By Miguel Altieri
Genetic engineering is an application of biotechnology involving the manipulation of DNA and the transfer of gene components between species in order to encourage replication of desired traits (OTA 1992). Although there are many applications of genetic engineering in agriculture, the current focus of biotechnology is on developing herbicide tolerant crops and on pest and disease resistant crops. Transnational corporations such as Monsanto, DuPont, Norvartis, etc. which are the main proponents of biotechnology view transgenic crops as a way to reduce dependence on inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers. What is ironic is the fact that the biorevolution is being brought forward by the same interests that promoted the first wave of agrochemically-based agriculture, but this time, by equipping each crop with new "insecticidal genes," they are promising the world safer pesticides, reduction on chemically intensive farming and a more sustainable agriculture.
As long as transgenic crops follow closely the pesticide paradigm, such biotechnological products will do nothing but reinforce the pesticide treadmill in agroecosystems, thus legitimizing the concerns that many scientists have expressed regarding the possible environmental risks of genetically engineered organisms. The most serious ecological risks posed by the commercial-scale use of transgenic crops are (Rissler and Mellon 1996; Krimsky and Wrubel 1996):
The above impacts of agricultural biotechnology are herein evaluated in the context of agroecological goals aimed at making agriculture more socially just, economically viable and ecologically sound (Altieri 1996). Such evaluation is timely given that worldwide, there have been over 1,500 approvals for field testing transgenic crops (the private sector has accounted for 87% of all field tests since 1987), despite the fact that in most countries stringent procedures are not in place to deal with environmental problems that may develop when engineered plants are released into the environment (Hruska and Lara Pavón 1997). A main concern is that international pressures to gain markets and profits is resulting in companies releasing transgenic crops too fast, without proper consideration for the long-term impacts on people or the ecosystem (Mander and Goldsmith 1996).
Actors and Research Directions
Most innovations in agricultural biotechnology are profit driven rather than need driven, therefore the thrust of the genetic engineering industry is not really to solve agricultural problems, but to create profitability. This statement is supported by the fact that at least 27 corporations have initiated herbicide-tolerant plant research, including the world's eight largest pesticide companies Bayer, Ciba-Geigy, ICI, Rhone-Poulenc, Dow/Elanco, Monsanto, Hoescht and DuPont, and virtually all seed companies, many of which have been acquired by chemical companies (Gresshoft 1996).
In the industrialized countries from 1986-1992, 57% of all field trials to test transgenic crops involved herbicide tolerance and 46% of applicants to the USDA for field testing were chemical companies. Crops currently targeted for genetically engineered tolerance to one or more herbicides includes: alfalfa, canola, cotton, corn, oats, petunia, potato, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugarbeet, sugar cane, sunflower, tobacco, tomato, wheat and others. It is clear that by creating crops resistant to its herbicides a company can expand markets for its patented chemicals. The market for HRCs has been estimated at more than $500 million by the year 2000 (Gresshoft 1996).
Although some testing is being conducted by universities and advanced research organizations, the research agenda of such institutions is being increasingly influenced by the private sector in ways never seen in the past. 46% of biotechnology firms support biotechnology research at universities, while 33 of the 50 states have university-industry centers for the transfer of biotechnology. The challenge for such organizations will not only be to ensure that ecologically sound aspects of biotechnology are researched and developed (N fixing, drought tolerance, etc.), but to carefully monitor and control the provision of applied non-proprietary knowledge to the private sector so as to protect that such knowledge will continue in the public domain for the benefit of all society.
Biotechnology and Agrobiodiversity
Although biotechnology has the capacity to create a greater variety of commercial plants, the trends set forth by TNCs is to create broad international markets for a single product, thus creating the conditions for genetic uniformity in rural landscapes. In addition, patent protection and intellectual property rights spoused by GATT, inhibiting farmers from re-using, sharing and storing seeds raises the prospect that few varieties will dominate the seed market. Although a certain degree of crop uniformity may have certain economic advantages, it has two ecological drawbacks. First, history has shown that a huge area planted to a single cultivar is very vulnerable to a new, matching strain of a pathogen or pest. And, second, the widespread use of a single cultivar leads to a loss of genetic diversity (Robinson 1996).
Evidence from the Green Revolution leaves no doubt that the spread of modern varieties has been an important cause of genetic erosion, as massive government campaigns encouraged farmers to adopt MVs and to abandon many local varieties (Tripp 1996). The uniformity caused by increasing areas sown to a smaller number of varieties is a source of increased risk for farmers, as the varieties may be more vulnerable to disease and pest attack and most of them perform poorly in marginal environments (Robinson 1996).
All the above effects are not ubiquitous to MVs and it is expected that, given their monogenic nature and fast acreage expansion, transgenic crops will only exacerbate such effects.
Environmental Problems of Herbicide Resistant Crops
According to proponents of HRCs, this technology represents an innovation that enables farmers to simplify their weed management requirements, by reducing herbicide use to post-emergence situations using a single, broad-spectrum herbicide that breaks down relatively rapidly in the soil. Herbicide candidates with such characteristics include Glyphosate, Bromoxynil, Sulfonylurea, Imidazolinones among others.
However, in actuality the use of herbicide-resistant crops is likely to increase herbicide use as well as production costs. It is also likely to cause serious environmental problems.
It is well documented that when a single herbicide is used repeatedly on a crop, the chances of herbicide resistance developing in weed populations greatly increases (Holt et al. 1993). The sulfonylureas and the imidazolinones are particularly prone to the rapid evolution of resistant weeds and up to now fourteen weed species have become resistant to sulfonylurea herbicides. Cocklebur an aggressive weed of soybean and corn in the southeastern US has exhibited resistance to imidazolinone herbicides (Goldburg 1992).
