GMOs and nanotechnology – hope for the future

6 06 2013

I ran into some interesting ideas that seem to display why we should not immediately discredit new science – like genetic engineering or nanotechnology – because it might well provide clues to how we can continue to live on this planet.  So rather than taking a global stand against GMOs or nanotechnology perhaps we should look at how the science is used.

Carbon dioxide (CO2)  – the natural gas that allows sunlight to reach the Earth –  also prevents some of the sun’s heat from radiating back into space, thus trapping heat and warming the planet. Scientists call this warming the greenhouse effect. When t­his effect occurs naturally, it warms the Earth enough to sustain life. In fact, if we had no greenhouse effect, our planet would be an average temperature of minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30 degrees Celsius)[1].  My kids would love the skiing, but they’d be too dead to enjoy it.  So carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect are necessary for Earth to survive. But human inventions like power plants and cars, which burn fossil fuels, release extra CO2 into the air. Because we’ve added (and continue to add) this carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, more heat is stored on Earth, which causes the temperature of the planet to slowly rise, a phenomenon called global warming.

Carbon dioxide isn’t the only greenhouse gas (GHG) – others include water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride – but it’s the most important.  And it’s going up as a direct result of human activity.[2]  Just recently, we passed a milestone that climate scientists have warned is impressively scary – for the first time in human history, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will surpass 400 ppm.[3]

So what to do? Traditionally, we’ve relied on natural systems to deal with this extra CO2 – like trees and other plants which soak up the stuff through photosynthesis.  But the amounts being generated exceed the capacity of natural systems to deal with it.  So we look to technological solutions, which basically consist of:  capture (i.e., trapping the gas at its emission source and then putting it someplace where it won’t escape) and geologic sequestration or storage (putting it someplace where it won’t escape.)  But I’m not a believer in these measures – after all, captured CO2 must be transported (by rail, truck or ship) to its final storage place.  And where is there a storage place that will not leak and can accommodate the 30 billion metric tons of CO2 we generate every year – without dire environmental consequences.

We have to look outside the box.  There have been many such ideas, from the more outlandish (i.e., create man-made volcanoes to pump sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to block sunlight and cool the planet[4]) to several I’ve outlined below that just might help.  But they depend  on the use of GMO and nano science.

As describes it:  “It is not widely appreciated that the most substantial process of carbon sequestration on the planet is accomplished by myriad marine organisms making their exoskeletons, or shells.   Shells are produced biologically from calcium and magnesium ions in sea water and carbon dioxide from the air, as it is absorbed by sea water. When the organisms die, their shells disintegrate and form carbonate sediments, such as limestone, which are permanent, safe carbon sinks.”[5]

from ecoco: sustainable design

from ecoco: sustainable design

By studying how sea urchins grow their own shells, scientists at Newcastle University in the UK have discovered a way to trap CO2 in solid calcium carbonate using nickle nanoparticles.  “It is a simple system,” said Dr Lidija Siller from Newcastle University. “You bubble CO2 through the water in which you have nickel nanoparticles and you are trapping much more carbon than you would normally—and then you can easily turn it into calcium carbonate.”[6]  Most carbon capture and storage programs must first trap the CO2 and then pump it into holes deep under ground, which is both expensive and has a high environmental risk.    Lead author, PhD student Gaurav Bhaduri, is quoted: “ [the nickel catalyst]  is very cheap, a thousand times cheaper than carbon anhydrase”.  The two researchers have patented the process and are looking for investors.

Meanwhile, MIT professor Angela Belcher, who had done her thesis on the abalone,   and graduate students Roberto Barbero and Elizabeth Wood are also looking into this.  They have  created a process that can convert carbon dioxide into carbonates that could be used as building materials. Their process, which has been tested in the lab, can produce about two pounds of carbonate for every pound of carbon dioxide captured.

Their process requires using genetically modified yeast.

Yeast don’t normally do any of those reactions on their own, so Belcher and her students had to engineer them to express genes found in organisms such as the abalone. Those genes code for enzymes and other proteins that help move carbon dioxide through the mineralization process.

The MIT team’s biological system captures carbon dioxide at a higher rate than other systems being investigated. Another advantage of the biological system is that it requires no heating or cooling, and no toxic chemicals.

Dr. Belcher has also used genetically modified viruses so they would have a binding affinity with carbon nanotubes – which allowed them to build a high-powered lithium ion battery cathode that could power a green LED.  Dr. Belcher thinks that she might one day drive a virus-powered car.

I think these two examples demonstrate that we should always keep an open mind.  And remember that it’s not always the science that’s causing a problem, but rather how we use it.  The idea that GMO seeds are intellectual property (owned largely by Monsanto) for example, is one of the wrong ways to use this technology.  But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.


9 04 2012

The first plastic garbage bag was invented by Harry Waslyk in 1950.

