Can GE be sustainable?

posted in: Commentary | 1

The Economist recently held an online debate on the motion: This house believes that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are complementary, not contradictory. Long story short, the debate was disappointing – I think because the subject wasn’t very well defined*. Both proponents and opponents in the comments and in the official statements had off topic ideas, depending on how they framed the assertion. It’s really a shame because this could have been an opportunity to really discuss how we can forge a new agriculture that is less harmful for the environment.

The discussion really needs to include proponents of and experts in genetic engineering, plant breeding, agronomy like Pamela Ronald and Sir Gordon Conway, proponents of and experts in sustainable agriculture, like Matt Liebman and Charles Benbrook, and perhaps most importantly everyday people. If we’re really committed to moving towards a better agriculture for everyone, we need to get past labels, get past ideology, and cooperate.

Biofortified was designed to be a place where we can have that discussion, but just like the Economist debate, discussion here can easily get derailed with ideas that are important but not directly related to the topic at hand. The off topic discussion can be really interesting, but decreases the likelihood that we’ll reach any agreement on the main topic. I wonder if reframing of a subject with a slightly more narrow focus would help. In the case of the motion proposed by the Economist, I’d break it into two separate assertions that can be debated separately:

  1. Biotechnology as it is currently deployed and sustainable agriculture are complementary, not contradictory.
  2. Biotechnology in some potential applications and sustainable agriculture are complementary, not contradictory.

Dividing the assertion into two doesn’t make the answers any easier to find, but it does make the discussion more focused.

Biotechnology as it is currently deployed

Regarding the first assertion, the answer could be yes, with certain caveats. Charles Benbrook chooses to discuss only Bt and Roundup Ready traits, which isn’t technically correct because there are other traits on the market, but those are the two categories of traits that make up most of the biotech crops out there. If our definition of sustainable doesn’t include herbicides, then any herbicide resistance traits are out. However, we do need to consider the environmental impact of switching from a relatively harmful to a relatively gentle herbicide. If no herbicide is ideal, is a less harmful herbicide at least a step in the right direction?

Bt, on the other hand, has undoubtedly reduced synthetic insecticide use not only in Bt fields but in neighboring fields. Development of resistance to Bt has been fairly low due to careful resistance prevention methods. Biodiversity in Bt fields is higher due to reduced insecticide use. Depending on how we define sustainable agriculture, one might see how judicious use of Bt crops could fit into a diverse crop rotation in areas with high pest pressure from insects susceptible to Bt.

Of course, if we are to consider Bt as a sustainable trait, we must consider how farmers will get it. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of seed that needs to be purchased every year, regardless of what farmers want. Farmers in the developed world and some in the developing have been able to vote with their dollars for hybrid and biotech seed that they buy each year. A minority of farmers have chosen instead to save seed, as is their right. Is this system a problem? Perhaps. But if we are to question the system of private development and selling of seed, we must be honest and question this system for all seed, not just biotech.

Farmers in the developing world (if we’re including them in our definition of sustainable agriculture – I do) often aren’t able to afford improved seed every year, don’t have access to loans, and might not even be able to get to a market that has appropriate seeds. The developed world system of leaving seed development to private companies has so far not worked in the developing world – so by default, biotechnology as it is currently deployed isn’t a part of sustainable farming for those farmers. That brings us what is possible, beyond biotech as it is currently deployed.

Biotechnology in some potential applications

The second assertion also gets a yes with caveats. It’s easy to imagine traits that would be useful in conjunction with sustainable farming methods, as well as seed deployment methods that would be sustainable in the long term. It’s difficult to define those specific situations, and we can quickly get stuck in details. However, I think these details are exactly what we need to talk about, because such discussions can help guide what NGOs and governments choose to invest in. We do have a few examples that have happened and are happening to help us consider the potential for biotechnology working in harmony with sustainable agricultural methods.

Frank poses with some orange maize at the First Global Conference on Biofortification.

Flood tolerant rice and orange maize are great examples of what’s possible. Now, I need to be clear – the final flood tolerant rice and orange (aka high-pro-vitamin A) maize that are being distributed are not genetically engineered (unless you count marker assisted breeding as genetic engineering), but the way they have been developed and distributed can be be a model for future biotech traits. Both flood tolerant rice and orange maize were developed with public funding with the intent to distribute the seed at low or no cost to famers that might benefit from these special traits. Both traits were developed with farmers in developing countries in mind but may also be useful in developed countries.

Is biotechnology going to be useful for traits that can be achieved with breeding (even if it takes way longer and doesn’t work as well)? Maybe, maybe not. Kevin Pixley, of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), writes on the Harvest Plus blog that breeding and biotech are like the tortoise and the hare. Even though the tortoise is slower, sometimes he wins. For high pro-vitamin A maize, the tortoise won, even though biotech had long ago produced varieties that have far higher levels of the vitamin. Ingo Potrykus, developer of Golden rice, thinks the problem is regularly hurdles that NGOs can’t climb on their own.

The traits that can be changed with breeding, even if it takes some Herculean efforts, are certainly interesting – but what about traits that can’t be changed by breeding, or at least traits for which we haven’t yet found a source of genetic diversity? Golden rice is an example of such a trait, because rice doesn’t have the genetic variability in pro-vitamin A content that maize has. Other examples include nematode resistance conferred with RNAi and pest resistance conferred with special proteins such as snow drop lectin.

All of these traits have the potential to be helpful to farmers large and small as well as their neighbors and consumers. Can they be sustainable? Yes, if they are developed with sustainability in mind. Like the flood tolerance trait in rice and the pro-vitamin A trait in maize, sustainable biotech traits have to be bred into varieties that farmers will actually use, with no restrictions on seed saving for low-income farmers, even if high-income farmers are charged for seed in order to recoup development costs. Those development costs could be decreased with more unified regulatory systems that are science-based.

Discussing biotech

Finally, we have the problem of facts. Commenters on the Economist debate and elsewhere make a variety of wild claims about genetic engineering without using science (or logic) to back them up, and are often unable to produce references if asked. Discussions such as these shouldn’t be based on rumors. They also shouldn’t be based on reports from special interest groups or on individual studies, even if they’re peer reviewed. As I discussed in Does the Source Matter?, we need to look at the entire body of literature and then draw our conclusions. Outliers that show the opposite of the majority need to be carefully evaluated for validity, not trumpeted without skepticism. Let’s all be more careful about the claims we make. Just because it’s “common sense” doesn’t mean it’s true.

* They also apparently had server issues.

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes! Disclaimer: Anastasia's words are her own and views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of her employer. She is not paid to blog or conduct any social media activities. Mention of a company or product does not indicate endorsement.

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  • Eric Baumholder

    The meaning of ‘sustainable’ has to do with what trade you want to meddle in. Once you figure that out, it is quite easy to craft a hortatory definition that will conceal motives as necessary.