By: Joaquín Zenteno Hopp*.
Bolivian researcher, PhD candidate: “Responsible Innovation”.
Mohnsenteret, HVL Norway.
Confusion, misinformation, and heightened emotions are to be expected in any debate on society, science and technology. Genetically modified crops (referred to as GM crops or GMOs throughout the article) are no exception. Yet, what fascinates me is that while a staunchly anti-GMO stance is still in vogue among highly educated social circles concerned with ethical and environmental issues, the scientific community is in outcry arguing there is no reason for their ban. This is a curious phenomenon and in my opinion, a fantastic one to study.
Underscoring the complexity of this topic, I would like to share four important ideas. I do this based on my experience with academic and field studies of GM soy in several Latin American countries and in Norway. My main message is that the negative impacts associated with GMOs are not caused by GMOs themselves, but by external factors that influence the way GMOs are used by farmers and perceived by society. In this sense, I believe it is necessary to restate basic concepts of applied biology and agriculture, clarify the problem of chemical contamination, revalue critical voices, and conduct a systematized bibliographic review. Taking into account these four points, I consider that it is a mistake not to allow the use of GM crops in Bolivia. I hope that this article will clarify why.
Gene transfer, a key concept in applied biology
It is understandable that there is resistance to biotechnological products that seem to trample on the natural order. This makes even more sense if one judges GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms, also called transgenics) from religious perspectives or if one takes issue with the concept of reshaping the essence of life. But a close look at the molecular dynamics that occurs within a transgenic organism (when the cell’s genetic code is slightly modified) shows that there is no significant difference between a transgenic and a non-transgenic plant or animal. In other words, the transfer of genes between two cells without human interference (natural transfer) versus the transfer of a gene made in a lab (induced transfer) is technically the same. An objective assessment would describe the natural world as an open laboratory that constantly creates “new genetic mixes”. This is called “mutation” and it is the engine of evolution, a constant genetic experimentation that produces new forms of life that are better adapted to an adverse environment (Custers et al., 2019).
Of course the problem is that GM crops are human creations; creatures created in a lab. This generates, and rightly so, great skepticism. It is true that nature prefers genetic changes that take into account the contextual evolutionary and ecological history of a cell -but this is not the only natural way to bring about genetic changes. Gene transfer between cells in nature is primarily random and spontaneous and therefore more likely to have unforeseen effects than gene transfer in a lab. The changes made in a GM crop are minimal, highly controlled and also tested over several years. Therefore, GMOs are induced mutations that imply a statistically lower risk than natural mutations. This is of course a sweeping statement, so it is always important to carry out independent evaluations to determine the risk in each case. Nevertheless, the main idea is that GMOs are not alien products compared to their natural counterparts. It is therefore a mistake to speculate on possible risks GMOs might pose that are inherently different from those of any other natural being, plant or animal.
It should be stressed that there are other genetic techniques used for food production (such as induced mutagenesis by radiation) where the randomness of changes in genes is much greater than that which occurs in nature. This implies that the possibility of risk of causing undesirable ecological effects is relatively greater. Some of the best known techniques are mutagenesis, triploidization and cell fusion. However, the products of these techniques are not considered to be transgenic and there are no (or minimal) national or international restrictions on their use. This is because they are products (and techniques) that have been used for several years, sometimes decades, and their social acceptance is very broad – many of these products are even considered organic! Therefore, if the ecological risk of GMOs were considered high, most conventional and organic products would have to be regulated with equal or greater rigor than GMOs. Obviously this is not practical, logical, or necessary.
The problem of chemical contamination
Those who are aware of the environmental damage caused by the use of chemicals spread by the GM technology package (glyphosate) will be surprised that I promote their use. They would even tell me, with good reason, that the biggest problem is that the majority of GMOs are produced by corporations who seek, first and foremost, to satisfy their economic interests. I am also irritated; to say the least, that GMOs have been monopolized by a chemical-dependent industry that promotes monocultures. It is unpleasant to think of plants that are resistant to a chemical designed to kill everything else. It is even more provocative to state that the expansion of the agricultural frontier is intrinsically tied to the model propagated by GMOs. This is outrageous! But beware -here’s a topic that many misunderstand.
