Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Food Inc: Mendel to Monsanto - The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest

Book Review: Food, Inc: Mendel to Monsanto – The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest by Peter Pringle (Simon & Schuster 2003)

This is an excellent unbiased journalistic narrative of the history of both the science and politics of biotechnology up to 2003. Transgenic foods have been around now in grocery stores for twenty years. By 2002 about 120 million acres were planted with transgenic crops. Many were designed to resist pests or tolerate stronger pesticides. In the late 1990’s some of the potential problems of biotech were popularized by anti-GMO activists. These included potential allergies, unintended development of “super weeds” and “super pests,” damage to biodiversity, possible extinction of wild plants, damage to beneficial insects, and contamination of organic crops.

There is much debate about the dangers and benefits of biotech and it does seem that there are some of each. The new ebola vaccine is a genetically modified organism so clearly there is some beneficial potential of GMOs, but it is also clear that there are dangers. It is unclear, however, whether the overall effect will be beneficial or detrimental. So far GMO savior foods like golden rice have fallen short of the hype but it is likely that they have prevented blindness and death for many, although some say there are better and safer ways to get nutrition and vitamins to those in need. Biotech regulation seems to favor industrial interests over consumers and that has been a sore point with many. The whole debate is yet another example of the uneasy relationship between corporate and public interests. Industrial property rights on both products and processes have given them an unfair advantage over traditional farmers – supposedly for the good of all since there are modest yield increases with biotech. Much of the plant gene pool is in the poor, tropical, undeveloped south and ownership of those genes and processes to manipulate them have been given to interests in the gene-poor, affluent, north. Yet there has been no real evidence that GMOs are dangerous to consume, even though scientists acknowledge some potential for allergies. Dangers to the environment, to farmers, and to the integrity of food sources seem more likely. Anti-GMO advocates sometimes refer to them as a “plague of sameness” where monocultures are forced on us by corporations. The author notes that:

“The genetic revolution in agriculture is too important to be left to propaganda, either from corporations or environmental ideologues.”

The early genetic experiments of Gregor Mendel are recounted and his perplexity about hawkweed which was found to exhibit asexual reproduction. Apparently this occurs in about 10% of flowering plant families but only 1% of the species that make them up. The phenomenon is called apomixis. Much of asexual plant reproduction remains a mystery. None of the major food crops are apomictic but some minor ones are like mangoes, blackberries, and citrus. The main food crops change by the year due to genetics. If the genes that produce apomixis can be discovered and manipulated then food crops with specific reliable qualities could be maintained year after year which is a goal of biotech, so far elusive. This would mean the traits of prized varieties could be fixed and this would likely help traditional farmers but only if the discovery was shared with them.

New hybrid corn varieties combined with industrial agriculture, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, just before WWII, led to greatly increased yields. This was counteracted in 1962 when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring revealed the dangers of many of these chemicals. Crop yields of wheat, corn, and rice doubled or tripled over the last half of the century.

