Biotechnology vs. Biodiversity

This article was originally published in Wild Earth, spring 1996.

Recent campaigns by food safety activists have raised a new level of public awareness about the risks of biotechnology. Products like genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone for dairy cows, tomatoes engineered for longer shelf life and virus resistant squash have inspired more widespread debate and higher levels of concern than ever before. One issue that underlies many discussions of biotechnology, but which is often underplayed in mainstream accounts, is the profound threat to living ecosystems posed by environmental releases of genetically engineered plants, bacteria and other organisms.

The ecological consequences of genetic engineering have not always been viewed as a secondary issue. The earliest controversies around biotechnology revolved specifically around the threat posed by releases into the environment. From early scientific debates in the mid-1970s to the controversy over tests of anti-frost bacteria in California in the 1980s, environmental concerns joined public health considerations as a primary focus of discussion. Now, recent findings on the ecological consequences of current developments in biotechnology are not only reawakening earlier concerns, but are lending new scientific credence to arguments the biotechnology industry thought it had dismissed a decade or more ago.

The pace of current developments in biotechnology raise an unprecedented dilemma. Never before have the results of new scientific discoveries been so heavily promoted and so rapidly rushed to market. Never before has the course of basic scientific research been so thoroughly and single-mindedly driven by commercial considerations. With hundreds of agricultural products and scores of new drugs being developed and tested in the U.S. alone, it is becoming difficult for activists to respond individually to every new product and every new discovery. People concerned about health, safety and economic issues are once again turning to the wider ecological and ethical implications of the new genetic technologies.

Early Debates

In the early years of the so-called “genetic revolution,” it was the scientists themselves that raised the alarm. In 1975, shortly after researchers at Stanford University succeeded in transferring a gene for antibiotic resistance from one species of bacteria to another, molecular biologists called for federal guidelines to contain potentially hazardous experiments. Contrary to their expectations, widespread opposition emerged in cities such as Cambridge and Palo Alto where the necessary containment laboratories for genetic experimentation were to be built. Guidelines were established by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and were progressively weakened in subsequent years, despite a substantial record of abuses, accidental releases and other “minor” scandals. For example one researcher at Montana State University introduced the Dutch elm disease fungus into a new area while testing bacteria genetically engineered to be toxic to the fungus, and a number of researchers were known to have carried out experiments in violation of the guidelines. Still, gene-splicing became the technology of choice in an ever-widening range of research specialties, as molecular biologists discovered ways to transplant genes across the species barrier , as well as between plants and animals, and to use gene splicing to isolate macroscopic quantities of formerly obscure proteins with high levels of biological activity.

Controversies over genetically engineered organisms were pretty much limited to university communities until 1983, when researchers at the University of California gained NIH approval for an experimental release of frost-inhibiting bacteria in northern California. Author Jeremy Rifkin’s Foundation on Economic Trends filed a lawsuit, charging that the government neglected to consider the possible effects of the altered bacteria upon natural ecological balances, other species of plants and bacteria, and effects on the formation of ice crystals in the upper atmosphere necessary for the development of clouds. In a surprising ruling in May of 1984, a federal judge halted the experiment.

When Advanced Genetic Sciences (AGS), a company with close ties to the University but not subject to NIH rules, announced plans to test the frost-inhibiting bacteria in agriculturally-rich Monterey County, local residents organized to oppose the tests, and successfully amended the county land use plan to effectively prohibit releases of engineered organisms. When the test was moved to an agricultural town east of Berkeley, Green activists from that city joined people living near the site in opposing the experiment. Concerns varied from long-term effects on the wintering cycles of native plants, to evidence associating AGS’ bacterial strains with a variety of known plant diseases, reports that AGS workers had been suffering from allergic reactions and sinus troubles probably associated with the bacteria and concerns about conflicts of interest between the company, the University and various federal and state agencies.

The so-called “ice-minus” experiments were short lived, due to a number of factors, each of which played a role in AGS’ eventual capitulation. Local opposition was sustained for two years, and the experiments continued to provoke controversy in the local press. Once judicial avenues were exhausted, activists continually sabotaged the company’s experimental plots, pulling up thousands of strawberry plants late at night. Opponents were helped by two scientific flaws that AGS nearly succeeded in covering up: “ice-minus” bacteria did not protect plants from frost damage as well as advertised, and the company was unable to prevent genetically altered bacteria from escaping their test plots. Soon it became clear that the company simply would not be able to convince enough communities to accept their experiments to ever produce a commercially viable product.

