Finding Transgenes in Maize Landraces

In another project that I lead, biodiverSEEDy, we have been doing some work to see if transgenes have spread to landraces in the center of origin and diversity of maize, Mexico.

The potential for transgene flow into both landraces and wild relatives is a well recognized biosafety issue and therefore an important component of the regulatory risk assessment performed on GM crops prior to their approval for cultivation. The case of transgene flow into traditional maize landraces was first reported in Mexico 15 years ago and drew the world’s attention to the possibility of contaminating crop varieties at their center of origin and diversity.

The reported presence of transgenes in Mexican maize sparked an intense scientific, political and environmental dispute over the extent to which the culture and traditions of indigenous people were being threatened by the unchecked spread of GMOs owned as the patented inventions of multinational corporations. This controversy lead to a long-standing legal battle over the regulatory status of GM crops in Mexico, which continues today as approvals of GM maize for cultivation remain subject to contestation in the courts.

Although maize is currently not permitted for cultivation in Mexico, in a recently published study, we found transgene contamination of landraces being grown by indigenous farmers, as well as maize being sold in government stores as grain, which some farmers then plant as seed. This study also demonstrated how societal organization and the seed management systems of local communities significantly influence the extent and frequency of transgene flow. The work showed how socio-biological factors (such as seed saving and sharing practices, communitarian organization and land tenure arrangements) are highly important determinants affecting the frequency of transgene presence and the potential for spread within farming communities. In doing so, the work also highlighted how social practices and arrangements may be used as a resource to minimize the potential for or scale of transgene flow.

In debates over transgene flow into landraces of maize in Mexico, there has been significant scientific disagreement over what are appropriate and reliable methods to use for GM detection. The use of diverse approaches and a lack of harmonized methods specific to transgene detection in landraces have generated both positive and negative results regarding GM contamination of Mexican maize over the years. In a second newly published paper, we reviewed the scientific debate over methods for detecting transgenes in landraces and wild relatives and made recommendations for sampling, testing and policy. We used this review to inform our own approach to trasngene detection in the work described above. Some of the recommendations we made include: an integration of social and biological data, development of threshold levels and limits of detection relevant for environmental monitoring of low level presence, and the establishment of a public registry with open access to transgene sequence information and all event approvals.

Both of these new papers seek to advance the establishment of good practices for transgene detection and monitoring, issues that are also very important in the contexts where the Agri/Cultures Project is working (Spain and South Africa), as well as anywhere that there is an attempt to achieve co-existance between GMOs and other cultures of agriculture.

We published a new paper!

Socio-economic research on genetically modified crops: a study of the literature“, this is the title of our new paper published in Agriculture and Human Values and co-authored by Georgina Catacora-Vargas, Anne Ingeborg Myhr, Brian Wynne and me.

This has been a long-lasting research, based on an extensive literature review (410 papers were analysed) on socio-economic impacts of GMOs.

Abstract: The importance of socio-economic impacts (SEI) from the introduction and use of genetically modified (GM) crops is reflected in increasing efforts to include them in regulatory frameworks. Aiming to identify and understand the present knowledge on SEI of GM crops, we here report the findings from an extensive study of the published international scientific peer-reviewed literature. After applying specified selection criteria, a total of 410 articles are analysed. The main findings include: (i) limited empirical research on SEI of GM crops in the scientific literature; (ii) the main focus of the majority of the published research is on a restricted set of monetary economic parameters; (iii) proportionally, there are very few empirical studies on social and non-monetary economic aspects; (iv) most of the research reports only short-term findings; (v) the variable local contexts and conditions are generally ignored in research methodology and analysis; (vi) conventional agriculture is the commonly used comparator, with minimal consideration of other substantially different agricultural systems; and (vii) there is the overall tendency to frame the research upon not validated theoretical assumptions, and to over-extrapolate small-scale and short-term specific results to generalized conclusions. These findings point to a lack of empirical and comprehensive research on SEI of GM crops for possible use in decision-making. Broader questions and improved methodologies, assisted by more rigorous peer-review, will be required to overcome current research shortcomings.

