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[genet-news] AGRICULTURE & DEVELOPMENT: Transgenic seeds in developing countries experience, challenges, perspectives

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SOURCE: Office of Technology Assessment at the German Parliament (TAB)

AUTHOR: TAB working report No. 128


DATE:   28.04.2009

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Due to insufficient data, it is currently impossible to carry out a final evaluation of the size and distribution of profits in terms of business and economics which have been achieved by cultivating transgenic plants in developing and emerging countries. Studies which claim to be able to do this are not backed up scientifically and are based on unstable projections. Even the case studies from China and Brazil could not improve this situation: The studies published to date on the economic results of Bt cotton cultivation in China are, for instance, based on the data from just a few years and just a few hundred hectares (out of an overall acreage of 5.5 million hectares) and demonstrate enormous fluctuations; for Brazil, no publications at all exist on the cultivation results, only estimations.



Final report on the TA project ?Effects of using transgenic seeds on the economic, social and political structures in developing countries?

Summary of TAB working report No. 128

In the course of the intensive debate on sustainable production of food and fodder, bioenergy and renewable raw materials, the discussion of using genetic engineering in plant breeding and the application of the transgenic seeds resulting from this in Europe and worldwide has undergone a shift in focus ? the potentials and the contributions made so far as well as possible future ones to the solution of specific problems are now in greater demand. The current report also emphasises this particularly, without ignoring the risk issues. In this regard, the central results of the TAB project can be summarized as follows:

- The benefit of using transgenic seeds in developing and emerging countries so far seems limited with regard to the range of plant varieties, types and features.

- The data on the socio-economic effects continue to be weak and do not even allow a final evaluation of the business and economic effects so far (yields, profits, and profit distribution, sector income).

- To evaluate transgenic types, one should consider alternative knowledge-based options, e.g., of integrated plant protection, and not the status quo in agricultural practice which is often ecologically and socio-economically deficient.

- The commercially available transgenic plant varieties and at least also those that are developed to an advanced stage only represent a small selection of the potential genetically engineered breeding approaches imaginable in principle. The reasons for this can be found in the lack of scientific and economic capacities in most developing countries, in controlling procedures and products by the patent owners and in frequently insufficient risk regulation.

- The question of whether genetically modified plants can offer sustainable, regionally adapted options for differently developed agrarian economies in the medium and long-term future cannot currently be answered in a substantiated way.

- The potential of genetically engineered breeding approaches should be tested in the framework of a differentiated, problem-oriented approach in the search for sustainable agrarian technologies and cultivation methods without a predetermined outcome.

[to read the full summary, please go to]


Discussion of the case study results: the potential contribution of transgenic seeds to sustainable development

Research and development: problems of capacity and access

Considerable economic power and comprehensive research capacities are necessary to make a successful national, proprietary development of transgenic varieties realistic. Among the sample countries, this is only the case in China, where in addition the authoritarian state permits operations to be guided on an extremely large scale, and this is a favourable factor. In the other countries, research and development are to some extent strongly dominated by international companies (Brazil) or the extent of activities and capacities seems to be restricted (Costa Rica and Chile). Important barriers and hurdles are the patenting of many procedures and products (which moreover are also owned by a few large companies) as well as unclarified regulation in some cases, which makes the prospects for the success of an R&D commitment hard to calculate.

Particularly in small or poor countries, the available capacities in terms of science and infrastructure are insufficient for autonomous agricultural research in general and for genetic engineering development in particular. In these countries it must thus be clarified what kind of cooperation (with private companies, international institutions/organizations, public R&D in industrial countries) is particularly promising and desirable in the search for the best possible solutions for country-specific problems. The participation of smallholder representatives and other social groups has so far been mostly low or hardly developed in the formulation of research requirements and the search for new (technological) agricultural strategies.

Basically, most countries lack a clear and practicable concept for setting in motion a scientific, social and political agreement regarding the aims, strategies and paths to be followed for sustainable agriculture ? this is indeed also true for the industrial countries.


Economic results so far: poor data

Due to insufficient data, it is currently impossible to carry out a final evaluation of the size and distribution of profits in terms of business and economics which have been achieved by cultivating transgenic plants in developing and emerging countries. Studies which claim to be able to do this are not backed up scientifically and are based on unstable projections. Even the case studies from China and Brazil could not improve this situation: The studies published to date on the economic results of Bt cotton cultivation in China are, for instance, based on the data from just a few years and just a few hundred hectares (out of an overall acreage of 5.5 million hectares) and demonstrate enormous fluctuations; for Brazil, no publications at all exist on the cultivation results, only estimations. It is undisputed that, particularly in China and India but also in the Philippines and in South Africa, transgenic varieties are predominantly grown by small- and medium-scale businesse
 s. This observation, however, does not permit any conclusions to be drawn with regard to cultivation results or to the size or distribution of profits.