GMOs (and their related inputs) are the part of the package that comes with the expansion of the agricultural frontier, which happens for reasons external to the technology. The agricultural frontier advances because there is an avid and lucrative market for a given product (be it soybeans, corn, coca, palm oil among others) and therefore the advance occurs with or without GMOs. Furthermore, transgenic production is technically more efficient than conventional production and thus is a decision taken after production has begun. Therefore, the priority for avoiding deforestation and degradation of non-agricultural land should be focused on coherent and ethical policies for land use that preserve the advance of the agricultural frontier itself, and not on whether production is GM or not. This approach also applies to the widely held argument that GMOs take away space for the production of other foods that are more important for Bolivia’s food security. The type of food produced will depend more on how land use is delimited and the direct commercial incentive given to each crop. Moreover, the fact that GMOs allow for more efficient production reduces the amount of land required to produce an equivalent amount of a conventional crop. It is in this sense that the debate on the advance of the agricultural frontier, type of agricultural production and the preservation of biodiversity should focus on the generation of specific policies on land use, productive diversity and conservation areas. While the debate on whether or not to produce GMOs, should focus on first defining what type of technology is most beneficial for working land already allocated to producing cash crops.
In general terms, the switch from conventional to GM production means an average reduction in toxicity of 37% and a reduction in costs due to lower pesticide use of 39% (Klümper and Qaim, 2014). This means an increase in production of 22% per area. In this sense, every farmer can increase her or his profits by up to 68% on average. This occurs not only because it is possible to produce more, but also because there is a reduction in costs due to less use of chemicals, farm machinery and labor. For countries like Bolivia, where small farmers do most of the production, the net social benefit is significant -even taking into account the impact of job loss for day laborers. In addition, the use of GMOs compared to conventional production worldwide has meant a 14% reduction in carbon emissions (Mahaffey, Taheripour, and Tyner 2016). This is because herbicide-resistant GMOs (mainly glyphosate) help to reduce the need to prepare the land with tractors, which also benefits the quality of the soil by generating less compaction (Belgian Research Institute VIB, 2016).
Now, the damage caused by glyphosate is concerning (obviously, it is a plant poison), and therefore I understand that there is social resistance to this chemical -but there is one very important detail that must be understood. Glyphosate is less toxic when compared to chemicals that would substitute it were it is banned ([i]). In other words, banning glyphosate immediately and directly encourages the use of even more harmful herbicides. This is because, as I have already mentioned, industrial production of commercial crops (e.g. soybeans) takes place regardless of whether or not GMOs are permitted. The point is that many transgenics have the main function of decreasing the need for application of agrochemicals to which crops need to be exposed to manage pests, diseases and weeds. This is important to ensure a lower impact on the environment and the health of farmers, even when taking into account that glyphosate was classified as a possible carcinogen by the WHO in 2015 (along with many other everyday chemicals!). How ironic! Many of those who resist GMOs do so because they are concerned about the levels of toxicity in agriculture. Yet in the agricultural world, the main reason why a professional agronomist advises adopting the use of GMOs (in addition to the economic one)… is precisely to decrease the use of toxic chemicals!
It can be argued that the push should be to encourage a less chemical-dependent model of agricultural production altogether and that, therefore, the focus should be on limiting the use of any type of technology that depends on herbicides. Moreover, an agricultural model that promotes monocultures should be avoided, as this is the greatest threat to the biodiversity of our land. This would certainly be very good, but how realistic is it to be able to produce the large amount of biomass (food, animal feed, cotton for clothes, or even wine) that the world market demands without the use of chemicals and without large-scale production? Very few professionals in the field would take such an illusion seriously. Ask a wine or avocado producer if he/she would be willing to abandon his monoculture and rotate crops to benefit biodiversity. But if we were to take the issue seriously, the discussion should focus on how to avoid the use of chemicals and monocultures in all types of production, not just in GM production.
