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Can genetic engineering be part of sustainable agriculture?

Governments, businesses and some farm organizations are claiming that genetic engineering will help create a more sustainable agriculture - by reducing pesticide use and agricultural pollution, and increasing agricultural productivity and profitability.

What proponents consider to be pesticide reduction receives the most attention. Most of the current products on the market or in development are for herbicide-resistant and BT-crops. Of the most recent list produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists on US existing and imminent commercialisations, 22 of 34 products fall into this category.

Genetic engineering has the potential to solve problems. But, unfortunately, "biotechnology is being shaped within the same social context and value system that led to chemical dependence"1. It is deeply integrated into the same industrial agricultural economy that has created many current environmental, social and economic problems2. Molecular biology, on which biotechnology applications are based, evolved within both a capitalist economic framework and a rigid positivist, reductionist scientific tradition3. This history has produced both scientists and scientific applications that seek solutions to agricultural problems in products sold in the marketplace, rather than management solutions that decrease farmers' reliance on external inputs and agribusiness4. Herbicide-resistance is receiving the most commercial attention "not because it is good or biologically sound, but because it is easy and profitable, involving the transformation or insertion of only one gene"5.

Sustainable agriculture is part of a much different paradigm. It involves the application of sustainable development and agroecological principles to farming and food systems, working with natural processes to conserve all resources and minimize waste and environmental damage, while maintaining or improving farm profitability.

Agroecology is concerned about the relationships between organisms, and their associated nutrient, energy and water flows. It is concerned about systems and their dynamics. It is a highly contextual paradigm, believing that all activities take place within a particular environment that must be understood to know the more specific actions that take place within it. Facts, or units of knowledge, can not be separated from the environmental, socio-cultural, political and economic context in which they are investigated. Agroecology reflects a belief in multiple causes and multiple effects.

Biotechnology, particularly recombinant DNA technologies, employs a scientific paradigm that is fundamentally at odds with agricultural sustainability and agroecology. It is the consummate extension of the dominant reductionist and positivist tradition6 in agricultural science. In this paradigm, fact can be separated from context, phenomena can be divided into discrete manageable explanations, and small samples can be inductively generalized as representative of universal phenomena.

Proponents believe that complex biological organisms can be explained by their genetic sequences, as if the environment within which those genes are expressed has no influence over the expression. Biotechnologists believe in single cause and effect relations, because they are usually manipulating small numbers of sequences in order to produce a very specific result. Their focus is on symptoms, rather than systems, underlying forces, and the interplay between biological, social and economic dimensions of human activity.

When faced with a weed control problem, a sustainable agriculture practitioner asks such questions as: what environmental conditions are favourable to the growth of this organism? how are soil conditions promoting its development and what is the presence of this organism telling us about the "health" of the soil? what in the farmer's tillage and cropping practices enhances growth of this organism? how can all these conditions be changed in a manner that fits with the biological, economic and social constraints of the farmer's operation?

A biotechnologist, working within the current university or industrial system, might ask such questions as: what gene sequences give this weed its hardiness? what changes to its genetic structure might make it more susceptible to chemical control? how can we manipulate the genetic code of a commodity affected economically by this weed, to make it resistant to the most effective chemical controls? can we develop an industrial process to make these genetic manipulations commercially viable?

In fact, many current biotechnology applications will likely increase pesticide use. For example, the recently registered BT-potato, designed to reduce Colorado Potato Beetle damage, will likely contribute to already existing BT resistance7, and discourage farmers, at least in the short-term, from practising crop rotation. Consequently, although Colorado Potato Beetle damage may be reduced in the short-term, resistance will likely rise, as will the incidence of other pest problems that will require pesticides for control. Once resistance occurs, the variety will lose its value, and the expensive infrastructure required to create it wasted, imposing an opportunity cost for less expensive management strategies.

Some analysts believe that there is a significant risk of increased weediness and gene transfers to pests from transgenic plants, thus creating new pest problems that may thwart ecological solutions and require even greater use of pesticides to solve.

These approaches to problem solving have few points of intersection. It is possible that biotechnology would have value within a sustainable agriculture framework, but it would more likely be at the level of production process, rather than crop or pest organism manipulation. For example, the production of an insect attractant might be facilitated by a recombinant DNA industrial process, but the use of the attractant would likely only be a limited part of an ecological control strategy.

As currently practiced and commercialized, biotechnology will not help us achieve sustainability in agriculture. It takes us further down a road that has already been demonstrated to cause environmental problems. Instead, scientists, farmers and policy makers must focus on preventive design and management solutions to agriculture problems.

1 Rissler, J. 1991:6. Biotechnology and pest control: quick fix vs. sustainable control. Global Pesticide Campaigner 1(2):1,6-8.

2 Crouch, M. 1995. Biotechnology is not compatible with sustainable agriculture. J. Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 8:98-111.

3 See Yoxen, E. 1983. The Gene Business. Harper, New York

4 See MacRae, R.J. et al. 1989. Agricultural science and sustainable agriculture: a review of the existing scientific barriers to sustainable food production and potential solutions. Biological Agriculture and Horticulture 6:173-219.

5 Kneen, B. 1995, Agriculture and biotechnology. In: Enabling Biotechnology?: an analysis of the Report of the Biotechnology Council of Ontario. Report to the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Trade. Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, Toronto. January, 1995.

6 These approaches "are based on several unprovable assumptions: (1) that the essential characteristics of any phenomenon are captured best by analyzing its parts: (2) that there is a sharp distinction between facts and values; (3) that only those facts that are measurable are indeed facts; and (4) that these measurable facts are more valid than other types of information or knowledge" (Dahlberg, K. 1993:294. Government policies that encourage pesticide use in the United States. In: D. Pimentel and H. Lehman (eds.). The Pesticide Question: environment, economics and ethics. Chapman and Hall, New York, pp. 281-306).

7 BT-resistance has been reported in Australia, the Phillippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan and the USA. The resistance is associated with repeated applications to crops and incorporation into crops. See The Pesticide Trust. 1993. Pesticide threat to Bacillus thuringiensis. Pesticide News 21 (Sept.):14.

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