You can cite the paper as follows: Catacora-Vargas, G., Binimelis, R., Myhr, A.I. et al. Agric Hum Values (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-017-9842-4

Hot Topics at the 13th Meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity

During the first two weeks in December, Rosa and I attended the 13th meeting of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Cancun Mexico. This also included meetings on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization.

Decisions at these meetings are made by consensus and with over 190 countries signatory to the CBD, that means long and difficult negotiations in which the final result is usually a heavy compromise in which the best that can often be hoped for is that all parties are ‘equally unhappy’ with the results.

This year, the meeting had the tagline of “Mainstreaming Biodiversity for Well-being” and indeed the concept of mainstreaming biodiversity was very prevalent. It took quite a while to make sense of this idea and what it was being used to imply. Officially, the idea seems to mean that because a vast range of human activities affect biodiversity and financial support for its conservation is waning, there is a need to embed the work across all sectors and policies. What I also noticed though was that significant emphasis was being placed on how to use the current economic system to support biodiversity conservation. In that sense, it felt like how to move biodiversity conservation into the mainstream capitalist economic agenda.

In addition to the idea of mainstreaming, some of the hot topics of debate that I followed during the meeting were:

Guidance on Risk Assessment of Genetically Modified Organisms (or Living Modified Organisms as they are referred to under the Cartagena Protocol)

Here the focus of the debate was largely around whether to extend the work of Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (AHTEG) and develop additional guidance for new applications, such as GM fish and synthetic biology. The AHTEG has spent over 5 years developing a guidance document for risk assessment of GMOs and the quality of its work was heavily disputed at the meeting. This debate was intensified by the fact that the guidance was published before the parties had agreed to endorse it. Some parties were extremely angry about this and against even acknowledging the guidance as a useful document. They were therefore certainly not willing to support any extension of the current AHTEG or its mandate. In the end it was agreed that the current AHTEG would be dissolved but an online forum and alternative process for gathering information on the information gaps and needs for further guidance would be put in place.

Synthetic Biology, and particularly Gene Drives

Much of the work leading up to this meeting related to synthetic biology had been around the development of a definition. While a definition was ultimately adopted that supported synthetic biology as an extension and acceleration of modern biotechnology, debate remained over whether the definitional work should continue in an intersessional AHTEG, specifically to develop inclusion and exclusion criteria. Some parties felt that this was necessary to clarify the concept, while others felt it was simply a delaying tactic to avoid the much needed work on risk assessment guidance and criteria. Ultimately it was decided that the AHTEG on synthetic biology would continue and have a mandate to discuss, among other things, inclusion and exclusion criteria for the definition. Under synthetic biology, the topic of gene drives was also an extremely hot issue of debate. Civil society organisations attending the meeting had called for a moratorium on gene drives until effective biocontainment and regulatory processes could be put in place. Meanwhile, organisations and industry supportive of biotechnology development were present in force (including sponsoring at least 35 students to be present at all discussions and side events concerning synthetic biology, gene drives and/or biosafety and loudly express their positive positions towards the technology). This generated quite a lot of tension and heated debates within these side events and caused one of the most prominent proponents to be ejected from the meeting for aggressive and threatening behavior.

Benefit Sharing of Digitalized Genetic Sequence Information

Another hot issue was how the rapid development of digitalized genetic sequence information may undermine the Nagoya protocol and its emphasis on the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources and their utilization. The idea here is that nation states currently have sovereign ownership over genetic resources in their territory and a right to benefits generated from the use of them. Also, it is recognized that indigenous people often have in depth knowledge of plant and animal properties (and have played a key role in their evolution) and that if companies develop products that extract benefit from this, then there should be a prior and informed consent for use and mutually agreed terms for fair and equitable benefit sharing. This was seen as threatened by the development of digitalized genetic sequences that could be easily shared around the globe without any negotiations of requirements for access and benefit sharing. This topic proved difficult to handle in the negotiations because it spanned the CBD, the Nagoya protocol and the group working with synthetic biology. Ultimately a plan was made for further work on this topic, however, some parties were dissatisfied that the process of international negotiations was grindingly slow in comparison to the rate of the technology development.

