Nothing is wrong with genetic modification and its application in agriculture (green biotechnology), says Rudy Rabbinge; agriculture needs innovation, and GM technology is helpful in that because it allows us to operate faster and more precisely. But the business model of Monsanto and Syngenta, the two giants in this field, will eventually kill innovation, because they position themselves as monopolists and shield their discoveries with patents. That will harm both world food supply and the environment. Genetic modification deserves much support, also when applied to plants – but only if free competition is kept alive, and growers can further develop the achievements of their predecessors.
This is the first article resulting from a conversation with Rudy Rabbinge. The second article has been published on 5 September.
Rudy Rabbinge is the most senior of the Dutch agricultural researchers. He was a professor in production ecology at Wageningen UR; he retired in 2011. His services as a director and an advisor were much in demand at home and abroad, and at FAO and other international organisations. He was a member of the First Chamber of Dutch parliament for the social-democratic party, and a member of the Dutch Scientific Advisory Committee on Policy (WRR). His dedicated his life to the development of a new agriculture, both productive and ecologically benign, by the integration of biological pest and weed control and precision technologies into knowledge-based agricultural practices.
Genetic modification is largely accepted
We asked Rudy Rabbinge to elaborate on his vision on genetic modification, as we feel that genetic modification is of crucial importance for the biobased economy. Being a teacher at heart, he started pointing out the fields in which GM technology is applied right now. The general conclusion: genetic modification is much more broadly applied and much more widely accepted than public discussion often suggests. Rabbinge highlighted five areas:
• Red biotechnology (medical): genetic modification is wholly accepted in this field. At present, 80% of all antibiotics are produced by the intermediate of GM organisms. Relatively, this production method is very clean.
• White biotechnology (industrial): GMOs are increasingly employed, no public opposition. Example: the newest BMW bumper with exceptionally good shock absorption, consisting of polymers and carbohydrates, produced using GM organisms. Separation technology needs to be continually developed as a part of this line of R&D.
• Yellow biotechnology (healing processes within the body): accepted but the public are ignorant. An example of this is the treatment of cancers using genetically modified bacteria, tumours that used to be treated with radioactive isotopes.
• Blue biotechnology (in marine environments): accepted. For instance genetic modification of algae.
• Green biotechnology (modification of green plants, for instance for plague resistance or for the introduction of specific properties): debated. And yet, world-wide 175 million hectares (90 times the agricultural land in the Netherlands) are sown with GM varieties (rapeseed, soy, maize, cotton). The majority of these GM crops are cis-modified: the new varieties are spiked with genes of the same species. Trans-modified varieties (with genes from other species) like golden rice are still not allowed by the authorities, not even in India. Golden rice contains beta carotene, from which the body produces vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiencies cause major health problems in South-Eastern Asia.
Rudy Rabbinge: ‘The vast majority of genetic modifications is simply accepted. Genetic modification has the great advantage that we can deliver the desired changes quickly and efficiently, making use of the surgeon’s scalpel rather than the blunt axe of crossbreeding, the traditional technique of improvement. Genetic modification transfers only the useful genes. Therefore, governments should support GMOs. That would have been of much use to Agrico, for example; this company has succeeded in breeding a potato variety that is resistant to phytophtora (still the most important potato disease), by crossbreeding indigenous South-American varieties with commercial varieties. This process might have been speeded up a lot and been much more efficient if they had been able to use genetic modification technology.’
Patents on seeds will kill innovation
‘But the market of green biotechnology is dominated almost exclusively by Monsanto (and Syngenta, a subsidiary to BASF, smaller); and in due course, their business model will threaten both the environment and world food supply. It will threaten world food supply because Monsanto will become the monopolist in this field, if it could continue to pursue its business model. This is intricately linked to the patents they apply for (and get awarded) on their seeds. These patents prohibit further improvements on these varieties by third parties. This will eventually cause commercial varieties to be based on a very narrow genetic pool; innovation in this field will to come to a standstill. Both consequences do not apply to a system based on grower’s rights that is common in Europe; in such a system, growers who further develop an existing seed will pay a fee to the original developers. This issue has been hotly debated for at least ten years now; the entire Dutch seed developing and horticultural sector squarely backs the system of grower’s rights, but so far the EU has not been really convinced, and in TTIP parties might eventually take the wrong decision.’
‘In short, green biotechnology has much potential, but only if it can be applied in an innovative system; not if discoveries can continually be shielded by patents,’ says Rudy Rabbinge.