RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

N 37 - May 2003
  SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT  -  Agriculture and the life sciences: food for thought

In developed countries, particularly in Europe, the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and biotechnologies in the agricultural sector has been greeted with controversy. But is this regional confrontation failing to take into account the situation at the global level? This was the central question at an international forum organised by the Research Directorate-General in January, at the instigation of the European Group on Life Sciences.

Within the next 25 years, the world's population is likely to have stabilised at 8 billion, 90% of whom will be living in one of today's developing countries. Although global agricultural output is, at present, considered sufficient to feed everybody on the planet, there is no denying the profound imbalances in the nutritional situation. The food available worldwide is equivalent to approximately 2 700 calories per person per day, but average daily rations in sub-Saharan Africa are below 2 000 calories, compared with more than 3 500 in rich countries. In addition, 800 million people suffer from chronic malnutrition and consume an insufficient quantity of food to meet their body's requirements in terms of energy and nutrients (proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals).

Field tests in Guangdong (China) compared sweet potato clones of potential interest for their virus resistance. These plants are placed in the natural conditions under which they can become infected. Symptoms and yields are then observed.
Field tests in Guangdong (China) compared sweet potato clones of potential interest for their virus resistance. These plants are placed in the natural conditions under which they can become infected. Symptoms and yields are then observed.
The lessons and limitations of the first 'green revolution'
Conceived in the 1960s, the first 'green revolution' aimed, not without success, to boost agricultural productivity in developing countries. Under the guidance of the United Nations´ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the programme received substantial public aid and the support of Western agricultural experts. It achieved some spectacular results – at least in certain southern regions, especially in Asia – by applying methods such as the selection and use of high yield wheat and rice varieties, the intensive use of chemical fertilisers and phyosanitary products, and ambitious programmes to develop irrigation and mechanised farming.

In a quarter of a century, this 'Western-style' modernisation has certainly helped to combat malnutrition and counter the effects of population growth on the demand for food. However, the FAO admits that the first 'green revolution' has pretty much run its course. The systematic use of fertilisers and pesticides is causing major environmental problems and the expansion of cultivated land has now reached its limit – often to the detriment of forest cover. Moreover, intensive irrigation is a threat to water resources, over-farmed land has lost its fertility, while high-yield plants have reduced biodiversity and diseases have become increasingly resistant to treatment. New plant varieties generally last just three or four years – the time it takes for the insects which devour them to adapt and for diseases to overcome their natural resistance. 

At the socio-economic level, this drive for modernisation has resulted in two-speed agriculture, which has hit many traditional farmers hard and excluded those rural zones unable to participate. In many developing regions, subsistence farming, with its meagre harvests, exists alongside large modern crop or livestock farms, with their focus on urban and export markets.

Xuzhou laboratory: in vitro culture of tissue in which sweet potato is purified before being transferred to a field to measure the impact of viral diseases and assess sensitivity.
Xuzhou laboratory: in vitro culture of tissue in which sweet potato is purified before being transferred to a field to measure the impact of viral diseases and assess sensitivity.

The promise of bioscience
Solutions to these agricultural challenges need to be found at the very source of the imbalance. The FAO has launched the concept of the alternative green revolution. While not closing the door on intensive agricultural production, where it is feasible, this new strategy focuses more on respect for the environment, fairness and democracy, and is applied where there is a problem of undernourishment.

'This new approach, which is better suited to the majority of populations in southern countries, is based on better technologies, better farming practices and better seeds. The biotechnologies – which are more than just modifying genes – offer amazing opportunities in this respect. But we are only at the very beginning,' believes Professor Michel Petit, former governor of the World Bank.  'In any event, to prevent developing countries from benefiting from them would be to do them a flagrant injustice.'

Biosciences, in fact, offer new opportunities across a wide range of fields. In crop farming, in addition to alternatives to conventional phytosanitary practices, research is focusing on drawing attention to existing plants which are not yet being farmed.(1 [ http://europa.eu#1 ]) These include sweet sorghum as cattle feed or new varieties of manioc, part of the staple diet in Africa, and one of the continent's most widely grown crops. Developing crops resilient to difficult soil and climatic conditions (wheat for arid regions, rice for saline or infertile soil, and so on) offer particularly promising prospects.

The quality of tropical soils is a key factor in agricultural productivity, but they are fragile and much more sensitive than other soils to over-exploitation, erosion, deforestation and pollution, sometimes resulting in irreversible degradation. Agricultural production is also largely dependent on the micro and macro fauna (earthworms, termites, insects, bacteria, etc.) the soils support. These play a vital role in airing and restructuring the soil and transporting the mineral elements necessary for plant growth. It is, therefore, important to preserve this biodiversity, and the increasingly precise knowledge provided by the life sciences can be crucial to this.   

Setting aside all the hype surrounding cloning, research can help improve the resistance of livestock to diseases and parasites. It can also lead to the use of previously undomesticated breeds. The same applies to fish farming.   

The biosciences may also benefit non-edible agricultural produce – such as decorative plants, plants for textiles and biofuels – and become an integral part of a vision for sustainable agriculture in southern regions.

Should we fear GMOs?
Developments in biosciences – and in GMOs in particular – for the benefit of agriculture in southern regions is a controversial subject. First, there is the fundamental question – posed more energetically in the North than in developing countries – of the danger posed by genetic modification.

Yet, since the dawn of crop and livestock farming, humankind has been applying some form of´genetic engineering' through the selective breeding of plants, animals and micro-organisms (bacteria or yeast).

