The Arkansas Plant Board voted last week to ban the planting of the second variety of rice found in Arkansas to contain traces of a genetically engineered variety of rice. With no disrespect to the farmers who protested the ruling and are now scrambling to make up for the lost seed, I’d like to give the Plant Board a round of applause.
The Board’s argument is that many foreign countries are so skeptical about the safety of genetically engineered (GE) foods that they will either refuse to import them or will accept them only at drastically reduced prices. Export accounts for about half of all U.S. rice sales, so from an economic standpoint, it makes sense to ban production of something that will likely go unsold. But the reasons for rejecting GE foods go far beyond simple economics.
Two basic types of genetic modification are important here: plants that have been bred to be herbicide-resistant, allowing for (ahem, requiring) blanket application of companion weed killers; and plants that self-produce insect-killing bacteria, the seeds of which are themselves classified as insecticide. The development of these new genetic technologies in turn helped pave the way for the widespread patenting of genes.
So what’s the hubbub? Depends on what you’re afraid of. Maybe you’re an environmentalist and you reason that consistent spraying of one chemical on one type of plant will inevitably lead to the evolution of weeds and pests that are resistant to that chemical, which will in turn necessitate even more spraying, and more resistance, causing a vicious cycle.
Or maybe you want to avoid stuff that may be harmful to you. One method of forcing modified genes into the DNA of a given plant involves invading the target plant’s cells with bacteria like E. coli. Ick. Also, antibiotic-resistant “marker genes”— which could lead to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant infections — are often included in these modified sequences purely for testing the success of the construction. The USDA and FDA insist that GE foods are completely safe to eat, despite having done little or no testing to support their claims.
We also don’t know much about how GE plants may mutate over time. Engineering a gene isn’t quite the same as designing, say, a new car. Living organisms mutate and cross-pollinate and reproduce, and there’s simply no telling what these “frankenfoods” (is a tomato bred with pig DNA still considered vegetarian, or Kosher, for that matter?) will become several generations down the line.
Thanks to those patents, we may never get to find out. For thousands of years, one way many farmers have been able to afford to continue farming is by saving seed from each crop to plant the following year. This is also how, sometimes over generations, farmers have developed seed that is suited specifically to the conditions in which it is grown. Now suppose you’re a small family farmer and some patented GE seed blows off a truck, or is carried by the wind from a neighboring farm, and your conventional crop becomes “contaminated” with it.
Because the patent applies to the GE gene, and the gene travels from one generation to the next, all of your subsequent crops now belong to the holder of the patent, which is almost certainly one of only four U.S. seed companies. You will be sued. Even though you did nothing intentionally wrong, the courts (based on rulings so far) will side with big business. Your seed stores will be destroyed. You will go bankrupt. Or you’ll settle, at a significant financial loss. The kicker: even farmers who obtain GE seed intentionally and legally have to sign an agreement not to save it.
Talk about paranoid. Several years ago, a company called Delta & Pine Land Co. (whose soybean operations are in Harrisburg, Ark.), developed a nifty little thing called the “Terminator gene.” This gene causes a plant to effectively commit suicide, by producing sterile seed. They might not release it commercially, but we’ve already established that seed has a way of getting around on its own. This is an obvious attempt on the part of the seed companies to ensure that their products — seeds and chemicals, now largely interdependent — continue to be bought; the USDA says as much on its web site. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to imagine the potential implications.
Some fun facts: 90 percent of soybeans and cotton grown in Arkansas are GE crops. 70 percent of the major crops in the U.S. are GE crops. The vast majority of GE crops — both here and abroad — are engineered by biotech giant Monsanto (headquartered in St. Louis), which you may recognize from its starring role in Vietnam via the production of the herbicide Agent Orange. Roughly 70 percent of processed and packaged foods contain GE material (think corn syrup). A bill requiring the labeling of GE foods has been stalled in the U.S. House since 1999. The U.S. government is the co-owner of the patent on the Terminator gene.