Enzymes and GOTS

9 12 2011

Last week we reviewed the ways enzymes are helping to give textile processes a lighter footprint while at the same time producing better finished goods – at a lower cost.  Seems to be a win/win situation, until you begin to unpeel the onion:

It begins with the production of the enzyme:  Enzymes have always been obtained from three primary sources, i.e., animal tissue, plants or microbes.  By starting with the primary source and “feeding” it properly (known as fermentation), we ended up with our target product – like beer, for example.

But these naturally occurring enzymes are often not readily available in sufficient quantities for  industrial use. The production of enzymes – including microorganisms used to produce enzymes –  is a pursuit central to the modern biotechnology industry.  Until recently, the availability of enzymes  have been limited to the quantities that could be produced in the host organism in which they were naturally derived.

Today, the starting point is a vial of a selected strain of microorganisms – microbial hosts which have been selectively bred by industry. They will be nurtured and fed until they multiply many thousand times.  Once fermentation is complete, the microorganisms are destroyed, the desired enzymes are recovered from the fermentation broth and sold as a standardized product.

Modern biotechnology has improved enzyme production and enzyme quality in several ways:

1)     Increased efficiency of enzyme production resulting in higheryields;

2)     Increased enzyme purity through reduction or elimination of side activities;

3)     Enhancing the function of specific enzyme proteins, e.g., by increasing the temperature range over which an enzyme is active.

The results, as we discussed last week,  are better products, produced more efficiently, often at lower cost and with less environmental impact.

It wasn’t until genetic engineering came about that these biological methods became economically viable. Targeted genetic manipulation has not only enhanced the productivity of these methods, it also has resulted in the production of substances that were previously impossible. To date, up to 60% of all technical enzymes are produced with genetically modified organisms (GMO) – and this number is sure to increase given that GMO-based enzyme production requires 40-50% less energy and raw materials than traditional enzyme production.[1]  And therein lies the rub.

Cheese, eggs and milk, for example, may not be genetically modified themselves but may contain ingredients and additives that were produced from genetically modified microorganisms.

Take cheese for example: Traditionally, this enzyme preparation, sometimes known as rennin, was extracted from calf stomachs. The active ingredient is chymosin, an enzyme produced in the stomach of suckling calves needed for breaking down cow’s milk.

It is now possible to produce chymosin in genetically modified fungi. These modified microorganisms contain the gene derived from the stomach of calves that is responsible for producing chymosin. When grown in a bioreactor, they release chymosin into the culture medium. Afterwards, the enzyme is extracted and purified yielding a product that is 80 to 90 percent pure. Natural rennin contains only 4 to 8 percent active enzyme.[2]

Even the nutritive medium used to grow bacteria and fungi is often made from GMOs.

Again, what are the arguments against GMO?

Briefly, because I want to get to how this pertains to the textile industry, here are the most common concerns :

1)     What happens when these GMOs interact with other organisms?  Already there is concern that GMO crops resistant to weed killers will themselves become uncontrolled weeds in other fields – the GMO plant may cross pollinate with a related species that is a weed which then becomes resistant to weed killers.  This is already happening according to many published reports.  And it can happen in really subtle ways:

  1. Since 1986, Novo Nordisk, one of the world’s largest producers of industrial enzymes,  has processed the residuals of fermentation processes generated by GMOs into “biomass” or “sludge” called NovoGro. The sludge is dehydrated and freely distributed among farmers. NovoGro is virtually the company’s only possibility to dispose of its massive enzyme production waste. In 1996, 2.2 million cubic meters of NovoGro were produced. Daily about 150 truckloads of NovoGro are spread over 70 hectares of land in Denmark .  Total costs are about US$ 13 million per year, all carried by Novo Nordisk. A Danish farmers’ organization protested against the distribution of NovoGro because it suspected pollution by GMOs. There are concerns that risks associated with the use of GMO products is not worth the benefits as long as the environmental impacts are not monitored by third parties.[3]

2)     The argument rages about the human health risks of genetically engineered foods – specifically with regard to the rise in food allergies. The British Medical Association (BMA)  in a study done in 2003, concluded that the risks to human health associated with GMO foods is negligible, while calling for further research and surveillance.[4]

3)     Ethical concern of the “slippery slope”: because it appears to provide costless benefits, so companies and governments may rush into production one or more products of the new technologies that will turn out to be harmful, either to the environment or to humans directly.