While the debates on these topics were extremely interesting to follow, one thing that really struck me was a feeling of hypocrisy at this meeting. This was not only the hypocrisy of having a meeting about conserving the world’s spectacular biodiversity in the extremely homogenized and human dominated and hotel saturated location of Cancun. It was also connected to the carbon emissions generated by having over 6000 people fly in for the meeting and the terrible quality of food available at the event, which surely came from industrial monocultures and failed to support local produce or agrobiodiversity. Another striking element was the lack of civil society protest. While there were some small demonstrations of indigenous people and one award ceremony for the worst beha
ved parties and companies, in general, there was very little public protest, action or even visibility. Rather, civil society organizations were directly engaged in the process and participating by organizing formal events and discussions within the architecture of the meeting. This is a stark contrast to the international negotiations around another key global environmental issue – climate change – where civil society has an extremely strong, loud and colourful presence. This was surprising since biodiversity loss is an extremely serious global concern that has already reached crisis proportions. While I also held a formal side event at this year’s meeting (on the concept of synbiodiversity), if I attend in future years I will also seriously consider engaging in and coordinating awareness raising actions outside the formal arrangements available for the meeting. The loss of the world’s biodiversity is just too important to leave to the negotiations alone.

Do GMOs have conservation value?

Below is an article that I recently had published on the website called The Conversation, and since their articles are all under a Creative Commons licence, I am able to share with our readers here. Understanding the relationship that biotechnological organisms have to the value awarded to biodiversity is something that I have been philosophically grappling with over the last year or so. The article republished below, is a popular science version of a longer academic article I published (also available by open access) asking whether anyone cares about ‘synbiodiversity’. All comments, feedback, ideas and reactions would be most welcome as I continue to work to establish a philosophical position on this difficult topic.

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Should genetically modified organisms be part of our conservation efforts?

Fern Wickson, GenØk – Centre for Biosafety

Biotechnology is rapidly evolving through developments in genome editing and synthetic biology, giving birth to new forms of life.

This technology has already given us genetically modified (GM) plants that produce bacterial pesticides, GM mosquitos that are sterile and GM mice that develop human cancers. Now, new biotechnological techniques are promising to deliver a whole host of new lifeforms designed to serve our purposes – pigs with human organs, chickens that lay eggs containing cholesterol controlling drugs, and monkeys that develop autism. The possibilities seem endless.

But do these genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have conservation value?

The biodiversity of life on earth is globally recognised as valuable and in need of protection. This includes not just wild biodiversity but also the biodiversity of agricultural crop plants that humans have developed over thousands of years. But what about the synthetic forms of biodiversity we are now developing through biotechnologies?

Does anyone care about this synbiodiversity?

It’s a question I was compelled to ask while conducting research into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV).

A frozen ‘Noah’s Ark’ for seeds

The SGSV is the global apex of agricultural biodiversity conservation, an approach to conservation where collections of diverse seed samples are kept in frozen storage in genebanks for future use by plant breeders. The SGSV is a frozen cavern in a mountain on the arctic island of Svalbard, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It has been called a Noah’s Ark for crop plants (also the “doomsday vault”) because it is the place where genebanks from all around the world send backup copies of their seed collections for safe-keeping. Here the seeds are sealed inside bags sealed inside boxes locked in a freezer locked in a mountain. They are sent there to be kept safe from the threats genebanks can face, such as energy shortages, natural disasters and war. img_2911 Seeds in the SGSV can only be accessed by the genebank that deposited them and only one withdrawal has been made so far, by researchers from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) seeking to restore their collections after the destruction of Aleppo in war-torn Syria.

