The application of modern biotechnology to food and agriculture holds promise of a revolution as dramatic and far-reaching as the domestication of plants 10,000 years ago. Will the road to that revolution be smooth, rough, involve many detours, or lead to a dead end? This question, punctuating the previous fourteen NABC meetings, received a focus and refinement with NABC-15’s theme of a “crossroad.” At what crossroad does biotechnology currently find itself and which road will it take? What other crossroads can be expected in the future?
The conference presented a wide range of crosscutting perspectives on biotechnology’s current crossroad with two main themes: communication difficulties and risk. Various risks are the bases of concern among a wide variety of biotechnology stakeholders; particular risks vary by stakeholder. Some segments of the public worry about the health risks of genetically modified foods while others worry about the risk of concentrated economic power in society. Producers and farmers worry about the substantial financial risks associated with shifts to bioengineered crops. Some scientists worry about the risk of unintended consequences (such as creating resistance to herbicides and insecticides) while others debate the very meaning of risk and the conditions under which it should be assessed and managed.
How in democratic societies can these various risk concerns be reconciled? Although there is no easy answer to this question, one thing is certain: the question itself and the responses it attracts from science, from industry, from government, and from the public will determine the road that biotechnology will take.
The accumulated knowledge of common agricultural crops and their breeding for desirable traits has made them interesting as carrier organisms for GE products in pharming. The United States and other governments and institutions should support knowledge-base and biological character development of non-food carrier organisms—such as castor bean or tobacco—to make them attractive to pharmaceutical and chemical companies for transformation and synthesis of GE products in order to separate the growing of food from the growing of chemicals and pharmaceutical.
Profit incentives and the private sector generate and deliver useful products and, reasonable regulation of new technologies and education of farmers in their application can enhance and prolong their usefulness. But, in today’s global market, property rights, regulations, and liability concerns seem to have gone too far and made access by the poor to new agricultural technologies too difficult. Getting good farm technology to over two billion poor, small-scale farmers in developing countries in a way that is responsible and sustainable is likely to remain a public-sector responsibility. It will require that governments, public research institutions, non-governmental organizations, and corporations devise new ways of doing business and of forming partnerships that accommodate the interests of the majority of the world’s people located in developing countries, as well as the concerns of the technology providers, users who can pay, and consumers in wealthy countries
The ethical context for regulatory affairs requires first and foremost that the highest standards are met by the regulatory agency on behalf of the society in whose interests it acts. Regulatory requirements and protocols must evolve with science and experience if the regulatory agency is to maintain the public trust and credibility in national and international debates surrounding biotechnology.
McCluskey, Jill J.; Curtis, Kynda R.; Li, Quan; Wahl, Thomas I.; Grimsrud, Kristine M. (NABC, 2003)
Cultural differences and values strongly influence attitudes to and acceptance of GM foods. While consumers in Norway and Japan avoid them, while those in China were generally accepting of GM foods. Younger people there seem to be more willing to purchase GM-food products with product-enhancing attributes, which indicates that the Chinese market may be open to GM foods in the future. Additionally, government investment into biotechnology remains strong, as China works to fulfill its self-sufficiency food policies.
Market failure is the predominant justification for regulatory interventions of all kinds. Potential market failure has also been the basic argument behind calls for mandatory labeling of GM foods. However, there is little empirical evidence to suggest that any of the necessary and sufficient conditions for mandatory labeling of GM foods is satisfied. Indeed, it is possible that mandatory GM-food labeling policies installed in some countries could fail all three standard criteria used to justify regulatory intervention. The efficiency of various mandatory labeling regimes has not been sufficiently appraised. Proper methods for measuring consumer behavior and relevant social benefits from mandatory labeling have been ignored and he costs of mandatory labeling policies brushed aside.
The real uncertainties in the global agri-food markets, and especially markets for GM foods, relate to how regulators and industry will manage these two trends: Uncontrolled rapid introduction of too many products that overwhelm the system and cause more national governments to come up with separate regulations, or a coming together of countries to adopt common standards, testing protocols, and regulatory processes that can effectively and efficiently deliver consistent and timely decisions in all key markets.
The driving forces for most farmers to adopt a new technology includes the potential to increase profits, to save labor, to protect the environment, and to meet demands for safe and wholesome food. The “management used to grow a crop variety and not the variety itself that has impact on the environment.” Some genetically modified plants reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides or confer disease resistance, all welcome traits for producers and consumer. However, a vision is needed for genetic modifications in minor crops for which the current regulatory processes involving EPA, USDA, and FDA is too costly.
The roles of the ARS in addressing the genetic modification of crops include the “core responsibilities of conserving, safeguarding and characterizing genetic resources. Special new functions of the agency include biotechnology risk assessment, biosafety, and the effects of genetically engineered crops in agricultural production systems.
The biotechnology industry possibly made errors of omission by in introducing their technologies without properly preparing all elements of the market: technology developers, government regulators, sellers, farmers, and consumers. In order to successfully introduce a revolutionary technology into society, many forces are needed as “sweepers” prepare the stakeholders to accept the technology. The biotechnology industry followed past practices in introducing new products, ignoring the unique features of genetic modification and the multifaceted concerns of a wide range of stakeholders it generated. As a result, agricultural biotechnology can be thought to have failed so far despite a few successes here and there.
We argue that the current agricultural system is unsustainable, and an approach is needed to achieve sustainability and to protect the ecosystem. It is doubtful that the transgenic technology’s single-tactic approaches will ensure the food security for future generations that is now regarded as a basic human right