NOTE: Presentations from the conference proceedings available here:
Conference Proceedings on Understanding of Biosafety

29 November 2010

Dear Friends and colleagues,
RE: Conference Proceedings on Understanding of Biosafety
The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER), the TWN and the Federation of German Scientists (Vereinigung Deutscher Wissenschaftler, VDW) co-organized a Scientific Conference on "Advancing the Understanding on Biosafety" in Nagoya, Japan from 7-9 October, 2010.
The main aim of the Conference was to advance the current understanding of biosafety in terms of the ecological, human health and socio-economic implications of GMOs. The Conference brought together 17 scientists and experts from developing and industrialised countries who are well-versed in the debate about the development of genetically engineered crops.
Below is a write-up on the conference which will be published in the next issue of the Third World Resurgence.
For more information about the Conference, including the Conference proceedings and powerpoint presentations, please go to:
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 Third World Network
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Advancing the Understanding of Biosafety
By Lim Li Ching
The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER), the Third World Network (TWN) and the Federation of German Scientists (Vereinigung Deutscher Wissenschaftler, VDW) co-organized a Scientific Conference on "Advancing the Understanding on Biosafety" in Nagoya, Japan from 7-9 October, 2010.
The foremost aim of the Conference was to advance the current understanding of biosafety in terms of the ecological, human health and socio-economic implications of GMOs. The Conference brought together 17 scientists and experts from developing and industrialised countries who have been engaged in the critical debate about the development of genetically engineered (GE) crops and their use in agriculture and nutrition for many years.
As the Conference was held just prior to the 5th Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties (COP-MOP 5) to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, it also aimed to contribute to those discussions. The Cartagena Protocol is an ambitious attempt of the international community to assess and regulate a technology as it emerges and sets the example for systematically addressing technology assessment, technology development and provides the legal framework for biosafety internationally.
Technology assessment, holistic risk assessment
At the heart of the discussion on genetic engineering is technology assessment. Dr. Christine von Weizsäcker of VDW stressed the need to close the structural and temporal gaps between product development and technology assessment, as the research for product development usually proceeds faster than the study of its wider and long-term impacts and involves fewer fields of expertise.
Transdisciplinary cooperation is essential to be able to assess the impacts of new technologies such as genetic engineering. Moreover, it takes time before these impacts manifest; if the gaps become too large, new products will reach the market before the impacts of old ones are fully assessed. Dr. von Weizsäcker called for more publicly funded independent research, high standards in products, standards at the international level, the application of the precautionary approach, and involvement of the public by access to information and participation, to redress the current imbalances and gaps.
Dr. Broder Breckling from the University of Vechta, Germany, echoed the call for independent research and expertise in order to ask the right questions and to close the gaps concerning environmental implications and social issues. He provided the conceptual framework for a more holistic approach to GMO risk assessment. Such an approach entails also assessing systemic risks, which are not based on single interactions or direct cause-effect chains but on the overlay and the co-operation (or co-functioning) of a large number of single events, all of which - in isolation - may be harmless.
Dr. Breckling then outlined a guiding framework for organization of the overall risk assessment focussing on the connectivity of effects that can potentially aggregate to unintended outcomes. The framework utilizes ordering criteria leading from one level of organization to another and that are based on the levels of biological organization from molecules to landscapes and regions. The result is a systematic coverage of relevant risk dimensions, involving different levels of expertise in the assessment. Thus far, this is not an established standard in GMO risk assessment.
In fact, current risk assessment approaches are already failing to adequately and fully assess the risks of GMOs. Dr. Andreas Heissenberger of the Environment Agency Austria elaborated on how the risk assessment process in the European Union, though governed by some of the strictest laws on biosafety, is flawed and not backed up by the provision by applicants of the necessary and full data.
Dr. Angelika Hilbeck from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and GenØk-Centre for Biosafety, Norway, also pointed to severe shortcomings related to the current implementation of risk assessment in relation to GE crops. She proposed an alternative concept for the environmental risk assessment for GE plants, which is tailored to the GE case and the receiving environment, whilst being systems-oriented.
GE maize in Mexico
A special concern of the Cartagena Protocol is the introduction of GE crops in their centres of origin and genetic diversity. Mexico has recently granted approval for field experiments with GE maize in 25 locations in four states, which are home to five ethnic groups and 29 maize landraces. This could open the door to commercial planting of GE maize in an important centre of origin and diversity of maize.
Prof. Antonio Turrent Fernández from Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales, Agrícolas y Pecuarias (INIFAP) and Unión de Científicos Comprometidos con la Sociedad (UCCS), Mexico discussed the scientific concerns over the introduction of GE maize, given that there are native landraces and wild relatives found throughout Mexico, and potential conflicts with pluricultural food production.
There are 59 native landraces of maize in Mexico, exhibiting high intra-race diversity. In addition, there are 62 ethnic groups in the country and maize is central to the national diet, with specific races of maize giving rise to specific foods.
The process of autochthonous maize breeding in Mexico, involving the frequent introduction of evolutionarily distinct seed by ethnic farmers and hybridization with local seed, is rooted in seed selection and exchange, particularly by women. This has resulted in the high diversity of maize landraces in Mexico, specialized to different agroecological zones, high altitudes, quality of tortillas etc.
However, seed exchange will become the primary route for transgene flow, as farmers would take the GE maize ears and mix with their own seed and plant these together. While the imports of GE grain from the USA into Mexico have already led to introgression of transgenes in landraces via cross-pollination, these grains were not adapted for the Mexican agroecosystem. Any commercial planting of GE maize in Mexico will however involve seeds adapted to the local maize ecosystem, with potentially disastrous results.