Serious scientific overview studies point out the basic problem that the actual or possible benefit and profit from the use of transgenic seeds is influenced in many ways by regional and operation-specific factors, including the existing or previously used cultivation technique, pest intensity, the strongly fluctuating price of seed, the competitive varieties and many other factors. Of course, by observing individual cases and taking the specific conditions into comprehensive consideration, and by comparing the alternatives in varieties and cultivation techniques, it is possible to quantitatively determine how the cultivation of a specific (transgenic) plant variety has developed under certain conditions within a defined time period and which economic (and ecological) implications arise here. The influence of individual factors, e.g., the characteristic transferred by genetic engineering, on the individual effects and the overall yield will, however, not allow an exact determ
 ination in most cases. For this reason, it is not to be expected that economic investigations based on improved methods will be able to substantially defuse the fundamental controversies on the potential of agricultural biotechnology.

Socio-economic aspects and questions of participation

Further socio-economic effects of a widespread use of transgenic varieties can be observed at two levels: in the seed market (including the design of protection systems for intellectual property) and in the circumstances of agricultural structure such as the size of operations and ownership structure. In view of the position of power ? to some extent a kind of monopoly ? held by the large biotech seed companies in the field of transgenic varieties, which in part comes up against poorly developed, decentralized seed markets, pressing questions arise regarding the options for guiding further development.

Critics of the spread of HR soybean in Brazil, for instance, assume that any possible economic advantage does not benefit the agricultural family businesses and traditional producer communities. These, they say, are increasingly exposed to the danger of marginalisation as the orientation of Brazilian agriculture becomes increasingly strong towards global markets, and this is further fired by the spread of HR soybean. The beneficiaries in agriculture, they maintain, are large farms and cooperatives, and the clear losers are vendors of produce explicitly free of genetic engineering, including the organic farmers whose market is jeopardized by the risk of contamination from transgenic soybean. In addition to this, the dominance of Monsanto?s HR soybean can be seen to exert a bad influence on the number on small and medium-sized seed producers in Brazilian soybean cultivation and their range of varieties.

Questions of social participation arise in practically all sub areas of the development and use of transgenic seeds: in the question of the objective and design of the R&D agenda within the countries, the search for and agreement on a concept of sustainability, the distribution of economic advantages and also in the question of handling possible risks. The case studies from Brazil and Costa Rica in particular make it clear that the vigorous controversies in these countries move around the central topics of participation and social compatibility and not the technical, natural scientific issues of biosafety. However, it is not only in the area of research but also with regard to risk regulation that the participation of interest groups outside industry and science remains more of a desired object, but even within the EU it is still highly controversial.

risks ? evaluation and regulation

An assessment of possible risks and of actually observed negative effects with the use of transgenic varieties is crucially dependent on the chosen standards for comparison and the levels of effect considered. This is why both an unqualified risk analysis (i.e., without any comparison to previous or other forms of agricultural practice) and one that is too strongly focused (on effects proven beyond doubt in the natural sciences or agricultural economy) are inappropriate.

In considering Bt varieties as a possible option for plant protection ? but not as an option which can be used indefinitely for dealing with the pest problem -, which must be seriously weighed against other options, many of the particular risks expressed in the debate are put into perspective (effect on non-target organisms, other ecotoxicity, resistance problems). At the same time, it must be required that the standard used to compare Bt varieties should not just be conventional practice but that other innovative, knowledge-based options, e.g., from the field of integrated plant protection and organic farming should also taken into consideration.

A risk evaluation of HR varieties seems even more complex since their implementation causes many and indirect kinds of effect on the cultivation technique (reduction in tillage, fuel savings) and on land usage (crop rotations, increasing acreage). These would have to be considered in the framework of a comprehensive risk assessment and evaluation in addition to the direct effects of the herbicides used and saved on humans and the environment and be weighed up against these. To carry out an industry-wide evaluation, it would then be necessary to have a weighting, which legally protected goods (e.g., health, soil fertility, biological diversity, CO2 emissions, rural development, resource distribution) have priority (which in turn can only be inferred from the developmental aims of a region or a country) and what contribution can be provided here by genetically modified varieties compared with alternative options.

Basically it must be assumed that the overuse of an option, i.e., here the concentration on one single or just a few crops in terms of acreage and crop rotation contravenes the principles of Good Agricultural Practice and in the long run means great problems.

