of resistance cannot be ruled out in case of transgenics. Examples of highly effective plant pest systems are Bt maize and the European corn borer7, Bt potato and the Colorado beetle8 and Bt oilseed rape and the diamond back moth9. However, especially the Bt cotton had come under criticism where in Bt cotton reduction in expression resulted in surival of lepidopteran pests of intermediate Bt sensitivity in cotton fields10. Some reports11 indicate that lepidopteran pests are less or not sensitive to Bt. Most of the publications regarding the non-target insect studies are reported from laboratory trials only. But there is an arguement that there may not be a threat to non-target organisms on use of Bt crops. Some are of the opinion that the cotton cultivars with boll specific ICP expression might need the aid of chemical insecticides when pest densities are very high.

2. Gene pollution

Even though it is said that there will be no gene pollution, there is a fear that genes may find their presence in the soil, in turn would be taken up by the soil living bacteria, which would find its way into the gastrointestinal tracts of human beings and cattle. A recent report on the presence of tetracycline resistant genes in groundwater as far as a sixth of a mile downstream from swine facilities producing antibiotics12 can well be considered for transgenics cases. According the authors, the evolution of genes are there due to use of tetracycline in farms, which are transferred to bacteria that can travel a long distance in the environment. The finding of horizontal transfer of genes in in-situ conditions is the significant report in this present context.

Even though they are succumbed to various pest problems, most Bt crops still have antibiotic resistant genes, promoter, terminator and other marker genes like GUS, etc that may lead to various unexpected problems. Some are of the opinion nullifying this as trivial and gene transfer does not happen in nature citing the short half life of the plant DNA, the checks mouted by nucleases in gastrointestinal tracts, restriction enzymes and other digestion enzymes produced by gut bacteria. As the effects are yet to be studied in detail there arises the need to address this in utilitarian point of view.

3. Refugia

Scientists recommend the use of refugia while planting transgenics13,14. The advantage of "refugia' discussed are to delay the development of Bt resistance in the target pest population13. For Bt maize, in US, refuge areas of 4-30% of non-Bt maize area has been recommended15. Scientists have started debating on the percent of refuges required for each Bt crop14,16,17. But unlike West and US large areas may not be possible in developing countries where the per capita land availability is less and smallholdings dominate the agricultural scenario. If introduced in the small apportioned fragmented cultivable plots, this may result in the loss of more farmers lives, where the benefactor will be the transgenic planter and the loser will be the farmer planting non-Bt crops surrounding the transgenic plots. In agriculturally dependant developing countries one cannot expect more than 10 acres of solid plantation unless all the farmers in an area are convinced on the advantages of transgenics. If not so, what would be the alternative? This has to be answered immediately. Another case is the planting a transgenic by a small farmer. If farmers with a land of 2 or three acres opt to transgenic and the area of refugia has to be worked out differently to a huge US farm. It was also reported that, the contribution of refuges would depend on several aspects of their management including their proximity to GM crops and the extent to which they are treated with conventional pesticides18. Hence a convincing area required for plantation and the set of package of practice for each and every area (Bt crop dominating area, mixed cropping area and non-Bt dominating area etc.) has to be worked out and promulgated effectively for a successful implementation.

4. Insect resistance

Insect resistance is a great mishap in any plant crop that is planted as monocrop and in mass scale. In the past, chemical pesticides application had come under attack and the emphasis was implied to the routine and direct use of pesticides in higher amounts. More than 500 species of insects have become resistant to conventional insecticides and there is empirical evidence that they can also adopt to Bt toxins19. Thus the loss of Bt toxin to pest resistance could have significant environmental consequences20. Cotton pests selected for resistance to one or more Bt toxins include Heliothis virescens21, Spodoptera exigua22 and Helicoverpa Zea23. Even in field conditions, a significant number of cotton growers have experinced damage equivalent to control, due to H. armigera in Bt cotton fields24. Plutella xylostella has been found to show higher resistance in field conditions14. In this line some of questions that can be debated are 1) The half-life of the introduced gene against target insect pests (this will help us to select or introduce a new gene for incorporation before 100% breakdown occurs in field conditions) 2) Their specific targets and implications there upon 3) The remedy if insect breaks down the resistance 4) The consequential pyramiding effects if the insect breakdown occurs, etc.

5. Economy

Where farmers find it difficult to afford the cost of traditional seeds and related agricultural practices, it is utmost important to workout economy on using the transgenics and it is also worthier to think the cost-benefit particulars on planting them in large scale. The issue and procurement price, market trend in leniant and flooded market scenario are to be taken into account for a better appraisal. The crop promotion cost should be less when compared to the conventional methods. Some reports say, transgenics (mustard) can yield 20-25% more than average. It is a known fact, most of the farmers in developing countries do not nourish their crops according to the prescription. There needs a fair comparison of proper ecoagrotechnology vs transgenic technology. For successful implementation of transgenics working out of the comparative cost-benefit ratio is a must.

