Written by Mihalis Kritikos with James Tarlton,
‘We shouldn’t hinder technological development, but we should … protect our citizens and our natural resources” is how Marijana Petir (EPP, Croatia), a member of the European Parliament’s STOA (Science and Technology Options Assessment) Panel, opened the ‘ethical and social challenges of agricultural technologies – issues for decision-makers’, workshop STOA organised on 25 January 2017 in Brussels.
New agricultural technologies, including gene editing and synthetic biology, whether they modify plant genes or not, can increase yields, improve the way we use natural resources such as land and water, enhance the nutritional value of food and help to feed the world in a more sustainable and efficient way. Their diffusion and public acceptance are often deterred, however, by prospective consumers’ ethical and safety preoccupations.
For some time, societal actors and a wide range of stakeholders have flagged up the need to broaden the scope of authorisation and regulatory frameworks for agricultural biotechnologies, to take into account the relevant socioeconomic and ethical impacts. The principle of including socioeconomic and ethical considerations in biosafety decision-making is a widely debated issue at international, regional and national level, with a considerable impact on the way technologies are introduced and disseminated in society. The speakers at the workshop discussed the grounds for this principle, and how EU policy-makers may adapt it to better account for the potential benefits of new technologies.
European agriculture is currently experiencing considerable strain. Julian Kinderlerer of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, told the audience that 80 % of European land is used for settlements or production systems (such as farms and forestry). European farms use four times more chemicals per hectare than farms in the United States of America. Despite this intensification, concerns remain about ensuring food security in a future of challenges, such as population growth and global warming. Kinderlerer argues that an impact assessment should be performed that takes into account product safety, security and sustainability, how technology may impact on the environment, and the human cost of changing the manner in which food is produced, whenever new technologies are introduced.
‘Synthetic biology’ covers a range of bio-engineering approaches, many of which introduce new potential risks that are not present for traditional GMOs. Helge Torgersen of the Austrian Academy of Sciences noted that some of these technologies result in organisms that are indistinguishable from those developed from breeding, leading to issues with the definition of what should be regulated. Torgersen’s view is that, although new technical containment concepts are necessary, society ultimately needs a political solution: a definition of goals followed by a choice of the adequate organisms for pursuing them.
Anne Ingeborg Myhr of the GenØk-Centre for Biosafety in Tromsø, Norway analysed the Norwegian Gene Technology Act, as a case study illustrating the details of existing biosafety regulations. Myhr noted that the Act establishes that socioeconomic criteria sustainability, the benefit to society, and ethics are important in GMO assessment, prior to cultivation, import and use as food or feed. Myhr discussed the different factors that are currently taken into account in authorisation decisions on GMOs, and the challenge of acquiring all relevant information. Using late potato blight – which accounts for half of all fungicide application in Norwegian agriculture – as an example, Myhr introduced a list of questions that may be considered when deciding whether to approve GMO potatoes that are resistant to the fungus, including the consideration of socioeconomic issues, sustainability and the role of participatory involvement.
The final challenge was introduced by Amir Muzur of the University of Rijeka, Croatia, who spoke about the history of bioethics, focusing on the difference between European and American approaches. In the USA, GMOs are used more widely than in the EU, as European policy-makers are generally more cautious about the use of new agricultural technologies. Muzur successfully demonstrated the congruity of the precautionary principle with the European bioethical tradition.
Comprehensive impact assessment
A recurring theme throughout the workshop was more comprehensive assessment of the potential impacts of new technologies. This could involve policy-making which accounts for public perception and societal acceptance, as well as the potential benefits to society.
A recent STOA study on precision agriculture investigated how new technologies can be used to monitor crops and animals, through targeted intervention, with the aim of addressing some of the major challenges faced by European farming systems. Biotechnologies may also have a part to play in achieving this objective. To get the most out of the new technologies, we may need to reconsider how they are regulated and the terms of their authorisation.
If you missed the event, you can watch it here.