The problem is that given industry pressures to increase herbicide sales, acreage treated with these broad-spectrum herbicides will expand, exacerbating the resistance problem. For example, it has been projected that the acreage treated with glyphosate will increase to nearly 150 million acres. Although glyphosate is considered less prone to weed resistance, the increased use of the herbicide will result in weed resistance, even if more slowly, as it has been already documented with populations of annual ryegrass, quackgrass, birdsfoot trefoil and Cirsium arvense (Gill 1995).
Ecological Impacts of Herbicides
Companies affirm that bromoxynil and glyphosate, when properly applied degrade rapidly in the soil, do not accumulate in groundwater, have no effects on non-target organisms and leaves no residues in food. There is, however, evidence that bromoxynil causes birth defects in laboratory animals, is toxic to fish and may cause cancer in humans. Because bromoxynil is absorbed dermally, and because it causes birth defects in rodents, it is likely to pose hazards to farmers and farm workers. Similarly glyphosate has been reported to be toxic to some non-target species in the soil -both to beneficial predators such as spiders, mites, carabid and coccinellid beetles and to detritivores such as earthworms, as well as to aquatic organisms, including fish (Pimentel et al. 1989). As this herbicide is known to accumulate in fruits and tubers suffering little metabolic degradation in plants, questions about food safety also arise.
Creation of "Super Weeds"
Although there is some concern that transgenic crops themselves might become weeds, a major ecological risk is that large scale releases of transgenic crops may promote transfer of transgenes from crops to other plants, which may then become weeds (Darmency 1994). The biological process of concern here is introgression, that is, hybridization among distinct plant species. Evidence indicates that such genetic exchanges among wild, weed and crop plants already occur. The incidence of shattercane (Sorghum bicolor), a weedy relative of sorghum and the gene flows between maize and teosinte demonstrates the potential for crop relatives to become serious weeds. This is worrisome given that a number of US crops are grown in close proximity to sexually compatible wild relatives. There are also crops that are grown near wild/weedy plants that are not close relatives but may have some degree of cross compatibility such as the crosses of Raphanus raphanistrum R. X Sativus (radish) and Johnson grass X Sorghum corn (Radosevich et al. 1996).
Reduction of Agroecosystem Complexity
Total weed removal via the use of broad-spectrum herbicides may lead to undesirable ecological impacts, given that an acceptable level of weed diversity in and around crop fields has been documented to play important ecological roles such as enhancement of biological insect pest control, better soil cover reducing erosion, etc (Altieri 1994).
HRCs will most probably enhance continuous cropping by inhibiting the use of rotations and polycultures susceptible to the herbicides used with HRCs. Such impoverished, low plant diversity agroecosystems provide optimal conditions for unhampered growth of weeds, insects and diseases because many ecological niches are not filled by other organisms. Moreover, HRCs, through increased herbicide effectiveness, could further reduce plant diversity, favoring shifts in weed community composition and abundance, favoring competitive species that adapt to these broad-spectrum, post emergence treatments (Radosevich et al. 1996).
Environmental Risks of Insect Resistant Crops
According to the industry, the promise of transgenic crops inserted with Bt genes is the replacement of synthetic insecticides now used to control insect pests. Since most crops have a diversity of insect pests, insecticides will still have to be applied to control pests other than Lepidoptera not susceptible to the endotoxin expressed by the crop (Gould 1994).
On the other hand, several Lepidoptera species have been reported to develop resistance to Bt toxin in both field and laboratory tests, suggesting that major resistance problems are likely to develop in Bt crops which through the continuous expression of the toxin create a strong selection pressure (Tabashnik 1994). Given that a diversity of different Bt-toxin genes have been isolated, biotechnologists argue that if resistance develops alternative forms of Bt toxin can be used (Kennedy and Whalon 1995). However, because insects are likely to develop multiple resistance or cross-resistance, such strategy is also doomed to fail (Alstad and Andow 1995).
Others, borrowing from past experience with pesticides, have proposed resistance management plans with transgenic crops, such as the use of seed mixtures and refuges (Tabashnik 1994). In addition to requiring the difficult goal of regional coordination between farmers, refuges have met with poor success for chemical pesticides, due to the fact that insect populations are not constrained within closed systems, and incoming insects are exposed to lower doses of the toxin as the pesticide degrades (Leibee and Capinera 1995).
Impacts on Non-Target Organisms
By keeping pest populations at extremely low levels, Bt crops can starve natural enemies as these beneficial insects need a small amount of prey to survive in the agroecosystem. Parasites would be most affected because they are more dependent on live hosts for development and survival, whereas some predators could theoretically thrive on dead or dying prey.
Natural enemies could also be affected directly through inter-trophic level interactions. Evidence from studies conducted in Scotland suggest that aphids were capable of sequestering the toxin from Bt crops and transferring it to its coccinellid predators, in turn affecting reproduction and longevity of the beneficial beetles (Birch et al. 1997). Sequestration of plant allelochemicals by herbivores which then affect parasitoid performance is not uncommon (Campbell and Duffey 1979). The potential of Bt toxins moving through food chains poses serious implications for natural biocontrol in agroecosystems.
Bt toxins can be incorporated into the soil through leaf materials, where they may persist for 2-3 months, resisting degradation by binding to soy clay particles while maintaining toxin activity (Palm et al. 1996). Such Bt toxins that end up in the soil and water from transgenic leaf litter may have negative impacts on soil and aquatic invertebrates and nutrient cycling processes (James 1997), all aspects that deserve serious further inquiry.
A major environmental consequence resulting from the massive use of Bt toxin in cotton or other crop occupying a larger area of the agricultural landscape, is that neighboring farmers who grow crops other than cotton, but that share similar pest complexes, may end up with resistant insect