In the 1990s, the first generation of transgenic plants, the biggest products were a tomato that didn’t rot on the way to market, a soybean that tolerated strong herbicides, and corn plants with pest resistance. These mainly benefited seed merchants, farmers, and food processors. In 1999 with the modification known as “golden rice” there was a chance for biotech to help people deficient in vitamins and nutrition in Third World counties where rice was a staple crop. The death of a million people a year through compromised immune systems due to malnutrition and the blindness of three hundred thousand could potentially be prevented. This was made by genetically instructing the rice to make beta carotene which humans convert to Vitamin A. This also makes the rice turn yellow. The scientists that developed it, Potrykus and Beyer, were not long-time biotech industry people though toward the end of their development they were forced to make deals in order to develop it. Opponents accused them of being industry moles in a calculated move to reinvigorate failing public support of the industry. It is still debatable whether golden rice is better than simply distributing vitamins and addressing the poverty, corruption, and social factors that lead to malnutrition in third world countries. Anti-biotech advocate Vandana Shiva pointed out that preferential monoculture of wheat, particularly the herbicides used on it,  in India’s north decreased production of greens that are high in Vitamin A. Monsanto actually developed a high-Vitamin A mustard green whose seeds were given out for free to farmers in vulnerable areas. Potrykus was taken aback by the criticisms of his work, which also included increasing the iron content of rice to address iron deficiencies in a billion and a half women. Eliminating vitamin deficiencies of these sorts were goals of the World Food Summit in the 1990s. The UN and WHO advocated the nutritionally modified crops as attempts to distribute vitamins and add iron to wheat flour as vitamin distribution missed much of the remote rural at-risk populations. Of course, there is little to no potential profit in addressing nutritional deficiencies but much profit in dealing packages of seeds and pesticides that must be renewed every season. Really, one of the main issues of biotech is coordinating potential public benefit with the private interests of profit. The deregulation and free market rallying cries of the 1990s certainly tended to favor the corporate interests over the public interests, but that was not to be the case in Europe and some counties in Africa. Many countries were introduced to GMOs through food aid, and some refused it, citing safety concerns and threats to the genetic diversity of their own crops, despite having hungry people in need. The backlash in Europe was one of activism, often overblown and yet the dangers were real enough. The European public soured to biotech and still does today.

Patented genes and genetic processes were granted to protect the interests of biotech companies that spent billions of dollars on laboratory research. It can be difficult to ascertain who owns the patents to various processes and if they apply to one’s research. In the case of golden rice, deals were struck between universities and industry and models of pubic-private partnerships in biotech that had implications for the poor and malnourished began to be worked out. Of course, the researchers (Potrykus and Beyer) were now considered traitors by the anti-biotech forces. Critics argued that they could have kept it a public venture and some of the research money came from the Rockefeller Foundation, presumably for humanitarian purposes. The rice plant itself Taipei 309 was a freebee from the Green Revolution, much of it funded by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. Vandana Shiva proceeded to blame the Green Revolution itself for eroding traditional farming and being the source of food problems but most consider that it saved a billion or more people from starvation, no small feat.

Food plant varieties have dwindled since the advent of industrial monoculturing. The Japanese pioneered the art of dwarfing before WWII and this has been a boon to new varieties of rice and wheat that are more productive and drought tolerant. Dwarfing can help plants grow better in conditions of high fertilization. Hybridization leading to so-called “hybrid vigor” was known in the late 1800’s and perfected later. Favoring one variety over others on a big scale can reduce biodiversity and germ plasm of crops. The problem with hybrid vigor is that it only lasted one generation so that new seeds would have to be purchased every season. This is, of course, a boon to seed merchants in cahoots with plant breeders. Monoculturing can also be vulnerable to new disease problems if the main varieties are affected and there is not enough diversity to include immune varieties. Genetic uniformity = increased vulnerability. After WWII, factories that produced nitrogen-derived explosives were converted to produce nitrogen fertilizer. U.S. corn hybrids failed first in Mexico but soon were very successful, drastically improving yields. Success with corn and dwarfed wheat in Mexico led to the establishment of small groups of wealthy farmers and many more poor local farmers who could not compete. This is a time when publicly funded plant research centers and seed banks were set up – for corn in Mexico, for rice in the Philippines, for beans in Columbia, and later for maize, cassava, and rice in Africa. The formula of the Green Revolution was new hybrid seed varieties, irrigation, and chemical fertilizers. The dwarfing gene was a factor in many seed varieties. The results were stunning – a massive increase in available food. By the early 1980’s it had been hailed as a massive success. But there were downsides – decreased soil fertility brought greater dependence on chemical fertilizers. The chemicals combined with poor drainage encouraged more weed and insect growth. This in turn caused more use of insecticides and herbicides and so a vicious cycle was created. Accidental pesticide poisonings due to poor labeling and lack of protective clothing caused many unnecessary human deaths. Pesticides also killed beneficial insects. These problems created a desire to breed plants that had natural insecticidal action (like Bt corn) so that less pesticides would be necessary. An integrated approach to pest management, where limited amounts of pesticides were used, eventually proved to be the most successful. American farming separated into large “superfarms” and smaller organic farms. Family farms faded away. This was to happen in other countries as well, even third world ones, as this style of industrial farming became the norm.

