Monday, July 17, 2006

Pharm crops and world hunger

Article No. 3

Articles in the last two issues of the Sentinel described the lack of government regulation of genetically modified (GM) food crops and outlined four bills Congressman Kucinich (D-Ohio) introduced into the House of Representatives to require that GM foods be tested for safety and labeled, and to protect farmers from any liability created by this new technology by shifting that liability onto the developer, namely the biotech corporations. The final two bills in Kucinich’s “Genetically Engineered Regulatory Framework” focus on regulating pharmaceutical and industrial crops, and addressing the problem of world hunger.

Would you like to drink beer with human genes? How about cooking with human genes in your safflower oil? Pharmaceutical and industrial crops are plants that have been genetically altered to produce an experimental drug or industrial chemical. For example, Washington State University secretly grew barley injected with human genes to produce artificial proteins that could have medical applications. In addition, SemBioSys, a Canadian company, plans to blast human genes into safflower to produce experimental insulin, and a drug for heart attacks and strokes. While these tests are supposed to be highly regulated, a recent report by the Inspector General of the US Department of Agriculture found that this department did not follow through with field site inspections and sometimes did not even know where the field tests were being conducted.

While proponents say that “biopharming” could produce drugs much more cheaply than current production methods, a recent article titled, “Are There Human Genes in Your Food?” written by Trudy Bialic and published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, reports that the contamination of our food crops would be inevitable. The article states, “The National Academy of Science, a nongovernmental body of scientists and professionals, has warned in two reports that it is virtually impossible to keep biopharms (pharmaceutical crops) out of the food supply, if food crops are used to grow them. Insects, birds, animals, wind, storms, trucks, trains, and human error see to that.” In his floor statements before Congress, Kucinich said, “These substances are not intended to be incorporated in food or to be spread into the environment. That would be equivalent to allowing a prescription drug in the food supply.”

Genetic engineering has been used to develop treatments for many medical conditions from diabetes to cancer. However, scientists have developed these medicines in laboratories under secure conditions, and the medicines created do not replicate themselves. For example, currently insulin is produced in bacteria in a lab, and the resulting product cannot reproduce and self-replicate. Biopharming is different. For instance, if safflower grown in open fields is used as a “factory” to produce insulin, not only can it contaminate and get mixed in with safflower that is used to make safflower oil for cooking but once unleashed into the environment, it will reseed itself and can never be recalled. “Growing genetically modified crops in an open-air environment is truly a Pandora’s Box,” stated Shawn Rau, a microbiologist with ECS Group, a local environmental consulting firm. “Once introduced, the gene pool will be changed forever, and the effects are immeasurable.”

Kucinich’s bill, “The Genetically Engineered Pharmaceutical and Industrial Crop Safety Act” (H.R. 5267), aims to protect our food supply from becoming contaminated by pharmaceutical and industrial crops, which would create an environmental problem, pose a health risk to consumers, and result in an economic loss, due to product recalls and lost domestic and foreign markets. This bill would place a permanent ban on the planting of pharmaceutical and industrial crops in open fields, and on using commonly eaten foods to produce pharmaceuticals and chemicals. In addition, it would place a temporary ban on growing them in a contained environment until the US Department of Agriculture “has a tracking system to regulate [their growth], handling, transportation, and disposal” and until the National Academy of Sciences has had an opportunity to explore and report to Congress other options for developing pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, coined the expression, “Food is thy medicine” over two thousand years ago; however, pharm crops were not what he had in mind. Kucinich’s bill would help keep that line drawn between food and drugs.

The last bill in Kucinich’s framework to regulate GM foods is the “Real Solutions to World Hunger Act” (H.R. 5270). Why did Kucinich introduce a bill to address the issue of world hunger as part of a package of bills to regulate GMOs? What do GMOs have to do with world hunger? As part of its marketing campaign, the biotech industry has touted that genetically engineered crops are the answer to world hunger. However, many organizations and individuals have pointed out that conventional agriculture produces more than enough food to feed the world without the potential health, environmental, and economic risks associated with GMOs. Production is not the problem, distribution is. According to Miguel A. Altieri of UC Berkeley and Peter Rosset of Food First, “The world today produces more food per inhabitant than ever before… Enough is available to provide 4.3 pounds per person everyday. The real causes of hunger are poverty, inequality, and lack of access. Too many people are too poor to buy the food that is available (but often poorly distributed) or lack the land and resources to grow it themselves.

