Pugwash Meeting no. 271
The Impact of Agricultural Biotechnology on
Environmental and Food Security
Mexico, DF, Mexico, 28-31 May 2002
Report by Jeffrey Boutwell
The following are some of the major points that came out of the Pugwash workshop on agricultural biotechnology that was held in Mexico City from 28-31 May 2002. This report is different from the standard summary of Pugwash workshops that regularly appear in the Pugwash Newsletter in that it represents a near-consensus opinion on the part of the more than 30 specialists who attended the meeting. Obviously, not every word or position taken in the statement below can be ascribed to each and every participant. Rather, given the uncertainties surrounding the development and introduction of new technologies into the realms of farming, agri-business, and food consumption, participants at the Pugwash workshop felt it important to identify a number of major issues, and concerns, and to circulate these widely for the consideration of the scientific, corporate and policy communities, and the public at large.
Workshop sessions were held at Unidad de Seminarios Ignacio Chávez, Jardín Botánico Exterior, of the Ciudad Universitaria, México, D.F. Pugwash would like to thank Prof. Ana María Cetto, Dra. Elena Alvarez-Buylla Roces, and the Mexican Pugwash Group, including Student/Young Pugwash in Mexico, for their hospitality and efforts in organizing a superb workshop, and also the various organizations in Mexico (listed below) for their financial and logistical support.
Statement of the Pugwash Workshop *
“Founded in 1957 as a result of the concerns shared by Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and other scientists regarding the posed by the advent of thermonuclear weapons, the Pugwash Conferences convene several scientific workshops and conferences each year on important issues relating to science and society. Recipient of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize with its co-founder and then President, Sir Joseph Rotblat, the Pugwash Conferences have been, for more than 45 years, an important forum for discussions of the social and policy ramifications of important scientific discoveries.
Today, the incorporation of modern biotechnology into agricultural production processes has generated new ethical, economic, social and environmental dilemmas confronting societies all over the world. Research into these biotechnologies has sparked an intense debate on the benefits and risks of implementing transgenic technologies into the world’s agricultural production, raising questions about the extent of our current knowledge as to the long-term effects of genetically modified organisms. In this context, the biological and genetic diversity of Mexico, both in wild and domesticated varieties (especially maize), makes the country an ideal venue for international workshops on these issues.
Organized by the Pugwash Conferences with financial and logistic support of the Mexican National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT), the Mexican Under Secretary for the United Nations, the Mexican Academy of Sciences, the National Institute of Ecology, and the Physics and Ecology institutes of the National University of Mexico, the workshop brought together 31 specialists from Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Cuba, Italy, Mexico, Norway, the United States and Venezuela.
As a result of the discussion, participants identified six principles which they felt should guide research and policymaking regarding agricultural biotechnology:
- Current knowledge is insufficient for assessing the benefits and risks of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), especially in light of the long-term consequences these technologies may pose for the biosphere and future generations.
- To that end, independent research and institutional capacity building within society is needed to identify and implement short- and long term research and to analyze, monitor and evaluate the environmental, economical, health and socio-cultural aspects of biotechnology developments.
- Because many of the short-term and long-term consequences of GMOs remain unknown, certain activities should not be undertaken until more is known of their biological and social consequences. For example, current efforts to develop GM maize that produces non-edible industrial chemicals or pharmaceuticals are of grave concern because maize is an open pollinated, widely cultivated staple crop.
- Mechanisms are needed to ensure access, by all sectors of society, to complete and appropriate information on agricultural and biotechnology developments and applications to all sectors of society. Of particular importance for evaluating and monitoring these is the deposit of, and access to, viable biological materials and detailed sequence information of the new genetic constructs of all GMOs.
- Multiple strategies employing traditional and newly developed technologies, capacities and institutions, rather than over-reliance on one particular technology, need to be evaluated and promoted to ensure socially and ecologically sustainable agriculture. Strategies such as niche marketing, inter-cropping, precision and integrated farming, and techniques to conserve germplasm should be promoted and supported.
- Informed participation by the agricultural, consumer and all sectors of society in the decision-making process regarding GMOs requires greater transparency, accountability and credibility on the part of scientists, government and the private sector.
Finally, participants at the workshop felt that the Pugwash Conferences should organize future meetings on the above issues. The complexity of the subject, in terms of both its technical aspects and social consequences, will be with us for years to come, generating intense discussion in both the scientific community and society at large.”
* The above statement reflects the views of the workshop participants, and not necessarily those of their institutions or organizations or the Council of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.
Elaboration of Principles in the Workshop Statement
Participants at the Mexico workshop met in six small working groups to specify more concretely those issues of concern under each of the six principles released in the workshop statement above. The points below represent an elaboration of the issues that need further consideration and exploration as new biotechnologies are researched and introduced into farming and agriculture. These points are not a consensus statement of the workshop; rather they are the views of the working groups themselves.