The focus should be on regulating conventional production as this is where the greatest environmental impact is generated (The Royal Society, 2016). This is not only due to toxicity, but also because of soil compaction and CO2 generation. The technical benefits of GMOs are precisely that they represent a way to produce more on less land and at a lower environmental cost. In addition, it is important to note that there are several dozen GM crops designed for use without any type of chemicals. These are GM crops that could be considered “transgenic organic“: crops with genetic characteristics that allow them to fight diseases without the need for external agents such as virus-resistance papaya in Hawaii or insect-eggplant in Bangladesh and India. I personally believe that the path towards a more sustainable and responsible agricultural model could be made viable with the help of this technology.
A revaluation of critical voices
There are alarming reports that denounce negative effects of GMOs on health, the economy and the environment. For the Bolivian context, some of the best known studies compiling these facts include: McKay y Colque (2015), Catacora-Vargas (2007), Seralini (2012) and all the reports, presentations and websites made by Vía Campesina, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. The most striking case is the well-known “Monsanto Tribunal”, an international civil society mobilization in 2016-2017 organized to force Monsanto to account for crimes against humanity and ecocide. Given this background, it is critical to listen to and study these allegations, and above all to understand why they occur and how they originate.
A first observation is that these published reports are coordinated and financed by organizations that represent groups who consider themselves adversely affected by GMOs. This is unsurprising, but also means these stakeholders work primarily in organizations whose priority is safeguarding human rights. Therefore, their professional competence tends to be within the human and/or social sciences. They view as part of their mission to denounce and be critical of widespread social inequality in rural areas, the over-empowerment of agricultural corporations, and the increasing loss of ancestral/cultural knowledge of artisanal or subsistence agriculture. This perception turns even stronger as GMOs are a tool strongly supported by large landowners and agro-industrial companies.
Stakeholders with large investment capital are the most determined to adopt a technology that has clear technical and economic benefits. Large agricultural companies with a wide network of contacts and greater access to scientific and agronomic information lead the adoption of new agricultural technologies in developing countries (Trigo et al., 2013). Thus, the use of GM crops becomes more frequent the larger the investment. Obviously, this is because it is a technology that creates greater benefits at a larger scale of production. This however, does not mean that GMOs do not benefit smallholder farmers (Quaim & Kouser, 2013). In this context, and taking into account Bolivian history, it is not surprising that the debate on GMOs will become one more chapter in the symbolic struggle between smallholder producers and large wealthy farmer owners.
Moreover, activist organizations tend to get involved after there are indications of possible negative effects on the environment caused by any given production system. This implies that the baseline for their studies is the prevailing agricultural model at the time of sampling. Therefore, their work consists of first documenting the observed impact and then tracing the origin of that impact. Although this is methodologically valid, it leads to the simplified conclusion that the original problem is the type of technology implemented at the time of sampling, disregarding what happened previously. This is evidenced by the Argentine experience, where reports of negative effects caused by glyphosate took hold several years after GMOs had taken over almost the entire production system (Zenteno et al, 2015). The importance of taking this into account is that, once again, the benefits of GMOs become evident only when they are compared with the effects of other production systems, and not if they are evaluated in isolation or without the proper contextualization.
Far from wanting to discredit these civil organizations (or Non-Government Organizations, NGOs), I believe the objective should be to use their experience and knowledge to impact Bolivian agriculture more efficiently and positively. Their skills are essential, and in fact, uniquely positioned to foster responsible agricultural management. Civil society organizations have a key role to play in monitoring the agro-industrial sector and serving as a watchdog, and to express concerns about risks related to new technologies and production systems. However, instead of criticizing GMOs per se, objections should be directed at questioning issues of corruption and land trafficking, land use policies, industrial agricultural models that abuse agrochemicals (as doctors and vets may abuse antibiotics in human and animal health), the tendency to propagate monocultures and its propensity to degrade soils. In my opinion, the real problem lies in how international markets encourage our farmers to produce cash crops at such an intense and unbridled rate. That is the root issue that must be corrected and where these organizations have the power to generate change.
