The Twin Janus Faces of Genetic Engineering

07/11/2012 01:24 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2012
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

I don't think I have Dengue Fever - no symptoms yet. But my use of mosquito repellent in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, didn't work totally. One clan of local mozzie's flew in silently, at mid-day, close to the ground, and instead of biting once, left a neat row of burning bumps.

Returning to the US, I discovered, in a remarkable and gripping New Yorker piece, that my antagonists were exotic intruders to Brazil - Aedes aegypti,
Egyptian mosquitoes, which arrived several hundred years ago from Africa, probably with slavers. Aegypti brought with it yellow fever and dengue, "break bone" fever, for which there is no prevention and no effective treatment - you either get a little sick, or very sick, or die. (Most stunning factoid in the article - mosquito bites may be responsible for half of the deaths in human history - to yellow fever and dengue, add malaria, filariasis, chikungunya, encephalitis, Nile fever and host of others.)

In "The Mosquito Solution," Michael Specter lays out an effort - focused on Bahia because of the prevalence of dengue there - to wipe out dengue fever by releasing genetically engineered male mosquitoes bred so that their offspring will not reach maturity. This strategy is modeled on an earlier, and successful, eradication effort aimed at screw-worm flies, in which large enough numbers of male flies sterilized with radiation were used to eliminate the flies from the areas where they were passing screw-worms on to cattle.

Most of the article is an intriguing description of how this may be accomplished - it is fascinating. But the other theme is the issue of whether it is appropriate to release enormous numbers of genetically modified mosquitoes in an effort to eliminate the entire American population of the species. A number of environmentalists are quoted as opposing the program as too risky.

Two main concerns are cited. One is that by eliminating the mosquito the ecosystem in which it thrives (most heavily concentrated in used tired with water pooled in them, but also including stagnant streams, dew trapped in vegetation, and other breeding areas), the food chain of other species may be disrupted. (Birds, reptiles, amphibians and other insects like dragonflies do feed on mosquitoes including Aegypti.) The second is that while the program is aiming to release genetically modified male mosquitoes only, a few modified females will inevitable get through, which means that some people or other mammals may be bitten by the genetically modified pests, and that the risks of this have not been adequately studied.

Helen Wallace, the direct of the British NGO "GeneWatch" warns, "This mosquito is Dr. Frankenstein's monster, plain and simple." Specter gives these opponents of the program a chance to have their say, but he clearly isn't very sympathetic. And on this particular genetic engineering program, I'm with the program - for three reasons.
First, Aedes Aegypti is an invasive species in the Americas - and even if it were not, the amount of suffering caused by dengue is large enough to warrant some disruption even of native food chains. And the pesticides which are used to manage the problem today are undoubtedly more ecologically destructive than the elimination of the mosquito.

Second, while there might be some adverse reaction for anyone bitten by an errant genetically modified mosquito, the odds that this reaction are as bad as dengue fever seen very low, and the number of those afflicted would clearly be only a fraction of the number of cases of dengue avoided. Drugs too have side effects - diseases treatment has to be a balancing game.

Finally, a general problem with genetically engineered organisms in the wild is that if something goes wrong, you can't stop the chain reaction. Most genetically modified strains are able to reproduce themselves and their mutations - as GMO corn and rape seeds have already done -- spreading themselves into other strains and even related species. But the anti-dengue aegypti has been modified specifically to make sure its cannot reproduce, so if in a few years a better solutions to aegypti or dengue comes along, scientists can simply stop producing the modified strain. (Note - you might eradicate the insect where it is an invasive, like Brazil - but no plausible program will wipe it out all over its native habitat in Africa.)

But if my return to the US reminded me that genetic engineering has a very valuable potential role, if used thoughtfully, it also jarringly illuminated why so many people are suspicious of the entire enterprise and resist even seemingly high value uses like combating dengue fever.

The Monsanto Corporation and its biotech allies have managed to insert into the pending 2013 Agriculture Appropriations bill which would REQUIRE, "not just allow, but require - the Secretary of Agriculture to grant a temporary permit for the planting or cultivation of a genetically engineered crop, even if a federal court has ordered the planting be halted until an Environmental Impact Statement is completed."

The rider was inserted into the House bill by Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston, who Biotechnology Industry Organization called "a champion of America's biotechnology industry" who has "helped to protect funding for programs essential to the survival of biotechnology companies across the United States."