Unfortunately, though, ice-minus was just the beginning. Companies soon began developing and field-testing hundreds of different plants and bacteria with exotic mixtures of genetic traits. The initiative soon passed from specialized companies like AGS to transnational chemical giants such as Monsanto, DuPont, Upjohn and Rhone Poulenc. The primary purpose: to use the technologies of gene splicing to make common food crops easier to grow in large monocultures, cheaper to process and more adaptable to changing environmental conditions, including drought, lower soil quality and high levels of salt from over-irrigation. The overwhelmingly largest category of engineered organisms developed to date are plants genetically altered to tolerate large doses of toxic chemicals. Monsanto has spent millions developing crops resistant to its broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) and the French chemical company Rhone Poulenc has developed and tested crops resistant to the teratogenic herbicide bromoxynil, which is known to be especially toxic to fish.

Genetic Roulette

In 1991, the National Wildlife Federation began monitoring USDA and EPA approvals of open field tests of genetically engineered organisms. At that time, 149 such tests were reported, mostly of plants altered to be resistant to herbicides, viruses and particular varieties of insects. Today, that number has grown to over 2200, including all pending and approved applications for tests of engineered organisms. If even a few of these crops are approved for human consumption (implying widespread commercial-scale production), the most immediate result will be a significant increase in the volume of herbicides used in agriculture. But it is the longer term consequences that raise the most serious concerns.

A 1993 study commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has continued the work begun by NWF, outlines many scenarios by which genetically altered varieties of common food crops can either become invasive weeds or pass their unique combinations of genes on to native plants with unpredictable consequences. Inserted genes can spread into the wild through pollen and through various bacterial and viral carriers. The most likely scenario in the U.S. is in the case of crops such as rape seed (canola) and sunflowers that have many common wild relatives here. As genetic experimentation spreads into tropical regions from which the majority of common food crops originate, the risk of genetic contamination of native species multiplies many fold. And while the development and field testing of genetically altered crops races ahead, studies of the ecological and human health risks of experiments in genetic engineering are still in their infancy.

One popular area of research has been the genetic alteration of plants to secrete common biological pesticides. Most common among these has been the biological toxin produced by the bacterium Bacillus thuringensis (Bt). Bt bacteria are commonly sprayed on crops by organic growers, who take advantage of the fact that the toxin is normally only released and activated in the gut linings of certain caterpillars that have unusually alkaline digestive systems. However, as Bt has become widely used as a wide-area spray against gypsy moths and spruce budworm, many agricultural “pest” species have become resistant and concerns have been raised about pathogenic effects on other moth and butterfly larvae, as well as on the many species of birds and small mammals that eat these larvae. If plants engineered to produce their own Bt toxin — such as a variety of potato developed by Monsanto and recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — are to be grown on a widespread scale, it is difficult to predict the effect on nearby ecosystems of sustained doses of the activated form of the Bt toxin. At the very least, selection pressure will cause more strains of insects to become resistant to Bt, and declines in populations of butterflies that aid pollination also appear likely.

Fish, along with common food crops, have been a frequent target of experiments in genetic engineering. Since the late 1980s, scientists in the U.S. and China have been seeking to genetically alter commercially important species of fish to grow larger and more resistant to environmental changes. Human growth hormone genes implanted into goldfish reportedly led to fish two to four times their normal size. Similar, though less dramatic, results were obtained by inserting regulatory genes from rainbow trout into carp. Scientists at a salmon hatchery in Nova Scotia have been working to incorporate cold-resistance genes from flounder into Atlantic salmon. For people already concerned about the effects of hatchery-raised fish on the genetic integrity of wild populations, these experiments add a staggering new set of potentially adverse consequences.

Less serious ecologically, but of major concern to people interested in animal welfare, are experiments in which cows, goats and sheep have been genetically altered to produce pharmacologically active proteins in their milk. For the drug companies, the animals have become nothing more than a highly efficient form of “bioreactor” for drug production. As most of these experiments are being carried out in privately funded laboratories, it may never be known how such alterations affect these animals’ normal metabolism.

Biotechnology is also having an impact on commercial forestry. Companies like Weyerhaeuser advertise regularly that the tree seedlings they raise from tissue culture in their laboratories are an “improvement” on nature. Plantations of genetically identical trees not only replace native forest ecosystems, but could be an incubator for new, more virulent blights that could spread from Weyerhaeuser’s tree farms into surrounding natural areas. A company called Zeneca Plant Science has recently announced a technology for genetically modifying the lignin in rapidly growing trees such as poplar and eucalyptus so the lignin is easier to remove from cellulose for making paper. It is difficult to imagine how they could assure that such traits would not spread through pollen into the wild.

