Sunday, February 28, 1999

The Bt - Terminator issue : rampant confusion

Suman Sahai

Field trials of a genetically altered cotton variety (Bt cotton ) conducted by the American company Monsanto have provided the grounds for rampant confusion with respect to new genetic techniques in agriculture. Keeping pace with the confusion is the range of opinions being expressed for and against Bt and terminator. Bt stands for Bacillus thurengensis which. as the name suggests is a kind of bacteria. The Terminator technology is the monstrous new genetic tool by which you can design seeds with in built sterility.

The Bt technology which was developed about ten years ago is designed to confer disease resistance to certain crops against pest attacks. The essentially simple technology has involved cutting out a gene from the bacterium called Bacillus thuringensis and transferring it into a plant, in this case a cotton variety. The reason why this approach is being tried in plant types is because it provides an opportunity to build a biological pesticide into the plant itself, thus reducing its dependence on external chemical pesticides with their known deleterious effects

Cotton pests, specially bollworm are a very major problem ,as the spate of recent cotton farmer suicides have shown in the most tragic way, Much of the chemical pesticide on the market is adulterated or spurious and therefore not effective. The in built pesticide approach is very attractive for two reasons. One, the farmer is not sold short by unscrupulous pesticide dealers and two, the environment is spared the toxic burden of chemical sprays leaching into soil. air and water and poisoning them. However, the crucial question is does this approach really work in the field ? Recent research results would tend to show that the Bt mode of pest resistance , that is the gene construct which was effective in providing resistance appears to be breaking down . This means that it is not producing the bacterial toxin in the cotton plant as it was originally intended to do and therefore not conferring resistance to bollworm. The second way in which the Bt resistance is failing is by creating bollworm strains that are becoming resistant to the Bt toxin and not being affected by it.

The other danger that is posed by the Bt cotton and all other transgenic varieties, is the danger of the foreign gene contained in the transgenic can escape and move into related plant species. This is possible via cross pollination. The pollen cells of the transgenic plant contain the foreign gene like every cell of the transgenic plant does. During pollination, pollen carrying the foreign gene can fertilise other plants that are not transgenic . The pollen can in addition fertilise and therefore transfer the foreign gene into related and wild species . Since the transgenic technology is so new, we do not know what effects foreign genes like bacterial genes can have if they start moving around from species to species. Once they are out in the field, we can not control them. There is serious apprehension on this score. Scientific studies have shown that pollen can be transferred across very large distances and can transfer the foreign gene into plants growing far away. The dangers of gene pollution of this kind are therefore very real and that is the reason why testing for transgenics in the field has to be conducted under strictly controlled conditions which are specified in biosafety protocols designed for these varieties. The biosafety regime includes safeguards like physical containment , covering the field with plastic sheets during pollination and land tracts isolating the experimental plots from farmers fields. In addition to this, data needs to be collected from the field constantly to see whether the foreign gene has escaped from the experimental plots to neighboring fields.

To return to Monsanto and its transgenic tests, the company should be penalised for its cotton trials not because the variety contains the terminator gene but because the company has flouted all biosafety regulations. This could mean much more than endangering famers crops in nearby fields, such negligence cold carry the foreign gene goodness knows where and with what consequences. This is a very grave offence . It may not be far fetched to accuse Monsanto of being callously negligent in their field trials because they think they can get away with cutting corners and doing shoddy tests in India which they would not dare to do in their home country the United States .

In India awareness about the new developments in genetics and agriculture is very poor, specially in rural areas . Never mind the farmers, what is shocking is the utter ignorance of the scientists and scientific institutions working on the new areas in genetics and biotechnology. It may be recalled that just a few months ago , the experimental plots with standing crops of a transgenic variety had to destroyed in the field in Delhi since safety regulations were not being complied with. This was incidentally at a reputed national facility. Apart from biosafety requirements, transgenics can not be tested in the field without the informed consent of the region’s farmers. Monsanto has been conducting its tests over the heads of local farmers, without taking them into confidence or informing them. This is an obnoxious attitude apart from being a dangerous one. Monsanto’s license to test Bollgard cotton should be cancelled for these reasons .

Now to come to the Terminator. This technology is also based on a genetic construct. Here two gene systems have been brought into play to produce seeds with an in built mechanism that aborts development of the embryo so that germination can not take place and the seed is rendered sterile. The self -destructing seeds are actually hybrids produced by hybridising two transgenics, each containing one of the two gene systems. It is interesting that even when the two gene systems are brought together in the hybrid seed they are viable and can germinate. In order to control the induction of sterility, a chemical switch has been built in . This switch can be activated by soaking the seeds in tetracycline . Once the tetracycline soaks into the seed tissue, it switches on one of the gene systems which sets in motion the chemical process which will abort the embryo. So in practice, the seed company can produce as much of the seed as they want and just before selling it to the farmer, they can treat the seeds with tetracycline to switch on the sterility inducing gene system.