The SGSV is managed through a collaborative agreement between the Norwegian government, the Crop Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen).

It opened in 2008 and currently houses 870,971 different samples of 5,340 species from 233 countries, deposited by 69 institutes. img_2893 Are there any GMOs frozen in the vault?

During my research into the SGSV I asked if it held any GM seeds. Despite initially receiving conflicting responses, the formal answer was ultimately “no”. But different reasons were given for this and all are open to change.

The vault is not a certified facility for GMO storage

Facilities working with GMOs require certification to do so. While the SGSV is not currently certified, it could be since requirements typically relate to ensuring strict containment and the SGSV is already oriented towards this goal. Also, since no analysis of seeds is performed at the SGSV or required for deposits, the collections may actually be unintentionally (and unwittingly) contaminated. This is because a mixing with GM crops could have happened via seed or pollen flow before the material was sent to the vault.

There is no political will to include GM crops

Currently, no one in the SGSV management wants to become (any further) entangled in the controversy surrounding GM crops. They already face what they see as false conjectures about the role of the biotechnology industry (fuelled no doubt by the fact that organisations involved in the biotechnology industry have donated funds to the Crop Trust). Several of the depositing genebanks also actively support biotechnology research. Therefore, if they wanted to store GMOs in the future, the will to seek certification may certainly change.

Norway has a strict GMO policy that requires not just evidence of safety but also of social utility and contribution to sustainable development. This means no GM crop has yet been approved for either cultivation or import. But this is currently being challenged by a government committed to speeding up assessments and advocating for weakened interpretations of the law. This further indicates the potential for political will to change.

GM crops do not meet the requirements for multilateral access

The International Plant Treaty is a crucial foundation for the SGSV. As such, depositing genebanks are required to agree to multilateral access to their collections if they wish to deposit backup copies in the SGSV. <p>But GM crops are not freely accessible to all as part of the common heritage of humanity. They are patented inventions owned by those claiming to have created them. The SGSV requirement that deposits be available for multilateral access can be waived though.

But if GM crops are not in the SGSV, should they be?

Do GMOs have conservation value?

Very little work has examined the moral status and conservation value of GM crops.

As the fields of genome editing and synthetic biology are now undergoing rapid development though, we have an important opportunity to consider how we relate to biotechnological forms of biodiversity. We can also think about whether it might be possible to navigate through syn- to symbiodiversity.

That is, instead of focusing on these life forms as synthetic human inventions, we could begin to think about them as co-creations of human-nature interactions. In doing so, we may then shift the focus away from how to make synthetic organisms to satisfy our needs and place more emphasis on how to interact with other life forms to establish symbiotic relations of mutual benefit.

The French sociologist of science and anthropologist Bruno Latour has urged us to love our monsters, to take responsibility for our technologies and care for them as our children. Certainly it seems fair to argue that if we don’t care for our biotechnological co-creations with a sense of (parental) responsibility, perhaps we shouldn’t be bringing them to life.

How do we care for GM crops?

The model of freezing seeds in genebanks and backing up those collections at the SGSV is one way to conserve biodiversity. Another, however, is the approach of continuing to cultivate them in our agricultural landscapes.

While this model of conservation has generated and maintained the biodiversity of traditional crop varieties for thousands of years, there is now a significant shift taking place. More than 90% of traditional crop varieties have now disappeared from our fields and been replaced by genetically uniform modern varieties cultivated in large-scale monocultures. Meaning, there may be no GM crops frozen in the SGSV, but there are plenty in the ground.

So this leaves me questioning what it is we really cherish? Are we using our precious agricultural resources to expand the diversity of humanity’s common heritage? Or are we rather placing our common heritage on ice while we expand the ecological space occupied by privately owned inventions? And who cares about synbiodiversity anyway?

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.