Now the Department of Agriculture has hardly been a Luddite barrier to GMO crops - indeed, almost all of the corn, soybeans and an increasing volume of other crops like potatoes and seed oils, we eat are genetically modified with the Department's blessing. It's true that citizen lawsuits have slowed the release of such GMO crops as "Roundup Ready alfalfa" and sugar beets - but eventually USDA approved the alfalfa even though the environmental study it did shows that the variety being released was almost certainly going to pollute other strains of alfalfa and threaten the entire organic industry.

But taking the time to study the results of new varieties of GMO's is not acceptable to the industry - and there is a reason. When Roundup ready seeds were first released, back in 1994, scientists warned that the end result would be that weeds would develop resistance to the herbicide, and that farmers would lose a valuable weed control technology.

(The same concerns were expressed about BT GMO potato varieties -- that the natural pesticide, BT, needed by organic farmers in particular, would be rendered useless because plants would develop resistance.)

Monsanto conceded this would happen eventually - but mostly claimed it would take 30 years, and by then there would be better herbicides and pesticides to take the place of the ones we lost. In fact, it took only a decade: 2 million acres of American croplands are now afflicted with Roundup resistant weeds. But nothing better has emerged - instead, Monsanto, in partnership with DOW, has proposed to bring back an older, much more dangerous herbicide, 2-4D, which was part of the mix called "Agent Orange" used in defoliating Vietnam. It is now asking USDA to approve a new variety of seeds which are BOTH Roundup and 2-4D resistant - but of course this is only a viable strategy if farmers greatly increase their use of 2-4D! (And of course in a few years we will have true super weeds, resistant to both Roundup AND 2-4D.)

Now at first blush it's peculiar that a company - Monsanto -- which makes Roundup, would market another product that would render Roundup useful. Why would it kill its own best-selling chemical? The answer lies in patent law - Roundup itself is no longer under patent, and Roundup-ready seeds will not be under patent protection after 2014 so Monsanto won't be able to make huge profits. But by creating the need for a new class of herbicides to replace Roundup, Monsanto guarantees its monopoly profits by making seeds that can withstand that herbicide.

It's awkward for Monsanto that Roundup went down the tubes of weed resistance so fast, and that it doesn't have a nifty, new patented herbicide ready to go at a handsome price, along with its handsomely priced seeds. But it doesn't alter the fundamental dynamic - companies like Monsanto are NOT in the business of making better seeds or pest-control technologies - they want seeds and pest controls with higher profit margins, and the surest way to margin is to rely on patents and hold monopoly control over farmers.

By allowing patents on genes, the US government has almost guaranteed that genetic engineering technology will be misused to create monopoly power for big companies while driving up production costs for farmers.

Truly critical genetic traits - like those being deployed against dengue fever - can and should be developed on an open source basis, with public research dollars, and released to everyone who needs them. Letting biotech companies pursue patented solutions is a sure formula for disaster for agriculture. Look, for example, at the recent results of Monsanto's first foray into the "socially useful" GMO crop game - its much-touted "drought resistant" corn. Drought resistance is obviously a useful and needed trait - a major, world-wide effort to breed plants that can handle drought is very important in a world whose climate has been disrupted - but drought resistance, for complex biological reasons, is hard to achieve.

But Monsanto developed its seeds on the cheap and on the quick - because it mainly wants the patents. And this summer, as massive heat waves hit the corn-belt the verdict is in - Monsanto has failed. Monsanto itself admits that yields of its drought resistant GMO corn are no better than conventional varieties - but meanwhile the US government and other food agencies left the challenge of getting the world's crop supply prepared for hotter and drier summers.

So on the one hand, in Bahia, genetic engineering may prove the key to ending an enormous global scourge - dengue fever - with side-effects that are almost certainly lower than those of a conventional pesticide approach. On the other, in the corn-belt, GMO's are already being misused in ways that bankrupt farmers and threaten our food security. Even the modest safeguards we have in place are under Tea Party and industry attack.

This Janus like quality explains, I think, why there is so much environmental resistance to all deployment of GMO technologies - when the powerful refuse accountability, the rest of us are likely to resist whenever and however we can.

What we need, I'd argue, is not so much a stepped-up campaign against GMO organisms being recklessly released - we're losing that war, badly, and don't seem likely to win it, even when we clearly should (as with 2-4D Ready seeds). We need a much broader campaign against an entire agricultural policy and patent system that gives industry enormous incentives to increase our risks and misuse genetic engineering. The policy and legal context, not the technologies, seem to me the real threat - and a very large one - but also a huge opportunity convention.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."