The manufacturers and scientists tell us that there are no traces of these GMO microorganisms in the final product, and no microbial DNA is detectable.

Additives (such as enzymes) that are produced with the help of genetically modified microorganisms do not require labeling because GMOs are not directly associated with the final product.  In the textile industry, they are known as auxiliaries or processing aids.

In textiles, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) has stated that the use of genetically modified organisms – including their enzymes – is incompatible with the production of textiles labelled as ‘organic’ or ‘made with organic’ under GOTS.  According to the GOTS website:  “While the IWG Technical Committee acknowledges that there are applications including, and based on GM technologies, that result in a reduction of energy and water use and replace chemicals compared to some conventional textile processes this is only one side of the coin.”  They go on to say that it is important to give consumers a choice to actively decide for themselves if they want to purchase a textile product made without using any GMO derived inputs.

As a company which is trying to do the right thing, I don’t know where I stand on this issue.    What do you think?

Promise for the future

7 07 2011

For the past few weeks we’ve been talking about the Green Revolution, and the problem of feeding 9 billion people.

With respect to the Green Revolution, opinion is still divided as to how to assess its impact.   Vandana Shiva, founder of Navdanya (a movement of 500,000 seed keepers and organic farmers) said that the Green Revolution:

(has) led to reduced genetic diversity, increased vulnerability to pests, soil erosion, water shortages, reduced soil fertility, micronutrient deficiencies, soil contamination, reduced availability of nutritious food crops for the local population, the displacement of vast numbers of small farmers from their land, rural impoverishment and increased tensions and conflicts. The beneficiaries have been the agrochemical industry, large petrochemical companies, manufacturers of agricultural machinery, dam builders and large landowners.

The “miracle” seeds of the Green Revolution have become mechanisms for breeding new pests and creating new diseases.[1]

As Frederick Huyn notes, in his essay “Green Revolution” the only thing the Green Revolution achieved was “low yield from high ideals”.[2]   Yet there are those who credit the Green Revolution with helping to avoid mass starvation.

And as Juergen Voegele, director of agriculture and rural development for the World Bank, pointed out: “We already have close to one billion people who go hungry today, not because there is not enough food in the world but because they cannot afford to buy it.”[3]  An interesting article in Foreign Policy magazine pointed out that the poor, even if they have the money to buy food, sometimes use their money to buy other things instead, such as cell phones or televisions.[4]

So it’s a complicated formula.

Last week’s post introduced the argument that agriculture simply must reduce its environmental footprint.  So the question remains: what is the future of agriculture?  How can we feed people on Earth and still have a livable planet?

I like the suggestion that we have to learn from each other.   Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, says:  “You’re either with Michael Pollan or you’re with Monsanto, but neither paradigm can fully meet our needs.”  So some are calling for what is being called a “resilient hybrid strategy” to meet these challenges – a sort of third way between industrialized agriculture and organic.   We can all take lessons from each other – the organic camp need not see “technology” as anathema, and conventional agriculture shouldn’t dismiss organic principles out of hand.  We should ditch the rhetoric and create new, hybrid solutions that boost production, conserve resources and build a truly sustainable agriculture.  These might include precision agriculture, mixed with high-output composting and organic soil remedies; drip irrigation, plus buffer strips to reduce erosion and pollution; and new crop varieties that reduce water and fertilizer demand.  On the production end, finding agreement on what the science writer Paul Voosen recently described as “a unified theory of farming” is unlikely. But finding ways to break down either-or thinking and foster traditional agricultural methods or advanced technologies where they fit best is clearly feasible.[5]

It will be much more challenging to own up to what our individual choices mean in terms of food availability – and to change them.

We think there should be four key components in this effort:

1)    Make food a human right.

2)    Science must play a key role.

3)    Agriculture will need to be regionally controlled and locally adapted, and governments should sponsor crop and genetic research.

4)    Adopt agroecology – includes frugal use of water, minimizes use of external inputs and sequesters carbon.

Skeptics will say that you simply cannot grow organic crops and have comparable yields to those of conventional crops which have been “protected” by pesticides and boosted by synthetic fertilizers.  Yet many studies are showing that, with patience, they indeed can yield comparable – or better – results.[6]   But the biggest gains in an effort to triple agricultural production on today’s global farm acreage may come from improvements in crop genetics and wasteful, inefficient farming and food management practices.