New paper published! Should Organic Agriculture Maintain Its Opposition to GM? New Techniques Writing the Same Old Story

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This new open access paper from The Agri/Cultures Project reflects on whether organic farming should accept GM technologies as an additional tool to use, especially in light of new breeding plant technologies (NBPT). Below you can find the abstract and here the full text. Enjoy!

Abstract: Biotechnology is diversifying rapidly through the development and application of new approaches to genome editing and ongoing research into synthetic biology. Proponents of biotechnology are enthusiastic about these new developments and have recently begun calling for environmental movements to abandon their campaigns against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and for organic agriculture to reconsider its exclusion of Genetic Modification (GM). In this article, we begin by describing the diversity of practices that cluster under both the terms GM and organic and show that although there is a clash of different cultures of agriculture at stake, there is also a spectrum of practices existing between these two poles. Having established the terms of the debate, we then go on to analyse whether the organic movement should reconsider its position on GM in light of new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs), using the criteria highlighted as important by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) in their 2016 draft revised position on GMOs. Through this analysis, we suggest that given the in-context-trajectory of biotechnology development, the continued narrow framing of agricultural problems and the ongoing exclusion of important socio-economic, political and cultural dimensions, the organic movement is justified in maintaining its opposition to GM in the face of NPBTs.

Systems perspective on GMOs at the EASST Conference

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Last week we attended the European Association of the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) Conference in Barcelona. It was an enormous conference (around 2000 participants) which was exciting but it also made it challenging to stay on top of everything that was going on. Conferences such as this one are useful platforms for networking with people who are working on similar issues in order to build and strengthen academic communities.

The interdisciplinary nature of our project makes us somehow academically promiscuous in the way that we do not belong to a single academic community of reference, but rather we transit and have conversations with people from a multiplicity of academic worlds that speak to different dimensions of the project. EASST is one of these communities we transit, as it contains part of the academic community who does Science and Technology Studies (STS). For us this is a very interesting academic community to be in contact with since GM crops have a major technoscientific component.  The project hugely benefits from dialogues and reflections related to the roles technoscience plays within the GMO socio-political controversies.

We participated in a track called “Governance of agricultural biotechnologies”, facilitated by Andrew Stirling and with other very knowledgeable speakers such as Robert Smith, Georgina Catacora-Vargas, Anne Ingeborg Myhr and Brian Wynne. Our presentation was about how a system perspective can be useful when assessing and regulating GMOs. This presentation stemmed from one of our papers:

Seeing GMOs from a Systems Perspective: The Need for Comparative Cartographies of Agri/Cultures for Sustainability Assessment.

For this presentation we focused on the cartographies that we have been producing over recent months, which illustrate interesting differences between GM, chemically intensive, certified organic and agroecological systems.

The audience seemed to really enjoy the presentation and one participant said she felt that we were developing – a very much needed – ‘applied STS’. 🙂

Dwelling on Definitions and Drawing Lines of Distinction

At the end of June, the European members of the project met for a writing retreat in London. While we were there, we participated in the annual meeting of the Science and Democracy Network and as mentioned in an earlier post, took a Guardian Masterclass on science journalism. The main purpose for our meeting though was to focus on writing an article we were invited to contribute to a special issue of the journal Sustainability. The upcoming issue is on Organic Farming and Gene Manipulation, with the papers asked to “evaluate the potential of genetic engineering for improvement of organic farming”.

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To work on this article, we again had to face the challenge of how to define and understand both ‘organic farming’ and ‘genetic modification’. This is challenging because in fact there are many subtle yet significant differences that can be placed together under these terms and if we are not careful, the significance of these differences can be lost. For example, large-scale monocultural farming operations certified as organic and producing products for the global market are not the same as small-scale diversely intercropped agroecological farms oriented towards sustaining local communities and achieving food sovereignty. Furthermore, neither of these are the same as those subsistence farmers producing food without synthetic chemical inputs because they cannot afford to do otherwise or the practices of farmers hundreds of years ago before manufactured chemical inputs were available. Organic farming can be interpreted to mean several different things by different people and each interpretation will give weight to somewhat different practices and values. For example, organic farming may be used to refer to operations that largely follow a conventional agribusiness model, those that fall completely outside that model, or those directly and specifically opposed to this approach.