With a view to biological diversity as a superordinated, ecological, legally protected good, two chains of effect of transgenic varieties are considered to be particularly relevant: on the one hand, influencing the diversity of varieties in the country (and other agrobiodiversity) as a result of altered cultivation techniques and developments on the seed markets, and on the other hand the possible influence of any outcrossing into natural or conventional stocks, particularly in so-called centres of diversity. Even if knowledge here is still very restricted, there is broad consensus on the fact that uncontrolled distribution of transgenic varieties should be prevented, and that the measures for this are insufficient in many countries.

In the area of risk regulation, regulation strategies and policies are still considered to be inadequate or completely lacking in many countries. China and Brazil have made comprehensive provisions for handling genetically modified organisms. In Costa Rica and Chile, pertinent draft bills are still in the parliamentary process. The degree of efficiency and comprehensiveness with which the provisions are implemented and monitored in China cannot be assessed reliably, although there would undeniably be enough resources available. The example of Brazil, however, shows that even a developed legislation is of little use if the political and economic balance of power stands opposed to an application.

The example of Brazil also reveals that even if comprehensive scientific, institutional and infrastructural capacities do exist, there can be a dispute over whether and how the country should have its own more in-depth risk assessment of transgenic varieties specific to the country, if these are already licensed in other countries. This issue is the subject of controversial debate in Europe too. Smaller and poor developing countries are often out of their depth with this. For this reason, it would make sense to provide support in the development and processes of decision-making about which aspects should be investigated specifically for the country or region.

Finally, it should be noted that even where social controversy is vigorously conducted on the use of transgenic seeds, there is mostly only poorly developed comprehensive risk communication on the part of the authorities.

Perspectives for action

In terms of perspective, two tasks are particularly significant in dealing with the implementation of transgenic seeds in the framework of developmental cooperation: the (continuing) task of expediting capacities and basic conditions in the field of biosafety and regulation as well as answering the central question of how to better elicit and employ a possible future potential for transgenic cultivation methods than has been the case for developing and emerging countries.

Promoting capacities and normative frameworks in the area of biosafety and regulation

As the project results show, according to strict German or European standards the necessary scientific and political/regulatory preconditions still do not exist in most developing countries or even in any comprehensive form in highly developed emerging countries. This justifies the concentration to date of German developmental cooperation on ?capacity building? in the field of biosafety in terms of the Cartagena Protocol or with a view to putting it into practice. Support of this kind seems useful and necessary given that genetically modified plants are being grown on an increasingly large scale and are continuously advancing, in some cases through uncontrolled channels into more and more countries.

Three aspects of the topic biosafety and regulation are (or remain) probably particularly important for the future in developing countries, and are thus remits for intensive cooperation:

0.	Improvement of Risk Evaluation and Risk Communication: With regard to the import and cultivation of transgenic seeds that has been developed, assessed as safe, and first licensed in a different country, the further development of criteria and procedures for decision making would be helpful: which elements from previously conducted safety assessments could be reused and which should be newly investigated specific to the country or region. Here, it seems useful and necessary to include particularly affected social groups. In addition, there must be comprehensive and careful risk communication.

0.	Ascertainment and Substantiation of Knowledge of the Threat to Biodiversity Through the Use of Transgenic Varieties: Although biodiversity is the superordinated legally protected ecological good, knowledge of it is only rudimentary in many ways. The influence on the diversity of the country?s varieties (and other agrobiodiversity) as a result of changed cultivation techniques and by developments in the seed markets and possible consequences of the cultivation of genetically modified plants in the centres of diversity (via the outcrossing of transgenic characteristics into related wild varieties or types) still constitute important topics for investigation in which the use of farming knowledge should be accorded a position of prominence.

0.	Establishing Functioning Systems of Coexistence, Proof of Origin, and Labelling: Independent of the use of transgenic varieties, identity preservation (IP) is regarded as a central requirement and challenge for food production as the latter becomes increasingly internationalised and industrialised, and which as supermarketisation progresses is becoming an even stronger factor, directly in the urban centres of developing countries. Germany and the other EU countries can offer comprehensive know-how in procedures for labelling and for proof of origin and in addition have a responsibility as importing and exporting countries. Since global agreement on compulsory standards as set out in the Cartagena Protocol seem to be destined to remain difficult for the foreseeable future, bilateral and voluntary systems and agreements represent an important option.

Going beyond these concrete tasks in the field of biosafety and regulation, it would be an important future task for many countries to achieve a better foundation and framework for risk assessment through basic agreement on the aims, strategies and paths to sustainable agriculture.

Agricultural biotechnology as a future agricultural option?

