Humans have a characteristic which could very well cause them problems at a certain stage: they can’t keep their hands off nature. The natural yields of animals and plants are not sufficient for them, so they manipulate as long as they think necessary until a method has been found to increase production. Up to recently, that was done by upgrading. By crossbreeding animals and plants within one species, the favourable characteristics of one is combined with those of the other and then introduced into a new plant or animal. Upgrading has led to spectacular improvements in harvests which were even more enhanced by improved breeding techniques. The newest trick in that area is the so-called genetic manipulation. In this case, manipulation takes place at gene level; crossing various characteristics is not involved here. With this form of biotechnology, small miracles can be brought about. However, with this agro technological ‘tour de force’ we could very well be opening up a sort of Pandora’s Box. New diseases and plagues could emerge from it via an irreversible, unstoppable process.
This technology is most advanced in plants, the results of which are sold by large biotechnological companies as being a blessing for man and the environment.
One of the biggest problems in agricultural is formed by weeds. It is not always possible to clear them mechanically and doing it by hand is an impossible task, or it is too expensive. Pesticides were invented for this purpose. In order to do away with weeds, pesticides need to be sprayed a couple of times a year and even then, this is not always effective. There are of course effective pesticides, but they kill off ALL plants. Monsanto, the American manufacturer of the aggressive weed killer ‘Round-up’ has expanded on this biotechnological theme: their biologists experimented long enough on the genes of the soya plant until it became resistant to ‘Round-up’. That is to say, the pesticide ‘Round-up’ could no longer kill the soya plant.
In the meantime, this miracle is used on a large scale, but only in the United States. Farmers buy both manipulated soya seeds and the pesticide ‘Round-up’ from Monsanto. When the soya plants and the inevitable weeds sprout, the farmer simply sprays the crops and then stands and marvels at the miracle. The weeds have disappeared, the soya grows and thrives as never before and the farmer is eternally indebted to Monsanto. In agricultural circles the advantages are loudly praised: production per square meter increases because the soya plant no longer needs to compete with the weeds. This is extremely favorable for the farmer as he only needs to spray once. It is also favorable for the environment and it is excellent for Monsanto because the entire process is firmly legally protected by patents.
The Colorado beetle is a nightmare for American farmers. In a short time, they devour the largest part of the harvest. As the beetles have become immune, spraying with pesticides no longer helps. This is how it happens. There will always be one or two beetles who will survive a spraying of pesticide. These then reproduce. After the next spraying, not two, but ten or twenty will survive and they, in turn will then reproduce. Before the farmer realizes it, he continues spraying like a madman and the Colorado beetle has the last laugh because the poison has no effect on it. This is known as resistance and nothing can be done about it: except, that is, for genetic manipulation.
In the lobby of the central research centre of the largest biotechnological concern in the world - Monsanto in St. Louis - two potato plants in a glass showcase prove the wonders of genetic manipulation. The plant on the right is in a bad state, Colorado beetles are having a feast on it. The plant on the left is in blooming health, even though it is crawling with Colorado beetles. They are not on the plant, but are lying in front of it, dead as doornails.
Monsanto’s biotech engineers have equipped the plant on the left with a protein that eats away the stomach wall of the Colorado beetle once it has eaten from the plant.
Monsanto has also performed similar tricks with other plants. American farmers have fallen en masse for genetically manipulated plants. The costs, compared to “normal” young plants are considerably higher, but so also are the advantages. An estimated 50% of the soya bean acreage in America consists of genetically manipulated plants. In the case of cotton, that is 40%, and for maize 25%. According to Monsanto, those figures could easily have been doubled, but there is insufficient genetically manipulated material available at the moment to meet this demand.
The next step the biotech companies in the agricultural sector want to take, is manufacturing “genetic cocktails”: plants which can kill many varieties of insects, resistant to more than one pesticide and resistant to moulds and fungi.
The biotech company Applied Phytologics Inc. in California is a number of steps further with its ambitions. Where large companies such as Monsanto mainly concern themselves with biotechnology which is mainly advantageous for the farmer, Applied Phytologics looks for added value for the consumer. That is quite far reaching. The company is working on a variety of rice that not only has nutritious value, but also contains an essential component for production of human blood. Their plans include administration of blood transfusion via a plate of rice, eliminating the necessity for tubes in the future. This is just an interim step. The final goal is to genetically manipulate plants to such an extent that they will become vegetarian ‘bio factories’ which could produce environmentally friendly oil substitutes. In this way, even the greenhouse effect could be eliminated.
