Biotechnology has always been on the cutting edge of change. Change is rapid, the domains involved are numerous, and there is a significant lack of transparent communication among actors. Hence assessment of modern biotechnology is lagging behind development; information can be anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty on benefits and harms is unavoidable. There is a wide range of perspectives on the environmental, human health and economic risks and benefits of modern biotechnology, many of which are as yet unknown.
Conventional biotechnologies, such as breeding techniques, tissue culture, cultivation practices and fermentation are readily accepted and used. Between 1950 and 1980, prior to the development of GMOs, modern varieties of wheat increased yields up to 33% even in the absence of fertilizer. Modern biotechnologies used in containment have been widely adopted; e.g., the industrial enzyme market reached US$1.5 billion in 2000. The application of modern biotechnology outside containment, such as the use of GM crops is much more contentious. For example, data based on some years and some GM crops indicate highly variable 10-33% yield gains in some places and yield declines in others.
Higher level drivers of biotechnology R&D, such as IPR [Intellectual Property Rights] frameworks, determine what products become available. While this attracts investment in agriculture, it can also concentrate ownership of agricultural resources. An emphasis on modern biotechnology without ensuring adequate support for other agricultural research can alter education and training programs and reduce the number of professionals in other core agricultural sciences. This situation can be self-reinforcing since today’s students define tomorrow’s educational and training opportunities. 4
The use of patents for transgenes introduces additional issues. In developing countries especially, instruments such as patents may drive up costs, restrict experimentation by the individual farmer or public researcher while also potentially undermining local practices that enhance food security and economic sustainability. In this regard, there is particular concern about present IPR instruments eventually inhibiting seed-saving, exchange, sale and access to proprietary materials necessary for the independent research community to conduct analyses and long term experimentation on impacts. Farmers face new liabilities: GM farmers may become liable for adventitious presence if it causes loss of market certification and income to neighboring organic farmers, and conventional farmers may become liable to GM seed producers if transgenes are detected in their crops.
A problem-oriented approach to biotechnology R&D would focus investment on local priorities identified through participatory and transparent processes, and favor multifunctional solutions to local problems. These processes require new kinds of support for the public to critically engage in assessments of the technical, social, political, cultural, gender, legal, environmental and economic impacts of modern biotechnology. Biotechnologies should be used to maintain local expertise and germplasm so that the capacity for further research resides within the local community. Such R&D would put much needed emphasis onto participatory breeding projects and agroecology.