The Subcommittee on Environmental Effects Associated with Commercialization
of Transgenic Plants
September 5, 2000
Dear Professor Gould and Committee members,
The recommendations produced by your Committee are likely to have an impact far beyond the United States. Many countries will look for model practices to the procedures and standards that we in the U.S. adopt for testing and assessing the environmental effects of transgenic crops. One reason is the impending establishment of international legal guidelines for identification, risk assessment, and handling of living modified organisms under the new Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
When the Biosafety Protocol comes into force as international law, countries which import crop germplasm from the U.S. will have the opportunity to give their Advance Informed Agreement to accept such imports, or to refuse to accept them. Although we are not a party to the Protocol's parent treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the United States will be required to provide to the CBD member states to which it would export transgenic organisms detailed information about the identity and characteristics of the living modified organisms to be shipped, about their centers of diversity, about the habitats where they may be introduced, as well as suggested methods for handling such organisms and assessing their risks "in the receiving environments ... where the organisms may persist or proliferate." (Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, Text and Annex III: Risk Assessment; my emphasis)
While the primary concern of the NAS in this project may be with the risks and benefits of transgenics for domestic farming and the U.S. environment, there is also much at stake for future U.S. agricultural productivity and export prospects, and for food security and biodiversity worldwide. I urge the committee to take account of what I call the "risk gap" --the fact that, for a range of reasons, potential risks involved in the release of transgenic crops in developing countries are likely to differ from, and will often exceed, the risks involved when such varieties are commercialized in the United States.
The first reason is agro-ecological: As you know well, ecological and environmental-agronomic conditions, including such critical factors as the extent of crop variety and genetic diversity and the proximity of farms to crop wild relatives, differ greatly among farming regions, especially in the developing world. A transgene, vector, or trait that appears to have little or no detrimental effect on the environment in and around large-scale farms with relatively little crop genetic diversity --i.e., those typical in much of the U.S.-- may have quite different consequences if released in small-scale, mixed-crop agroecosystems that make use of multiple, genetically diverse land races.
Putting aside potential impacts of transgenics on pest resistance, pollinators, wild flora and fauna and other non-target species, there remains cause for concern about how the proliferation of transgenic varieties may endanger the agricultural genetic diversity that is conserved in situ by farmers worldwide. If transgenes traveling via pollen or other paths to locally-adapted varieties alter the genomes of those land races, useful traits and unique varieties may be lost.
This could have a damaging effect on the food security of farmers and communities who consume their products. The diversity of local crop mixtures, often carefully selected over centuries, can be critical to farmers' strategies for coping with cyclical weather variations and climate change.
Genetic, varietal, and crop type diversity is often central to strategies for surviving fluctuations in farmers' economic situations, in their access to labor, and in their ability to purchase inputs. The fact that your Committee's mandate concerns commercial agriculture does not put this issue out of bounds; the greater proportion of subsistence food producers worldwide also grow some crops for market or farm in close proximity to others who do so.
(I hope that recognition of such factors, and of the impossibility to entirely separating environmental from socio-economic considerations, may lead to the inclusion of social scientists in future NAS committees.)
This problem is also relevant to U.S. farmers in that in situ agrobiodiversity and crop wild relatives are sources of genetic variety of continued importance for improving U.S. crop varieties and for increasing the economic and environmental sustainability of our own agriculture.
A second reason for concern about the "risk gap" is institutional: Even though your mandate concerns "environmental" effects, the Committee needs to take account of the fact that the organizational capacities for risk assessment and management differ tremendously among countries. In many situations, the information and resources to carry out recommended assessments and monitoring many not be present at all.
Without discounting the wealth of agronomic knowledge and skill found at many levels in even the poorest agricultural regions, we must recognize that, especially where agriculture R&D and extension has been hurt by economic crisis, the ability to evaluate benefits and risks of entirely new types of crops and technologies simply may not exist.
An adequate solution to this problem, unfortunately, is not "capacity-building" projects which directly transfer knowledge, skills, and technology developed in the U.S. or other nations with strong scientific infrastructures. A crucially important, but necessarily longer-term project will be the development of risk and benefit assessment approaches appropriate to the various ecological settings, institutional structures, socio-economic conditions, cultural practices, and development priorities in different parts of the world.
The Committee's task is not to design such processes. Rather, the relevant implication is that the Committee would do well to note prominently the need for country- and agroecosystem-specific criteria for risk assessment and management, as opposed to the ready-made export of standardized guidelines, which otherwise may happen by default.
