GE Staple Crops

Background - 16 June, 2005
Monsanto and other GE companies, such as Syngenta and Bayer, are creating crops that not do not - as they would have us believe - improve on nature. GE is a largely untested technology that breaks natural barriers by mixing genes across species - something that would never happen naturally.

A Hani farmer is holding his traditional rice seeds in his hand, Yunnan Province, China.

Most of the research by genetic engineering corporations has focused on making crops resistant to their own broad-spectrum herbicides such as Monsanto's Roundup Ready crop and herbicide combos. With herbicide-tolerant crops, a field can be sprayed with chemicals and nearly all plants will die except the resistant crop.

Farmers growing GE herbicide-resistant crops must sign a contract that specifies that if they save the seeds to plant again the following year, or use any herbicide other than the corporation's own, they are likely to be prosecuted. Also the repeated applications of a single herbicide encourages weeds to develop resistance to the chemical within a short period of time.

Virus-resistant GE crops are also on the biotech agenda, these too have their flaws. There is scientific evidence that existing viruses can pick up viral genes from virus-resistant crops, potentially leading to new strains of plant viruses.

Pollen from virus-resistant crops may also transfer resistance into wild and weedy plant populations. This could create new weeds from plants that were previously held in check by the viruses they have now acquired resistance to.

The Biotech industry has also managed to warp a technique that has been used for decades by organic farmers, using Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a soil bacterium that produces a toxin.

Bt targets particular species of insects, such as caterpillars, and the sprays are especially valuable to organic farmers in instances where there is a serious pest infestation. But now crop plants are being genetically engineered with the Bt toxin gene to give them a built-in insecticide.

In marked contrast to the occasional application of the Bt toxin inorganic farming, the GE Bt toxin is produced in the plants the entire time they are growing, starting when the seed starts to germinate. This means that insects are continually exposed to the toxin, and are therefore under constant pressure to develop resistance.

Laboratory studies have shown that Bt crops may exude the Bt toxin through their roots into the soil. The accumulation of these toxins, which could be released into the soil as farmers incorporate plant material into the ground after harvest, could represent a risk to soil ecosystems.