The debate that flared up in Spring 2008 on the future of global agriculture and the objectives, paths and priorities for the future use of natural resources overall, also put the question of the potential of agricultural biotechnology back on the agenda (especially through reports from the World Bank and the IAASTD). The current report concentrates on the question of the status which transgenic breeding approaches could have for developing and emerging countries in the future and whether it is necessary to re-evaluate agricultural biotechnology in the framework of developmental cooperation in the broadest sense.

Evidence suggests that for the evaluation of the future problem-solving potential of genetic breeding approaches it is not sufficient to consider existing developments, since the commercially available transgenic plant varieties as well at least as those at an advanced stage of development only represent a limited section. The study of genetic breeding approaches may be conducted in a decentralized way, even in publicly financed institutions and smaller companies, but the real development of genetically modified plants, by contrast, is conducted predominantly by a few large seed companies. Many of the most significant of these, first and foremost Monsanto, but also Dupont/Pioneer, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience and BASF, are also producers of important agricultural chemicals. In connection with the (literally) exclusive significance of patent-protected procedures in the genetic engineering of plants, it is thus glaringly obvious that the genetically modified plants available on 
 the market represent those that fit best in the portfolio of these companies and by no means all those which could potentially be successful on the seed markets. If the development to date continues, it is to be expected that these few large biotech seed companies will continue to dominate to the same extent if not more, since they of course have a primary interest in successful and profitable varieties whose transgenic features fulfil their function for as long as possible for as many users as possible. Diversification under the conditions of the world agricultural market is subject to relatively narrow economic limits so that it cannot realistically be expected that these companies will of their own accord develop a variety specifically designed, for instance, for poor developing countries or regions.

In addition to the problems of companies? own interests and patent protection, many proponents of agricultural biotechnology regard other important reasons for the low number of development approaches specific to developing countries to lie in the regulations ? which they see as overly strict ? and campaigns of the opponents. But independent of the dominant factors in question, it is absolutely certain that the development of a marketable, transgenic variety is lengthy, elaborate, and costly and can thus not be achieved by public institutions, in any case not in smaller countries or by smaller companies. No transgenic variety developments have yet emerged even from IARC activities. However, it cannot be seriously deduced from the non-existence of adapted varieties that genetic engineering in plant breeding is fundamentally unsuitable for developing countries.

Overall, even 25 years after the development of the first transgenic plant and after 12 years of widespread use of transgenic seeds, there is still great uncertainty:

0.	Does genetic engineering harbour dormant potential for sustainable agriculture in both industrial and developing countries?

0.	Is it even possible to elicit this potential, particularly when one considers the basic economic and legal conditions?

- Are there other options which are more promising in terms of ecological and social success and which are thus to be preferred?

As with other technology applications too, questions such as these are often not unambiguous and cannot be answered conclusively. In addition, the development and application of transgenic varieties take place in the context of such a complex, multifactorial framework of effects that any analysis of the consequences that is orientated to causality can have only little explanatory value. The complexity of the ecological, economic and social effects and interactions results in a technology-fixated evaluation (?Chances and Risks of Agricultural Biotechnology?) being incapable of representing the key to an overarching consensus in view of the great conflicts of interests and objectives held by different social groups. The project results ultimately make clear that ecological and health effects are not so much at the centre of the controversies over the use of transgenic seeds but in the end rather the socio-economic effects and questions of social participation and balance of int

Overall this argues strongly in favour of steering towards a solution-orientated approach in search for potential future agricultural technologies and cultivation methods. With a view to transgenic plants, this means examining genetic engineering options without a predetermined result. Thus, with reference to the challenges of climate change and problems of water supply or other stress factors, it would be appropriate to first inquire into the existing and foreseeable agricultural challenges overall and only then into the means of possibly or necessarily adjusting cultivation methods. The contribution of plant breeding will be encountered here in some parts of the question, and only then can options for agricultural biotechnology be examined in a sensible way. The same is true for the problem of micronutrient deficits (cf. the example of Golden Rice) and many other examples. Of course, this does not absolve us from the obligation to consider dimensions specific to the technol
 ogy (e.g., the increased requirements on measures to guarantee biosafety) ? this must form a part of the consideration process.

The current framework conditions are probably better than they have been for a long time for serious attempts at achieving consensus. The most recent developments on the global markets for agricultural products, for food, bioenergy and other sustainable resources have triggered a new dynamism and urgency with regard to the question of how global agriculture can be organized and run in a more sustainable fashion in the future than it has been in the past. The mobilisation of significantly larger funds for studying the scientific and technological options than in the past has at least been announced, and we can expect this to take place. In the light of these trends, a renewed attempt to find a pragmatic consensus (or a partial one) concerning agricultural biotechnology and its role in developmental cooperation does not seem doomed to failure from the start.



European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

Hartmut MEYER (Mr)

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