An early manifestation of agribusiness was when the Colonial empires of 18th and 19th century Europe established trade and tropical plantations of tea, cocoa, sugarcane, pineapple, dates, bananas, and spices. Such ventures up through the Green Revolution favored larger operations.

Biotech companies like to point out that the new genetic engineering is just a modernized extension of traditional crossbreeding that is more detailed and targeted. Opponents argue that this is misleading. Crossbreeders select from similar plants that share a recent genetic history but bio-engineered plants often have genes injected from far distant species. With the use of marker genes and signaling genes as part of the transgenic package (called a cassette) there could be unintended consequences if the target gene is not reached or if the cassette plays the wrong info in the wrong place – so say opponents. This has yet to happen from my knowledge but it remains a possibility. Genes from nuts used in biotech have been found to cause allergies in those allergic to nuts – so now such genes are not used without foreknowledge. A big argument of opponents is that biotech can be unpredictable but the companies say that crossbreeding can be too – but likely within the confines of closely related plants – say opponents. The companies also say that any problems can be found during the experimental stages and be eliminated. “Plants have very plastic genomes.” These arguments would seek to influence any would-be regulation of the new GMOs.

In the early 1990’as the new crops were coming to market, the first pronouncements of GMOs were that they are “generally regarded as safe (GRAS) and the FDA proclaimed them “substantially equivalent” to non-GMO plants. This term was perhaps intentionally ambiguous and vague and tended to favor the industry. It was unclear whether GMOs would require extra testing. “Substantially equivalent” is acceptable to some but unacceptable to others. Anti-biotech forces tend to favor the “precautionary principle” which is equally ill-defined in the sense of where one draws the line between risk and safety. The U.S ended up favoring substantial equivalence while Europe favored the precautionary principle. In the U.S., GMO regulation is split between the FDA, the EPA, and the USDA. FDA oversees food safety, EPA deals with plants engineered to make their own pesticides, and USDA deals with interaction of transgenic plants with traditional crops and the potential of gene transfer.

The first GMO food to market was Calgene’s Flavr Savr tomato which was genetically altered not to rot. It was developed in the late 1980’s. It came to grocery stores in 1994 after extensive testing. It utilized marker genes (common in GMO’s) as part of a jumping gene (one that move around in the genome and replicates) of the bacterium E. Coli, a publically feared bacterium – although commonly used in GMOs due to its properties. This nptII gene was also antibiotic and there were questions about it conferring antibiotic resistance after it entered the human gut but this was considered very unlikely. Antibiotech forces led by the very intelligent Jeremy Rifkin were on the warpath as well as the Europeans. Other biotech companies were developing different marker genes that would be considered safer. By 1995 Calgene’s tomato was not much of a success in stores and the company was bought by Monsanto (for their other genetic work) and the Flavr Savr tomato disappeared.

Next there is an analysis of Basmati rice, involving its history as an aromatic, sought after rice mainly from one main area in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan. It has always been in demand at a high price. The same could be said of jasmine rice from Thailand. When a Texas company crossbred basmati with a Green Revolution dwarf variety and patented it (only in the U.S.), there were allegations of “biopiracy” from Vandana Shiva and others. The company preferred to refer to it as “bioprospecting.” This and many other cases brought up questions of “intellectual property” among indigenous products such as crops.

“The highly publicized legal tussles over turmeric, the neem tree, and basmati and jasmine rice fueled a bitter debate over the way patent laws allow companies to assume ownership of the knowledge of indigenous people from developing nations.”