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6. Environment and health

The soil bound toxins are reported to retain greater insecticidal activity than the free toxin. Reports indicates, binding of Bacillus thuringiensis subsp kurstaki toxins in the clays, humic acids and clay humic acid complexes, after harvest of Bt crops, which reduces their susceptibility to degradation by microbes25. These may have ecological effects that need reevaluation under mass scale planting of Bt crops.

Allergies are reported to be a predominant problem associated with the trangenics. The Starlink case in US is the best example. The Starlink gene protein found in American taco shells were attributed to cross-pollination or mixing through silos or transporation that had cost the producer, Aventis to pay around $100 million as compensation. Nobody knows the resultant allergy related problems that may crop up on using transgenics in a long run. This needs to be addressed immediately considering the poor laws that support the farmers's cause in compensating the farmers in distressed conditions. In this scenario, these countries must draw foolproof transgenic related laws to monitor and control the producers and protect the end users.

Most of the traditional farmers have the habit of saving the seeds for their future purpose. The most important question to be answered is, what if, if if farmers saves and reuses the seeds (the seeds may have been pollinated by pollens from adjacent non-Bt crops or through inbreeding and may lose the traits) for further use.

7. Traditional vs. Trangenic

Almost all the developing countries lack an organized marketing sector for selling their produce and the grains markets are being controlled by the traders only. With this, the consumers never had the chance of identifying the right preferred quality of grain from these markets. There is also a lack of regulations to streamline the market to function fairly. Recently the spurt is there from consumer societies alerting the public on the right of knowing the quality, origin etc. Given the transgenic contamination in the traditional varieties even in the developed Western markets and US, it may be highly difficult in the developing countries to provide pure transgenic and traditional products separately to the consumers. These countries even do not have sophisticated testing procedures or can employ such sophisticated gadgets for the purpose. Moreover, the US experience says, the contamination is mainly from the cross-pollination in the field from one field to another. Considering the fragmentation of farm plots and poor availability of other resources, it is highly unlikely that we may have pure transgenics or non-Bt varieties in plots or markets. This will in a long run ruin the farmers' independency in planting a variety of will, but will force them to take up the dictated varieties only.

8. Poverty vs. Science

Most of the economists say, the poverty in the world countries is not due to poor availability of food grains. According to Amartya Sen, the root cause of the famine is not the non-availability of resources of food materials but the inability of people to earn money due to joblessness created by unemployment. It is nothing but the purchasing power of the poor and not the physical shortage of food26,27. For example, if the stocks in godowns are considered, India should be largest producer of grains in the world. Against the required minimum stock (as on January 2001) of 16.8 million India has the stock of 45.7 million tonnes, which is roughly three times higher than the requirement28. Hence, poverty should not be cited as the only reason, if India like countries prefers to go for transgenics.

When Green Revolution was at full swing, William C. Paddock26 wrote, "To many the green revolution is a turning point in man's long war against the biological limitations of the earth." Some of his observations include, 1) The new varieties require irrigation, water, fertilizer, and additional labor. All are expensive. For the farmer, this means financial risk that may lead to debt. 2) To feed the world population requires the use of agricultural chemicals, the pollutants of which will have a deletorious effect on our children and on their children and 3) The governments of hungry nations will once again turn their thoughts away from the No. 1 problem of solving the agricultural and rural problems of their countries and resume their emphasis on pacifying the cities and worshipping the idol of industrialization.

Apart from increased food grain production what we see now, as a consequence of Green revolution, is the polluted dead soils, putrefacted lagoons and river and ocean pollution and alteration of aquatic flora and fauna due to indiscriminate use of pesticides and fertilizers. We must be cautious in our every positive move, that we do not allow one to think that we again rehearse the same conditions due to transgenics introduction. Issues that warrants are input requirements, farmers's financial risk, purchasing power, economy, deletorious effects, and the unknown risk that may accrue in future. One has been pushed to the state of thinking the post introduction pest breakdown and the suitable alternatives. Moreover, the implementation of IPM has also suffered due to economic conditions, availability of resources, availability of small farm plots, varieties used, assorted cropping patterns, that made IPM adoption poor.

Hence, a thorough risk assessment of every GM plant to be released is essential and, in addition, post approval monitoring of natural enemies should also be employed once insect resistant GM plants are grown on a large commercial scale18. We suggest, the farming system and farmers' plight, consumers and their awareness and markets also should be analysed for a successful sustained implementation of the Bt crops. In addition, people's perception also plays a great role in deciding a technology to be adopted. New Zealand shows the way for this in obtaining public opinion on introduction of GM, where it has made a broad and well focussed consultation. The Royal Commission established by New Zealand on Genetic Modification as applied to research, medicine and agriculture29 is a new line of thought in this direction. This will help the countries to face the immediate challenges on introducing the transgenics. This kind of surveys and commissions also can be instituted at least to make aware of the public and to draw more consultations from various groups from their own country.

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