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Sustainable production of transgenic strawberry plants. Ethical consequences and potetional effect on producers, environment and consumers

Contract nr: QLK5-CT-1999-01479
Project type: RS (Research and Technological Development Project)
Starting date: 01-02-2000
Duration: 48 months
Total cost: 2,254,082 EUR
EC Contribution: 1,310,000 EUR
Scientific Officer: Richard HARDWICK
Research topic: 5.1.1. Sustainable agriculture/Plant Systems

This multidiciplinary project will integrate three lines of research simultaneously. The major biological goal is to develop a genetically modified strawberry (GMFRS - GM-strawberry) cultivar more resistant to botrytis cinerea (grey mould) for commercial production in organic agriculture. The GMFRS cultivar is expected to increase yield, reduce the use of toxic fungicides and increase the strawberry quality leading to economic competitiveness. Additionally, the GMFRS will, through questionnaires, be mapped by analysing consumer and producer attitudes, and the results will disclose the commercial potential of the GM-strawberry. The third integrated line of research is the development of an operational ethical model in which the precautionary principle (PP) is central into an integral evaluation framework for assessment of the ethical constraints on the commercial production of transgenic crop, in particular the strawberry.

The major goal of the project is the production of genetically modified fungus-resistant strawberry plants which will be able to be cultivated without the use of fungicides and be used under marginal climatic conditions and extended seasons. The economic benefits and risks of commercial employment of the gene modified plant (GMP) will be mapped during plant production by analysing consumer and producer attitudes. In addition, the required ethical constraints on any release of the GMP will also be applied. To summarise, the project has three lines of research running simultaneously:
1.Development of a genetically modified strawberry cultivar resistant to Botrytis cinerea (grey mould) for commercial production in low pesticide agriculture.
2. Development and use of questionnaires for mapping the attitudes towards ecologically grown transgenic strawberries among consumers and producers. Analysis of the results will disclose the commercial potential of the strawberry.
3. Operationalization of an ethical model in which the precautionary principle is central in an integral evaluation framework for assessment of the ethical constraints on the commercial production of transgenic crop, in particular the strawberry.

The multidiciplinary integration of these three lines will contribute to the knowledge of biological and economic risks prior to commercial use. The cultivar will have obvious benefits for strawberry production under variable climatic conditions all over Europe, as well as for production early and late in the season, since B. cinerea infection is favoured by low temperatures and high humidity. The loss due to the infection can be up to 30% of the crop. The available fungicides are potentially toxic, and only contribute to a partial control of the infection. Thus, the potential economic gain for producers and retailers of replacing traditional strawberry varieties with a fungus resistant cultivar is considerable.
1. The biological aspects of the project will, in more general terms, be attained at four levels; the DNA/RNA, protein and agriculture/plant level. The goal at the DNA/RNA-level will be to increase the resistance of strawberry cultivars to B. cinerea by enhancing the expression of two native PGIP (polygalacturonase inhibitor-protein) genes using different strawberry promoters. At the agriculture/plant level the resistance of transgenic strawberry plants to B. cinerea will be analysed in confinement conditions. The final biological goal will be to perform production and quality analyses of the gene-modified plants grown under conventional and ecological growth conditions in the greenhouse since it is not possible to perform field experiments (time limits). From a biological point of view the benefits of the transgenic strawberries will be obvious, because of the reduced need for pesticides - or more specifically fungicides - which eventually will contribute to a more sustainable agriculture. The transgenic strawberries grown and marketed as “no fungicide” would be in line with the trends in food marketing, which show an increased consumer interest in “green products”, more sustainable and environmentally sound production and more focus on the link between green products and health. These benefits could, however, be eroded if the consumers will not accept them and do not want to buy them, or if the farmers reject them and do not want to grow them. This makes it extremely important to focus on the socio-economic aspects with a full analysis of potential costs as well as potential benefits - parallel to the biotechnological development of the transgenic strawberries.

2. In the sociological part of the project, the key questions will be investigated by the use of questionnaires and in-depth interviews with consumers and farmers. Similarities and differences among consumer perceptions of genetically engineered strawberries in different European countries will be investigated. Comparisons will also be made between the acceptance of genetically engineered strawberries and genetically engineered foods in general. At the farmer/producer level, similarities and differences among farmers’ perceptions of genetically engineered strawberries and their interest in adopting the new technology will be investigated. Whether the development of strawberries resistant to grey mould can improve the possibilities for strawberry production in marginal rural areas, making the strawberry producers more able to meet new challenges, will be one of the main objectives in this part of the study.
3. Experts disagree on the long-term effects of the release of GMPs on the environment and human health. In addition, there is considerable political and public resistance to the purchase of genetically engineered food in general. This can imply economic risk for the producers who introduce genetically engineered strawberries into commercial production. The risks involved with implementing genetically engineered strawberries without having consumer acceptance will be discussed. Further analyses of the social and ethical implications of the possible release of the genetically engineered strawberries are necessary in order to reveal the potential benefits in the commercial production of this cultivar.

The study of the ethical aspects of the project will involve a deontological approach, in which issues of concepts of nature and integrity of living organisms will be studied and a consequentialist approach in which the PP is central. The principle is commonly used as a normative approach in matters of scientific and ethical uncertainty. The PP gives direction to the impact of the uncertainty concerning effects on the environment and health on the ethical evaluation of the actions involved. In this context, literature study and the tools of the Delphi study among a group of experts will be used to establish risks and uncertainties as precisely as possible. Applying the theory of reflective equilibrium, a coherent ethical model centred around the PP will be formulated for the evaluation of the commercial use of transgenic crops. This model will be made operative in an integrated evaluative framework for crop transgenesis.

In combination with the results of the sociological research of this project, this will enable a prediction of the commercial potential of the product given the existing attitudes towards purchasing genetically modified food. Furthermore, knowledge of the factors that may change public attitude towards such food will provide a basis for predicting long-term changes in attitude. The assumption is that changes in attitude are also influenced by ethical considerations related to the PP.

The Plant Biocentre, Department of Botany, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Tel.: +47 7359087
Fax: +47 73596177

Plant Research Internation B.V.
Tel.: +31 317477310
Fax: +31 317418094
University Centre Dragvoll Centre for rural research
Tel.: +47 73591729
Fax: +47 73591275
  Audun OEFSTI
Department of Philosophy, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Department of Philosophy ,
Tel.: +47 73596468
Fax: +47 73596460
  Holfgang KUHLMANN
Philosophisches Institut, RWTH, Aachen
Tel.: +49 241 806003
Fax: +49 241 8888159