Excellent letter in Kenyan press (30/8/2006)

They are meddling in nature
The Nation (Kenya), 30 August 2006

My inner alarm went off when I read an the article titled, "Good news for cotton farmers" (August 17). The piece extolled the virtues of the genetically engineered cotton variety, stating that after only two years of field trials, all that was needed for it to go into commercial production was for Parliament to enact a Biosafety Bill.

Two years may not be long enough to truly understand the complex consequences of using any given genetically engineered seed. I heard about a recently released 10-year study that illustrates this problem. This study was done by the reputable Cornell University on cotton grown in China, where 5 million farmers account for 35 per cent of cotton production worldwide.

In their study they found that by the third year of growing the cotton, farmers were using 70 per cent less insecticide to combat the boll worm and saving money even though the seed was three times as expensive to buy.

But, as time went by, an unexpected thing started happening. Other types of insect pests began to increase, to the point farmers having to use just as much insecticide as before (20 applications per year). In the end, their earnings dropped to eight per cent less than farming the old way.

There are other ecological concerns. These "unintended consequences" have already been showing up in other types of genetically engineered crops that have been in use in North America since the 1990s.

It is important to realise that whatever the positive potential of seeds, this is a revolutionary technology unlike anything that would ever occur in nature. It is not hybridisation or all the other methods of plant modification used through human history. It is the creation of plants with non-plant genetic material in the DNA of each cell.

Some examples are strawberries with fish genes, or, in this case, cotton with bacterial genes. The long term effects of letting this material loose in nature to mix and cross pollinate cannot be fully understood except over a long period, and then it is too late to "undo".

So in an ideal world, big profits have made caution the lowest priority for the biotechs in their rush to market their creations and to patent as many life forms as possible for future capitalising upon.

To sum up, I don't know whether genetically engineered cotton is "good" news for Kenyan farmers, or not. I just want scientists and farmers to be able to be as knowledgeable enough to be as aware as possible about this unique kind of meddling with nature.

Paula Schramm


Back to the Archive