One key part of this strategy must be to use genetics to our advantage.  According to Paul Collier, professor of economics at Oxford Univerity, “Genetic modification is analogous to nuclear power: nobody loves it, but climate change has made its adoption imperative.”

Humans have been improving production through genetic selection since agriculture began. For 99 percent of history this process was rather hit or miss and based on farmers saving seeds and saving animals.  Then Mendel discovered how genetic traits were passed along, and we’ve been able to build on that knowledge to create hybrids which are more productive than their counterparts.  These age-old techniques can now be complemented, supplemented, and perhaps supplanted by an assortment of molecular “tools” that allow for the deletion or insertion of a particular gene or genes to produce plants (animals and microorganisms) with novel traits, such as resistance to briny conditions, longer “shelf-life,” or enhanced nutrient content. A change in a plant’s genetic sequence changes the characteristics of the plant. Such manipulation of genes—genetic engineering—results in a genetically modified organism or GMO.

Both “traditional” biotechnology and “modern” biotechnology result in crops with combinations of genes that would not have existed absent human intervention. A drought-resistant crop can be developed through “traditional” methods involving crosses with resistant varieties, selection, and backcrossing. Modern biotechnology can speed up this process by identifying the particular genes associated with drought resistance and inserting them directly. Whether developed through traditional or modern means, the resultant plants will resist drought conditions but only the second, genetically engineered one, is a GMO.

The problem is that today most plant genetics research is conducted by corporations rather than by governments.  These companies focus on crops that offer the biggest short-term commercial return – such as “Roundup Ready” soybeans and corn.   And in order to protect their intellectual property, the seeds available are sterile, so farmers are required to buy new seeds each year.  This has led to the outright prohibition of GMO organisms in most organic standards.  There remains widespread public opposition to the technology in many parts of the world.

Yet the promise of genetics research (non tethered to corporate bottom lines) is compelling.  According to Jason Clay, a vice president of the World Wildlife Fund,  the biggest genetic gains in the future will probably come from working on tropical crops that have been ignored to date, such as cocoa, yams, sorghum, millet, cassava, peanuts, sugarcane and sunflower.[7]  This work would focus not only on increased production but also disease and drought resistance or tolerance, dwarf traits so that tree crops could be harvested with less labor and for longer, and more marketable traits.

In looking at the overall factors involved in agricultural production (land, labor and capital) – it’s clear we have an abundance of both labor and capital.  But we’re reaching the limit of how much land and water we can use to produce food, as the conversion of natural habitat for food production continues unabated:  the FAO estimated an additional 121 million hectares will be converted to crop production in order to meet demand for agricultural commodities by 2030.[8]  Future gains must come from increased efficiency rather than expansion.[9]

Governments must take a more active role – by sponsoring research in genetics or crop science, for example, or by stepping in to support farmers so they won’t feel they have to sell their land to investors.  In the past two years alone, as many as 50 million acres of land around the world have changed hands from locals to foreign investors [10].  It seems that climate change is pushing viable farmland northward due to higher temperatures.  It’s creating new farming opportunities on previously marginal land.  As a result, multinational investors and sovereign wealth funds  are purchasing significant amounts of land in these marginal locales because local farmers are generally poor, and see it as a good way to make quick cash.[11]  Investors from various parts of the world, including rising powers such as China, India, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, South Korea and Wall Street banks, such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, are trying to corner the market on the world’s ever decreasing farmland. All of these investors are betting that population growth and climate change, droughts, desertification and flooding will soon make food as valuable as oil.

Time’s a-wasting – let’s roll up our sleeves and work together.  We really don’t have any room for half measures or for blinkered self-interest.

But because I’m an eternal optimist, I have to look on the bright side, so will end with a passage from Indur Goklany, assistant program director on technology and science policy at the Department of Interior:

Until the start of the Industrial Revolution, mankind was poor, hungry, illiterate, constantly at the mercy of disease and the elements, and short-lived; child labor was the norm; and one’s life opportunities were predetermined by sex and parentage. Today, despite an octupling of the world’s population, mankind has never been wealthier, better fed, less hungry, better educated, longer-lived and healthier; less constrained by caste, class, and sex; and 75 percent of global population is no longer mired in absolute poverty. This progress was enabled by economic development and technological change driven by cheap energy — all made possible by institutions underlying individual economic freedom. To extend this progress to a larger share of humanity and those not yet born, even as the world’s population increases, what matters most is to continue to nourish or, if necessary, develop these institutions.[12]

[1] Shiva, Vandana, “The Green Revolution in the Punjab”, The Ecologist, Vol 21, No. 2, March-April 1991

[3] Revkin, Andrew C., “Varied Menus for Sustaining a Well-Fed World”, January 2011.