grain-664740_960_720Similarly, the term genetic modification can also be used to refer to several different things. Manipulating genes through traditional plant breeding practices is, however, not the same as genetic modification done through recombinant DNA technology, which can combine material from several species not normally able to exchange DNA. Such transgenic genetic modification is also not the same as cisgenic transformation (using only genes from the same or related species). Furthermore, recombinant DNA technology is different from the new wave of genome editing techniques (such as the much discussed CRISPR-Cas9 system) or techniques to interfere with the messaging services of RNA. Each of these fields has different possibilities, requirements and implications. Therefore, if we are to discuss a topic like whether genetic manipulation has anything to offer organic farming, we need to be very careful to clarify the terms of the debate first and be sensitive to the potential for different understandings. There are always shades of grey between the black and white ends of a spectrum.

While we were in London, we also found this issue arising again when we tried to work on our second main task there, which was to try and finalise our visual cartographies of different agri/cultural systems. Although there is a common distinction made between GM, Conventional and Organic farming systems, in practice there are overlapping areas and shades of grey between them. For example, GM and chemically-intensive conventional agriculture are very much aligned in terms of their overarching goals, values and orientations, they typically just use different crop varieties. There is also, however, a surprising degree of overlap in the orientation and organisation of large-scale commercial organic farms with conventional agriculture, the key difference being in the inputs they use. There is also an affinity in the environmental values shared between certified organic and agroecological models, however, there can be a significant difference in questions of social organisation and structure between them. This meant that once again we had to dwell on and discuss the lines of distinction between various cultures of agriculture and how best we might visually represent their similarities and differences in practice.

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That said, during our retreat we made significant progress on both the paper evaluating the potential for the use of GM within organic farming and on how to approach the presentation of our cartographies. Hopefully in a future blog post we can present published versions of both of these things that the project has been working on lately!

GMOs: Assessing Social and Ethical Aspects

In addition to my work as a researcher, I also serve on several national and international committees. This includes a position as member of the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board.

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The role of this board is to both encourage public discussion and debate and to provide advice to the Norwegian government on issues related to biotechnology, and particularly on social and ethical issues. The work of this advisory board covers both the use of biotechnology in medical applications and the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture. The board is made up of a diverse range of professionals with very different perspectives, beliefs and areas of expert knowledge. Our discussions are always extremely interesting, informative and very often involve canvassing a range of issues and different positions on controversial topics of public interest. For example, since I was appointed as a member, we have come with advice on topics as diverse as whether single women should have State supported access to in vitro fertilisation (IVF), whether parents should be allowed to perform genetic testing on their children, whether sperm donors should be subject to genetic testing, how the regulation of genetic testing for medical research may differ from that for clinical applications and whether Norway should accept GM crop products for import. Our recommendations on the topics we discuss are always made publically available (in Norwegian) and when the Board is divided in its views, the positions of each Board member are made clear in the recommendation.

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As part of its work and in addition to the meetings of its members, the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board also regularly arranges public events, lectures and seminars. On June 8th, I was fortunate enough to be invited to give a breakfast seminar in Oslo on the topic of assessing social and ethical aspects of GMOs, which was videoed and is now available online. In this talk, I drew on the research we have been performing in The Agri/Cultures Project and sought to explain why assessing social and ethical issues around GMOs is important, as well as show different ways in which this can be approached and argue that we need to be considering these matters at various points along the innovation chain.