Current knowledge is insufficient for assessing the benefits and risks of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), especially in light of the long-term consequences these technologies may pose for the biosphere and future generations.
Two decades ago, the promise of new biotechnological manipulations and the lack of positive information on these emerging technologies justified a relatively lax burden of proof in risk analysis. In the intervening years we have accumulated information that suggests vast areas of knowledge remain to be developed to make these technologies safe, especially when transformed organisms are released into the open environment, where complex interactions unavoidably occur.
Implicitly, risk assessment is based on the null hypothesis that there is no serious risk associated with the release of GMOs. We should rather focus now on developing methods that are capable of evaluating low frequency events with large consequences. In this case, the null hypothesis is that there is an effect associated with the release, that there may be measurable and significant risks associated with this effect, and therefore the burden of proof is the responsibility of the proponent of the new technology.
We need to develop mathematical and computational tools that enable integrative and holistic analyses from the gene and gene-network to the ecosystem levels. Such approaches should eventually enable more informed predictions of the impact of transgenes at the genome-, cell-, organismal- and supra-organismal levels. Living systems are complex, non-linear and dynamic. Therefore, it is impossible to predict their behavior solely with simple, linear models that have been generally used in biology.
The present methods of recombinant DNA in plants and animals cannot allow us to target the site of insertion in the host genome. Targeted insertional methods would facilitate monitoring GMOs once they are released. They would also help to understand site-specific and context-dependent effects of the inserted sequence.
It is critical to evaluate the possible genomic and genetic consequences of gene-stacking. This is critical once GMOs have been released intentionally and non-intentionally in developing countries where seed use is not controlled.
We need to investigate more thoroughly the stability of transgenes within genomes once these are left to exchange genetic materials with other living organisms in their own and other phylogenetic groups.
We do not have enough evidence about the long- and short- term stability and activity of recombinant nucleic acid sequences within organisms and in the environment.
We need to implement efficient monitoring methods and programs that evaluate intentional and non-intentional releases of GMOs and their environments.
To that end, independent research and institutional capacity building within society is needed to identify and implement short- and long-term research and to analyze, monitor and evaluate the environmental, economical, health and socio-cultural aspects of biotechnology developments.
By independent research we mean the careful consideration and avoidance of conflicts of interest in the design and implementation of research studies and the dissemination of results.
Such research should address questions useful for integral risk assessment, risk evaluation and management, as well as medium- and long term monitoring of the effects of these technologies and their products. Research should be coordinated with the proper authorities to enhance compliance with relevant regulations. Local communities, including farmers, peasants, and consumers, should be involved and informed about the research and monitoring processes as one means of building capacity within society.
Because many of the short-term and long-term consequences of GMOs remain unknown, certain activities should not be undertaken until more is known of their biological and social consequences. For example, current efforts to develop GM maize that produces non-edible industrial chemicals or pharmaceuticals are of grave concern because maize is an open-pollinated, widely-cultivated staple crop.
Of special concern are genetically-modified organisms used for food or feed, that synthesize non-edible or pharmaceutical chemicals, and that produce viable pollen, seed, small propagules, sperm or eggs. No further development of such GMOs should occur until sufficient demonstration of safety is available, and no field cultivation of existing GMOs of this type should be allowed.
Movement of living propagules of GMOs across international boundaries should be prohibited if the receiving country does not approve the growing of that particular GMO. Importation for approved research purposes would be excluded from this restriction.
Mechanisms are needed to ensure access, by all sectors of society, to complete and appropriate information on agricultural and biotechnology developments and applications to all sectors of society. Of particular importance for evaluating and monitoring these is the deposit of, and access to, viable biological materials and detailed sequence information of the new genetic constructs of all GMOs.
Access to biological materials has been partially addressed in the framework of the CBD and the International Treaty of Plant Genetic Resources. There are potential conflicts with WTO and TRIPS agreements that need to be addressed. National legislation will be fundamental to implement these principles. There are several examples where the lack of access has affected research, and such examples need to be further studied and made more widely known.
Topics for further discussion include how to influence the design of new biotechnological applications from the beginning of the process in order to make them safer.
Finally, the fulfillment of objectives related to information access bears directly on the limits of confidentiality and its relation to public interests and the existing biotechnological gap and economic dependence.
Multiple strategies employing traditional and newly developed technologies, capacities, and institutions ,rather than over-reliance on one particular technology, need to be evaluated and promoted to ensure socially and ecologically sustainable agriculture. Strategies such as niche marketing, inter-cropping, precision and integrated farming, and techniques to preserve germplasm should be promoted and supported.
A single instrument cannot solve any complex problem, particularly in the realm of food security. Therefore, even though GMOs could be beneficial, they can not substitute for sound management involving a wide range of technologies, capacities, and practices. Moreover, historical experience has shown that strategies based on technological fixes are scientifically unsound and their implementation leaves them vulnerable to economic and environmental uncertainties. Strategies such as niche marketing, inter-cropping, knowledge-intensive land management, etc., should be financially and politically supported.
