The golden rice was meant to solve the problem of vitamin A deficiency with a genetically engineered higher content of the vitamin A precursor beta carotene.
Photo: © IRRI (Isagani Serrano)

Philippine environmental biologist questions transgenic crop potential

During a tour of German research institutions, D. Charito P. Medina of the NGO MASIPAG explained why he believes that transgenic crops can do little to strengthen food security and reported on progress with traditional and farmer-bred varieties in the Philippines.

Proponents of transgenic crops promise better yields and safe and better-quality food that is also cheaper. They maintain that genetically modified organisms are environmentally sustainable and good for biodiversity. In a presentation tour around German research institutions, including the Bonn-based Center for Development Research, environmental biologist Dr Charito P. Medina, National Coordinator of the Philippines-based NGO MASIPAG (Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development) assessed the potential of transgenic crops to contribute to food security.

According to Dr Medina, hunger is not lack of food but lack of access to it. Combating hunger requires taking a closer look at people’s needs and how they can be met. The development of Golden Rice, at a cost of 120 million US dollars (USD), did not set out from this premise. The rice was meant to solve the problem of vitamin A deficiency with a genetically engineered higher content of the vitamin A precursor beta carotene. But the poor frequently lack fats like butter, and without these fats, vitamin A cannot be absorbed by the human body. Vitamin A does however occur in a large variety of vegetables, e.g. the sweet potato, and at much greater levels than in Golden Rice.

Referring to suggestions that transgenic crops provide greater yields, Dr Medina cited statistics from the US Department of Agriculture comparing 1991–1995 and 2004–2008 showing that just 3-4 per cent of a 28 per cent increase in yield was attributable to crops genetically modified with genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, so-called Bt crops, whereas 24–25  per cent was due to other factors such as conventional breeding. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops have been genetically modified to resist the company’s Roundup herbicide. A two-year survey revealed that the Roundup Ready soy bean had 5 per cent less yield than conventional soy bean varieties. Moreover, Bt corn, for example, is resistant to just one pest, the corn borer, whereas there are a host of other organisms that attack corn crops.

Dr Medina also reported cases of farmers in the Philippines going bankrupt after having entered transgenic crop schemes. “There is a mismatch between the low cost of the corn the farmers sell and the high cost of inputs, including seed itself,” he explained. Also, farmers were losing control of their production assets in contract farming arrangements and taking out greater loans that what they themselves could invest. Dr Medina said that farmers had told him, that “If you buy the seeds, the seeds will make you buy more”.

In his presentation, Dr Medina gave an account of environmental and health issues related to transgenic crops. Many cases of seed contamination have been reported, one of the most prominent being the spread of the herbicide-resistant GM rice variety LL601, used in the USA and now detected in around 32 other countries. Seed may spread for various reasons, e.g. by accidentally dropping from railway trucks. GM varieties can also trigger adaptation among organisms to their own resistance, as in the case of Bt cotton and the bollworm. Roundup Ready crops were introduced in 1996. By 2003, five resistant weed species had developed. And by 2010/11, farmers were having to cope with 21 resistant sorts of weeds.

Toxins created by Bt crops can kill vital soil organisms. The toxins may survive digestion, and have even been found in maternal and fetal blood. Bt proteins are toxic to mouse blood and also to certain human cells. Rats fed on Roundup Ready soybeans had severely stunted offspring, indicating long-term toxicity, while they showed an increase in white blood cells when fed with Bt corn. The Bt eggplant is known to have toxic effects on the liver. 

Dr. Medina maintains that the major seed companies are increasingly gaining control of the seed market, resulting in higher prices for farmers and narrowing of their seed options. Research on seed varieties is becoming monopolised, he says. There have been cases of research requests by independent institutions being refused and publications of findings being suppressed. A study on a Roundup Ready herbicide and herbicide-tolerant GM maize published in the journal “Food and Chemical Toxicity” in 2012 was retracted when a former Monsanto executive became editor of the journal. It was republished in Environmental Sciences in Europe in 2013.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology and Development (IAASTD), initiated by the World Bank to assess the relevance, quality and effectiveness of agricultural knowledge, science and technology, noted in its 2008 report that “GM crops are unlikely to play a substantial role in addressing poor farmers’ needs”. The report called for a systematic redirection of investment, research and policy towards small farmers’ needs, appropriate policy and regulatory frameworks supporting sustainable agriculture and the integration of traditional and indigenous knowledge in the development of agriculture.

MASIPAG, founded in 1985 as a partnership between farmers, scientists and NGOs as an alternative to the Green Revolution, seeks to empower resource-poor farmers through access to and control of production resources. Today, the organisation comprises 635 Peoples’ Organisations, more than 35,000 farmers as well as 60 NGOs, 15 scientist partners, 70 rice breeders, 12 corn breeders and over 100 volunteer farmer-trainers.

One of MASIPAG’s chief areas is seed conservation and diffusion. Farmers who collect rice varieties are given orientation in sustainable agriculture. Trial farms are set up to monitor agronomic characteristics of crops and select locally adapted varieties. Farmers are trained and then do breeding and further selection themselves. Seeds and knowledge are diffused among farmers in an on-going process. 

MASIPAG farmers growing traditional rice and breeding their own rice with desired characteristics have achieved notable results. Not only are organically farmed varieties tolerant to climate change, but they also fare well in terms of yield compared to farming with chemical inputs. They offer greater crop diversity, and the MASIPAG farmers themselves benefit with regard to food security, a more diversified diet and better health. 

Mike Gardner
, journalist, Bonn/Germany