1950!  Mr. Waslyk could not have predicted how much havoc his plastic child would wreck in a mere 62 years.[1]

We’ve all seen the pictures of birds stomachs filled with plastic detritus and read about the Great Pacific Gyre, but I just read a new twist to that story:    the Emirates News Agency reported that decomposed remains of camels in the desert region of the United Arab Emirates revealed that 50% of the camels died from swallowing and choking on plastic bags.  “Rocks of calcified plastic weighing up to 60 kilograms are found in camel stomachs every day,” said Dr. Ulrich Wernery, Scientific Director, Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai, whose clinic conducts hundreds of post-mortems on camels, gazelles, sheep and cows in the UAE.  He adds that one in two camels die from plastic.[2]

Plastic has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that plastics are among the debris orbiting our planet. Unfortunately, our wildlife and domestic animals are paying the price now; I think we ourselves will see changes in future generations.

It’s no wonder we’re scrambling to find alternatives to plastic, and one hot topic in the research area is that of bioplastics.

Bioplastics are made (usually) from plant materials.  Enzymes are used to break starch in the plant into glucose, which is fermented and made into lactic acid.  This lactic acid is polymerized and converted into a plastic called polylactic acid (PLA), which can be used in the manufacture of products  ( PLA is about 20% more expensive than petroleum-based plastic)  or into a plastic  called polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA (PHA biodegrades more easily but is more than double the price of regular plastic).

The bioplastic market is expanding rapidly and by 2030, according to some estimates, could account for 10% of the total plastics market.   In the world of fabrics and furnishings, the new biotech products which are being heavily promoted are Ingeo and Sorona, both PLA based fibers with a growing share of the fabric market; and soy-based foam for upholstery.    Toray Industries has announced that they will have the first functional performance nylon and polyester textiles based on biomass ready for the 2013/14 season.  They are 100% bio-based fabrics [3] based on the castor plant, which is very robust, growing in dry farming areas and requiring significantly fewer pesticides and herbicides than other crops.

So it’s no wonder that there has been much discussion about bioplastics, and about whether there are ecological advantages to using biomass instead of oil.

The arguments in favor of bioplastics are:

  • They are good for the environment because there is no harm done to the earth when recovering fossil fuels. Also, in this process there are very few greenhouse gas and harmful carbon emissions. Regular plastics need oil for their manufacturing, which pollutes the environment.
  • They require less energy to produce than petroleum-based plastics.
  • They are recyclable.
  • They are non toxic.
  • They reduce dependence on foreign oil.
  • They are made from renewable resources.

These arguments sound pretty good – until you begin to dig  and find out that once again, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Regarding the first two arguments (they are good for the environment because they produce significantly fewer CO2 emissions and less energy) –  there have not been many studies which support  this argument until recently.  Recently,  several  studies have been published which seems to support that  this is indeed the case:

  1. Ramani Narayan of Michigan State University found that “the results for the use of fossil energy resources and GHG emissions are more favorable for most bio based polymers than for oil based. As an exception, landfilling of biodegradable polymers can result in methane emissions (unless landfill gas is captured) which may make the system unattractive in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”[4]
  2. University of Pittsburgh researchers did an LCA on the environmental impacts of both petroleum and bio derived plastics, assessing them using metrics which included  economy, mass from renewable sources, biodegradability, percent recycled, distance of furthest feedstock, price, life cycle health hazards and life cycle energy use. They found that  biopolymers are the more eco-friendly material in terms of energy use and emissions created.  However, they also concluded that traditional plastics can actually be less environmentally taxing to produce when taking into account such things as acidification, carcinogens, ecotoxicity, eutrophication, global warming, smog, fossil fuel depletion, and ozone depletion.[5]
  3. A study done by the nova-Institut GmbH on behalf of Proganic GmbH & Co.[6]showed unambiguously positive eco advantages (in terms of energy use and CO2 emissions) for bio based polymers PLA and PHA/PHB over petrochemical based plastics.  According to the report, “the emission of greenhouse gases and also the use of fossil raw materials are definitely diminished. Therefore the substitution of petrochemical plastics with bio-based plastics yields positive impacts in the categories of climate change and depletion of fossil resources.”  The results include:
    1. Greenhouse gas emissions of bio-based plastics amount to less than 3 KG of CO2 equivalents per KG of plastic, less than that of petrochemical based plastics which produce an average of 6 KG of CO2 equivalents per KG of plastic..
    2. the production of bio-based polymers, in comparison to all petrochemical plastics examined, leads to savings in fossil resources. The biggest savings potential can be found in comparison with polycarbonate (PC). The average savings potential in the production of PLA amounts to 56 ± 13 megajoules per kilogram of plastics here.
    3. The production of bio-based polymers in comparison with the production of petrochemical plastics in most cases also leads to greenhouse gas emission savings. The biggest greenhouse gas emission savings can be found again when comparing bio-based polymers to polycarbonate (PC). For PLA, the average savings potential in this case amounts to 4.7 ± 1.5 kilograms of CO2 equivalents per kilogram of plastics. For PHA, the average savings potential in this case amounts to 5.8 ± 2.7 kilograms of CO2 equivalents per kilogram of plastics. In comparison with PET and Polystyrene (PS), considerable savings potentials ranging between 2.5 and 4.2 kilograms of CO2 equivalents per kilogram of plastics are to be found in the production of bio-based polymers. The lowest savings potential are to be found when comparing bio-based polymers with polypropylene (PP).

