The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)


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Can biotechnology lead to a more sustainable agriculture?
Sylvie BONNY

At present, there is consensus on the need for a sustainable agriculture. Can biotechnology contribute positively? The paper will examine particularly genetic engineering and its potential effects considering the different elements of sustainability in agriculture: (I) environmental soundness, (II) economic viability, (III) sufficiency and quality of food, (IV) social acceptability and (V) equity.

I - Will biotech lead to a greater environmental soundness and the preservation of resources?

Potential effects of biotech



 development of a new type of agriculture relying more on biological processes than chemical applications

 pest-resistant plants fewer chemical treatments

 increase in agricultural yield (reduced losses) saving in land, less deforestation & use of fragile soils

 possible increase in genetic diversity through gene transfer and better knowledge of different genotypes


 overartificialization of nature

 transgenes can spread to certain weeds

 risk of: development of herbicide resistant plants

development of Bt-resistant pests

 which effects on auxiliary fauna of insect-resistant plants?

 decrease in biodiversity

 dangers relating to biological warfare

II - Does biotech enhance economic viability in agriculture?



 reduction in production costs due to fewer losses

 diversification of agricultural production (new pharmaceutical or chemical produce)

 rise in seed cost

 patents on living matter

 greater dependence of farmers on industrial firms

 lack of consumer confidence

III - Will biotech increase sufficiency and improve the quality of food for everyone?



 increase in agricultural production (fewer losses, better drought tolerance of crops, etc.)

 improved quality (new characteristics)

 production in the LDC will not automatically increase:

- biotech is geared to the markets of rich countries

- some agro-exporter countries could lose outlets

- risk of strengthening disparities between countries

 quality: risks of toxicity?

IV - Will biotech lead to a socially acceptable form of agriculture?

 Problem of acceptability of genetic engineering by some people (transgression of species barrier, etc.)

 Controversy about the effects of biotech

 Better knowledge of living matter, but risk of molecular reductionism

+  Will transgenic plants make the farmer's work easier or more difficult?

V - Biotech and equity

Biotech could strengthen disparities if it isn't accessible to everybody, e.g.:

 It could be very useful for LDC, but will they have access to it?

 Presently biotech is particularly oriented to the needs of rich countries

 Lack of funding hinders the initiatives to develop biotech for LDC' needs

 Technical models need to adapt to local situations


Biotech appears double-edged: it may lead towards both increased and decreased sustainability depending on how it is used. When humankind is developing ever more powerful tools, there is a need to control the mastery over nature and its impact. At present, it is too early to judge genetic engineering definitively, as it is in its earliest stages and can yet have unexpected repercussions and advances. However, a real interest of biotech could appear only if it is better geared to the needs of the poorest and undernourished people, particularly if it enables an increase in food production in the places where it is insufficient and not exclusively or principally in affluent countries.