Lessons from 13 Years with GE Seeds

by Dr. Mark Edwards

Genetically engineered seeds have a brief but rocky history. GE seeds are heritage, traditional varieties, which have had their genetic material altered using GE techniques. Recombinant DNA technology may use DNA molecules from different sources, which are combined into one molecule to create a new gene set. The new DNA strand is then transferred into an organism, giving it modified or novel genes. Transgenic organisms, a subset of GE seeds, are organisms that have inserted DNA that originated in a different species, e.g. corn and bacteria. Some GMs contain no DNA from other species and are therefore not transgenic but cisgenic.


GE organisms have broad application, especially in agriculture, medicine and ecology. The broadest and most controversial application of GE technology has been patent-protected food crops which are resistant to commercial herbicides or are able to produce pesticide proteins from within the plant, or stacked trait seeds, which do both. The largest share of the GE crops planted globally is owned by Monsanto. In 2007, Monsanto’s trait technologies were planted on 246 million acres (1,000,000 km2) throughout the world; a growth of 13% from 2006.

Two traits account for practically all the GE crops grown in the world today:

  • Herbicide-tolerance due to glyphosate-insensitive form of the gene coding for the enzyme targeted by the herbicide, 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS). The gene is derived from the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens.
  • Insect-resistance due to one or more toxin genes derived from the soil bacterium Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis).
    Commercial planting of GE crops began in 1997 in the US and increased rapidly. GE crops have taken over roughly 90% of the area planted with the three major crops, soybean, corn and cotton in the US, planted on about 171 million acres.

GE soybean crop

Algae producers can benefit from the lessons from the GE seed experience. The issues are grouped by the GE industry, human and animal health, economics and sustainability.

The GE industry – three companies dominate the GE industry today and practice near monopoly pricing.

The GE seed industry practices oligopoly pricing. Three companies — BASF of Germany, Syngenta of Switzerland and Monsanto of St. Louis — have filed applications to control nearly two-thirds of the climate-related gene families submitted to patent offices worldwide. These “climate ready” genes are designed to help crops survive drought, flooding, saltwater incursions, high temperatures and increased ultraviolet radiation – all of which are predicted to undermine food security in coming decades.

Company officials deny the climate-ready seed applications amount to an intellectual property grab. They say GE seeds will be crucial to solving world hunger but would not be developed without patent protections. According to the New York Times, Monsanto currently makes 60% of its revenue from genetically modified seeds.

The GE industry operates due to US law. The best solutions may follow nature’s lead. However, US law states that using a natural solution cannot be patented because it is, after all, nature. Companies such as Monsanto and many others hire scientists to discover or develop unnatural novel compounds that are patentable. Then the company sells these nearly natural compounds with their brand names like Round-up™ or seed such as Round-up Ready™ to farmers for very high prices. These products act like a cash cow as farmers must buy the products, and often must pay more every year. The GE model is sustainable only as long as farmers have the resources to buy increasingly expensive seeds and the substantial fossil resources necessary to gain value for GE seeds.

Public policy can create a GE full stop. Federal Judge Jeffery White in August 2010 revoked prior government approval of genetically altered sugar beets until regulators complete a more thorough review of how the scientifically engineered crops affect other food. Since sugar (glucose, C6H12O6) and sucrose C12H24O12) sweetens most modern foods, the possibility of examining all the food combinations exceeds the imagination.

Larger GE sugar beet on left compared with conventional beet

The industry espouses GE seeds. Genetic improvements, actually hybridization, formed the basis for the prior Green Agricultural Revolution. The pro camp for GE seeds argues that genetic modifications are necessary for modern agricultural productivity. Many farmers believe that they need GE seeds to improve their yields and profitability. A new set of arguments has developed for the climate ready seeds that theoretically will improve drought, heat and salt tolerance. Other improvements in the GE pipeline include seeds that use fewer fossil resources; especially water, nitrogen and phosphorus.

Many people despise GE seeds because genetic manipulation may lead to Frankenfoods. Many farmers, including those in the European Union find their communities and social belief systems forbid the use of “unnatural” seeds.

GE seeds may offer modest relief in the sense that plants may be able to germinate in hotter, drier and saltier soils. However, little is known about the GE drought or salt tolerant seeds because they are still several years away and have not been tested in various growing situations. Transgenic seeds are often more vulnerable to pests, weeds and disease, which may offset other benefits. We also have no knowledge of the health impacts associated with these new crop varieties.

GE seeds have become ubiquitous. In the US, 93% of soy, 90% of canola and 83% of corn are produced with GE seeds. Studies in Canada, Europe and the US demonstrate that some GE characteristics appear in both wild weeds and food crop fields. GE seed contamination occurs from seeds spilled in transport, pollen drift and mechanical contamination from farm equipment. Experts agree that science and agriculture lack the technology to keep spillover of GE characteristics out of the food chain, even in Europe. Since transgenic leaks occur regularly in field crops, transgenic spillover will be even more common in algal production.

Human and animal health — health concerns are legitimate because far too few studies have examined the health impacts of GE seeds and the studies have been only very short term.