The Committee's report also provides an opportunity to remind policy makers who have been, perhaps, dazzled by biotechnology's bold promises, that in agriculture, investment
in a transgenic "miracle" variety or technology may yield less progress than might be achieved by the support of improved management practices. The recent reports of substantial yield increases from two-variety rice cultivation in China's Yunnan Province, if confirmed, is a timely reminder. (New York Times, August 22, 2000)
The argument is often put forward that "the market" will sort out the good from the bad biotechnology. The premise is that if a new crop variety or technology is not advantageous to a farmer in the U.S. or elsewhere, then that farmer will make the informed choice, based on his or her own cost-benefit analysis, not to re-purchase that variety or not to buy the inputs or inducers required for the expression of the variety's premium traits. But such reasoning conceals dangerous flaws:
Most obvious from an environmental perspective is that farmers' primary concern is not with environmental externalities. Moreover, many of the effects of transgenics on crop performance over time and under varied conditions, on agrobiodiversity and on pests, on non-target species, and on the wider environment, are not yet understood and may not become apparent during one or a few crop life cycles. Charles Benbrook, among others, has pointed to "growing evidence of transgene silencing and instability and the unexpected patterns of gene expression," the most germane reports of which, he notes, have appeared in the Proceedings of the NAS. (Benbrook 2000, http://www.biotech-info.net/sevenNAS.html)
In addition, farmers in many areas, particularly in developing countries, rarely enjoy informed, fully free market choice. They are constrained by the availability of a limited number of varieties, the tying of credit and market access to the use of particular varieties, and limited information --and frequently, misinformation-- about the performance, the requirements, and the risks of transgenics or other new varieties under local conditions.
This problem is exacerbated by the competitive pressures among a diminishing number of large, transnational conglomerate firms to expand their markets for seeds, feeds, and chemical inputs in the U.S. and overseas. Widespread advertising and promotion of transgenic and other proprietary varieties, "protected" by intellectual property rights, hybridization --and perhaps soon, by genetic use restriction (so-called "terminator") technologies-- is part of their business strategy.
Also important to biotechnology/ agrochemical corporate plans is support of research that these firms expect will validate their claims about the superior performance and minimal risks of their own proprietary technologies and traits, and of transgenics in general. As a growing proportion of crop R&D is carried out or funded by such interested parties, it becomes more difficult for scientists, and even more so for developing countries and for farmers and consumers everywhere, to obtain adequate and accurate information.
Given (a) the heavily-financed research and public relations push by biotechnology industries; (b) the very early state of research on environmental effects and unexpected behaviors of transgenics; and (c) the complexity of the risk assessment and regulatory challenge facing the U.S. and, even more, less developed countries, I urge the Committee to stress the need to proceed with caution, so that short-term economic and geopolitical goals do not override long-term ecological and food security considerations.
(I hope that other respondents, or participants in other fora, have addressed the problem of precarious food security in much of the world, and why increased food production by means of transgenic crops is not likely to solve it. If they have not, I would be happy to address this issue.)
Finally, the conclusions of your Committee and the precedents set in the U.S. will also affect critical decisions to be taken during the next few years of international negotiations on biotechnology. Key guidelines for implementing the Biosafety Protocol will be hammered out, including issues of liability and redress, further details of identification and monitoring requirements, and elaboration of the socioeconomic considerations related to LMOs.
We are also likely to see a continuing collision between the jurisdictional claims of the World Trade Organization and those of the Biodiversity Convention. Some WTO members want to place biotechnology regulation within the overarching purview of that agency. They would treat the genetic-resource inputs and the transgenic outputs of biotechnology as ordinary factors of production, subject to the same globally standardized trade rules as any other commodity.
If this policy prevails, it will become difficult --indeed, it will be forbidden by international law-- for individual countries or for communities and regions within countries, including the U.S., to establish appropriate policies for assessing and managing the potential environmental risks and benefits of biotechnology that are specific to their country or local region.
In adopting the Cartagena Protocol, the majority of the world's governments recognized that genetically modified organisms are a special category, requiring special and careful regulation. This was a significant achievement. The challenge is now placed before scientists such as yourselves, and those in other parts of the world, to provide substantive guidance for such regulation.
I wish the best of success in this task.
Dr. Kathleen McAfee
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Last Updated on 9/11/00