So I will accept the arguments that biobased plastics produce fewer  greenhouse gases and harmful carbon emissions and require less energy to produce than petroleum-based plastics .  They also certainly reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

But are they better for the environment?  Are they recyclable or biodegradeable?  Are they safe?  Are plastics producers aware of the impact of promoting bioplastics as a replacement for plastics? We think that  bioplastics are useful for certain purposes, such as medical sutures or strewing foil for mulching in agriculture – but as a replacement for all plastics?

Next week we’ll take a look at the arguments against bioplastics.

[1] Laylin, Tafline, “Half of UAE’s Falaj Mualla Camels Choked on Plastic Bags”, Green Prophet blog, June 11, 2010.

[2] Ibid.

[4] Narayan, Ramani, “Review and Analysis of Bio-based Product LCA’s”, Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824

[5] Tabone, Michaelangelo D., et al; “Sustainability Metrics: Life Cycle Assessment and Green Design in Polymers”, Enviornmental Science and Technology, September 2, 2010.


23 11 2010

We keep seeing the term “renewable”  in the media   –   a lot  –  and especially with reference to products made from “renewable resources”.  And we understand why this term can be so appealing in this time of diminishing natural resources and increasing population growth.  But what do they really mean?  Stick with us and you’ll find that this is yet another area in which a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

A “renewable resource” is a resource that can be replenished naturally  in the same amount of time (or less) than it takes to draw the supply down.  These constantly replenishing natural resources  include forest resources,  and the fertility of agricultural land.  Some renewable resources have essentially an endless supply, such as solar energy, wind energy and geothermal pressure.   Some resources are considered renewable, even though some effort must go into procuring them, such as fisheries or food crops.

To help us make better choices, there is now a differentiation between non-renewable resources, such as petroleum or old-growth timber  (which takes centuries to renew)  and what is known as “rapidly renewable resources”.  These items, as defined by the LEED system of building certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) offers points for rapidly renewable materials that regenerate in 10 years or less, such as bamboo, wool, and straw. To qualify for the credit in a new construction project, the value of these materials must represent at least 2.5 % of the total cost of the products used in the building.

Renewable resources have become a focal point of the environmental movement, both politically and economically. Energy obtained from renewable resources puts much less strain on our limited supply of fossil fuels (non-renewable resources). The problem with using renewable resources on a large scale, however, is that it  may create some new and unforeseen problems.

What can some of these new and unforeseen problems be?  Like all green claims, it’s terribly important to understand the wider implications of each of our choices.  Take bamboo, for example.  Bamboo is a fast growing grass which is hard enough to be used as a replacement for wood in applications such as flooring and furniture. However, most bamboo is grown and processed in China, so while ocean shipping consumes less fuel per mile than overland trucking, the type of fuel used in shipping can be more polluting. In addition, there are concerns about forestry practices, the toxicity of binders, and worker safety.  A few bamboo plantations have earned certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which accredits forests managed “to meet the social, economic, ecological, cultural, and spiritual needs of present and future generations.” However, certified bamboo products are still not widely available in the U.S. And even though bamboo plantations sequester as much carbon as native forests, they do not support the same wildlife.  Clearly, the environmental balance is more difficult to calculate than by simply examining the length of a harvest cycle.

Another product worth examining is cork, which comes from the bark of cork oaks. Unlike nearly every other tree species, cork trees are  not harmed by removal of their bark. A mature tree is stripped about once every 10 years and lives for an average of 16 strippings. After stripping, the large slabs of bark are boiled, and bottle stoppers are punched from them. The leftover material is then ground up, pressed into sheets, and cut into tiles for flooring. This dual-purpose production is critical to the cork industry.   According to the World Wildlife Fund International, cork production provides a vital source of income for thousands of people and supports one of the world’s highest levels of biodiversity among forest habitats, with plant diversity reaching as high as 135 species per square meter. In an ironic twist, the increased market share for alternative wine stoppers could reduce the value of cork oak, leading the areas in which cork is grown to be converted or abandoned. It also may contribute to the end of the cork ecosystem.

The World Wildlife Fund International and the Forest Stewardship Council have established programs to promote and encourage responsible cork use to save this natural resource. For more information, visit and

Another not so easy call, is it?