What about the biotech industry’s claim that it would genetically alter food to increase its nutritional quality? In a recent NY Times article called, “Biotech’s Sparse Harvest,” Andrew Pollack wrote that while “scientists were envisioning all sorts of healthier and tastier foods,” after a decade of genetic engineering, commercialized GM crops have only been modified for herbicide and pest resistance, which is a short-term convenience to farmers but provides no benefits to consumers. Moreover, scientists around the world have expressed concerns about health risks associated with GM crops, including potential allergies, toxins, antibiotic resistance, and cancer. As a result, not only have consumers around the world refused to buy GM crops, but many humanitarian organizations and foreign governments have also refused to accept it as food aid. To protect developing countries’ rights, Kucinich’s bill states that the developing country must consent to the importation of U.S. approved genetically altered crops.

Michele Laubscher of the Alliance, a coalition of Swiss charities, states that encouraging developing nations to plant their own genetically modified crops “only increases the difficulties faced by small farmers by making them dependent on the agrichemical business.” The Alliance points out that genetically modified seeds are more expensive than conventional seeds due to patenting and licensing fees. Kucinich has repeated this same idea: “Economics remain the significant barrier to a consistent food supply, and the development of expensive genetically engineered foods may only exacerbate this trend.”

GM seeds also carry technological risks that farmers in third world nations cannot afford to take. The Sentinel reported last week that Texas cotton farmers sued Monsanto, because the GM cotton it developed to withstand Roundup applications failed. While these types of crop failures have certainly created a financial hardship for American farmers, they have been even more detrimental to poor, developing countries, such as India. While soy, canola, corn, and cotton have all been genetically altered to resist the weed killer, Roundup, corn and cotton have also been genetically modified to produce their own insecticide called Bt. Cotton has long been the backbone of India’s economy, and the decision to plant Bt cotton has had a devastating effect on its farmers, resulting in farmer suicides. This year, a NDTV broadcast covered the story of cotton farmers in the Andhra Pradesh region of India who had planted Monsanto’s expensive Bt cotton with the hope of greater yields. However, the Bt cotton produced much lower crop yields than their conventional cotton, resulting in huge debts and farmer suicides. “Bt cotton is hardly useful. They (Monsanto) had said it would yield ten to twelve or even fifteen quintals, but I only got three quintals,” said Devaiah, an Indian cotton farmer. “It has not significantly reduced pesticide use. It has not reduced cultivation cost. It has, in fact, increased cultivation cost.” “There’s no high yield. Farmers have suffered negative returns. That is why the first Bt cotton suicides have started to be reported,” said P V Satheesh of the organization, South Against Genetic Engineering. Due to all of the various risks associated with planting GM crops, Kucinich’s bill calls for increased international research into organic and sustainable agricultural practices funded through a small tax on the biotech industry’s profits.

Although there is mounting evidence that genetic engineering is not a panacea for world hunger and may actually make the problem worse, many people doubt that the biotech corporations have such an altruistic motive in the first place. For instance, if Monsanto, the leader in biotechnology, was concerned about preventing world hunger, why has the corporation developed “Terminator Technology” to produce sterile seeds, preventing farmers from saving and reusing seed from year to year and forcing them to buy new seed annually? Back in 1998, the magazine, the Ecologist, asked another question: “The giant Monsanto Corporation tells us that genetic engineering is all about feeding the hungry, about protecting the environment. But this is the company that brought us Agent Orange, PCBs, and Bovine Growth Hormone: the same company that produces Roundup…and the highly questionable ‘Terminator Technology’…Can we allow corporations like Monsanto to gamble with the very future of life on Earth?”

David Sirota, author of the book, Hostile Takeover, doesn’t expect corporations to have altruistic motives. However, he does expect the U.S. government to prevent corporations from hurting people both here and abroad. He wrote, “Corporations exist for one reason and one reason only: the relentless, single-minded pursuit of profits no matter who gets shafted…But in our country, corporations aren’t supposed to be allowed to pursue this purpose in a vacuum, unchecked, unregulated, unopposed. There is supposed to be a counterweight, a government separate from Big Business whose job is to prevent corporate profit motive from destroying society…But that government, as we all know, is long gone.”

Since first world countries around the world have rejected genetically modified crops, leaving American farmers with a surplus, is the United States trying to find another outlet for these products by “dumping” them on people starving in third world countries, as the organization, Food First, suggests on its website? Is it fair to make poor countries choose between starvation and food that is untested, unlabeled, unwanted, and potentially unsafe? What is the biotech industry’s motivation—altruism or profit? And will the U.S. government step in to protect citizens here and abroad, and risk alienating the biotech industry, a powerful lobby? Or is Sirota correct when he says that government is long gone?

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