When the farmer buys this seed from the company, he can grow one crop from it but the seed that sets in his crop when it matures, will not have the ability to germinate. The farmer will thus not be able to save viable seed from his crop for the next sowing and will be forced to return to the seed company for new seed. This establishes total control of the seed company on production and sale of seed. The terminator technology is miles ahead of the patent system in establishing the monopoly of the multinational seed companies on the seed markets of the developing world. The avowed goal of multinational companies is to capture the vast potential of the seed business in India and China and the countries of South and South East Asia, all burgeoning agricultural countries with growing seed markets.

At present the terminator gene system is being tried out in cash crops like cotton and tobacco. In this context it is alarming that Monsanto with its big stake in cotton varieties has bought the Delta & Pineland company, co-owners along with the US government of the terminator technology . This means that Monsanto now owns the terminator gene systems and if it does not have a terminator cotton today, it almost certainly will have one tomorrow. This must be anticipated and Indian agriculture policy must take the requisite legal steps to ensure that that Monsanto can not bring terminator cotton into India either for testing or for commercial use.

Cotton and tobacco however are only the first focus of the terminator system. In principle this sterility inducing mechanism can be incorporated into any kind of crop. The next round of crops that are to be tried out are essential food crops like rice, wheat , pulses and millets. If the terminator technology should be successfully transferred into these crops (and there appears to be no reason why it can not ), the implications for global sustenance and food security could be quite horrific. Rice and wheat are the staple food of three quarters of the world’s population. With pulses under the terminator hammer, all aspirations of adding nutritional security to rudimentary food security, would fly out of the window. For those who argue that no one is compelled to buy seeds from MNCs and those who wish to, can continue to get their seed from wherever they are getting them today, do not understand the fundamentals of plant breeding, seed production and the practice of agriculture.

With the new breed of controlling instruments like patents and terminator, or for that matter , the transgenic and the hybrid, the control of the seed company over seed production is complete, to the exclusion of any participation by the farmers. With these instruments of control playing in tandem with an inexplicable and highly detrimental science policy that is coming into force in India and other developing countries, the farmer will be painted into the corner for essentially two reasons . The first is the fact that public sector institutions like the Indian Agricultural Research Institute ( IARI ) or the stations of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) that are the centres of agricultural research and plant breeding are facing tremendous cuts in their research budgets. These centres produce new varieties of all crop types constantly . These new varieties are available to the farmers who produce seed and disseminate it. The farming community has thus emerged as the nation’s largest seed producer and distributor, producing over 85% of the country’s seed requirement.

Now with severe reductions in research funds, the capacity of public institutions to breed new varieties will also be severely diminished. In time they will cease to be the primary source of new varieties. This space will be occupied by private seed companies, specially foreign seed companies who have been clamouring for entry into developing country seed markets. When private seed companies become the primary suppliers of new varieties then certain things will happen. First, the farmer as seed producer will be finished off . Second, the range of varieties produced in each crop will decrease , causing even worse genetic erosion than we are facing today. This will happen because production in seed companies is guided by profit margins, not the compulsion to provide a range of reasonably priced seeds . As past experience has shown, MNCs produce just one or two varieties and then push them on the market.

The other thing that will happen is that the farmer’s source of new varieties will increasingly become only the private seed company. How will this happen ? It needs to be understood that crop varieties growing in a specific area do not grow there successfully for ever. A particular variety which has been producing good results for the last few years could suddenly lose its disease resistance and become susceptible to pests . The soil and water conditions could change, salinity may increase or water logging take place. Deforestation in nearby areas could change the micro climate . Many things happen in nature that can cause the collapse of a variety which had been well adapted and growing successfully .

When this happens, the variety needs to be replaced and another one brought in which can reintroduce the characteristics of yield and disease resistance. Given the fact that the public research institutions are getting pushed out of the business , the source for new varieties will increasingly become the private seed company. Once this happens, they will sell their seed on their terms and the farmer’s choice will be restricted to buying from the seed company or giving up agriculture. In this fashion, the imperative of varietal replacement in the field will eventually force the farmer to turn to private companies for seed.

If the terminator technology is allowed to enter India the consequences could be mayhem in Indian agriculture leading to reduced availability of food and possible starvation deaths. This is no far fetched doomsday scenario. It is known that pollen carries the foreign genes of transgenic crops across large distances and transfers it into other crops. The terminator gene through the method of cross pollination could reach all kinds of crops in all kinds of places, inducing large scale sterility. If one keeps in mind that the terminator application is planned for staple food crops, large scale sterility can only have one consequence : imperilled food security and near certain starvation deaths.