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Transgenic plants for food security in the context of development

Extract from a ‘statement’ published in Transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development. NewBiotechnology Vol. 27/5 (2010) 445-718

A Study Week on the subject of ‘Transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development’ was held under the sponsorship of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at its headquarters in the Casina Pio IV in the Vatican from 15 to 19 May 2009. During the course of the meeting, we surveyed recent advances in the scientific understanding of novel varieties of genetically engineered (GE) plants, as well as the social conditions under which GE technology could be made available for the improvement of agriculture in general and for the benefit of the poor and vulnerable in particular.

Main Scientific Conclusions

We reaffirm the principal conclusions of the Study-Document on the Use of ‘“Genetically Modified Food Plants” to Combat Hunger in the World’, issued at the end of the Jubilee Plenary Session on ‘Science and the Future of Mankind’, 10-13 November 2000. Summarised and updated, these include:

  1. More than 1 billion of the world population of 6.8 billion people are currently undernourished, a condition that urgently requires the development of new agricultural systems and technologies.
  2. The expected addition of 2-2.5 billion people to reach a total of approximately 9 billion people by 2050 adds urgency to this problem.
  3. The predicted consequences of climate change and associated decreases in the availability of water for agriculture will also affect our ability to feed the increased world population.
  4. Agriculture as currently practised is unsustainable, evidenced by the massive loss of topsoil and unacceptably high applications of pesticides throughout most of the world.
  5. The appropriate application of GE and other modern molecular techniques in agriculture is contributing toward addressing some of these challenges.
  6. There is nothing intrinsic about the use of GE technologies for crop improvement that would cause the plants themselves or the resulting food products to be unsafe.
  7. The scientific community should be responsible for research and development (R&D) leading to advances in agricultural productivity, and should also endeavour to see that the benefits associated with such advances accrue to the benefit of the poor as well as to those in developed countries who currently enjoy relatively high standards of living.
  8. Special efforts should be made to provide poor farmers in the developing world with access to improved GE crop varieties adapted to their local conditions.
  9. Research to develop such improved crops should pay particular attention to local needs and crop varieties and to the capacity of each country to adapt its traditions, social heritage and administrative practices to achieve the successful introduction of GE crops.

Further Evidence

Since the preparation of that earlier study document, evidence that has been subjected to high standards of peer-reviewed scientific scrutiny, as well as a vast amount of real-world experience, has accumulated about the development, application and effects of GE technology. During our study-week we reviewed this evidence and arrived at the following conclusions:

  1. GE technology, used appropriately and responsibly, can in many circumstances make essential contributions to agricultural productivity by crop improvement. These improvements are needed around the world to help improve the sustainability and productivity of agriculture.
  2. The genetic improvement of crop plants represents a long and seamless continuum of progressively more precise and predictable techniques.
  3. The benefits have already been of major significance in countries such as the U.S., Argentina, India, China and Brazil, where GE crops are widely grown.
  4. They also can be of major significance for resource-poor farmers and vulnerable members of poor farming communities, especially women and children.
  5. The introduction of resistance to environmentally benign, inexpensive herbicides is the most widely used GE trait. It has increased yields per hectare, replaced back-breaking manual weeding This technology could be especially useful to farmers in the developing world who, for reasons of age or disease, cannot engage in traditional manual weed control.
  6. GE technology can combat nutritional deficiencies through modification that provides essential micro-nutrients. Studies of provitamin A-biofortified ‘Golden Rice’ have shown that standard daily diets containing this biofortified rice would be sufficient to prevent vitamin A deficiency.
  7. The application of GE technology to insect resistance has led to a reduction in the use of chemical insecticides, lowering the cost of some agricultural inputs and improving the health of agricultural workers.
  8. GE technology can reduce harmful, energy consuming, mechanical tilling practices, enhancing biodiversity and protecting the environment.
  9. The predicted impact of climate change reinforces the need to use GE coupled with other breeding techniques appropriately and purposively, so that traits such as drought resistance and flooding tolerance are incorporated into the major food crops as quickly as possible.
  10. GE technology has already raised crop yields of poor farmers and there is evidence of its generating increased income and employment that would not otherwise have taken place.
  11. Costly regulatory oversight of GE technology needs to become scientifically defensible and risk-based. This means that regulation should be based upon the particular traits of a new plant variety rather than the technological means used to produce it.
  12. Risk assessments must consider not only the potential risks of the use of a new plant variety, but also the risks of alternatives if that particular variety is not made available.
  13. Significant public-sector efforts are currently underway to produce genetically improved varieties or lines of cassava, sweet potatoes, rice, maize, bananas, sorghum, and other major tropical crops that will be of direct benefit to the poor. These efforts should be strongly encouraged.
  14. The magnitude of the challenges facing the world’s poor and undernourished must be addressed as a matter of urgency. Every year nutritional deficiencies cause preventable illness and death. In this context, forgone benefits are lost forever.
  15. Given these scientific findings, there is a moral imperative to make the benefits of GE technology available on a larger scale to poor and vulnerable populations who want them and on terms that will enable them to raise their standards of living, improve their health and protect their environments. 

In general, the application of GE technology has demonstrated its importance for improving agricultural productivity throughout the world, but it is still only one part of what must be a multifaceted strategy. As the Holy Father Benedict XVI has observed: ‘it could be useful to consider the new possibilities that are opening up through proper use of traditional as well as innovative farming techniques, always assuming that these have been judged, after sufficient testing, to be appropriate, respectful of the environment and attentive to the needs of the most deprived peoples’. (Caritas in veritate, § 27). Nevertheless, we recognise that not all developments of GE technology will realise their original promise, as happens with any technology. We must continue to evaluate the potential contribution of all appropriate technologies, which together with conventional plant breeding and additional strategies must be used to improve food security and alleviate poverty for future generations. (John Paul II, Address to the Jubilee of the Agricultural World, 11 November 2000). Many of them can be used synergistically with GE technologies. Strategies include the retention of topsoil through no-till and other conservation practices, the appropriate application of fertilizers, the development of new kinds of fertilizers and environmentally friendly agrochemicals, water conservation, integrated pest management, conservation of genetic diversity, the adoption of new kinds of crops where appropriate and improving existing crops (particularly ‘orphan crops’ for wider use through public-private investment and partnerships. Other factors of vital importance to increasing food security of particular importance to resource-poor countries include improvements in infrastructure (transport, electricity supply and storage facilities), capacity building by way of the provision of knowledgeable and impartial advice to farmers about seed choice through local extension services, the development of fair systems of finance and insurance, and the licensing of proprietary technology. However, awareness that there is no single solution to the problem of poverty and discrimination against the poor in many regions should not prevent our use of GE varieties of crops where they can make appropriate contributions to an overall solution.

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