The notion of companies in rich nations making profits from the knowledge of people in poor nations while possibly reducing their own market share tended to infuriate some people. Questions revolve around what should be owned exclusively by those in the region and what could be up for grabs. Another issue is determining what constitutes exploitation of indigenous knowledge and market share. The ideological push from the West towards free trade, free market fundamentalism, and deregulation – of course tended to favor business interests quite much. Patents could be abused in order to make profits. The author goes through the history of plant patent law, particularly in the U.S. and notes that in 1980 was the first time cells (with genes) were patented. Biotech companies began to patent techniques which allowed them to monopolize processes. Deals were made between college research labs and biotech companies. Larger biotech companies like Monsanto bought out other companies for their patents. Another issue is that biotech crops and their accessories (fertilizers and pesticides) were more expensive and so disadvantaged small traditional farmers, particularly in developing countries. The author notes that India could have applied for a GI (Geographical Indicator) for basmati rice but did not. A GI protects a regional product like Scotch whisky or French champagne. Another consideration is how one defines “biopiracy” since seeds have been shared throughout the world as long as people have traveled.

The cauliflower mosaic virus has peculiar genetic qualities as it works well as a promoter, kick-starting reluctant genes selected for their qualities. Monsanto applied for a patent to any gene cassette containing this virus genome, the 35S. British geneticist, biophysicist, and avid anti-biotech crusader Mae-Won Ho, went on to preach of the dangers of the 35S with the potential to make the DNA unstable and unpredictable. Many scientists vehemently disagreed, some pointing out that the promoter was consumed at levels 10,000 times those in the transgenic plants by eating plants in the cabbage family. Others noted that as a “jumping gene” it was more stable than others in use. The promoter gene of the cauliflower mosaic virus (35S) was eventually approved and is in many transgenic foods.    

While GMO soy, canola, and corn became established in the U.S., Europe refused shipments of Monsanto food under the influence of anti-biotech groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. In 1998 the EU banned GMOs. The author notes that anti-biotech forces were arranged in three camps:

“The rejectionists believed that for religious, environmental, or food safety reasons plant biotechnology was wrong, dangerous, and should be stopped.” “The reformists believed that scientists, business, and government had mishandled the new technology; the technology itself was not the root of the problem.” (I tend to favor this camp) The third group was organic growers and consumers who advocate labeling and precautions against “genetic pollution” by cross-pollination. This is reasonable. Greenpeace and others (including Prince Charles) promoted the uncertainties of GMOs. Richard Dawkins was counter as pro-GMO. Since much of the food was to come from America (although European science has had many biotech discoveries and advocates) that was perhaps another incentive for the public to oppose it. Another disagreement between those in Europe and the U.S. was how GMOs were tested, how proteins were isolated for tests, and the thoroughness of the testing. A 1998 study of rats fed GMO potatoes was said to reveal weakened immune systems and less growth in the rats. This study was strongly criticized in peer review (by the Royal Society) for several valid reasons. This likely flawed study prompted Greenpeace to call for a GMO ban.

In 1998, the “Terminator seeds” of Monsanto came about – seeds good for one season and saving seeds from those crops would become punishable by lawsuit. After Monsanto lost market share by mis-predicting the effect of anti-biotech forces, then CEO, Robert Shapiro, actually went before a meeting of Greenpeace and apologized for the way they handled biotech promotion and regulation. This had no effect, however.

In 1999 a study suggested that Bt corn might harm monarch butterfly caterpillars. Other scientists debunked this and called for better studies. All types of Bt corn produce proteins. They were tested in solutions mimicking stomach acid to see how fast they broke down – the slower they broke down the more they would be likely to produce an allergic reaction. One protein form a Bt corn called Star Link broke down very slowly and so the EPA approved it only for animal feed. Some questioned whether it could truly be kept separate. In 2000, a Friends of the Earth activist went to his local supermarket, bought corn products and had them tested for Star Link DNA. It was found in taco shells made by Kraft. Some people complained of allergic reactions after eating the taco shells but it was undetermined if Star Link was to blame. The company Aventis voluntarily withdrew the product and the government spent 15-20 million dollars buying back all the Star Link corn.

