Genetically Modified Organisms and the perils of being too precautionary

Foto Anna Sophia 3

By: Anna Sophia Doyle*

At a time when the global view of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) grows ever more polarized, the seventh meeting of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety[1] was both timely and symptomatic of the current divide. Agenda items were many and varied, including compliance to the protocol, financial mechanisms and resources, and socioeconomic considerations regarding the use of living modified organisms (LMOs)[2].

But the most hotly contested issue without doubt was the debate surrounding the attempted endorsement of the Guidance for Environmental Risk Assessment of LMOs (referred to from here on simply as “the Guidance”).

7th Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol on Biosafety, Pyeongchang, Republic of Korea, 29 September – 3 October 2014

Seemingly an innocuous issue on the surface, the topic of “Risk Management and Risk Assessment” quickly had the room divided. One group of countries – including Bolivia, Austria, Moldavia and Mauritania – remained steadfast in their commitment to the precautionary principle with regard to the use of LMOs, and advocated strongly for the endorsement and adoption of the Guidance. Another  group – that included Honduras, Iran, Japan, Paraguay and the Philippines – who are already producers and/or consumers of genetically modified (GM) crops, were vehemently opposed to endorsing the Guidance in its current form.  Two major GM payers, Mexico and Brazil, although cautious in their interventions, both expressed concern over the current state of the Guidance. One delegate ironically suggested that it be endorsed with the adage “adopt at your own risk.”

The debate was a heated one. Those in favor of adoption argued that resource-strapped developing countries desperately needed help in mitigating the risks to biodiversity and human health that the use of LMOs entails. Their opponents argued that the text of the document is overly-complicated , making the process prohibitively costly, and effectively making the adoption of LMOs almost impossible. Although adoption of the Guidance would be “voluntary” and “non-binding”, any Guidance endorsed and adopted by parties to the UN agreement on the protection of biodiversity would clearly become the de facto gold standard for risk assessment of LMOs. And the end result? A compromise, where parties would “welcome” and not “endorse” the Guidance until all feedback from countries was taken into account..

And what of Bolivia? Bolivia’s stance was firm and confirmed the country’s plan to gradually phase out the use of all GM seed on Bolivian soil. How the government plans to do this exactly, when one million hectares of GM soybean is already grown on Bolivian soil[3], and without igniting the ire of the soyeros, remains unclear. The more fundamental question however, is whether a blanket ban on the use of all GM crops, despite evidence pointing to their many potential benefits, is sound government policy? These benefits are not insignificant, and include: (i) reducing the impacts of agriculture on biodiversity (Carpenter, 2011); (ii) increasing the income of small, resource-poor farmers (James, 2013), and (iii) reducing carbon-dioxide emissions through savings from conservation tillage, which amounted to a saving of 26.7 billion kg of CO2 in 2012 (Brookes and Barfoot, 2014, Forthcoming). And the logic for foregoing all these potential benefits? That, despite the absence of any scientific literature to actually support the claim, there might be unknown risks so large that the costs far outweigh these benefits. In another blog post, Lykke Anderson points out the obvious flaws in this way of thinking.

During the 7th MOP in Pyeongchang, several delegates urged parties to take a science-based approach to assess the use of LMOs, specifically in the context of poverty and hunger, human-induced climate change and resource scarcity. Amy Harmon of the New York Times has written several interesting, award-winning articles on the gap between the negative, public perception of GMOs and the scientific evidence supporting their safety (Golden Rice: Lifesaver?, A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA, and A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops). In one article she writes, “Some proponents of G.M.O.’s say that more critical questions, like where biotechnology should fall as a priority in the efforts to address the root causes of hunger and malnutrition and how to prevent a few companies from controlling it, would be easier to address were they not lumped together with unfounded fears by those who oppose G.M.O.’s.[5]” Corporate control of agriculture by ill-liked companies such as Monsanto is one of the most commonly cited objections to GMOs. But according to that logic, one should also be opposed to life-saving drugs against HIV/AIDS for instance, because multi-national pharmaceutical companies make enormous profits off their sale. And that really doesn’t sound like the soundest policy, at least to this author.



[1] The Protocol is an international agreement that seeks to protect biological diversity. The seventh meeting took place in Pyeongchang, Republic of Korea, from September 29 to October 3, 2014.

[2] LMOs, organisms in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination, are by definition essentially the same as GMOs. For some reason, LMO is the language preferred by the Protocol.

[3] Soy represents the 3rd largest Bolivian export crop according to Biotech Facts and Trends 2014, Bolivia.

[4] Harmon, Amy 2013. “Golden Rice: Lifesaver?” International New York Times. 4 Jan. 2014.


Anna Sophia Doyle recently graduated from Vassar College, NY, with a BA in Economics and has been an Ambassador Intern at INESAD since August.  


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