The need for a systematized bibliographic review
Research carried out by the world’s best universities, science academies, and government regulatory agencies with top scientific credentials have produced hundreds of studies and reports with one clear and consistent message: “there is no reason to ban GMOs”. One of the greatest efforts to determine possible risks associated with GMOs is complied in a report from the European Commission (2012), which after 25 years of research carried out by 130 independent scientific projects including more than 500 research groups from recognized European universities and regulatory agencies states that it finds no risk to health or the environment (Tagliabue, 2017). Thus, the scientific consensus arguing that GMOs do not represent any greater risk than other forms of production is 95% (Landrum, Hallman, y Jamieson 2019). Even more important to consider is the letter signed by 110 Nobel Prize winners in 2012 that states: “Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found that crops and foods improved through biotechnology are safe, if not safer (Pacher-Zavisin 2016, p1.) Finally, it is worth reading the various FAO reports on this subject.
For non-specialized readers, distinguishing the quality of scientific studies in this area is obviously very difficult. It takes years and a high degree of specialized training to distinguish which studies are reliable and which are not. This becomes even more difficult in a reality of mass misinformation. In the well-known “Post truth era,” dis-informants may not only be government agents and agro-industrial companies, but also civil society organizations and other apparently impartial groups. There is an expected aggressive corporate agro-industrial lobby promoting GM production -so one needs to be careful. To believe otherwise would be naive. But by the same token, one must beware of an equally, if not more aggressive anti-GMO lobby, which has an efficient media machinery that is well-financed and organized by mainly environmental lobbies from European governments, environmental NGOs and the organic industry, ready to discredit GMOs. The irony here is that GMOs could be organic agriculture’s best ally, if it were not for its ideological aversion to it.
Over the years, the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) has led the way in the scientific production critical of GMOs. Another important organization is GenØk, a biosafety center in Norway known for its critical stance on GMOs and its active and interfering involvement in anti-GMO activities in developing countries like Brazil, Bolivia and Zambia. Its website reads: “GenØk works both nationally and internationally, and specifically aims to offer developing countries training and advice related to risk assessments of genetically modified organisms”. Far from having modest funding, these organizations receive generous support from key stakeholders and closely coordinate each other’s anti-GMO activities. GenØk is directly funded by the Norwegian government and supports activities relating to the precautionary and politicized Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, part of the UN Convention of Biological Diversity.
Specifically, GenØk has directly influenced Brazil’s and Bolivia’s biosafety regulation and funds prolific anti-GMO soy activities. A GenØk member (of Bolivian nationality) became a senior advisor to the Bolivian Ministry of the Environment, directly reporting to the Environment Vice Minister during the administration of Evo Morales (2006-2019). This GenØk member, advised by Europe’s elite set of anti-GMO activists also represented our country in international fora and became a highly vocal and opinionated Focal Point and main spokesperson for the Bolivian delegations to the Meetings of the Parties (MOPs) of the Cartagena Protocol from 2008-2018 (MM Roca, personal communication 2020[ii]).
There are also several key industries that support the anti-GMO perspective. These are not only environmental lobbyists and stakeholders of organic agriculture, but also corporations such as pesticide producers that lose markets with GMO production given that is more efficient and thus cheaper than other agricultural production systems. It is also important to consider that large corporations that develop GM crops are not necessarily against anti-GMO lobby. This irony lies in the fact that the greater the restrictions to commercialize GMOs and the higher the costs and requirements of biosafety regulations are, the less competition there is from public and private universities, research centers and small biotech entrepreneurs. In other words, the anti-GMO movement indirectly promotes the pro-GMO corporate monopoly! This is serious because it limits non-commercial biotechnology development focused on humanitarian objectives (such as the golden rice) and negatively impacts agricultural production. This is especially true for developing countries who need to increase their agricultural yields by developing their own tools and/or adopting the best technology available to face climate change and the many other challenges of biomass production (food, feed, biomaterials, biofuels).