In my opinion, another area worth investigating is the very visible promotion of biobased products using corn and soybeans  (soy based foam in upholstery and biobased polymers are two products that come immediately to mind) as being environmentally preferable because they’re based on a renewable resource.  Dow Cargill, manufacturer of BiOH polyols, the soybean derived biopolymer, says that it creates products with from 5 to 20% renewable content (meaning the soybeans). But soybeans are one of the three crops globally which have the highest percentage of GMO (corn and cotton being the other two).   The GMO percentage of global soybean production was 77%  in 2009, and for cotton it was 49%.  (In India, 87% of all cotton was GMO in 2009.)

Monsanto, the largest seed producer in the world, with a massive 20% share of the world market, has been  interested in a technology which was named “Terminator” – and began applying it to their seeds.

The Terminator idea was to genetically modify seeds so that the plants they produced when they grew were sterile. In biotechnology jargon, this is known as a “genetic use restriction technology”, or GURT.  Companies such as Monsanto were keen on such “suicide seeds” because they would enable the company to control any proprietary genetic traits they had engineered into the seeds. So resistance to a particular herbicide, for example, or an ability to grow faster, would not be passed on from one generation of plants to the next.

So most GMO seeds have a genetic modification that prevents the crops from setting fertile seed.  So seeds for next year’s crop must be purchased – effectively ending the centuries old practice of collecting seeds at each harvest  so they could be replanted next year.

The main problem with this is that over 1.4 billion people around the world depend on saved seeds from season to season to grow crops. Terminator seeds force dependence on the Monsantos of the world, destroying local and indigenous seed exchange practices, as well as the breeding and selection done by farmers.

There was a great outcry against this technology.

“While seeds with the ability to reproduce contain the essence of life, Terminator represents only ‘exploitation and death,’” according to Terry Boehm, vice-president of the National Farmer’s Union in Saskatchewan, Canada. Boehm further uses nuclear weapons as a parallel to Terminator technology: “Extensive testing of nuclear weapons did not change the fact that this was such a dangerous technology that it should not be used.”

At the  United Nations’ Convention on Biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan (18-29 October 2010) the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) warned that there are a  handful of multinational corporations which are pressuring governments to allow what could become the broadest and most dangerous patent claims in history.

“The Gene Giants are stockpiling patents that threaten to put a choke-hold on the world’s biomass and our future food supply,” warns Silvia Ribeiro of ETC Group. “The breadth of many patent claims on climate ready crop genes is staggering. In many cases, a single patent or patent application claims ownership of engineered gene sequences that could be deployed in virtually all major crops – as well as the processed food and feed products derived from them,” explains Ribeiro.

Hope Shand, research director of ETC,  links the argument over Terminator technologies with wider criticisms of the ways in which agribusiness is exercising its increasingly powerful influence. “The top 10 seed companies control 57% of the commercial seed market worldwide. That’s a staggering level of corporate control over the first link in the food chain,” she says.

“Whoever controls our seeds, controls the food supply. These companies are trying to reduce competition and maximize profits by promoting laws and technologies that eliminate the practice of farmer-saved seeds. Whether it’s promoting genetic seed sterilization and patent laws, or dictating trade regimes, these trends threaten traditional farming communities and erode crop diversity.”

The ETC web site goes on to say that “the natural genetic diversity of crops is a vital insurance against future farming catastrophes. The world needs to retain as many different varieties of potato, tomato, rice and wheat as possible in case the commercial varieties grown in bulk get diseased, or are rendered useless by the accelerating impacts of global warming. That’s why there are some 1,400 “seed banks” around the world, storing some six million different species.”  For more information on this issue, see the ETC Group’s report, Gene Giants Stockpile Patents on “Climate-Ready” Crops in Bid to Become Biomassters”

I think the use of GMO crops to produce soy based foam and biobased polymers cannot be marketed as being made from a renewable resource because of the presence of these patented GMO crops – which are largely sterile. They cannot be renewed without human input – in other words, new crops cannot be grown unless the farmer purchases new seed from the corporation.  And the danger is that these genetic mutations will spread to non GMO crops.

This goes entirely against the intent  in defining a renewable resource.  These crops cannot be “created again”.  So to say that soy based polyols (or soy based foam) is made from a “renewable resource” is false.

Another objection I have to GMOs as they are being implemented is that the basic motivation for almost every introduction thus far is profit-driven rather than need-driven – but that’s nit picking.

For more information on Terminator Technology visit: – the Ban Terminator Campaign – Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration

• Also see for information on the film, “Seeds of Change,” which looks at genetically modified crops and how they are changing the face of agriculture in western Canada. This film was made back in 2002 but hidden from the public by the administration at the University of Manitoba until 2005. Click here for a review of this documentary.

Organic cotton fraud?

