Historical Analysis of the Effectiveness of AKST Systems in Promoting Innovation | 95

Box 2-6. Emergence of genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering (GE) or genetic modification of crops (GM) has emerged as a major agricultural technology over the past decade, mainly in North America, China and Argentina. Soybeans, maize, cotton and canola constitute 99 percent of the world's acreage of GE crops (James, 2004). Although GE traits encompass several categories (pest and disease resistance, abiotic stress tolerance, yield, nutrition and vaccines), herbicide tolerance and insect resistance dominate the market. A controversial dialogue has emerged as to the role of GE technology in addressing agricultural problems. Whether farmers have realized benefits from GE crops is a matter of debate. GE technology is seen as not being scale neutral by some (Benbrook, 2004; Pemsl et al., 2005; Rosset, 2005), and in certain instances, GE crops have been shown to increase income distribution differentials within the agriculture sector, favoring the establishment of large holdings and increased farm size (see Santaniello, 2003; Pengue, 2005), However, there is also evidence that GE has benefited farmers (Huang et al., 2001; Ismael, 2001; Traxler et al., 2001; Huang et al., 2002a; Cattaneo et al., 2006). The impacts on pesticide use are debated, with some studies indicating reduced use of insecticides (Huang et al., 2003) and others indicating significant rise in herbicide use (USDA, 2000; Benbrook, 2004). New evidence of high insecticide use by Chinese growers of GE insecticidal crops (Bt cotton) has demonstrated that farmers do not necessarily reduce their insecticide use even when using a technology designed for that purpose (Pemsl et al., 2005). This illustrates the frequently documented gap between the reality of how a technology is used (taken up in a given social context) and its "in the box" design.

     Globally, agricultural producers are reported as receiving 13% of the benefits of GE soya. In Argentina, soya producers received 90% of the benefits of GE soya, partly owing to weak IP protection (Qaim and Traxler, 2005), hence greatly favoring the expansion of the technology in Argentina. However, this increasing reliance on a single technology in Argentina is causing ecological and social concerns (Benbrook 2004, Pengue 2005). Similarly, social, economic, political and cultural concerns have been raised in Asia, Africa and Latin America, as GMOs have been assessed for their impacts on poverty reduction, equity, food sovereignty (de Grassi, 2003; FOE, 2005, 2006). Meanwhile, the roles and contributions of public institutions, scientists, governments, industry and civil society are now beginning to be closely analyzed (de Grassi, 2003).

     GE risk analysis has historically acknowledged the possibility of negative ecological effects from the deliberate or inadvertent releases of transgenes into the environment through pollen mediated gene transfer to weedy relatives of GM crops (Haygood et al., 2003) and horizontal gene transfer. For most crops grown under regulatory approval such as maize in the USA, the likelihood is negligible (Conner et al., 2003). In other cases, such as canola in Canada, low levels of levels of transgenic DNA have entered non-GM seed supplies (Friesen et al., 2003; Mellon and


Rissler, 2004). There have also been cases of contamination of food supply chain with possible litigation against farmers for the unintentional presence of transgenic DNA in their crops. This is likely to emerge as an even larger issue as pharmaceuticals are introduced into crops (Nature Biotechnology, 2004; Snow et al., 2005). Despite technical solutions to prevent such gene movement (e.g., controversial "terminator technology" and limitation of transgenes to the chloroplast genome not carried in pollen) and traditional plant variety purity protocols no method is likely to be completely effective in preventing movement of transgenes (NRC, 2004).

     GE R&D in developing countries is behind that of the developed world for a number of factors including: (1) private sector in the developed world holds much of the IPR; (2) weak patent protection resulting in low investment by the private sector; (3) consumer resistance and governmental regulations affecting international trade in GM products and flow of germplasm; (4) and rising costs of development that inhibit the private research (Huang et al., 2002b). The costs of regulatory compliance have been cited as the largest obstacle to release of commercial GE crops in many developing countries (Atanassov, 2004; Cohen, 2005) and even developed countries. In developed countries like the UK, where public opinion has been exposed to food safety crises like BSE, studies highlight the mixed feelings about GMOs. More broadly, citizens are concerned about the integrity and adequacy of present patterns of government regulation, and in particular about official "scientific" assurances of safety. Better science is necessary but may never resolve the uncertainties about the effects of new technologies (ESRC, 1999).

     Crops derived from GE technologies have faced a myriad of challenges stemming from technical, political, environmental, intellectual-property, biosafety, and trade-related controversies, none of which are likely to disappear in the near future. Advocates cite potential yield increases, sustainability through reductions in pesticide applications, use in no-till agriculture, wider crop adaptability, and improved nutrition (Huang et al., 2002b; Christou and Twyman, 2004). Critics cite environmental risks and the widening social, technological and economic disparities as significant drawbacks (Pengue, 2005). Concerns include gene flow beyond the crop, reduction in crop diversity, increases in herbicide use, herbicide resistance (increased weediness), loss of farmer's sovereignty over seed, ethical concerns on origin of transgenes, lack of access to IPR held by the private sector, and loss of markets owing to moratoriums on GMOs, among others. Finally, because new genetic technologies are not the only hurdle between resource-poor farmers and secure livelihoods (Tripp, 2000), GM technology can be only one component of a wider strategy including conventional breeding and other forms of agricultural research to provide a series of structural, regulatory, and economic evaluations that relate economic, political, and scientific context of GE crops to their region of adoption.