It is therefore necessary not to fall into politicized literature. In my personal experience, this effort has taken me several years and great frustrations, but I have learned several valuable lessons. The main one has been to distinguish that the few studies made by scientific entities used as a basis to discredit, vilify or ban GMOs, account to about 5% of the total published literature; they repeat the same issues and cite each other. Often they slip into ideological value judgments about corporations and their negative role in society, demand social justice and invoke a utopian rural past. A clear example is the document written by UCCSN-AL (a Latin American version of the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) or by Greenpeace in response to the letter signed by the aforementioned Nobel Laureates. Another even more alarming example is that of Food & Water Watch, which contradicts that there is scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs with bibliographic references that state the opposite. This is important to take into account because as Nicolia et al. (2014), Perdue University or PennState University indicate: the scientific references in favor of GMOs include hundreds of reviews studies and meta-analysis (an analysis of many studies on the same subject) compiled under strict standards of independence and scientific rigor. What must change is the way in which this scientific information is communicated, since most of it is isolated from the public, written in highly technical language and not focused on highlighting key impacts.
It’s a mistake to be against GM crops
Being against GMOs may seem logical and ethical because of specific values people hold relating to life and society, which flawlessly resonate with the type of message delivered by activist organizations that look to safeguard human rights and the environment. People generally trust these organizations, specially NGOs, and mistrust governments and big corporations, or even the use of new technology, so the message gets easily entrenched in the collective mindset of informed individuals (eg. educated and liberal), gullible people who get simplistic information from social media, or downtrodden and vulnerable rural society. It is true that these NGOs have providing a real and effective response to other socio-environmental problems such as climate change or plastic pollution, so their truthiness of their message is not doubted. Moreover, their expertise is precisely in communicating to strategic groups of society and creating a large political influence. This is not generally the case for agronomic associations or representatives of scientific institutions, which due to their specialty and training produce material for a type of public with very specific interests. This exacerbates as academics need to comply with certain “publishing rules” not needed in informal social media outlets. In my opinion, these are the main reasons why the anti-GMO vision and propaganda is still in vogue among social circles considered highly educated, liberal and concerned with ethical and environmental issues.
But banning GM crops is a mistake! I understand that the way the current government is trying to approve GMOs in Bolivia does not follow the procedures of popular debate and protocols that are recommended for these particular issues. There are many legal elements that must be addressed and resolved, especially regarding land trafficking, land use and inefficient and industrial agricultural production systems. Nevertheless, I believe that it would be a mistake not to support the approval that the government is enacting. The popular debate should rather be directed towards a long and comprehensive list of factors that impact agricultural production in Bolivia. They include, among others, better support for small farmers, agricultural laborers and rural communities: 1) Access to micro-finance for smallholders and agricultural loans or subsidies. 2) Agro-climate insurance. 3) Access to relevant scientific and technical information and any good technology including use of biological control and more rational use of pesticides and fertilizers, improved seeds, access to precision agriculture (such as use of artificial intelligence, robots, drones and sensors connected by the Internet of Things). 4) Improved infrastructure such as roads, ports, silos, processing plants, cold-chain. 5) Timely and efficient information about markets. Bolivia also needs better biosafety regulation, better policies for land use, better registration of tax payments and better control of black markets.
That is a much more sound recipe for supporting our Bolivian farmers!
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[i] Although it is true that after some years there is a tendency for having to have a more intensive use of glyphosate in GMO crops, and even having to use other herbicides as complements, this is due to the resistance that any crop develops as a consequence of bad agricultural practices. This means that it also occurs with any other type of production where chemicals are used and good agricultural practices are not followed. Consequently, this is not a problem with glyphosate or from GMO crops, it is a problem of education. Despite that there are some studies affirming that the specific use of glyphosate has tended to generate higher resistance to herbicides, this is precisely because of its low toxicity (Mesnage y Antoniou, 2017). The use of glyphosate enables irresponsible farmers to keep with bad agricultural practices for further time than what it would have been possible with other herbicides. This is also a reason for which bees can be affected. A correct use of chemicals and land rotation does not generate chemical intensification and does not affect the ecosystem.
[ii] Personal interview PhD. Maria Mercedes Roca. Professor of Biotechnology, regulatory specialist. Executive Director, Consult MRS; Senior Fellow ISGP. Date of interview: June 2020.
* The views expressed in the blog are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of SDSN Bolivia or his institution.