7 04 2010

A recent report in The Financial Times of Germany alleged  that a ‘gigantic fraud’ was taking place in the sale of cotton garments marked as organic by leading European retailers like H&M, C&A and Tchibo, because they actually contained genetically modified (GM)  cotton.   GM cotton (often called Bt cotton in India) is prohibited in organic cotton.  The source of fabrics, it said, was India.
Interestingly, the paper quoted Sanjay Dave, director of Apeda (Indian Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority), as saying that the fraud was on a large-scale and that two European certifying agencies had been fined for lax processes.  Lothar Kruse, director of the laboratory which ran the tests, was quoted as saying that around 30% of  organic cotton samples from India  were found to be contaminated with GM cotton.   There were charges and countercharges by all involved – and Indian organic cotton has become suspect.  How did this happen?

In August, 2009, the Indian Ministry of Textiles took several initiatives to strengthen their textiles industry  —  among them was a commitment to “safeguard and promote” organic cotton.  Organic cotton had become an important crop in India:  according to the Organic Exchange, India accounted for about 65% of all the organic cotton produced worldwide in 2008-09, making India the No.1 producer of organic cotton in the world. And since the global market for organic cotton is growing by as much as 150 per cent per year (based on 2008-09 figures) its make sense for India to support organic cotton where it is already a market leader in a product for which an assured market exists and is growing.

And yet at the same time, the Indian government (through the Department of Biotechnology of the Ministry of Science and Technology) is supporting and promoting genetically modified cotton.  India allowed the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) cotton in 2002, and by 2006, GM cotton accounted for 42% of the total Indian cotton crop. This makes India the country with the largest area of GM cotton in the world, surpassing China.  According to Reuters,  Indian farmers will grow genetically modified cotton on 90 % of the area under cotton cultivation by 2012.  See our blog posts on GMO crops:  Reasons for concern regarding GMOs and GMO Cotton.

Organic cotton  and genetically engineered cotton are mutually self-excluding commodities –  organic cotton prohibits the inclusion of any genetically engineered cotton.  So the Indian government is bumbling in two contradictory directions at the same time.  There have been warnings from opponents of genetically engineered crops that if GM cotton were to contaminate traces of organic cotton, the consignments of organic cotton would lose the certification that gets them a premium price advantage and be rejected by markets interested in buying organic cotton.  Organizations such as Gene Watch (UK) and Greenpeace have warned that it is impossible to keep agricultural produce like cotton or rice or strawberries apart once they are ready for the market.  These organizations also maintain a register of instances where genetically engineered crops have contaminated conventional or organic crops. The contamination cases run into hundreds across the world, often with grave economic consequences. Not so long ago, consignments of US rice exported to several countries had to be recalled because traces of GM rice was found in rice that was declared as conventional, non GM rice. The cost of recall was prohibitive but the greater damage was done to America’s future rice exports. Once countries returned the contaminated US rice, other rice exporting nations like Thailand entered the newly available markets in Europe, Japan and South Korea and established themselves there.

And the warnings by Gene Watch and Greenpeace have just come true in the form of the scandal which broke in January, 2010 based on  the report in the German edition of Financial Times

This casts a cloud over all exports of organic products from India, of which cotton is the leading item.

But in all this uproar, who is losing the most?  Once again it’s the small farmer in India.   The African proverb that when two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers, is certainly true in this case.

A bit of history:  The Indian government, in a desperate bid to promote the uptake of GM seeds, banned traditional seed varieties from many government seed banks in 2002  and allowed Monsanto to sell their new seed creations.  In return for this access, India was granted International Monetary Fund loans.

Because the family livelihood of Indian farmers depends entirely on good decisions being made, they often seek advice or take a lead from someone she/he thinks knows best. The average farmer is illiterate and ignorant of the implications of planting a GM crop, but lives in the hope that money borrowed to produce a cash crop will be more than repaid after a good harvest.   Monsanto began advertising the new GM seed heavily;  it was pervasive, with utterly misleading claims,  emanating from  celebrities, government officials, journalists, agricultural and corporate scientists, larger landowners and seed dealers who had either jumped on the media bandwagon or had vested interests in GM cotton sales. Bollywood personalities such as Nana Patekar attributed almost miraculous powers to the product on TV. Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh  personally endorsed the Bollgard brand (one of Monsanto’s GM seed varieties sold in India). Local opinion leaders such as larger landowners received seed and pesticide discounted or free, and ‘poor farmers’ who extolled the virtues of GM cotton locally  turned out not to be farmers at all.

In the past, if a crop failed, the farmer could use his seed from prior years to replant his crop.  But with GM seeds they could not do this, because the seeds contain “terminator technology” meaning that the crops do not produce viable seeds of their own.  So farmers must buy seeds each year – at punitive prices:  GM seed costs about $15 for 4 ounces of seed, compared to $15 for 4,000 ounces of traditional seeds.