The author documents the most prolific plant hunter of all time – the Russian botanist/explorer/geneticist/geographer/linguist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov. He scoured vast nooks and crannies of the world collecting seeds from germ plasm, for science. He was able, for the first time, to pinpoint places where staple plants were first domesticated. By 1940 he had collected and housed 250,000 specimens. Unfortunately he was to be scapegoated by Stalin for not renouncing the science of genetics and died in prison in 1943. Even though he was tried and sentenced as a traitor he would later be reinstated as a hero of Soviet science after Stalin’s death. Bioprospectors (or biopirates) still access his collections. More patent battles were to follow when people tried to patent selections of traditional crops. One reason to pursue new plants was to corner local markets to rival special food crops that had to be imported. People also began to consider that special pesticide and fertilizer intensive GMO crops were not the sole solution to Third World starvation.

“The Green Revolution doubled wheat yields in India, and the Chinese boosted rice harvest by two-thirds – probably saving more than a billion people from starvation.”

Poor countries took what they could get as they needed it. The amount of people subject to starvation was cut in half but there were still many starving due to cost rather than supply. Some like Kenyan ecologist Hans Herren thought too much emphasis was being put on GMOs and not enough on more conventional and proven technologies – many that had yet to be implemented in developing countries. The World Trade Organization (WTO) was convened in 1995 to establish global trade rules and came up with a section on property rights called – Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). This agreement stated that “biological resources, including microorganisms and microbiological processes, should be subject to intellectual property rights and that countries should also set up some form of protection for plant varieties.” Detractors condemned the agreement as sanctioned biopiracy and thought that it overshadowed the intellectual property rights of traditional farmers and thus threatened biodiversity. African farmers have the most desperate need to increase yields to stave off starvation so that is where the GMO debate has been very active. Africa mostly missed the Green Revolution because the crops were more designed for temperate zones rather than the mostly tropical zones of Africa. Pro-biotech Kenyan biologist Florence Wambugu thinks biotechnology can help Africa (and so too now does the Gates Foundation). She has worked on a transgenic sweet potato (a staple crop in Africa) that was projected to increase yields up to 80 %. An African anti-biotech activist is Tewolde Berhan Egziabher, who became head of Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority. The Ethiopian region is the source of coffee, barley, and tef – offering the most biodiversity of each. His main argument is not against genetic engineering itself but against the privatization and profit-oriented nature of it.

In 2001 it was found that the treasured Mexican criollo corn variety was tainted with alien genes from transgenic varieties from the U.S. It was debatable whether this would affect native corn varieties in the long run. Likely what happened was that local Mexican farmers bought corn to eat from the U.S. and ended up planting some. It could also have been corn bought from the U.S. to make tortillas – corn they probably did not know was GMO as there was a ban on planting GMO corn in Mexico. Generally speaking, subsistence farmers will plant the best seeds they can get their hands on as has happened in several countries where GMOs were planted during bans. The main controversy about the Mexican corn cross-pollinations is whether there was “gene flow” or whether the transgenes fragmented and scattered around the genome – and most scientists concluded that they did not and it would have been unprecedented if they did. An issue brought up by anti-biotech forces is the collaborations between the biotech industry and university research which replaced public funding with private funding.

One of the biggest concerns with GM crops is what they could do in those crops centers of diversity. The creation of super weeds out of wild relatives of food crops is a danger:

“The problem is that nearly all the major crops, such as corn, rice, barley, and sorghum, have close relatives that are regarded as weeds somewhere in the world and could theoretically be turned into superweeds.”