What was particularly interesting for me was to see how the announcement of this seminar was treated on social media. Before I even got a chance to give my talk, groups on Facebook and users of Twitter were already dismissing the content as biased and irrelevant, as well as criticising me and GenØk Centre for Biosafety for being anti-GMO activists. Although none of the net trolls seemed to have the courage to attend the event, actually hear my thoughts on the topic and have a face to face conversation with me, it is amazing how the GMO debate continues to generate such strong emotional reactions amongst people. Indeed, in my talk I try to highlight how this emotional response is indicative of the importance of addressing social and ethical dimensions of the technology. I also challenged this approach to the debate by suggesting that we need to move out of the current trench warfare approach of pro-anti GMO camps dug in and defending their positions by throwing bombs at the other, and actually start to have more sophisticated conversations in which we look at concrete cases, contexts and empirical research. This is becoming increasingly important as biotechnology is now diversifying rapidly through the use of genome editing techniques like CRISPR-Cas9 and we need to carefully consider what we mean by the term ‘GMO’ and whether all biotechnology techniques should be considered alike in terms of their potential social and environmental impacts, ethical aspects and regulation.

Are GE and organic agriculture compatible?

Public consultation on the position of IFOAM – Organics International on genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms

‘Conventional’ agriculture is increasingly adopting techniques associated with both genetic engineering (GE) and also, selectively, with agroecological practices, in what has been called the “sustainable intensification” agenda. At the same time, it has also been suggested in some scientific arenas that organic agriculture would benefit from incorporating GMOs into its practices, despite the robust opposition the use of these organisms has traditionally received from the organic sector.

This debate strongly intersects with the current public consultation that IFOAM-Organics International (the worldwide umbrella organisation for the organic agriculture movement) has launched about its position on GE and GMOs. The consultation is open now to any individual or organization willing to participate. The objective of the consultation is to review the organisation’s original position (launched in 2002) in order to consider and include new developments in GE technology, as well as to adapt their position to a context involving a higher presence of GM crops and growing evidence of the impacts of GE. IFOAM has produced a new position draft, which is open for comment and proposed amendments.

In my opinion, the new draft represents a very substantial improvement on the previous document because it includes many new nuanced and comprehensive arguments for the rejection of GM crops within organic production, while it also widens the scope and the techniques included within a definition of GE (in line with the discussion on the regulation of new breeding techniques). Also, the connections between the IFOAM position on GMOs and its four principles for organic agriculture (the principles of health, fairness, ecology and care) are explicit and articulated. At the same time, the draft adopts a much needed food systems approach, discussing not only the impacts of GM crops for organic farmers and consumers, but also tackling R&D aspects (e.g. discussing responsible innovation and patents on life), and agri-food governance (i.e calling for a more democratic decision-making concerning GMOs and for including socio-economic impacts in the assessment of GMOs). It also calls both for deliberating on the need for GE crops, and for seeking alternative options before their introduction (in line with the principles described in the Norwegian Gene Technology Act). Finally, it is also positive that the position is explicitly trying to build bridges with additional stakeholders from conventional agriculture who are also increasingly interested in preserving their production as GM-free. This offers the possibility of generating new alliances and defining common strategies to face common problems.

I think this process of reflecting on the organic position on GMOs, and revisiting the supporting arguments for it, is an excellent opportunity to engage in the debate about merging GM and organic agricultures and, especially, to refine and improve the arguments surrounding “sustainable intensification” proposals.
PS. Feedback to IFOAM can be sent until 31st of March 2016.

Naturalness: A helpful or hopeless concept?

 

2013.02-402-294a_Pearl_millet,breeding,selfing_ICRISAT,Patancheru(Hyderabad,Andhra_Pradesh),IN_wed20feb2013In the public debate about agricultural biotechnologies and their acceptability, we often hear the claim from critics that these technologies are “not natural”. Such claims are typically dismissed by supporters of the technology who claim that agricultural practices have always involved human intervention into nature and the use of new technologies (be it plough, pesticide or irrigation system). In academic circles, the concept of naturalness has very much fallen out of fashion and is rarely invoked as a legitimate argument either for or against new technologies.

