Drought-resistant transgenic crops

Drought-resistant transgenic crops

By Elizabeth Bravo

There are many things that are still unknown about transgenic crops, even in the case of crops that have already been on the market for many years. These concerns are heightened with this drought-resistant transgenic maize because it is not known how the protein produced by the inserted transgene works.

With the launch of a series of initiatives for a new green revolution in Africa, a series of new transgenic (or non-transgenic) crops will be developed in the future, which would enable changes in land use from agricultural models dedicated to subsistence from highly traditional rural communities, to vast areas with industrial agriculture, which comes from the hand of a massive purchase of land in the region.

Some of the projects that are being worked on with great effort include the development of a corn that makes efficient use of water - WEMA - (for its acronym in English). This is a project carried out by Monsanto and other organizations, working with a contribution of 42 million dollars from the Gates Foundation. Another donation comes from the Howard Buffett Foundation.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) participates in this project by offering its high-yielding maize varieties, adapted to African conditions and with its experience in conventional "breeding" and drought tolerance tests. CIMMYT has conventionally developed high-yielding maize varieties adapted to droughts and adapted to African conditions.

On the other hand, Monsanto will provide the “property of the germplasm”, its experience in the development of advanced tools for the production of drought-tolerant transgenics. The African Foundation for Agricultural Technology will take over any drought tolerant maize varieties developed through this project, and will identify local seed multipliers to make the seeds available to small African farmers.

Drought tolerant corn could be on the market in 10 years. The promoters of the project allege that this genetically modified corn could add two million tons of corn during the dry years, capable of feeding about 21 million people. In addition to planting drought-resistant varieties, farmers will be trained to use inorganic fertilizers for pest and disease control, as well as management and access to markets.

The Gates Foundation has also funded a program at the McLaughlin-Roman Center for Global Health at the University of Toronto to monitor social, cultural, ethical, and business issues related to WEMA.

The introduction of these transgenic crops in agriculture will lead to the emergence of new risks to human health and the environment. Despite this, transnational companies such as Monsanto, which is working on the development of this new generation of transgenics, proposes that the familiarity principle should be applied in the risk assessment of these crops, that is, since we already know so much about how they behave transgenic crops, it is not necessary to make new evaluations but to update the conclusions that already exist, in light of new information; and work as if they were conventional varieties.

The proposal to evaluate these new varieties is based on an incorrect question: "transgenic corn with resistance to droughts does not pose greater risks to the environment when compared to conventional corn." Starting with an incorrect question means that all subsequent studies or analyzes are aimed at showing that there are no new risks, and not at showing that they do exist. Therefore, even when the plant generates a large number of new dangers to health and the environment, these are going to be covered up by a risk assessment that is poorly planned from the beginning.

And these risks do exist, because tolerance to droughts is a complex phenomenon, which is controlled by several genes, which possibly act in an organized manner. Genetic engineering can introduce genes into a plant, but controlling the inserted genes is a much more complex matter than simply pasting genes at random, as is the case with genetic engineering. The only transgenic crops that have managed to position themselves on a large-scale commercial level so far are those that involve simple genetic traits (which are inherited through a single gene) such as tolerance to herbicides and resistance to insects.

Insertion of all genes involved in drought tolerance is possible through genetic engineering, but it is difficult for all transgenes to act together. Additionally, tolerance to droughts is not determined exclusively by genetic characteristics, since agricultural production systems constitute a very important factor in the development of crops in dry environments.

Therefore, in the development of varieties with tolerance to droughts, what is done is manipulating the plant so that a single main gene is overexpressed. This is exactly the case with Monsanto's drought-tolerant GM corn. They used a single major gene, which synthesizes a protein when Escherichia coli bacteria are exposed to cold shock. Monsanto technicians found that this protein can be effective under different types of stress, so they inserted the gene, and under the control of the 35S promoter the gene turns on (is expressed) in every cell of the plant, all the time ( Castiglioni et al. 2008).

There are many things that are still unknown about transgenic crops, even in the case of crops that have already been on the market for many years. These concerns are heightened with this drought-resistant transgenic maize because it is not known how the protein produced by the inserted transgene works.

These consequences may not be directly related to tolerance to droughts, for example it can become a toxic crop for wildlife, and even for humans, there may be modifications in the nutritional properties of the plant, etc. These aspects will not be analyzed by the regulatory agencies and will be approved based on the principle of familiarity described above.

On the other hand, there is very little information on the way these ecosystems function in a context of industrial agriculture, and even more so if it is about the introduction of industrial transgenic crops and the technological package that accompanies it, in lands that by definition are of extreme fragility, and whose local populations depend on the delicate balance they have with their environment.

This is not the only initiative promoted by the Gates Foundation for Africa. Other projects include the development of a new cassava variety with higher levels of bioavailability of zinc, iron, protein, and vitamins A and E; lower levels of cyanogenic glycosides, with characteristics to improve durability after harvest, and to increase resistance to viral diseases. The program is enrolled in the Gates Foundation's Great Challenge for Global Health Initiative, as if the malnutrition problem in Africa was related to the lack of nutrients in their subsistence crops.

Other programs funded by this initiative include the following projects:

"Optimization of the bioavailability of nutrients in transgenic bananas", which aims to generate transgenic Cavendish bananas that express well the increase in pro-vitamin A, vitamin E or iron;

Development of a transgenic rice with a high content of Beta Carotene, Vitamin E and increase the amount of Fe and Zn. This latest project is aimed at Asia.

Improved nutrition for Sorghum in tropical arid and semi-arid areas of Africa.

On the other hand, the Gates Foundation is funding a large number of projects to national research centers in Africa, to work on new varieties that are resistant to droughts, that have a high content of nutrients; always accompanied by technological packages that include the use of inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, as well as training to turn farmers into small entrepreneurs with high penetration capacity in their communities, to ensure the rapid adoption of the new varieties and the attached technological package.

The Initiative supports research work with the main subsistence crops in Africa such as bananas, cassava, sorghum, sweet potatoes, rice, among others.

The purpose of these initiatives is to include these lands that have traditionally been used in a sustainable way but which are erroneously called “marginal”, to a large-scale agricultural model.

Elizabeth bravo - RALLT - Network for a GMO-Free Latin America


African Center for Biosafety. 2007. Monsanto’s Genetically Modified Drought Tolerant Maize in South Africa. Briefing Document 10.

AGRA Grants to Date. 2009. Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

Castiglioni et al. 2008. Bacterial RNA Chaperones Confer Abiotic Stress Tolerance in Plants and Improved Grain Yield in Maize under Water-Limited Conditions Plant Physiology, 147: 446-455.

Grand Challenges in Global Health. Nutritionally Enhanced Sorghum for the Arid and Semi Arid Tropical Areas of Africa.

Nickson, T. Planning Environmental Risk Assessment for Genetically Modified Crops: Problem Formulation for Stress-Tolerance Crops. Plan Physiology 147: 494-502.

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