Contemporary genetic engineering, nevertheless, differs from these traditional techniques in that the transferred gene can come from species that are altogether different to the host.

For the plant world, it is the risks to the environment that are the most apparent and the most numerous. Ecologists fear that new characteristics will be transmitted from genetically modified crops to wild plant species (see box 'The challenge of co-existence'). As for humans, years of research by the world´s leading laboratories have failed to uncover a single proven case of toxicity in humans caused by GMOs. 

Not all convinced
A second subject of discussion relates to the take up of biosciences in the South. Not all countries are equally well placed to benefit from these technologies. In South America, the Argentinean government, in co-operation with leading industrialists, has planted millions of hectares of GMO crops, while Brazil is hesitant to take such a step (at least officially) as it plans to continue to sell to Europe.  

In Asia, India and China are also taking different roads. Whereas in India GMOs are the subject of heated debate fuelled and much influenced by the North, China is committed to genetically modified organisms and, today, claims to have developed 141 of them, 65 of which have been approved for commercial production. China spends almost 10 times as much as India or Brazil in this field, initially with the aim of feeding a growing population, but it could ultimately become a major exporter of these technologies to the South.

The involvement of the population in implementing a project in the field of biosciences for food: enzymatic breakdown of the natural toxins present in maize- and sorghum based products.
The involvement of the population in implementing a project in the field of biosciences for food: enzymatic breakdown of the natural toxins present in maize- and sorghum based products.
The thorny issue of patents
It remains to be seen how farmers in the poorest countries will benefit from these costly technologies. Even if some private firms are on occasion very generous, it is hard to imagine the giants of the agro-chemicals industry suddenly becoming charity organisations. GMOs are a natural focus of debates on the ethics of fair trade between the North and South.

Experts remain divided in their opinions on this thorny issue. The new intellectual property laws for transgenic seeds give reason to fear that the poorest countries will never gain access to them. Opponents insist that only the technical process used to develop a gene should be patented and not the gene itself. Seed producers counter that without royalties their laboratories may as well shut up shop. Critics also accuse biotechnology firms of tying their customers´ hands by producing sterile seeds that oblige farmers who use them to purchase more for each sowing. Proponents contest this accusation by arguing that hybrid grains may have these characteristics naturally and not by design.

The free transfer of patents is not, however, worth very much without having the means to develop the technology – and that is an issue which developing countries need to address. To assist them, universities and laboratories in industrialised countries should help to train their researchers and provide logistical support. There is a very real risk of seeing Southern countries become dependent on GMOs, especially given the dynamic of vertical concentration at work within the industry due to considerations linked to intellectual property. But the alternative of denying them access to genetically modified foods is not necessarily any more desirable.

(1) Just a dozen plants – including wheat, rice, manioc and maize – provide more than 50% of human food requirements. 

  Selected European projects

  Progress in South Africa  
  In Makhatani, a disadvantaged region in South Africa, 600 farmers have been growing, for the past three years, a genetically modified variety of cotton which is resistant to insect attacks. The project has resulted in a fourfold reduction in the quantity of insecticides used, time saved on routine menial tasks, substantial increase in yields and more revenue per hectare. 

The crop planted was the transgenic variety Bollgard, named after the gene introduced into a cotton variety marketed in South Africa since 1998. Developed from the bacteria Bacillus thuringensis (Bt), it enables the plant to secrete an insecticide protein which protects it against more than 20 parasites, and caterpillars in particular. South Africa is the only country in Africa to have authorised, in 1998, the commercial cultivation of transgenic plants.

Professor Jennifer A. Thomson of Cape Town University explains that, at present, two varieties have official authorisation for marketing: Bollgard cotton (12 000 hectares in 2001) and Yieldgard maize (75 000 hectares in 2001), both of which are resistant to insects. Others are being studied or awaiting registration, in particular strawberries, maize and sorghum which are resistant to certain parasitic fungi, virus-resistant apples and a kind of sugar cane which can withstand the Eldana, an insect with a particularly voracious appetite.


  Threats to the banana  
  Most people in the West are only familiar with dessert bananas (10% of global output), but in many developing countries consumption of the plantain variety almost rivals that of rice, wheat and maize. This crop is now under serious threat from the recent appearance of a fungus which attacks its leaves (cercosporiosis, or black spot disease) causing the trees to wither and the yield to collapse.(1) The only solution currently available is to apply vast quantities of fungicides. Fortunately, they do not penetrate to the pulp which is protected by the banana’s thick skin. On the other hand, there is a significant impact on the environment, and every year doctors report serious cases of poisoning among workers handling these products.

To save this essential fruit, experts recommend research on more resistant strains of the plantain banana, either by hybridisation (fertilising cultivated varieties with wild plants – a highly expensive and unreliable solution), or by transgenesis (GMO bananas). 

(1) Source : The New Scientist, 18/01/2003.


  The challenges of co-existence  
  The risk of 'transgenic flows' between GMOs and other plants is part of the wider issue of 'co-existence', which is the focus of a debate organised by the European Commission on the acceptance of GMOs in the North and the South. The Commission’s message is that there should be total freedom for producers and consumers to choose between conventional, biological or genetically modified farming. Taking into account the biological risks, this co-existence must be respected at every level of the production chain to ensure that there is no mixing of the seeds and products of the three sectors, whether during storage, transport, or marketing. A round table, which brought together the various stakeholders, was held for the first time in Brussels at the end of April. http://ec.europa.eu/research/press_en.html [ http://ec.europa.eu/research/press_en.html ]