The problem seems to stem from the word ‘nature’ as it is commonly understood and employed today. If human beings are seen to be separate from ‘nature’, then anything they do can arguably be understood as “unnatural”, including all agricultural practices. If, however, we are seen to be a part of nature, then everything we do becomes “natural”, including all technological inventions such as plastic, nuclear weapons and transgenic organisms. This means we seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place in which the concept of naturalness appears completely useless for debating the desirability and virtues of different agricultural technologies. And yet, an implicit use of a concept is found throughout environmental debates because without it, concepts like pollution, contamination, the anthropocene, pristine nature etc would have little meaning. The concept of naturalness is therefore often invoked but rarely defined in environmental debates concerning new and emerging technologies. A new book published this year seeks to change this though. It does so by reimagining and redefining the idea of naturalness in ways that may allow it to have a legitimate place in debates about agricultural biotechnologies.

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Philosophy of Nature: Rethinking naturalness” by environmental philosopher Assoc. Prof. Svein Anders Noer Lie  lays a foundation for reclaiming the idea of naturalness in scientific, public and policy debates. Critiquing the dual view of our modern world in which on the one hand nature can be legitimately used and treated, taken apart and rearranged in any way humans prefer, and on the other hand, that the best way to protect nature from abuse is to create a separation from human interaction (i.e. we can either do anything and everything, or nothing), the book works to carve out a kind of third way by reclaiming the ancient idea that biological entities have ‘a nature’ that human beings can identify, respect and work together with.

As Assoc. Prof. Noer Lie writes in the preface, “When things are seen to have natures, there are good and bad ways to manipulate them – and because things have natures, it eventually becomes clear that there are good and bad consequences. Finally, it is because things have a nature that we can have an ethics regarding those things or beings in the first place.” The problem from his perspective is therefore that within the currently dominant ontology (or way of seeing the world) biological entitites are not seen to have any inherent nature. To counter this ‘passivist’ view, Noer Lie carefully outlines an alternative view – a dispositional ontology – in which entities are seen to have particular defining dispositions (i.e. powers, potentials or characteristics). This ontology proposes that the behaviour of beings is not entirely determined by outside factors (i.e. the being has no internal nature), nor is it entirely determined by inherent characteristics (i.e. the being is static in its expressed characteristics), but rather that beings have a set of dispositions (or range of possibilities) that become manifest in relationship with particular others and external conditions. As a simple illustrative example of this idea, a glass has the disposition to shatter, but this only becomes manifest when it meets the floor. Arguing that biological entitites have particular dispositions that they have historically evolved in relationship with ecosystem interactions, Noer Lie proposes that we can act in accordance with a being’s nature by identifying and taking these dispositions into account.

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In reclaiming the concept of naturalness through using a dispositional ontology to argue that biological entities have a nature that we can respect or disrespect, Noer Lie does not adopt the position that human beings should therefore acknowledge the intrinsic value of nature and leave it alone. Having previously acknowledged problems with the concept of intrinsic value in a relational worldview, he rather talks about the need to rethink the way we instrumentally use nature and proposes that we can actually do this most efficiently and ethically by working with rather than against the natural dispositions that a biological organism or system has.

This work aligns with arguments I have made elsewhere concerning the problem with calls to  ‘protect the environment’ and my argument that we should instead focus on the cultivation of our ecological Self. It also supports my argument that opposition to biotechnology (and other life technosciences) need not only be focused on the consequences of those technologies for human and environmental health, or on a defined set of universal ethical principles, but can also be ontologically derived, i.e. stemming from a different view of how the world works and the role of humans within it.

While Noer Lie uses most of the book Philosophy of Nature: Rethinking naturalness to focus on presenting a detailed philosophical grounding for his views and arguments, the final chapter takes up the question of what his concept of naturalness may mean for the stewardship of wilderness. It is also interesting for us to now consider, what could this approach mean for the stewardship of agriculture and the governance of emerging technologies?