The real potentials of biotech
For three decades, controversies have impeded the use of genetic engineering technologies as a means of overcoming food security issues, as championed by their supporters. In fact, the players in these sometimes confused debates are often using different points of reference: politicians, researchers or technologists, farmers, seed companies, agro-food businesses, whistleblowers, the media.
In the face of serious challenges relating to rural development and food security, biotech agriculture is presented by its supporters as one of the solutions, with a clear, twofold objective: increasing the resilience of crops affected by droughts and attacked by pests, and stimulating yields thanks to properties which seeds would not have been able to acquire, or only at a later point, with traditional selection (ISAAA, 2018). How? We must go back to the question: what is a GM plant?
Plant biotechnologies are technologies which cover all in vitro modification of the organs, tissues, cells or DNA of plants, either to control or accelerate their production, or to improve their characteristics at the service of agriculture. GMOs are the product of these biotechnologies, but not all biotech seeds are GMOs. GMOs have, in their genome, one or two additional genes from a different species (most of the time a bacterium). These have been inserted in a laboratory and lend them new properties. The main plants grown (soybeans, maize, cotton, rape, alfalfa, beets) are genetically modified versions, with enhanced positive properties: resistance to parasites, fortified in nutrients, reduced need for fertilisers.
In this way, production is made more efficient for farmers, with many direct benefits: reduced use of insecticides or herbicides, time savings, simplified management of crops. There are significant advantages for consumers too: improved storage (delayed ripening tomatoes), improved nutrition (vitamin A-fortified rice, reduced nitrate levels in lettuce).
A new stage in the transgenic revolution is anticipated with, for example, the sale of drought-resistant varieties of maize, or other seeds which use nitrogen more efficiently, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Additional qualities, such as protein content, may yet be found. The research also focuses on production related to typically African issues, such as developing transgenic cowpea seeds which are resistant to corn borers (insect pests which can destroy up to 80% of a harvest), or cassava seeds genetically modified to be fortified in iron, zinc, proteins and vitamin A, to overcome the main nutritional deficiencies for malnourished populations (25% of children in Africa). Sorghum is also a very important crop in Africa. It is a cereal which is well-adapted to semi-arid tropical regions, thanks to its hardiness and moderate consumption of water. But its yields are threatened by the parasitic plant Striga, which affects 40% of arable savannah land. Researchers combined the use of molecular genetics, biochemistry and agronomy to identify genes which would provide resistance to Striga. These were multiplied in locally-adapted and more modern varieties of sorghum, creating Striga-resistant hybrids adapted to Africa’s different agricultural systems and ecological zones. These new types of sorghum are now grown from Sudan to Zimbabwe.
Because of this potential, the use of transgenic seeds is highly encouraged by international initiatives, such as the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition (NAFSN), launched in 2012 by the G8, which predicts a move towards the distribution, adoption and consumption of biofortified crop varieties. Foundations (such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) or charities which are part-funded by them (Africa Harvest, Africa Bio, Agricultural Technology Foundation, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications) are lobbying States and funders intensely.