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Daily News Blog

31
May

Government Report Pushes Genetically Engineered Crops, Despite Failure and Effective Alternatives

Despite a dramatic increase in herbicide use and resistance to plant-incorporated pesticides, USDA, FDA, and EPA release a framework that will accelerate genetically engineered crops.

(Beyond Pesticides, May 31, 2024) Among the many promises that have been made by agribusiness to farmers and consumers, the glories of crops genetically engineered (GE) to resist pests stand out. GE tools—genes—were touted as “natural,” and promised to reduce the use of toxic pesticides. The first such plants incorporating DNA or RNA from other organisms hit the market in the 1990s. Today more than 70% of all GE organisms are engineered to tolerate herbicides, and the overwhelming majority of corn, soybean and cotton varieties are engineered to to be toxic to insects. See Beyond Pesticides’ backgrounder on GE here.

Despite a dramatic increase in the use of herbicides and the fast development of weed and insect resistance to plant incorporated pesticides, this month the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) jointly released a document entitled “The Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology – Plan for Regulatory Reform under the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology.” It responds to a 2022 executive order by President Biden to “accelerate biotechnology innovation” and “support the safe use of biotechnology products” by using a “science- and risk-based, predictable, efficient, and transparent regulatory system.”

The most common GE insecticide is the class of Bt toxins derived from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which are commonly used on the various moth species whose larvae plague corn, soybeans and cotton. Genes for the toxins are inserted into the crop genomes so that each part of the plant will express them. But nature evolves inexorably: USDA knew at least by 1998 that resistance to Bt toxins was going to be a problem, and within five years growers reported that the first Bt toxin was becoming ineffective against target insects. Currently, resistance has been documented to at least three Bt toxins.

Although many voices objected to using genes as pesticides in agriculture when the idea was first proposed, technologies for doing so have proliferated while regulation has been criticized as being slipshod at best. It has also been duplicative, inefficient and confusing, causing the chemical industry—principally Monsanto (now Bayer), Dow Chemical, and Syngenta to complain about red tape while also feeling pressure to invent new GE insecticidal technologies faster than they become obsolete.

Much of the multi-agency document demonstrates that it is aimed at reducing obstacles to industry’s further development, marketing and dissemination of GE products. For example, interstate transport of some GE plants will no longer need permits. EPA has recently implemented a final rule regarding “plant-incorporated protectants” (PIPs) that exempts some PIPS from regulation under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). The FDA will assist developers of genome-edited plants to “voluntarily interact with FDA prior to marketing foods from their new varieties.”

In a rare acknowledgment of actual hazards and risks, the document also states that FDA and USDA “intend to collaborate” to create “stewardship” of food crops that may be unsafe, such as those with genes inserted from other species that may be allergenic. The document also addresses the use of modified microorganisms, again devoting much of its consideration to making it easier for commercial interests to develop and market their creations rather than protecting public health or sustainable agriculture.

While GE technologies have reduced the use of field-applied pesticides somewhat, the Darwinian development of pest resistance remains a glaring problem. After resistance to Bt toxins appeared, biotech companies started “stacking” genes for more toxins into their seeds. This merely delayed the inevitable. Currently the widely-used “pyramid” of three toxins is reaching the end of its useful life.

Because resistance emerged almost immediately during initial product development, biotech interests and regulators began telling farmers to include refugia on the edges of fields, and eventually within fields. Refugia would be planted on the edges of non-Bt crops, with the idea that the resistant and non-resistant bugs would interbreed, thus maintaining genetic susceptibility to Bt in the overall population.

This has not worked well. For example, adult females of the western corn rootworm (Diabrotica virgifera virgifera) don’t travel outside the refugia, so they do not mate with the resistant males from the main fields. This seems like something that could have been checked in a field trial before promising farmers refugia would solve their problems, but apparently this did not happen. An additional problem is that refuge strategies are not always practicable. According to the Malaysian NGO Third World Network, “Over-enthusiastic modelling of efficacy under ideal conditions has been one factor that has promoted the reduction in refuge requirements in the US, but the claimed efficacy has not been reflected in real-world conditions.”

In 2021 an Iowa State University entomologist described a further problem emerging from the use of Bt products against the western corn rootworm: Monoculture—vast areas planted with one crop—creates “the ideal habitat for this pest, and can be associated with large populations…and high levels of larval feeding injury.” Thus not only monoculture per se, but monoculture over time exacerbates the convoluted contradictions of industrial agriculture.