The Americans look mainly to these obviously large advantages of genetic manipulation. After all, biotechnology not only increases agricultural production on existing agricultural soil, but will also make production possible in areas which are now unsuitable from a climatic point of view. This development, according to them, is essential, because the world’s population is still growing.
Thanks to biotechnology the food shortage in the world can be solved (there are still 800 million people starving). Thanks to biotechnology the use of pesticides can be drastically curtailed and that, in turn, is good for the poor long-suffering environment. A popular example of environment-friendly genetic manipulation is the attempt to produce colored cotton. Cotton is a widely used cloth, but, unfortunately it is white. Colors need to be added through dying and this is a procedure which is not good for the environment. Monsanto is working hard on production of a blue cotton type which will do away with the need to dye all those millions of denim jeans in the future. More importantly: the colours will not fade!
Reactions in Europe to all these blessings are quite cool. The main question with which Europeans struggle is whether genetic manipulation is not all too invasive in God’s creation or in Mother Nature. In the United States this discussion was silenced a few years ago due to the discovery that genetic manipulation also occurs in nature. Speeding up and improving that process in a laboratory is therefore ‘moral’, ethical and - biologically speaking – there is nothing wrong with it. From that viewpoint, the introduction of animal or even human genes to vegetable material is not much other than a clever way to produce inexpensive, essential building blocks for the human body.
European critics are generally of the opinion that genetic cocktails could become a ‘genetic poisoned cup’. This is unthinkable, according to researchers employed by the industry: manipulation takes place in laboratories, thus in controlled circumstances. Furthermore the results are tested extensively before the end product is brought to the market. Those tests are however limited to the question of whether the manipulated product is in fact better than its predecessors.
The manipulated product enters the eco-system via various channels: firstly via the food chain. Humans and animals eat food in which manipulated products such as soya and grain have been processed. Those vegetable particles which are not fit for consumption are used as fertilizer. In this way genetically manipulated material disappears into the soil. No problem, the champions of genetic manipulation claim. Residues just disappear! Let’s fervently hope so, because there is no certainty whatsoever that a genetic time bomb is not developing in the American soil.
According to many researchers at the biotech companies, there is no necessity whatsoever for research into any possible long term damaging effects. They defend this as follows. Genetic manipulation is confined to manipulation of protein structures. These structures are isolated, thus at cell level outside of the plant. Because they are unstable, the structures soon disintegrate. The industry therefore concludes that manipulated genes in the residues of manipulated plants in the soil can do no harm because after all they do disintegrate! This would also apply to manipulated genes in the human body. The protein structures are so broken down in the stomach that they could not possibly be absorbed into the blood stream.
This theory no longer seems to hold water. Independent researchers in American universities, amongst others in New York, have shown in laboratories that manipulated genes can indeed survive for longer periods in the soil. The still unanswered million dollar question now is, whether the genes connect with micro-organisms and in this way structurally alter soil biology.
The American farmer loses no sleep over this question. He is more interested in what happens above ground, from a biotechnical point of view. His main concern is the fields of softly waving crops, almost bursting with soya beans and ears of corn.
But the wind is changing course. In the Summer of 1999 the English tabloid press made minced meat of food in which genetically manipulated material was processed. They referred to it as ‘Frankenstein-food’ and with this term they frightened the consumers so much that they protested against the supermarkets. Within a few weeks English supermarkets removed all food containing genetically manipulated material from the shelves. The Dutch supermarkets are now following this line.
Jolted awake by the consternation in Europe, the American and Japanese consumer organizations also came into action. According to the American Food and Medical Inspection Services, there is nothing wrong with genetically manipulated food. But just to be sure, the Services announced new research in the Autumn of 1999.
In the meantime, for the fourth year in succession, hundreds of thousands of tons of corn, grain and soya are being produced in a genetically manipulated way. Should the research by the American Food and Medical Inspection Services show that genetically manipulated food is in fact not as safe as was first thought, we will have a problem on our hands. Because this means that the time bomb is ticking away.
And nobody knows how to stop the timer.