The most frequent objections
Will biotech plants (and animals) be part of the solution to future food security, or do they represent an agri-food industry being led astray by science and technology, as environmentalists and some scientists fear?
A recent ISAAA study (2018) carried out in six African countries – South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Tunisia, Ghana and Nigeria – showed that an overwhelming majority of stakeholders emphasise the importance of proper assessment and management of the risks associated with biotechs. Because of limited capacity in Africa, a lack of scientific expertise and worries on the part of local populations, a centralised risk assessment system, similar to the European Food Safety Authority, is to be recommended.
While some varieties are already being grown and distributed in Africa, many voices are calling for caution with a long period of testing in a controlled environment to study all potential agricultural applications and all possible interactions with already fragile ecosystems.
The main reservations relate to GMOs. These reservations are of different types. There are two levels of risk to the agricultural ecosystem.
First of all, genes can travel to neighbouring plants and contaminate traditional seed or “organic” seed crops (when they exist). In practice, it is impossible to avoid pollinating insects or wind spreading pollen from genetically modified plants. Transgenes are present and active in pollen. If this “transgenic” pollen encounters sexually compatible non-transgenic plants, it could fertilise them, leading to part-transgenic progeny. Contamination risks also affect wild plants. There are therefore concerns of a “chemical escalation” which could damage farmers who want to grow non-GM crops.
The main GMOs are designed to make crops resistant to insect pests. Yet there are sometimes invasions of other varieties of insect than the ones against which the plant has been immunised. New, resistant predators appear (known as “secondary” pests). After a few years, farmers facing this situation are forced to increase the quantities of insecticides used. In the same way, the emergence of weeds (such as amaranth) sometimes requires new herbicides. When situations such as these emerge, it is easy to understand how the advantages of transgenic farming are cancelled out.
There is also the issue of health, which is articulated around the question: can the emergence of toxic or allergenic substances in food produced using GMOs be harmful to health? After dozens of years of transgenic plants such as maize, soybeans, potatoes or apples being consumed, epidemiologists have not flagged any causal relationship with the development of chronic diseases such as cancers, obesity or diabetes. However, caution should be exercised as “the difficulty lies in detecting subtle or long-term effects on health or the environment” (Kuntz, 2018).
Finally, the question must be put into context. Sometimes, genetic engineering is considered to overstep the bounds of what is socially acceptable. Most approaches to biosecurity focus on the health and environmental consequences of modern biotechnology. However, much of the resistance against the introduction of biotechnology is rooted in another reality – that of social traditions.
The question at the heart of the debates is not just whether the agricultural yields can be increased. It also concerns the preservation of the environment, health, social acceptance and the vulnerability of the populations in question.
Science has a vital part to play in these debates, as long as it does not position itself in opposition to traditional knowledge but rather aims to further it. Local knowledge may draw on biological resources in a way that is adapted to their environment. This knowledge can be articulated with the technical expertise of research teams building on other experiences in different regions with comparable ecosystems.