This site maintained by: Aomar Boum. Site last updated on October, 2001.  
Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 4 (1997)

The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops. by Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 1996. xii + 168 pp.

Reviewed by E. Paul Durrenberger, Department of Anthropology, Pennsylvania State University


New genetic engineering technologies allow the implantation of genetic material into plants, presenting the possibility of twin problems. The engineered plants may be better able to persist, invade new habitats, and become weeds. Secondly, pollen may transfer new genetic material to related plants, changing and perhaps eradicating certain useful species. Both processes threaten the diversity of plant forms that are useful for breeding agricultural crops by conventional means.

Weeds, plants in places they are not wanted, may be created by either process. If they are hearty, they could cause cascading effects and modify whole ecosystems. In a hypothetical discussion, the authors point out the dangers of a plant with insecticidal qualities that could unselectively harm insects beyond the target group, affect soil microorganisms and earthworms, with unanticipated negative consequences. Rissler and Mellon discuss various examples of unpredicted side effects of plants like kudzu that have become weeds. There is a detailed and technical discussion on the topic of weediness, and the authors eschew any simple list of traits that may be used to define a simple characteristic of weediness.

They suggest that current controls on the production, marketing, and use of transgenetic plants are insufficient to prevent such ecological catastrophes. They propose an alternative scheme, one that rests on a process of assessment of new candidates in terms of existing knowledge and experimental work. The fundamental question addressed by the testing scheme is whether the addition of transgenes to crop plants by genetic engineering techniques or to wild/weedy plants by gene flow changes these plants into weeds (p. 108). If there are strong reasons that the candidate would be less rather than more viable, or if there are other reasons that it would not become a weed, then it would pass. If plants could not be passed on the basis of current knowledge, then field experiments should determine how long the seed remains viable, and how many seeds the plants would produce. Seeds with longer viablity or greater seed produciton pose more of a threat.

These testing procedures become more salient as the authors remind us that remediation up to the point of eradication is virtually impossible, and that postrelease monitoring is not a practical means for controlling risks of commercial-scale uses of crops. The potential problems become exponentially more serious when the authors remind us that a global seed trade means global risks (p. 111), and that the wild plants in centers of crop diversity are the genetic basis of the world s future food supply. The authors remind us that the problem is even more crucial because variablity in centers of diversity is disappearing because of habitat destruction and green revolution monocrops replacing traditionally diverse crop varieties.

They advise that because the U.S. plays a leading role in the development of transgenic crops, the U.S. should initiate efforts to protect plant diversity.

That s the down-side. Where s the up-side? Perhaps genetically engineered crops will end world hunger? Not a chance. These crops are developed for herbicide tolerance (the most popular), pest resistance (second), and processing and transportation qualities e.g., high solids like tomatoes and potatoes and longer shelf life e.g., everlasting tomatoes, bananas, and pineapples. The authors say, laconically, to date, improving the nutritional value of food does not appear to have received as much emphasis as shelf life and processing traits (p.18). In short, biotechnology fits comfortably into modern food systems that emphasize food processing, consumer niche markets, and production efficiency (p. 18) where agriculture is already highly productive and where hunger has nothing to do with production shortages. Virtually all such crops are aimed at the prosperous farmers of the North. Furthermore, increased production is not a major factor in world hunger, and transgenic crops will not compensate for decades of environmental abuse, misguided agricultural policies, and income disparities.

The authors argue that biotechnology should be evaluated in terms of contributions to agricultural sustainability, not in terms of the causes of the problems intensive monoculture that relies on synthetic inputs and a large arsenal of poisons. Most applications of biotechnology are meant to contribute to this system. Small wonder. In Table 2.3, Applicants to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to field test transgenic crops, we see that 46% of the applications are from chemical companies such as Monsanto, Upjohn, DuPont, Sandoz (Northrup King and Rogers NK Seed), and Ciba-Geigy. Seventeen percent are from Universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Fifteen percent are from seed companies Pioneer Hi-Bred, DeKalb Plant Genetics, and Holden s Foundation Seed among others. Forty percent of the applications are for herbicide-resistant crops that encourage the use of the products of the chemical companies that develop the crops.

Most of the book accepts the assumption that transgenic development will continue, and the authors outline ways to contain the genie, if not keep it in the bottle. One wishes they had taken the step backwards they seem to contemplate in their introduction to contextualize the discussion, offering a critique of industrial agriculture that links government departments, universities, and corporations into networks of reciprocity and cooperation to the detriment of sustainable agriculture. A program for sustainable agriculture would support research that studies soil, water, climate, crops, animals, pests, and wildlife on a farm as an interrelated whole (p. 21). But in industrial agriculture, farm ceases to be a meaningful category. The relevant system, as this book shows, includes markets, technology, and other resources, not farms. In spite of the authors awareness of the importance of policy the book is, after all, an attempt to affect policy to get some sort of risk analysis and testing adopted there is no critique of the policy matrix that encourages and maintains the industrial agricultural system of which transgeic development is a part.

The three-tiered system of testing Rissler and Mellon propose as a solution may be a palliative. But one wonders why, having lucidly pointed out the problems that genetic engineering of crops indicate and entail, they did not offer a more systemic critique and more appropriate solutions than a testing protocol that would, if adopted, function more as a nuisance to corporations with products to market than as a corrective for the ills that Rissler and Mellon so accurately document.