Informed participation by the agricultural, consumer and all sectors of society in the decision-making process regarding GMOs requires greater transparency, accountability and credibility on the part of scientists, government and the private sector.
Perspectives of science in society – and understanding of science by society – is key to communicating critical issues of biotechnology in food and the environment. The credibility of science is dependent upon scientists being able to distinguish between what they say based on scientific fact and what they believe based on informed opinion. The importance of independent and peer review process is critical to the credibility of science. Disparities in scientific expertise and capacity from country to country require the support of independent international institutions, organizations, and mechanisms for informed decision-making. An ethical science demands that all scientists, from whatever sector of society, clarify as much as possible the proposed ends and purpose of the proposed technology.
Elena Alvarez-Buylla Roces
Laboratorio de Genética Molecular, Desarrollo y Evolución de PlantasInstituto de Ecología, Mexico
Rodrigo Artunduaga Salas
Coordinador Bioseguridad y Recursos Genéticos Agrícolas, Instituto Colombiano de Agricultura, Colombia
Camilo Ayra Pardo
Jefe del Laboratorio de Biotecnología Ambiental del CIGB, Cuba
Profesor Investigador de la Facultad de Economía, UNAM, Mexico
Greenpeace Mexico (observer)
Executive Director, Pugwash Conferences, Cambridge, MA USA
Professor, Agronomy Plant Genetics, University of Minnesota, USA
César Carrillo Trueba
Revista Ciencias, Facultad de Ciencias, UNAM, Mexico
Ana María Cetto
Instituto de Física, UNAM, Mexico
Ecosystem Sciences Division, Dept. of Environmental Science, Policy and Mangement, University of California, Berkeley, USA
Alejandra Alicia Covarrubias Robles
Instituto de Biotecnología, UNAM, Mexico
Ana de Ita
Centro de Estudios para el Cambio en el Campo Mexicano, Mexico
Department of Botany & Plant Sciences, University of California, Riverside, USA
María de los Angeles Erazo
Periódico “Descubrir Latinoamericano”Revista “Conversus”, Mexico
Presidente del Instituto Nacional de Ecología, SEMARNAT, Mexico
José Carlos Fernández
Instituto Nacional de Ecología, SEMARNAT, Mexico
Instituto de Fisiología Celular, UNAM, Mexico
Depto. Alimentos y BiotecnologíaFac. Química, UNAM, Mexico
Luis García Barrios
Coordinador de la División de Sistemas de Producción Alternativos, EL Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), Mexico
Raúl García Barrios
Centro Regional de Investigaciones Multidisciplinarias, UNAM, Mexico
Centre for Biodiversity Research, University of British Columbia, Canada
Elleli Huerta Ocampo
Dirección Técnica de Análisis y Prioridades Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad (CONABIO), Mexico
Student/Young Pugwash, Mexico
Takeo Angel Kato Yamakake
Colegio de Postgraduados, Mexico
Coordinador del Programa “Recursos Biológicos Colectivos”, CONABIO, Mexico
Patricia León Mejía
Instituto de Biotecnologia, UNAM, Mexico
León P. Martínez Castilla
Instituto de Ecología, UNAM, Mexico
Jorge Nieto Sotelo
Instituto de Biotecnología, UNAM, Mexico
León Rogelio Olivé Morett
Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas, UNAM, Mexico
Rubens Onofre Nodari
Universidade Federal De Santa Catarina Centro de Ciencias Agrarias, Departamento de Fitotecnia, Brazil
Sol Ortiz García
Asesora del Presidente del Instituto Nacional de Ecología, Mexico
Juan Pablo Pardo
Student/Young Pugwash, Mexico
Hugo Perales Rivera
Jefe del Departamento de Agroecología, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Mexico
Academia Mexicana de Ciencias, AC, Mexico
Daniel Ignacio Piñero Dalmau
Instituto de Ecología, UNAM, México
Head, Plant Department, Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Cuba
José Luis Ramírez
Director Centro de Biotecnología, Instituto de Estudios Avanzados Carretera Nacional Hoyo de La Puerta a lado de USB, Venezuela
Researcher / ETC Group, Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, Mexico
Biosafety Unit, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Italy
María Elena Rodríguez Fuentes
Ministerio Ciencia, Tecnología y Medio Ambiente, Industria y San José, Cuba
Instituto de Física, UNAM, Mexico
José Sarukhán Kermez
Instituto de Ecología, UNAM, Tercer circuito exterior, Ciudad Universitaria, Mexico
Francisco Xavier Soberón Mainero
Director Instituto de Biotecnología, UNAM, Mexico
Ricardo Torres Carrasco
Instituto de Investigación de Biodiversidad Alexander von Humboldt, Colombia
University of Tromsö Scientific Director, GenÖk- Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology, Norway
Section of Microbiology, University of California, Davis, USA