Prof. Turrent Fernández stressed that research by public institutions to assess the effect of GE maize on native landraces was urgently needed. He highlighted that GE maize was not necessary for Mexico, as the potential production of maize for the next 15 years with non-GE technology is already more than adequate. On the other hand, native maize landraces are crucial for food security and multicultural uses of maize as food in Mexico and should be protected from hybridization with GE maize. He recommended that the cultivation and import of GE maize be prohibited in Mexico.
Moratorium on Bt brinjal in India
India is the centre of origin and diversity for brinjal (known outside of India as aubergine or eggplant), where it is the most important vegetable. There are over 2,500 local varieties and 29 wild species of brinjal in the country, and these have shaped local traditions of food, worship and medicine.
The Indian apex biosafety regulator, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), had approved Bt brinjal, which is genetically engineered to be insect-resistant, in October 2009. Aruna Rodrigues, petitioner at the Supreme Court of India who has filed a public interest litigation seeking to disallow the release of any GMOs into the Indian environment without biosafety protocols that are fully consultative and participatory, shared the story of how a moratorium on Bt brinjal in India subsequently came about.
Bt brinjal was actually poised for large-scale field trials in 2006, but an interim ban was obtained from the Supreme Court. In February 2007, a watershed order was obtained that obliged the biosafety data for Bt brinjal to be made public. The GEAC took 18 months to comply; however, the availability of the data in the public domain allowed four international scientists to critically evaluate the data. The scientists identified many flaws and gaps in the risk assessment, including the lack of adequate evaluation of critical issues such as chronic toxicity, gene flow and resistance development.
In response to this, the GEAC had to appoint an expert committee to respond to the international appraisal of the data. That committee eventually recommended commercialization of Bt brinjal. However, because of the nationwide outcry, the Environment Minister opened up the process to further review and comments, including from the international community of scientists.
A series of public consultation meetings were held in early 2010, which all rejected Bt brinjal. Furthermore, ten state governments, including the major brinjal production centres in eastern India, were opposed to the release of Bt brinjal. The Environment Minister then imposed a moratorium on 9 February 2010, citing the need for more safety studies.
GE crop risks
Several other presenters at the Conference focussed on particular risk aspects of GMOs, including on the impacts of GE maize and glyphosate-based herbicides; contained use of GE fish; the environmental impacts of GE viruses; contamination of GE oilseed rape around harbours in Japan; and transgene flow in small-scale systems in Ghana and in commercial cultivation in South Africa.
A particularly worrying development has been the quick occurrence in South Africa of Bt-resistant target pests. Prof. Johnnie van den Berg from North-West University, South Africa presented evidence of resistance development, which was first reported in 2007. South Africa has been planted with insect-resistant Bt maize since 1998.
While insect resistance management strategies are prescribed, farmers frequently do not comply with the requirement to plant refuges of non-Bt maize, which ensure insect survival, thus diluting selection pressure for resistant alleles. The failure to plant adequate refuges is probably the major contributing factor to resistance development.
There are reports of resistance from all over the country and this has resulted in the Bt maize being sprayed with insecticides, undermining the main claim of the GE crop's benefit. The data also suggest that the predicted rate of evolution of resistance was seriously underestimated and there are concerns that this phenomenon could be on an exponential growth curve, which means that farmers in South Africa, and elsewhere, may be facing very serious problems in the future.
One country that is already bearing the brunt of the foray into GE crops is Argentina, where GE herbicide-tolerant soybean is planted on over 20 million hectares. Prof. Walter Pengue from the University of General Sarmiento, Argentina, highlighted the social and environmental costs of this particular model of agriculture, which relies on the GE seed, glyphosate and no-till practices.
Among the problems that have arisen are the expansion of GE soybean into biodiversity-rich areas and forests, the development of herbicide tolerant and resistant weeds leading to higher levels of herbicide use and use of other, often more toxic herbicides, soil degradation and rural displacement.
Alternatives available
Given the problems and risks associated with GE crops, are there alternatives available? Prof. Jack Heinemann from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand and lead author in the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), elaborated on the IAASTD findings. The IAASTD is the most comprehensive agriculture assessment to date, involving more than 400 authors in a 4-year assessment process. It was sponsored by a host of UN agencies and its reports adopted by 58 governments in 2008.
In its examination of biotechnology, the IAASTD concluded that genetic engineering has not delivered traits useful to poor farmers, nor has the technology produced crops needed by the majority of farmers. There has been no evidence of general, sustained or reliable increase in yield from GE crops, no evidence of sustained reduction in costs to farmers adopting GE crops, nor sustained reliable increase in profits to such farmers, and no evidence of sustainable reduction in pesticide use. (Instead there has been dramatic increase in the use of some herbicides as commercial GE crops are not designed to increase yield, but were designed to sell proprietary agrochemicals.)
On the other hand, GMOs support 'business-as-usual' agriculture - chemical-based and energy-intensive production systems that are not sustainable, maximise proprietary ownership claims and profits rather than farmer and community support, and inhibit on-farm innovation and farmer-led integration and dissemination of agricultural technologies.
Prof. Heinemann pointed to the main call of the IAASTD, for the need to invest in biodiversity-based, sustainable, agro-ecological agriculture, as well as in conventional breeding, which has already produced, for example, abiotic stress-tolerant crops. These alternatives are marginalized in terms of both research and funding, as they do not enjoy the same kinds of market drivers that modern biotechnology does. However, this is exactly where the future of agriculture lies.
The Scientific Conference was followed by a Citizens' Forum, also organized by ENSSER, TWN and VDW, to present the results of the Conference to the general public and to discuss issues on the agenda of the Cartagena Protocol meeting.
More information about the Conference, including the Conference proceedings and powerpoint presentations, is available at