In Europe, officials concerned about the spread of rabies have been loading bait for wild foxes with a virus genetically altered to contain a rabies glycoprotein that stimulates immunity against the disease. While environmentalists have been assured that this will help save the large number of foxes killed annually to prevent the spread of rabies, the virus of choice is closely related to smallpox and several animal poxes, and is also known to be transmitted uncontrollably between unrelated species of mammals. These experiments, which continue despite an extremely low incidence of rabies in Europe, demonstrate the profound recklessness that new discoveries in biotechnology seem to encourage.

Novel Organisms

Industry efforts to assuage widespread public concerns about biotechnology are usually based on three commonly held myths: that genetic manipulation is “natural,” that it is not much different from conventional breeding, and that transgenic organisms are inherently unable to escape from carefully controlled environments, whether they be laboratories or agricultural plots. Such claims have been long since discredited in scientific circles. Whereas conventional breeding — and most gene transfers in nature — result in substitutions of alternate forms (alleles) of a particular gene in their appropriate (chromosomal or extrachromosomal) location, the splicing of genes in the laboratory can result in entirely new combinations of genetic traits in a single organism.

This adds tremendous new uncertainties. According to ecologist Philip Regal of the University of Minnesota, even those who support deregulation of biotechnology now generally agree that “there can be no generic arguments for the safety of genetically engineered organisms.” By creating “populations of organisms with novel combinations of adaptive traits,” Regal has written (i.e., traits such as disease and pest resistance that improve the chances of survival), “genetic engineering does have the potential to create types of organisms that can interact with particular ecosystems and biological communities in novel competitive or functional ways . . .”

This view is supported by studies of the effects of exotic non-engineered organisms that people have introduced into environments to which they are not adapted. In light of nearly 40 years of ecological studies of the impacts of plants and animals introduced into new environments, the likelihood of significant ecological damage from releases of “engineered” organisms is a matter of very serious concern.

From the blight that virtually destroyed the American chestnut to gypsy moths, California’s garden snails and “medflies,” kudzu vines in the southeast and roughly 40 percent of all the major insect pests in the U.S., organisms introduced from faraway places often have dramatic and unexpected effects on native ecosystems. Eucalyptus trees imported from Australia have suffocated wetlands in North America and southeast Asia, and have become a significant threat to the surface water supply of the Florida Everglades and many other endangered ecosystems around the world. A study commissioned by the United Nations Environment Program has documented scores of such cases, from disease-causing microbes that survive heavy quarantine to imported varieties of horses, goats and reindeer. “The results of this wholesale scrambling of the earth’s fauna and flora have been unexpected and unfortunate ecological effects,” the study concluded.

It is not just a North American problem. A recent Greenpeace study documented unregulated field tests and other development activities using genetically engineered organisms in at least thirteen African, Asian and Latin American countries, and eighty illegal releases of patented, genetically engineered microbes in India alone. With virtually no scientific resources to monitor the effects of these experiments, these countries are entirely dependent on inadequate scientific information from countries like the U.S. and Japan where these technologies are being developed.

The Evidence Mounts

Despite the plethora of likely scenarios for ecological and genetic disruption from releases of engineered life forms, these scenarios often have a speculative quality that makes it easy for industry spokespeople to attack opponents for spreading unsubstantiated fears. Until recently, that is. Studies of the environmental consequences of genetically altered organisms are in their infancy compared to the increasing sophistication of gene splicing technologies themselves, for obvious reasons having to do with the sources of funding for such research. However, scientific evidence for the viability and disruptive potential of engineered organisms is now beginning to accumulate rapidly.

Last year, virologists at Michigan State University published a study demonstrating that virus genes implanted into plant cells could be transferred into the DNA of other viruses that the plants come into contact with. Dr. Richard F. Allison told the New York Times that this could lead to the unintentional creation of new, and perhaps more virulent, plant viruses. Various studies have suggested that viruses can also transfer genes among plants and perhaps animals as well. Studies at the University of Arizona suggest that parasitic mites may be involved in transferring jumping genes known as “P elements” among common varieties of fruitflies. When “foreign” genes begin to spread among wild populations of plants and animals, they become virtually impossible to trace, no less to control.