Farmers are also desperate to avoid the spiraling cost of pesticides, and were taken in by GM cotton advertising and Monsanto’s extravagant claims. For example, at the point of sale, when farmers are vulnerable, seed dealers  hyped up the yield of a hypothetical farmer’s GM cotton (based on Monsanto claims that yields are 30 – 40% higher than conventional hybrid seed) because the seed dealers profit is four times greater per drum than for non GM seed.  In addition,  Monsanto claims pesticide use will be 70% less because their Bollgard variety is supposed to  kill 90% of bollworms.

This perfect storm led to widespread adoption of GM seeds by Indian farmers.  But the promises made by Monsanto have proven to be false over time: GM cotton required double the amount of water that non GM varieties required (proving to be a matter of life and death for many),  many crops have been devastated by bollworms and there have been widespread crop failures.  (read  more here ).   Farmers, beguiled by  promises, incurred debts that they could not repay.  Thousands of farmers, according to the Mail Online in November, 2008, “are committing suicide”.  The crisis, branded the ‘GM Genocide’ by campaigners, was highlighted recently when Prince Charles claimed that the issue of GM had become a ‘global moral question’ – and condemned ‘the truly appalling and tragic rate of small farmer suicides in India, stemming… from the failure of many GM crop varieties’.
Read more here and here.

Many organizations have been trying to convert Indian farmers to organic practices –  “desperate times call for organic measures”.  The fact that farmers don’t have to spend money on pesticides and fertilizers coupled with the premium of 15 – 20% over conventional cotton that organic cotton commands in the marketplace has helped convince many farmers that organic agriculture is worth a try.   Yet now  organic cotton from India has been reported to be contaminated with GM cotton, leading many to cry fraud.

This was not unforeseen:  drift or contamination of GM with non-GM crops has long been a concern, especially now that 65-75% of total cotton production is made up of  GM cotton.  According to P.  Gouri, adviser on organic products to Apeda,   “measures to prevent contamination through strict implementation of a 50-meter refuge (buffer zones around farms growing GM cotton to prevent the pollens from contaminating neighboring farms) are absolutely essential.  If GM farming practices are regulated strictly, we can keep contamination at manageable-levels, specially if farmers use non-cotton as a buffer.”  Yet,   there have been  many violations of biosafety regulations; in addition there are no standards for the permissible amount of contamination in organic cotton.    Nobody is addressing the problem of gene transfer to conventional plants; and a general disregard of separation distances between the GM and non-GM crop makes contamination a fait acompli . Similarly, there is a general lack of enforcement of 20 percent non-GM refugia, designed to slow the evolution of pest resistance. The several generations of bollworm that live annually on a crop can lead to 60 percent resistance in a single year.

According to the Human Genome Project, the act of genetically modifying something like organic cotton has its own ripple effect from the potential environmental impacts of unintended transfer of trans genes through cross-pollination and unknown effects on other organisms (e.g., soil microbes), to the loss of flora and fauna biodiversity.  With no regulation of GM cotton, GM produce is entering our food and feed chain as cottonseed oil and cake.  (Did you know that we eat more of the cotton crop than we wear?)  Genetically engineered cotton has all kinds of stuff we’ve never eaten before: viral promoters, antibiotic-resistant genes, special bacteria.  Organic food producers are very concerned. This problem will continue to grow as fourteen new GM varieties of India’s staple crops were approved for field trials that began in 2005.



Currently, India and her customers rely on third party certifying agencies, such as Control Union, to substantiate organic claims.  Certification is being done as per GOTS, or Global Organic Textile Standards, but India is formulating its own standards. The biggest innovation is TraceNet, a web-based traceability system that has been introduced in the country, to trace and track all organic certifications for exports to ensure purity.   Inspectors employed by certification agencies will use GPS devices for capturing data so that wrong certifications are eliminated.

Fingers crossed.


GMO cotton

23 09 2009

gmo1The Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) prohibits all “genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) and their derivatives”.  According to the Organic Exchange, none of the organic growing standards established by any government allows for GMO crops.  In April, 2009, Germany announced a plan to ban all GMO crops in the country, citing concerns of the environmental impact, making Germany the latest in a string of EU countries to outlaw GMO crops.  And during a public comment period in 2000, the Organic Trade Association generated 275,000 letters against GMOs being included in the National Organic Program (NOP).

Why the fuss?  After all, GMO crops were developed to help us meet the demands our burgeoning population makes on our limited resources.  How can that be bad?

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are plants, animals and microorganisms which have been altered genetically.  Here’s how the National Orgtanic Standards Board puts it:  “Genetically engineered is defined as:  made with techniques that alter the molecular or cell biology of an organism by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes.   Genetic engineering includes recombinant DNA, cell fusion, micro-and macro-encapsulation, gene deletion and doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes.”(1)

The benefits of genetic engineering in the agriculture sector is great, according to its proponents.  GMO crops have been hailed as a way to increase yields by protecting against pests, drought and disease.  The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has put forward the arguments for GMOs in agriculture, (such as increased yields and better resistance to pests and other stresses – which reduces dependence on chemicals needed for crop protection.   They also list the arguments against GMO crops. There is great debate about the pros and cons of this relatively new product.

