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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 4 (1997)
Risks of Engineered Crops. by Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon. Cambridge,
MA: The MIT Press. 1996. xii + 168 pp.
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
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
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.