One of the most striking recent experiments was performed by Dr. Elaine Ingham, a plant pathologist at Oregon State University. Ingham became concerned about the environmental consequences of her colleagues’ efforts to alter the genetics of a common variety of bacteria found in the root systems of most plants. The bacteria would become able to digest crop residues, now considered waste products and often burned in large quantities, and produce ethyl alcohol that farmers could readily use as a fuel. To some, this seemed like the perfect technological solution for turning “waste” products into something useful. Ingham set out to discover how the genetically altered bacteria would affect the growth of common grasses in a variety of soil types.

Ingham discovered that the altered bacteria survived easily and often outcompeted their parent strains, something biotech advocates used to say could never happen. But the effects on the grasses were even more unexpected. In sandy soil, most of the grasses died from alcohol poisoning. In clay soils, however, the grasses also died, but from an entirely different cause. The altered bacteria apparently increased the numbers of root-feeding nematodes and decreased populations of beneficial soil fungi that help grasses resist common diseases.

“We must understand the effects on the whole system, not just isolated portions,” Ingham has written, “because biotechnology products will have a range of impacts much greater than just the engineered organism.” In forest soils, for example, native tree species depend on root-dwelling mycorrhizal fungi for proper absorption of nutrients and water from the soil. What would happen if these bacteria spread from a farmstead into nearby forests? Other studies described by Ingham have demonstrated effects such as altered carbon dioxide levels, increased plant disease and changes in the distribution of other essential soil microbes from the introduction of genetically altered organisms and their byproducts.

For years, arguments for the safety of engineered organisms depended on claims that they simply could not survive outside the controlled environment of laboratories and experimental farm plots. Manuela Jager and Beatrix Tappeser of the Institute of Applied Ecology in Frankfurt, Germany have undertaken a comprehensive survey of experiments designed to test this claim, and found numerous cases of genetically altered life forms surviving in surface water, drinking water, wastewater, soil and even clothing at rates comparable to their natural relatives. In addition, isolated fragments of DNA are not only able to survive, but can be protected from natural degradation in soil, sewage sludge, animal feces and in particles suspended in water. Such fragments can be uptaken by bacteria and further passed on to other organisms. These findings compound the range of plausible scenarios for the uncontrolled spread of traits such as resistance to antibiotics and herbicides, production of substances toxic to various insects, ability to grow better in salty and otherwise degraded soils, and many more subtle biochemical changes.

A New Scientific Opposition

While people in the U.S. are fighting important but often piecemeal battles against the hazards of specific products of biotechnology, international activists have joined with progressive scientists to articulate a wider critique of biotechnology and genetic engineering. Their focus is on the ecological, social and ethical consequences of genetic experimentation for commercial purposes. They view the scientific paradigm of genetic engineering as a fundamental misreading of the nature of life processes, and have demonstrated how the false public optimism of the biotechnology industry reflects a willing ignorance of recent discoveries in molecular genetics and ecological science. This approach has brought some tangible victories, such as the European Parliament’s five year moratorium on engineered Bovine Growth Hormone, and its recent rejection of the patenting of engineered life forms.

The widest philosophical and historical critique of biotechnology has been offered by Indian physicist and ecofeminist activist and author Vandana Shiva, who has pointed out that the mechanistic assumptions inherent in the very concept of “genetic engineering” reduce the complexity and self-organizing ability of living ecosystems to a belief that life can be “[re]designed from the outside.” “The reductionist paradigm emerged in a era in which species were treated merely as objects of ‘Man’s empire’ to be manipulated at will for serving the interests of the dominant members of the human species,” Shiva has written. The dominant view not only ignores the uncertainties inherent in genetic experimentation and the overwhelming proportion of instances in which genetically altered organisms do not behave as predicted, but it systematically denigrates more traditional forms of knowledge, upon which would-be genetic engineers increasingly depend for clues about where to look in nature for promising genes to study. “A post-reductionist paradigm is needed to create respect for indigenous systems and to protect them,” Shiva has argued.

The world view that has promoted confidence in “genetic engineering” is also inconsistent with discoveries in molecular genetics over the past 20 years. Popular discussions of biotechnology, according to Mae-Wan Ho of the Open University of the U.K., simply ignore the overwhelming fact that “no gene ever functions in isolation.” The “central dogmas” of 1960s genetics — that genes determine visible characteristics in a straightforward manner (DNA -> RNA -> proteins), that genes are stable and passed on unchanged to future generations except for exceptionally rare mutations, and that inheritance of traits is not influenced by environmental factors — have all been called into question by recent findings. The myth of a straightforward “genetic program” has been challenged by discoveries of “jumping genes,” transposons, complex processing and “editing” of messenger RNA before it is “translated,” the phenomenon of “cosuppression” (in which additional, artificially inserted copies of a gene suppress, rather than heighten, the original gene’s expression), and new evidence that changes in environment can indeed affect the genes that bacteria and plants pass on to their progeny . “Genes are defined by context; if you don’t understand the context, you don’t understand the function of a gene,” added Ho’s colleague, Brian Goodwin, author of the recent book, How the Leopard Changed its Spots.