Weed is a subjective term referring to a nuisance or troublesome plant that can lead to reduced crop yields of those crops that compete with the weed. Gene flow in this manner – cross-pollination of wild and cultivated species – is most potentially troublesome in areas of greatest diversity where there are many versions from wild to tame of the species. Corn and its largely inedible ancestor, teosinte – have begun to cross-pollinate and the teosinte is changing in some areas, getting features of the corn. Corn is thought to be the food crop most susceptible to gene flow through cross-pollination. Monsanto brought litigation against many farmers for allegedly saving seeds and replanting without paying them royalties. The well-known case of Canadian canola farmer Percy Schmeiser is recounted and he became a sort of folk hero standing up to Monsanto after their crops contaminated his and he saved the seeds and replanted them without paying them a royalty. Many call that corporate arrogance so organic canola growers counter-sued Monsanto for contaminating their crops with GM varieties.

During the African famine of 2002, the countries of Zambia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe refused GM corn food aid from the U.S. under the influence of European bans. Zimbabwe and Mozambique decided to take the corn only if it was milled so seeds could not be planted but Zambia refused. One problem with U.S. food aid is that corn is the most sought after crop and (at the time) one third of U. S. corn is GM and the grain system does not separate GM from non-GM. By 2003 GMO bans were in place in many countries of the world and that is still the case. Aside from the bans there were studies that suggested that crops like Bt corn did not really cut down on pesticide use. Gene flow was discovered between GMO and wild sunflowers and GMO and wild sugar beets.

The European and Brazilian bans hurt Monsanto’s bottom line and their new CEO pledged to be more ethical and open. New GM plants have been developed to be more nutritious, richer in antioxidants, and a new drought-tolerant variety of rice. Monsanto and Syngenta both renounced the Terminator technology. But next came what the anti-biotech people were to call the Exorcist and Terminator II – seeds that would not pass on the transgenic traits to the next generation of seeds. As more plants genomes are sequenced there has been re-interest in traditional cross-breeding in more detail. Changing flowering times to allow two rice crops in a year and changing plants’ responses to light have been goals. Switching on latent genes within a crop itself is generally regarded as safer than injecting genes from other species. Plants under stress can undergo a reshuffling of genes in response, looking for genetic ways to adapt. Working within the genome of the plant itself through cross-breeding for traits is one way of working around plant patents and staying clear of biotech companies for those countries that have banned GMOs. It is not just the GMOs that they are wary of, but the corporate control as well. Philanthropic groups like the Rockefeller Foundation have been trying to pool resources of biotech companies and government research to make some biotech tools and products royalty-free and inexpensively available to all. The great yield increases of the Green Revolution were in part due to the early effects of pesticide and fertilizer use and have since dropped off. One of the big issues is the contrast between the public good and the profits of the private sector. Another is optimizing the good effects and limiting the detrimental ones. The author gives some final statements:

“Biotech agriculture is another step in the evolution of human food, a process of change that began slowly and now, in evolutionary terms, moves at mach speed. The changes are not inherently unsafe, nor are the companies that produce them inherently evil. Transgenic foods have been eaten by contented and discerning consumers in America for a decade. {now two decades}. Moreover, the promise of producing more food in African deserts or the wetlands of Asia is worth the time and money spent on these new seeds.”

“There are plenty of things for the public to worry about, however. One concern is how government agencies study and approve new seeds. In addition, old seeds must be preserved in public seed banks. Companies need to be more generous with patents that can be used to produce food in countries where people are starving. Genetic engineering has a pragmatic and realistic use for developing countries but only if it is properly integrated into the different agricultural systems. Finally, the strategic planners of world agriculture must bring an end to a system that through farm subsidies has long been rigged in favor of rich countries. Without this reform, poor nations have no hope of being able to compete in world grain markets.”

“These experimental foods deserve respect from those who discover them, call for more caution from those who regulate them and grow them, and finally, at the end of this real food chain, demand close study by those of us who eat them.”


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