[4] Banerjee, Abhijit and Buflo, Esther, “More than 1 Billion People are Hungry in the World”, Foreign Policy, May/June 2011, page 67.

[5] Revkin, Andrew C., “Varied Menus for Sustaining a Well-Fed World”, January 2011.

[6] Vasilikiotis, Christos, “Can Organic Farming Feed The World?”, http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/~christos/articles/cv_organic_farming.html

[8] Ibid., Page 14

[9] Ibid., Page 14

(10) Funk, McKenzie, “Capatalists of Chaos: The Global Land Grab”, Rolling Stone, May 2010.

[11] “Genetically Modified Seeds Will Not Solve the World Hunger Crisis”, http://humanityscape.blogspot.com/2011/01/genetically-modified-seeds-will-not.html

Reasons for concern regarding GMO’s

29 09 2009

From last week’s post, you’ll remember we explained that GMO crops (to date) do not fulfill their promise:

  1. They do not decrease hunger and poverty;
  2. Data shows that GMO crops actually increase pesticide and herbicide use;
  3. They do not yield more; in a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Failure to Yield, data shows that despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields.   In fact data points to possibly lower yields than would have been achieved by NOT using GMO seed.

But I still didn’t understand  what the fuss is all about.  After all, companies have been making claims for products forever.  Shouldn’t the product just die by way of non-purchase?  Why should governments get involved and prohibit the use of GMO seeds?  Why are the organic trade associations around the world in such an uproar?

After all, the promise of genetic engineering  is very powerful –  to be able to feed the world as populations increase and agricultural land gets squeezed.   James McWilliams, an associate professor at Texas State University, says that genetic engineering is “a hidden realm of opportunity to feed the world’s impending 9 billion a diet produced in an environmentally responsible way.” Time Magazine reported in September, 2009 that a scientist at Texas A & M University has discovered a way to remove the gossypol (a naturally occurring toxic chemical that protects the plant from infestation) from cottonseeds.  Today cottonseeds can be used for humans only after an extensive refining process to remove the gossypol.  Also in the works are crops that can produce higher yields with less water; a dust from genetically modified ferns that can remove heavy metals from the soil;  crops that can withstand drought or high salt content in soil; and other GM technologies that “have the potential not only to streamline production, but to play a meaningful role in reducing their carbon footprint.”(1)  Sounds pretty good to me.

In the United States, we haven’t heard much about genetic engineering, because in 1992, the
FDA unilaterally decided (in its opinion) that as long as a GM food is no more toxic, allergenic, or any less “substantially equivalent” than its standard counterpart, it need not be labeled to show the process that created it. That is quite different from the European labeling laws, introduced in 1997, which required that any food containing residues of engineered DNA or protein must be recorded as GM.

So what is it about genetic engineering that has these other governments and organizations so concerned?  Part of the problem may be that the scientific community does not like the unknown, and it seems to have not reached a consensus on the safety of these products for our health or for the environment, although it’s hard to determine what interests are behind which studies.

These areas of concern, in addition to those of the plants developing increasing tolerances to pesticides and herbicides, include :

