Science - March 3, 2005

Book / Transgenic crops are not a simple matter

In a recent publication, a number of Wageningen professors and researchers reflect together with American and other international natural and social scientists on the environmental costs and benefits of transgenic crops. According to Dr Justus Wesseler, editor of the book, the main conclusion is that both supporters and opponents tend to oversimplify this complex matter. But just because it is complex does not mean that policy makers cannot deal with it, he adds.

The book illustrates how ecology, politics and economics come together: whether a particular modified crop has positive or negative environmental effects depends largely on the policies made and the workings of the market, and not only on the technology at stake. An example: Germany has strict rules on the coexistence of transgenic crops and normal crops to prevent cross-pollination. Not only are they required to be planted at large distances from each other, but if cross-pollination occurs the grower of the infected crop can hold any transgenic crop grower liable for the damage, even if it someone who is not in the immediate neighbourhood.

These strict rules make it is a costly business for German farmers to use transgenic costs, and ultimately it is for economic reasons that they are unlikely to adopt them. Only if farmers cooperate regionally and thereby cover costs jointly is GMO growing likely to be a realistic option. In the United States, however, both market conditions and legislation are very different from in Germany. Using transgenic crops is not only possible but also profitable. Policies relating to consumer information, such as labelling of transgenic products, can influence the market as well. That the issue is also the subject of trade disputes between the EU and the US does not simplify matters either.

There are more issues that are not clear-cut. Some transgenic crops are considered environment-friendly because they reduce pesticide use, but at the same time they have been modified to produce a toxin that also kills beneficial insects. The way in which inventions are patented can determine whether more environment-friendly transgenic crops are encouraged or ones that are more polluting. Policy makers have some choice in the matter here, but the way in which crops are patented also has repercussions for the use of transgenic crops in developing countries. Some countries do not protect patents, and biotech companies will not sell their products in those countries. According to Wesseler that could lead to losses for the environment, if the environmental benefits of transgenic crops, such as less pesticide use, cannot be achieved as a result. / JT

Environmental Costs and Benefits of Transgenic Crops, J.H.H. Wesseler (ed.), Wageningen UR Frontis Series, 2005 Springer Publishers, ISBN 1-4020-3247-1