Last summer, specialists in areas ranging from molecular genetics to plant ecology, biophysics and medicine gathered in Malaysia, under the auspices of the internationally renowned Third World Network. These scientists drafted a new statement, “The Need for Greater Regulation and Control of Genetic Engineering,” which should help to substantially raise the current level of debate around biotechnology. Since the race to commercialize products of biotechnology has made it difficult for studies of the effects of genetically engineered organisms to keep up, an international moratorium on open-air releases of engineered life forms needs to be enforced until meaningful safety measures can be put in place. This is the view of growing numbers of people around the world who see through the biotechnology industry’s exaggerated promises.

However, despite the high risk of unpredictable ecological consequences, genetic engineering continues to be accepted as the means to addressing an ever- widening range of problems. It has attracted billions of dollars in investment capital that has, in numerous fields, crowded other, less invasive approaches out of the agenda of mainstream research. “The growth of biotechnology depends on its ability to exclude other technologies from being played out fully,” Vandana Shiva has said. Despite their inherent limitations, genetic engineering and other biotechnologies are powerful tools of manipulation that serve the agenda of dominating nature which underlies our economic system and our entire civilization. Where the patterns of nature are not sufficiently well suited to further exploitation, biotechnology offers the possibility of redesigning life forms to satisfy the demands of the system, and that possibility is more than enough to sustain widespread support for these technologies.

Despite the profound financial and ideological weight behind biotechnology, progress continues to be stalled. Just a decade ago, the experts were predicting that products like Bovine Growth Hormone, genetically engineered plants, anti-frost bacteria, and various exotic medicines would be widely accepted by the early 1990s. That this has not, for the most part, come to pass — and that new developments in biotechnology are as uncertain and controversial as ever — offers hope that an increasingly educated public will be able to prevent some of the worst consequences of an imperialistic and fundamentally life-denying technology.

Brian Tokar is the author of The Green Alternative (Revised Edition 1992, Philadelphia: New Society Publishers) and the forthcoming Earth for Sale (Boston: South End Press). He is a long-time activist, a popular lecturer, and an associate faculty member in Social Ecology at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont.

Selected sources:

Ho, Mae-Wan, “Genetic engineering: hope or hoax?,” Third World Resurgence, No. 53/54, Jan./Feb. 1995, pp. 28-9

Meister, Isabelle and Meyer, Sue, “Genetically Engineered Plants: Releases and Impacts on Less Developed Countries,” Greenpeace International, 1994

Mc Nally, Ruth, “Genetic Madness: The European Rabies Eradication Programme,” The Ecologist, Vol. 24, No. 6, Nov./Dec. 1994, pp. 207-212

Orton, David, “The Case Against Forest Spraying with the Bacterial Insecticide Bt,” Alternatives, Vol. 15, No. 1, Dec. 1987, pp. 28-35

Regal, Philip J., “Scientific principles for ecologically based risk assessment of transgenic organisms,” Molecular Ecology, 1994, Vol. 3, pp. 5-13

Rennie, John, “DNA’s New Twists,” Scientific American, March 1993, pp. 88-96

Rissler, Jane and Mellon, Margaret, Perils Amidst the Promise: Ecological Risks of Transgenic Crops in a Global Market, Union of Concerned Scientists, 1993

Shiva, Vandana, “Reductionism in Biology and its Effects on Bioethics, Biosafety and Biodiversity Erosion,” Third World Network, 1995

Shiva, Vandana, “Why the engineering paradigm in life forms is flawed,” Third World Resurgence, No. 53/54, Jan./Feb. 1995, pp. 25-27

Third World Network, “The Need for Greater Regulation and Control of Genetic Engineering,” (228 Macalister Rd., 10400 Penang, Malaysia), 1995

Tiedje, James, et. al., “The Planned Introduction of Genetically Engineered Organisms: Ecological Considerations and Recommendations,” Ecology, Vol. 70, No. 2, 1989, pp. 298-315

Tokar, Brian, “Engineering the Future of Life?,” Z Magazine, July/August 1989, pp. 110-116

Tokar, Brian, et. al., Biotechnology: An Activists’ Handbook, Vermont Biotechnology Working Group, 1991

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