So, GMOs are safe. What about fair benefit-sharing?
March 16, 2018
Scientists from the University of Maryland, USA, recently announced that the widespread adoption of the Bt-corn technology greatly benefits multiple crops, including non-GMO vegetable crops. This study was based on forty years of data (1976 – 2016). Comparisons were made between pest levels and associated pest management regimes twenty years before and twenty years after the adoption of Bt-corn in the USA, in 1996.
An excellent science communication article addressing the main findings and methodologies of this study was published on EUREKALERT and IAAS news feeds on the 12th March 2018: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-03/uom-fyo030718.php
The general conclusion of this study was that Bt-crops could be used as a powerful tool to reduce pest populations not only in the Bt-crops themselves but also in other offsite non-GMO crops such as sweet corn, peppers, and green beans. The researchers reported suppression levels higher than 90 percent in the European corn borer population. The researchers point out that the significant reductions in the pest population correlated with much lower levels of spraying occurring over time since Bt-corn adoption in 1996.
In summary, this study strongly suggests that Bt-crops are not only highly productive, but they are also an effective pest management strategy for the entire agro-ecosystem on a regional scale!
These highly marketed and successful genetically engineered crop varieties are created through the addition of a small amount of genetic material from a naturally occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis through molecular techniques. In the case of Bt-crops, the gene of interest produces a protein that kills Lepidoptera larvae, in particular, the European corn borer. This protein, called the Bt delta endotoxin, is very selective and does not generally harm insects in other orders (such as beetles, flies, bees and wasps).
This is why Bt-crops are considered compatible with biological control programs as they control insect predators and parasitoids in a much more insect-selective way than broad-spectrum insecticides.
Furthermore, due to its selectivity, the Bt delta endotoxin is considered safe for humans, other mammals, fish, birds, and the environment. Bt-based insecticides have been commercially available since the 1960's under many trade names. Holding excellent safety record, Bt insecticides can be used on many crops until the day of harvest.
This study, published in the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, further reinforces the role of Bt-crops in the improvement of crop yields and quality, food safety as well as in the reduction of pesticide or herbicide usage.
However, other GMO-related concerns continue to hold. For example:
• Are GMOs safe to eat? Some people worry about the use of viral DNA during the genetic modification process and the possible integration of viral DNA into the human DNA. However, the studies undertaken so far, failed to produce evidence that this ever occurrs and therefore GMO varieties are considered safe at this level. Also, GMO technology allows for the choice of plant tissue where a biological trait is to be expressed. This means that the actual portion of the crop used for human or animal consumption might deliberately not express the added protein. This strategy adds a layer of safety that is not achievable by conventional breeding techniques.
• Are there environmental risks associated with the loss of crop genetic diversity? Agricultural intensification and the replacement of landraces, heritage varieties, and early breeding commercial varieties has resulted in the loss of crop genetic diversity in developed countries. The widespread cultivation of GMOs will probably continue this trend in developing countries, but only to the same extent as if high-yield conventionally breed varieties were used for the same effect. To diminish the conflict between agricultural intensification and genetic conservation needs, ex-situ seed banks and in-situ genetic reserves need to be established as part of national strategies for the conservation of plant genetic resources. Also, environmentally-friendly measures, compatible with the use of GMOs or high-yield conventionally breed varieties, might be put in place by the grower to mitigate loss of biodiversity.
• Are there environmental risks associated with gene flow from the GMO to wild plants which could increase the risk of pest resistance across the ecosystem? Gene flow occurs naturally, so some national or regional ethics committees recommend that the possible consequences of gene flow between GMO plants and their wild-relatives are considered and measured on a case-by-case basis. Also, GMO technology allows for the use of safety genes that interfere with the fertility of the pollen grains, and therefore prevent effective gene flow. Again, this could be regarded as yet another safety measure that is not achievable by conventional breeding.
• What about current corporate control? The biotechnology corporations Monsanto, BASF, Bayer CropScience, DuPont Pioneer, Dow Chemicals, and Syngenta have now control over most of the technology needed to develop GM crops. The “Big 6” also hold the monopoly for the commercialisation of agrochemicals and crop germplasm (seeds, vegetative tissue and DNA stocks). These companies own intellectual property rights over these resources, and there is a global concern that they have undue influence over their availability. As a result, the access to GMO technology and germplasm for further research might be compromised or by corporate interest. Additionally, GM research and technology has mainly been used to the benefit of large-scale farmers in developed countries.
• Are the benefits of the GMO technology fairly shared? While the effects of GMO technology on crop yield and quality, environmental sustainability and food safety seem to have been confidently ascertained, the economic and social dimensions of this technology are in need of further discussion before it can be globally accepted. Could GMO technology, despite all its advantages, be aggravating world conflicts rooted on unbalanced profit and geopolitical interests? Several mechanisms have been proposed to democratise the GMO technology such as the expansion of the GM-related research to the needs of small-scale farmers in developing countries. Other measures include the development of legal and/or economic tools to ensure that: 1) biotechnology companies provide unrestricted access to their genetic resources for research purposes; 2) the cost of the technology is tailored to the smallholdings investment capacity; 3) there are effective gene conservation strategies to counteract genetic diversity loss, and 4) the farmer’s rights are protected. The achievement of equal benefit-sharing depends on every country’s commitment to contribute to the necessary research activities and development of the legal tools that most suit their economic, political and environmental circumstances. However, it can be argued that the developed economies and economic unions might be in a better position to financially contribute for the creation of the political tools necessary to guarantee fair benefit-sharing.