GE seeds create unknown human or animal health impacts. The most contentious issue with GE crops is their impact on human and animal health. Everyone associated with GE crops knows that moving or adding a gene in a complex DNA sequence can have multiple unanticipated impacts on the organism. Monsanto did the R&D and health testing on their GE seeds and reported no adverse impact on mice feeding trials. For years, Monsanto held the research data privately, claiming intellectual property protections. The Union of Concerned Scientists recently won a judicial judgment to have the results examined by a scientific third party. Unsurprisingly, the independent examiner found that the GE seeds did impact the rodents’ kidneys (though how much remains under debate). New tests are underway with longer feeding trials and stronger controls on key variables.

Genetic engineering studies have shown that changing a target gene, to improve nitrogen absorption efficiency for example, also changes several unrelated genes that help protect the plant against disease. A gene change designed to improve tobacco’s nitrogen efficiency changes the plants toxicological properties. Currently, GE seeds are stacked with three or fewer transgenic genes but Monsanto is planning seeds with stacks of 15 or more genes that promote specific characteristics. Imagine how many properties may change with genes that alter drought, heat, pH and salt tolerance. Health testing all the GE combinations will be practically impossible.

GE seeds are designed for yield, not nutrients. GE seeds have led to double-digit nutrient dilution in US produce over the last two decades. Extra fertilizer creates heavier produce with substantially more water weight, which dilutes nutrients. Consequently, consumers unknowingly are forced to eat more calories while receiving fewer healthful nutrients per bite.

Transgenic seeds right sacrifice taste, nutrients and diversity for yield

Highly productive seeds are designed for planting two or three times closer than traditional crops. Dense plantings constrain the depth and breadth of root systems, which requires substantially more water. Many dryland farmers have had to install irrigation systems. Dense plantings also require significantly more fertilizer, which creates more soil, air and water pollution.

GE seeds create a decline in food taste and texture. The produce grown using modern agriculture provides substantially less taste and texture quality than crops grown 30 years ago. Growing crops in crowded rows diminishes root development, degrades soil structure and grows crops with substantially fewer of the valuable micronutrients that create good taste and texture – vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Economics — GE seeds may not be affordable to many farmers and may decrease rather than increase farmer profitability.

GE seeds may not be economically viable. Britain’s Soil Association study concluded that US GE crops have been an economic disaster which has caused some farm groups to call for a moratorium on GE wheat, the next proposed crop to altered. The study estimated that gene-altered corn, soy and rapeseed cost the U.S. economy $12 billion since 1999 in farm subsidies, lower crop prices, loss of major export orders and product recalls.

GE seeds may be economically viable. In a recent report from the National Research Council of the National Academies, “The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States,” found the shift from conventionally grown crops has paid off economically and environmentally. The panel found that many GE effects need to be better studied and concluded that reduced tillage could offer the “largest single environmental benefit of GE crops.” This favorable report neglected to consider human health impacts, nutrient dilution from produce, expanding herbicide use, social equity, monocultures, monopolistic practices, genetic drift and increasing pest resistance issues.

GE seeds may fail their implied warranty: to control pests. The biotechnology industry promised to solve the challenges of climate change and feeding the burgeoning world population while reducing agriculture’s chemical impact. A 2009 study sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists examined the impacts of GE crops on pesticide use in the U.S. and found a dramatic rise in the use of herbicides on genetically engineered crops. Charles Benbrook, No Sure Fix, determined that 383 million additional pounds of herbicides have been used on GE crops, since 1996, over what likely would have been used if GE crops had been replaced by conventional, non-GE varieties. The report shows the overall chemical footprint for engineered crops is immense and expanding. The growth in herbicide use has important implications for public health, the environment and farmers’ bottom lines.

Farmers must buy new GE seeds each year. Monsanto has sued numerous farmers for using seeds the company said contained their patented genetic material. In some cases, the farmers claim that GE seeds or transgenic characteristics entered their heritage seeds through pollen drift or mechanical contamination. Critics such as competitor Pioneer Seeds calls Monsanto’s behavior a “platform monopoly” that crushes competitors much like Microsoft’s Window’s platform.

GE seeds may not be affordable. Many farmers globally and even in the US have abandoned GE seeds because they are no longer affordable. Some Monsanto seeds doubled in price in 2009, upsetting farmers who must buy new seeds from the company every year.

The New York Times reported that the Justice Department’s antitrust division is investigating Monsanto for anticompetitive practices in the seed industry. The Justice Department is investigating whether Monsanto unfairly used genetic licenses to dominate the engineered seed market because 93% of soybean and 80% of corn plantings in the US in 2008 contained Monsanto’s Roundup Ready trait. The Roundup Ready 1 trait patent expires in 2014 and Monsanto is forcing other seed suppliers to use their new Roundup Ready 2 trait in seeds that will effectively extend Monsanto’s patent protection. The Roundup ready 2 trait seeds have the same glyphosate molecule placed in a different location on the DNA strand.