But before looking at some of the reasons so many are opposed to genetic engineering,  let’s look at the issues pertaining to fiber crops only – and to cotton specifically:

Shortly after GMO cotton was introduced, GMO cotton producers, citing advances based on new GMO cotton  and supported by a series of Cotton Incorporated conferences on sustainable cotton,  portrayed conventional cotton as the new “sustainable” choice and organic cotton as an old and inadequate solution that is “as out-dated as last year’s fashions.”  (Editor’s note:  They also redefined the term “sustainable” to include “growing profitability.”)

GMO cotton was quickly adopted by cotton farmers, and millions of hectares of GMO modified cotton has been planted worldwide since its introduction in 1996.

Why did so many farmers pay for GMO seed – which cost more – and plant this new crop?  Bottom line: they were told that there was more money to be made from GMO cotton.    GMO cotton was supposed to have higher yields at the same time it was helping to reduce costs.  Cost savings in chemicals and manual labor was estimated at between 15 – 30%.   How did it reduce dependence on chemicals:

  • GMO cotton was engineered to reduce insect pests so farmers could reduce their chemical dependence on pesticides, and buy less of them.  The gene coding for Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) was inserted into the cotton.  Bt is a protein that acts as a natural toxin to the larvae of certain moths, butterflies, beetles and flies (including the dred bollworm) and is harmless to other forms of life.  When the larvae feed on the cotton they are killed by the Bt protein – thereby eliminating the need for a broad spectrum insecticide.
  • GMO cotton was designed to be resistant to herbicides so that weed killers could be liberally sprayed on crops without worrying about killing the cotton plants.  It was genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate (marketed as Roundup in the USA and manufactured by Monsanto – remember this fact) which is a broad-spectrum herbicide, and toxic to humans at concentrations far below the recommended agricultural use levels. (2)  Studies link glyphosate to spontaneous abortions, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.

Not only could they make more money, but  GMO cotton crops were also promoted as helping tackle world hunger and poverty, and helping small farmers. If you were a cotton farmer, how could you resist?  They didn’t:  Today 86% of all United States cotton, 68% of all Chinese cotton, and 76% of all Indian cotton (three of the major cotton growing countries) is now GMO cotton. (3)

Initial results seemed that all they promised was true – early studies in 2002/2003 reported that pesticide and herbicide use was down and yields were up (by as much as 80%)  for GMO cotton (4).  But these results were short lived.   Recent reports are full of data on GMO crops requiring ever more doses of chemical pesticides and herbicides to control pests which are mutating faster than even their worse case scenarios had envisioned,  and becoming resistant to the genetic modifications found in GMO cotton.  A study published by the Institute for Science in Society reports that Bt cotton fields rarely have studies done on what the crops do to the soil itself; they found that soil growing Bt cotton had significantly fewer beneficial soil enzymes in the soil (which makes nutrients available to plants) and total biomass was reduced 8.9%.  This, they conclude, could even lead to dead soils, unable to produce food.

What about the promise of reduced chemical dependence on pesticides and herbicides?

It was always thought that pests would eventually evolve and develop a resistance to Bt.  It wasn’t a question of whether resistance would happen, but how quickly it would evolve.  The Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) in India published the (then currently held) opinion that, “with the current rate of increase in the area under Bt cotton, it is likely to take about 11 – 12 years for the pest to develop resistance to Bt cotton.  However, with implementation of proper strageties as suggested by CICR, it is possible to delay resistance by at least 30 – 40 years if not more.”  Worse case scenario was thought to be three years.

Yet in 2008 the University of Arizona published some of the first documented cases of bollworm resistance to Bt. Professor Bruce Tabashnik, a renowed insect researcher and the primary researcher of this study, said “our results contradict the worse-case scenarios of some experts under which resistance to Bt plants was expected in three years.  It is no surprise that, after a while, pests can develop biological strategies against insecticidal agents and become thereby insensitive:  as  a rule, even advantages that have been established in a plant by conventioinal breeding methods only have a limited time span of effectiveness.”