Industrial geneticists may believe they understand the genetic and environmental factors that determine genetic modifications’ effectiveness and the development of resistance by pests, but they have to-date failed. Research by Chinese scientists reported in 2021 provides a striking example. Helicoverpa armigera, a cotton bollworm, is a rapidly spreading pest throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. The Chinese scientists found that the bollworms infected by a densovirus known to be beneficial to the insect had higher resistance to Bt crops, and that areas in China planted with Bt crops had a higher rate of viral infection. The researchers suggest that the mutualistic relationship between the virus and the insect led to enhanced insect survival after Bt exposure. The mutualism reduces the fitness cost to the bollworm for developing resistance as the bollworm outcompetes the toxin. The potential for microbial involvement in Bt resistance had not occurred to the industry.

This study demonstrates the ultimate folly of corporate biotechnological thinking. Changing a few genes in one organism may have far-reaching ripple effects that are likely unpredictable. The ways in which various species, such as insects and their microbial companions, negotiate the spectrum between pathogenicity, mutualism, and symbiosis is poorly understood, and these relationships interact with environmental conditions. Pest resistance to GE technologies may be only one of a cascade of unintended consequences. For example, there is evidence that GE pest resistance genes affect product quality, as illustrated by Burkina Faso’s renowned cotton industry suffering severe losses after adopting Bt seeds, which produced inferior cotton.

Yet the agricultural biotech industry is busily trying to develop new generations of the same idea, including higher pyramids of stacked insecticidal traits. SmartStax PRO, a new GE corn product devised jointly by Bayer and Dow Chemical, is just being introduced into U.S agriculture. It combines six different toxin genes, five derived from Bt (one of which does not exist in nature, according to a backgrounder from the Brussels-based Institute for Independent Impact Assessment of Biotechnology (Test BioTech)). It also contains an RNA interference component that lethally silences an essential gene in the rootworm. Bayer markets Intacta 2 Xtend for soybeans, which contains a stack of three toxin genes along with tolerance to glyphosate, glufosinate and dicamba. These novel combinations of toxins and pesticide tolerance genes may produce sharply higher toxicity and affect far more species than the targets. It is unclear whether the manufacturers have investigated the broader effects of combining all these mechanisms, but likely have, as usual, looked at each one in isolation.

A 2022 Test BioTech report stresses that new gene editing techniques pose a profound risk to the planetary ecosystem because “an increasing number of projects [are] looking at wild populations and a broad range of organisms such as microorganisms, insects, rodents and trees…similarly to environmental pollution with plastics and chemicals, it is not always an individual NGT-GMO which may create the real problems, but rather the sum of diverse effects on the environment.”

What seems obvious is that either or both of two outcomes are likely: pests, which are simply availing themselves of a bountiful, convenient food source—will again, as ever, develop resistance to humans’ technological wonders; or the unintended consequences of each technology and their combinations will produce the very food crises the industry claims to be preventing. As the Biden administration’s biotechnology modernization document shows, industry is proceeding apace with the help of government policies. We wonder whether these interests are so grotesquely deluded as to their power over nature, or simply cynically looking for products “good enough” to delay the inevitable through a few more rounds of profit-taking at the expense of farmers, consumers, and the natural world.

See Beyond Pesticides organic agriculture page and efforts to continually build organic integrity and the organic sector as what appears to be the only alternative to the current existential crises challenged by pesticide-induced diseases, biodiversity collapse, and the climate emergency.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

What You Can Do:

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Sources:

The Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology – Plan for Regulatory Reform under the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and Food and Drug Administration
May 2024
https://usbiotechnologyregulation.mrp.usda.gov/eo14081-section8c-plan-reg-reform.pdf

Rapid spread of a densovirus in a major crop pest following wide-scale adoption of Bt-cotton in China
Xiao et al.
eLife 2021
https://elifesciences.org/articles/66913

Canada & US vs.  Mexico’s Ban on GM Corn The CUSMA trade dispute champions the biotech industry over food sovereignty
Canadian Biotechnology Action Network Brief
January 29, 2024
https://cban.ca/wp-content/uploads/CBAN-Brief-Canada-vs-Mexico-Jan-2024.pdf

Bt Crops Past Their Sell-By Date: A Failing Technology Searching for New Markets?
Third World Network Bhd (198701004592 (163262-P) 2022
www.twn.my

https://wp.twnnews.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/BiotechnBiosafe19complete.pdf

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One Response to “Government Report Pushes Genetically Engineered Crops, Despite Failure and Effective Alternatives”

  1. 1
    Mlema Says:

    Regarding the remaining usefulness of stacked bt traits: the industry is now marketing GMO corn that is genetically modified to express iRNA, which then suppresses resistance in pests that have evolved tolerance to the Cry proteins.

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