  1. The concept of “drift”:   that is,  pollen from genetically engineered plants will spread by insects and the winds to affect non-GMO plants.  (After all, a bee can travel up to 30 km or more.)  This contaminates both conventional and organic fields.  And farmers or food processors lose money because of unwanted contamination.   The  Organic Trade Association of Canada recently reported the discovery of contaminated flax seed in some German food products;  native corn in Mexico (where it is illegal to plant genetically engineered corn) was reported to have new GM genes found in the genome, where they could interfere with the plant’s normal genes.(2)   “It’s time for biotech companies to be good parents and take responsibility for their children. The owners of GE crops need to assume the liability for loss of market access due to their technologies appearing in countries or products in which they are not wanted. As GE products are not permitted under organic standards, the organic sector in Canada is extremely concerned by the prospect of losing access to its essential markets in Europe, Asia and around the world,” said Matthew Holmes, managing director of OTA in Canada.  According to the U.S. Organic Trade Association,  “Bt contamination is  a trespass, a nuisance, unwanted, and can lead to significant economic losses for organic farmers.  This is a clear example of potentially disastrous environmental degradation, with the added problem that consumers seeking products that contain no genetically engineered materials may be denied this choice because of inadvertent contamination.”
  2. Concerns regarding human health: These are classed into those that fall under “unknown effect on human health” and allergenicity.   With regard to unknown effects, a study published by the Austrian government found that mice fed a type of genetically engineered corn produced fewer offspring and more females with no offspring, than mice fed conventional corn.  The effects were particularly pronounced in the third and fourth litters, after the mice had eaten the GE corn for a longer period of time.  Another study published in Lancet claimed that there are appreciable differences in the intestines of rats fed genetically engineered potatoes and those fed unmodified potatoes.(3)  The milk from cows injected with genetically engineered  bovine growth hormone rBGH  (sometimes called rBST)  has been found to have much higher levels of IGF-1, a hormone considered to be a high risk factor for breast, prostate, colon, lung and other cancers – and the milk has lowered nutritional value! (4). “This … should serve as a wake-up call to governments around the world that genetically engineered foods could cause long-term health damage,” said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety.       With regard to allergenicity, there is the possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may cause a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. When DNA from one organism is spliced into another, can it turn a non-allergenic food into one that will cause an allergic reaction in some people?
  3. Concerns regarding agricultural diversity:  The 1st conference on animal and plant breeding of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) was held in August, 2009.  Speakers at the conference made it clear that we are in a battle to save the diversity of today’s food in order to have future food.  According to Vandana Shivam,  who spoke at the conference, unprecendented weather is occurring in India with the disruption of life-giving monsoons which used to appear as regularly as clockwork.  Farmers growing GMO rice could not plant their seedlings because of lack of rain, while farmers who had access to heirloom drought-tolerant varieties were able to plant and get a crop.  Traditional farming used to include over 250 crops.  Now there are a mere 2 crops.  Community seed banks are springing up around India to preserve traditional varieities, and “freedom villages” are forming to prohibit GMOs because of their threat to traditional seeds.  You can learn more about the situation in India by reading “Stop the Biopiracy of Climate Resilient Crops” by clicking here. The Wall Street Journal ran an article on how organic farming, even with reduced yields, is more profitable for Indian farmers than conventional crops, because the farmers  no longer are subjected to high up front costs for chemical fertilizers and insecticides, and they can save  seeds from year to year.
  4. Concerns regarding the safety of wildlife in the surrounding areas of GM crops: A major study performed by the British government and published by the Royal Society,   found that GM crops had 33% fewer seeds for birds to eat at the end of the season, and even two years later there were still 25% fewer seeds.  As the study puts it: “While reduction or removal of the visible flora temporarily reduces the food available to farmland animals, the key to longer-term impacts is the ‘seed rain’ (seeds falling from weeds) and its contribution to the seedbank (weed seeds left in soil).” (5)  They concluded that over time this would have a dramatic impact on the bird populations which are dependent on these seeds.  There are also fewer bees, beetles, butterflies and other insects in the GM crops. Such invertebrates are food for mammals, birds and other animals, and many are important for controlling pests or recycling nutrients within the soil.
  5. Concerns regarding the use of Bt crops and organic agriculture:  Bt is often used in organic agriculture;  it is an excellent biological control for corn and cotton insect pests.  It is the most widely used biological control in organic agriculture.    But Bt engineered plants will lead quickly to significant insect resistance, depriving organic farmers of one of their most useful tools.
  6. Concerns regarding the business of corporate agriculture: Many are concerned that farmers are turning dependent on large multinational corporations (MNCs) for seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and other inputs while also becoming more vulnerable to pressures to produce genetically engineered crops.   They fear the predatory nature of corporate agriculture and its attempts to corner the entire chain of food production from seeds to sales of food products.  Three companies — Cargill, Archer Daniels and Bunge — control nearly 90 per cent of global grain trade while DuPont and Monsanto dominate the global seed market. Eleven firms account for about half the world sales of seeds, of which about a quarter are sales of genetically engineered seeds. (6)  And agrichemical sales are concentrated in 6 firms which together control 85% of the annual pesticide market. (7)   The research into GMO crops is very expensive, meaning only large, well funded companies can afford the research.  It’s this last concern, that of “vertical integration” (i.e., a corporation taking over the entire food production cycle from the development of proprietary strains of DNA and the sales of seeds to farmers down to contracts with farmers that determine what is produced, how and for whom, and at what price and quality), that I want to focus on.