According to a 2008 study  by Friends of the Earth, independent studies have demonstrated not only that pesticide reduction claims are unfounded, but that GM crops have substantially increased pesticide use, particularly since 1999.  Dr. Charles Benbrook, a leading U.S. agricultural sicentist, conducted an “exhaustive analysis of USDA data on pesticide use in agriculture from 1996 to 2004.  His conclusion is that over this 9 year period, adoption of GM soy, corn and cotton crops has led to use of 122 million more pounds of pesticides than would have been used had GM crops not been introduced.”(4)

With regard to herbicides, GM cotton crops were engineered to have a resistance to glyphosate – the primary component in Monsanto’s patented week killer called Roundup.  Roundup is Montsanto’s biggest product, accounting for about 40% of their estimated 2002 revenue of $4.6 billion.  Monsanto sold its GMO seeds under the brand name, “Roundup Ready” because farmers could spray the herbicide directly onto their fields and not have to worry about killing their crop.  The popularity of Roundup Ready crops skyrocketed, and the use of Roundup also skyrocketed.  In the U.S. alone, glyphosate use jumped by a factor of 15 between 1994 and 2005, according to the Center for Food Safety.  That led to a host of  “superweeds” developing a resistance to Roundup.   Farmers were told that in order to combat glyphosate-resistant weeds they’d have to apply other chemicals, often in combination with higher rates of glyphosate.   In 2005, Monsanto recommended farmers use several additional herbicides with Roundup, including Prowl (pendimethalin), metolachlor, diuron and others.    In fact, recent data shows resistance to herbicides in general, and herbicides used in GMO crops in particular, has escalated at exponential rates, according to the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds.

According to the Friends of the Earth study, cited above: ” When forced to admit that herbicide-tolerant crops increase overall pesticide use, biotech industry apologists quickly fall back on a second claim: the increasing use of glyphosate has reduced use of more toxic herbicides, and so is a benefit to the environment. While this was true in the first few years of Roundup Ready crops, a look at recent trends in herbicide use undermines this claim.”  For instance, 2,4-D is the second most heavily used herbicide on soybeans; it is a herbicide that formed part of the defoliant Agent Orange, and has been associated with health risks such as increased risk of  both cancer and birth defects – and use of 2,4-D more than doubled from 2002 to 2006.  Likewise, use of atrazine (which is linked to endocrine disruption, neuropathy, breast and prostate cancer and low sperm counts) rose by nearly 7 million lbs (a 12% increase).

And according to the Friends of the Earth study,  “It is important to understand two key facts about weed  resistance. First, resistance is defined as a weed’s ability to  survive more than the normal dose of a given herbicide rather than absolute immunity. Higher doses of the herbicide will often still kill the resistant weed, at least in the short term. The  second fact follows from the first. Weed resistance is not only the result of using an herbicide excessively, it often leads to still
greater use of that herbicide.”

And the promised yield increases?  Often, the answer depends on weather and growing conditions rather than types of seed planted.  Average cotton yields in the United States  were stagnant from 1996 (when GM cotton was introduced) to 2002 (when it made up 76% of cotton acerage);  there was a record yield in 2004 and 2005 but these increases were chiefly attributable to excellent weather conditions. (5)   In fact the question is really whether the yield for U.S. cotton is lower than it would have been had it not been Roundup Ready seed! (6)  Other parts of the world had similar or worse results.

Another facet of this discussion should include the fact that GMO seeds are expensive:  in India, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready cotton seed was selling  for twice the price of non-GMO seeds.    GMO seeds cannot be saved and used for next season’s crop.   The high price for the seed led to farmers in India often having to take out loans from moneylenders who charged exorbitant interest rates.  In a poignant article in the New York Times,  Somini Sengupta published a discussion about the rash of suicides by Indian farmers – 17,107 farmers committed suicide in 2003 – and lays the blame on a combination of rural despair and American multinational companies peddling costly, genetically modified seeds.

According to the Friends of the Earth, GM crops do not fulfill their promise.

  1. GM crops do not tackle hunger or poverty.
  2. GM crops increase pesticide use and foster the spread of resistant “superweeds”.
  3. GM crops do not yield more and often yield less than other crops. (7)
  4. GM crops benefit the biotech industry and some large growers, but not small farmers.

But why is the Organic Trade Association and GOTS so adamantly opposed to GMO crops?  Why are European countries like Germany banning the sale and planting of GMO crop?  And why did the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) release a position  paper calling for a moratorium on genetically modified foods?  That’s next week’s post.

(1) Organic Materials Review Institute,

(2) Benachour N and Séralini G-E.. Glyphosate formulations Induce Apoptosis and Necrosis in Human Umbilical, Embryonic, and Placental Cells Chem. Res. Toxicol. , 2009, 22 (1), pp 97–105

(3)  GMO Compass;

(4)  Qaim, Matin and Zilberman, David, “Yield Effects of Genetically Modified Croops in Dveloping Countries”, Science, 2.7.03

(4) “Who Benefits From GM Crops?”, Friends of the Earth,  issue 112 Agriculture and Food; January 2008, page 7.

(5) Meyer, L., S., MacDonald & L. Foreman, March 2007.  Cotton Backgrounder.  USDA Economic Research Service Outlook Report.

(6) Friends of the Earth, op cit.

(7) “Corn, Soy Yields Gain Little From Genetic Engineering”, Agence France Presse, April 14, 2009