Sustainability — GE seeds are highly consumptive of fossil energy and fossil resources will not be sustainable when those resources become unaffordable or unavailable.

GE seeds cannot compete with wild weeds. Carefully cultivated GE seeds may produce higher yields than natural seeds but cannot compete with natural grasses — weeds. Proof of their inability to compete with natural plants can be seen in the second year when a field swarms with weeds rather than volunteers of the GE crop. Consequently, farmers must till the soil before planting to remove weeds that would compete for soil moisture and nutrients.

GE crops need more cultivation

GE crops consume more energy. GE crops consume substantially more energy than heritage crops because GE crops require additional cultivation, water, fertilizer and herbicides to control competing weeds.

GE seeds exacerbate soil erosion and pollution. GE seeds accelerate erosion because the seeds need extensive cultivation that compacts soil, decimates beneficial microorganisms and makes soil vulnerable to erosion. Most GE crops consume substantially more water due to their shallow, crowded root structure, which requires many farmers to install supplemental irrigation. Additional water not only wastes a valuable resource but leads to leads to salt invasion, runoff, erosion and ecological pollution.

GE seeds create social inequity. The cost of GE seeds magnifies social injustice, the difference between rich and poor farmers, communities and countries. The cost escalation of GE seeds occurs because the few companies that offer GE seeds practice oligopoly pricing. Many farmers in developing countries such as India can no longer afford either GE seeds or the substantial fossil resources required to attain high yields.

After adopting modern farming practices including GE seeds largely imported from the US, over 8 million Indian farmers quit farming during the 1990s due to rising crop input prices – seeds, fuels, fertilizers and chemicals – that created escalating farmer debt. In the decade ending in 2007, 183,000 farmers in India committed suicide because their farms could no longer provide for their families. Government sources note that farmer suicides are substantially under-reported. Additional millions of farmers and family members have died or become disabled due to agricultural poisons used to protect GE crops. Trains from the city of Chotia Khurd in northern India are now called cancer trains because so many people in the farming villages must go to the city for cancer treatments.

GE seeds promote monocultures. Currently, only about eight crops are supported with GE seeds, which create monocultures. Monocultures jeopardize crop production because single crop varieties are highly vulnerable to weather, pest, molds and viral vectors. Soy blight ruined about 10% of the soy crop in 2009. The soy blight is similar to the potato blight that ignited the Irish famine in 1885 and caused starvation for over one million people. Monocultures put the entire food and feed production system at risk.

GE seeds diminish value as pests develop resistance. The Weed Science Society of America reported nine weed species in the US have developed resistance to glyphosate, (Round-up™), including the notorious pig weed. Pig weed can grow 8 feet tall, withstand withering heat and prolonged droughts, produce thousands of seeds and has a deep root system that drains nutrients away from crops. Pig weed can consume a field in a single year. A parallel problem is developing as insects develop resistance to GE promoted insecticides.

Field trial of transgenic sugar cane

Algae producers can create solutions for many of these issues; especially if GE strains are not produced only by a small set of large firms.

GE algae

The GE research by algae companies is largely driven by the perceived value of creating IP and ownership of specific life forms that may produce certain products or have certain advantageous characteristics such as growth rate, robustness, pigment, protein, or lipid production. Algal GE research requires millions of dollars of investment in scientists, laboratories and protective equipment. Consequently, only a relatively few algae companies such as Sapphire Energy and Synthetic Genomics as well as several university labs are working on GE strains.

Several experts have speculated that the industry would be far ahead if these substantial investments were made in selecting or adapting natural algal strains to maximize production. If an algal company selected or adapted a natural algal strain for optimized production of a specific compound such as lipids, the company could not file a patent under the “natural process” section of US patent law. Natural processes are not patentable because they are naturally occurring in nature. Consequently, algal companies hire genetic scientists and patent lawyers to create their IP.

No company has proven that transgenics outperform careful natural species selection or adapting algae for specific characteristics. One of the problems facing potential GE producers is that a single environmentalist could stop production for a decade while all the environmental impacts were developed, tested, critiqued and litigated. The cost of production for GE algae is likely to be a high multiple of producing natural species due to the substantial requirements for quality control and environmental contamination avoidance.

One potential solution provides hope for the GE path. The public has accepted hybrid crops because cross-fertilization has been used for thousands of years by farmers to improve crops. New computer modeling technologies enable companies to make GE crops and reverse engineer the desired characteristics back to specific plants that express those characteristics. This smart hybridization process speeds plant development as much as 1000 times because scientists know precisely which plants to cross breed.

Another solution was pioneered by Japan a decade ago for Nori farmers. The Japanese government directed GE Nori companies to create ten GE strains that would be publicly available to all Nori farmers. The companies were allowed to create additional Nori strains for themselves. The GE strains have produced higher Nori yields but many Japanese farmers have abandoned Nori farming because profitability has fallen.

Nori farming

Path forward

The algae industry needs guidelines on the use of GE algal species. Failing self-imposed guidelines, government agencies and some states will construct their own set of guidelines, which may have severe unintended consequences because so few public policy leaders understand the complexity and science of microorganisms.