In an equity research paper done by Deutsche Banc of DuPont in 1999, they stated that they were willing to believe that GMOs were safe and “may provide a benefit for the environment” but that the perception wars are being lost by the industry.     “Not a day goes by lately where concerns and/or rebuttals are not in the press somewhere in the world. Domestic concerns regarding agbiotechnology are clearly on the rise, with the Monarch butterfly but one example of negative press causing a rethink of the future. For the most part, though, it has not yet gotten the attention of the ordinary U.S. citizen, but when it does – look out.”

The corporations which have so much at stake here know that they need a more aggressive marketing technique to promote the impression that GMOs are good and safe to use.  Agrichemical lobbyists are trying to convince the public that the industry is “science-based”.  A new global federation of agrichemical multinational corporations, Crop Life International, is the new representative of the “plant science industry”.  Crop Life’s annual report for 2007 makes the breathtaking claim that pesticides are actually good for the environment for a host of reasons, including “lower carbon dioxide emissions associated with the switch to no-till/reduced tillage farming systems, and less frequent pesticide applications made possible by biotech crops fuel savings.”

The agrichemical companies are vertically integrated, based on the law of efficiency similar to economies of scale which favors big corporations.  Antonio Tujan, Jr., international director of the Ibon Foundation Inc. (a research and educational institution specializing in socio-economic issues) says that “integration destroys the free market as it becomes increasingly dominated by the giants, which are able to dictate profits and what is produced.”  This turns the market into a sellers’ market, and farmers have little or no choice.  Farmers are forced to accept whatever they are asked to use such as seeds and pesticides.  A democratic market, in contrast, is a consumers’ market.

The big companies have a lot at stake, and the squabbling and double dealing – not to mention lawsuits and counter suits –  are worthy of a good thriller.   Monsanto, after years of acquiring seed companies while trying to become the major seed producer in the world,  filed a lawsuit in the spring accusing DuPont of patent infringement; DuPont countersued saying Monsanto wanted to protect its franchise at the expense of giving farmers access to better technology.   But in June, DuPont sued BASF over the same kind of alleged violations Monsanto sued it for in the spring – and of course, BASF countersued!

A more disturbing set of statistics is the number of lawsuits that Monsanto has filed against farmers who are accused of violating its patents.  It has built a department of 75 employees and set aside an annual budget of $10 million for the sole purpose of investigating and prosecuting farmers for patent infringement. For cases with recorded judgments, farmers have paid a mean of $412,259.54.  (Click here to read the entire report.) The table below gives the number of cases by year:

Number of Lawsuits by Year

Source:  The Center for Food Safety,  January 2005

According to Tom Wiley, a North Dakota farmer, farmers are being sued for having GMOs on their property that they “did not buy, do not want,  will not use and cannot sell.”

This just in:   Monsanto announced on  August 13 that it would be raising prices for its genetically modifed seeds from 17% to 42% – saying that these new seeds will boost yields; this is part of the company’s drive to double profits by 2012. (8)

(1) Brandon, Hembree, “GMO rejection – ‘Fatal rush to judgment'”, June 3, 2009, Southeast Farm Press

(2) “Chapala Vindicated”, Organic Consumers Association, March 5, 2009, http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_17133.cfm

(3) “Effect of diets containing genetically mofidied potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine”, Lancet, Vol 354, No 9187, pp 1353-1354, Oct 1999

(4) http://www.preventcancer.com/consumers/general/milk.htm

(5) http://www.i-sis.org.uk/GMCHW.php

(6) Netto, Anil, “GMO Seeds:  “MNCs Gaining Total Control Over Farming”, December 12, 2007, Center for Research on Globalization

(7) Ibid.

(8) “A Seed Company Some Love to Hate”, Jim Jubak blog on MSN Money, http://blogs.moneycentral.msn.com/topstocks/archive/2009/08/14/a-seed-company-some-love-to-hate.aspx

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, http://www.omri.org/OMRI_GMO_policy.html

(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; http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/agri_biotechnology/gmo_planting/343.genetically_modified_cotton_global_area_under_cultivation.html

(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