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Genetically Modified Crops

8. Conclusions

  • 8.1 Conclusions on agricultural biotechnology
  • 8.2 Conclusions on environment and health effects

8.1 Conclusions on agricultural biotechnology

The source document for this Digest states:

Biotechnology is a complement - not a substitute - for many areas of conventional agricultural research. It offers a range of tools to improve our understanding and management of genetic resources for food and agriculture. These tools are already making a contribution to breeding and conservation programmes and to facilitating the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of plant and animal diseases. The application of biotechnology provides the researcher with new knowledge and tools that make the job more efficient and effective. In this way, biotechnology-based research programmes can be seen as a more precise extension of conventional approaches (Dreher et al., 2000). At the same time, genetic engineering can be seen as a dramatic departure from conventional breeding because it gives scientists the power to move genetic material between organisms that could not be bred through classical means.

Agricultural biotechnology is cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary. Most of the molecular techniques and their applications are common across all sectors of food and agriculture, but biotechnology cannot stand on its own. Genetic engineering in crops, for example, cannot proceed without knowledge derived from genomics and it is of little practical use in the absence of an effective plant-breeding programme. Any single research objective requires mastery of a bundle of technological elements. Biotechnology should be part of a comprehensive, integrated agricultural research programme that takes advantage of work in other sectoral, disciplinary and national programmes. This has broad implications for developing countries and their development partners as they design and implement national research policies, institutions and capacity-building programmes (see Chapter 8).

Agricultural biotechnology is international. Although most of the basic research in molecular biology is taking place in developed countries (see Chapter 3), this research can be beneficial for developing countries because it provides insight into the physiology of all plants and animals. The findings of the human and the mice genome projects provide direct benefits for farm animals, and vice versa, whereas studies of maize and rice can provide parallels for applications in subsistence crops such as sorghum and tef. However, specific work is needed on the breeds and species of importance in developing countries. Developing countries are host to the greatest array of agricultural biodiversity in the world, but little work has been done on characterizing these plant and animal species at the molecular level to assess their production potential and their ability to resist disease and environmental stresses or to ensure their long-term conservation.

The application of new molecular biotechnologies and new breeding strategies to the crops and livestock breeds of specific relevance to smallholder production systems in developing countries will probably be constrained in the near future for a number of reasons (see Chapters 3 and 7). These include lack of reliable longer-term research funding, inadequate technical and operational capacity, the low commercial value of the crops and breeds, lack of adequate conventional breeding programmes and the need to select in the relevant production environments. Nevertheless, developing countries are already faced with the need to evaluate genetically modified (GM) crops (see Chapters 4-6) and they will one day also need to evaluate the possible use of GM trees, livestock and fish. These innovations may offer opportunities for increased production, productivity, product quality and adaptive fitness, but they will certainly create challenges for the research and regulatory capacity of developing countries.

Source & ©: FAO "The State of Food and Agriculture 2003-2004"
Chapter 5: Health and environmental impacts of transgenic crops  Section Conclusions

For details on: Sea FAO report:
Research trends in developing countries Chapter 3 

8.2 Conclusions on environment and health effects

The source document for this Digest states:

Thus far, in those countries where transgenic crops have been grown, there have been no verifiable reports of them causing any significant health or environmental harm. Monarch butterflies have not been exterminated. Pests have not developed resistance to Bt. Some evidence of HT weeds has emerged, but superweeds have not invaded agricultural or natural ecosystems. On the contrary, some important environmental and social benefits are emerging. Farmers are using less pesticide and are replacing toxic chemicals with less harmful ones. As a result, farm workers and water supplies are protected from poisons, and beneficial insects and birds are returning to farmers' fields.

Meanwhile, science is moving ahead rapidly. Some of the concerns associated with the first generation of transgenic crops have technical solutions. New techniques of genetic transformation are eliminating the antibiotic marker genes and promoter genes that are of concern to some. Varieties including two different Bt genes are reducing the likelihood that pest resistance will develop. Management strategies and genetic techniques are evolving to prevent gene flow.

However, the lack of observed negative effects so far does not mean they cannot occur, and scientists agree that our understanding of ecological and food safety processes is incomplete. Much remains unknown. Complete safety can never be assured, and regulatory systems and the people who manage them are not perfect. How should we proceed given the lack of scientific certainty? The GM Science Review Panel (p. 25) argues that:

‘There is a clear need for the science community to do more research in a number of areas, for companies to make good choices in terms of transgene design and plant hosts, and to develop products that meet wider societal wishes. Finally, the regulatory system … should continue to operate so that it is sensitive to the degree of risk and uncertainty, recognises the distinctive features of GM, divergent scientific perspectives and associated gaps in knowledge, as well as taking into account the conventional breeding context and baselines.’

The Nuffield Council (p. 44) recommends that “the same standards should be applied to the assessment of risks from GM and from non-GM plants and foods, and that the risks of inaction be given the same careful analysis as risks of action …” They further conclude (p. 45):

‘We do not take the view that there is enough evidence of actual or potential harm to justify a moratorium on either research, field trials, or the controlled release of GM crops into the environment at this stage. We therefore recommend that research into GM crops be sustained, governed by a reasonable application of the precautionary principle.’

FAO's Statement on biotechnology (FAO, 2000b) concurs:

‘FAO supports a science-based evaluation system that would objectively determine the benefits and risks of each individual GMO. This calls for a cautious case-by-case approach to address legitimate concerns for the biosafety of each product or process prior to its release. The possible effects on biodiversity, the environment and food safety need to be evaluated, and the extent to which the benefits of the product or process outweigh its risks assessed. The evaluation process should also take into consideration experience gained by national regulatory authorities in clearing such products. Careful monitoring of the post-release effects of these products and processes is also essential to ensure their continued safety to human beings, animals and the environment.’

Science cannot declare any technology completely risk free. Genetically engineered crops can reduce some environmental risks associated with conventional agriculture, but will also introduce new challenges that must be addressed. Society will have to decide when and where genetic engineering is safe enough.

Source & ©: FAO "The State of Food and Agriculture 2003-2004"
Chapter 5: Health and environmental impacts of transgenic crops  Section Conclusions


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