Benefits and Adverse Impacts

Benefits and Potential Adverse Impacts of Modern Biotechnology

Like any other technology, modern biotechnology offers a range of benefits and potential adverse consequences.  Some of benefits have been realized by both smallholder and commercial farmers growing such crops as maize, soy bean, cotton, oil seed rape and others in both developing and developed countries. Closer to home, farmers in South Africa have been growing genetically modified cotton, maize and soybean for more than a decade. Various studies have reported economic and social benefits both in the smallholder and commercial sector in South Africa, other countries. The adoption of GM crops has also been accompanied by a range of fears/ concerns that stem from potential adverse impacts associated with the technology. Because of these concerns, modern biotechnology products must be subjected to risk assessment before they are approved for use.

Benefits of agricultural modern biotechnology

  • Crops that are resistant to specific insects: Insect resistant crops such as Bollgard™ cotton and Bollgard™ maize have been developed to give crops with resistance to pests such as American bollworms and pink boll worms in cotton as well as stalk borers in maize. Because of this, yield losses resulting from insect damage are reduced. Another benefit can be reduced costs of spraying. Collectively, these benefits can contribute to increased farm level incomes.
  • Crops that are tolerant to herbicides: Herbicide tolerant crops such as Roundup Ready™ Cotton offer farmers more effective control of weeds and thus savings in labour costs. Another benefit is that these crops can contribute to conservation of soil and soil moisture as they enable the farmer to shift towards minimum tillage.
  • Stacked gene crops that offer combined insect resistance and herbicide tolerance:These crops offer the combined benefits offered by insect resistant crops and herbicide tolerant crops.
  • Biofortification of crops: Various projects are in progress that seek to use modern biotechnology to increase the beta-carotene (a precursor to Vitamin A) and in some cases iron content of crops. It is anticipated that this will contribute towards reducing incidences of blindness. In Asia Golden Rice is in the pipeline whilst in Africa Biofortified sorghum, banana and cassava are at various stages of the pipeline.
  • Novel colours in ornamental plants and other modifications of product quality: Modern biotechnology is also being used to develop novel colours in ornamental plants such as Carnations, Roses and Petunias. rDNA technology has been used to develop various shades of blue in these plants. Similarly, rDNA technology has been used to develop oil crops with altered oil profiles to increase the content of specific fatty acids.

Potential adverse impacts of Modern Biotechnology

  • Build-up of resistance to Bt: Concerns have been raised that target organisms may build up resistance to Bt making subsequent control of these pests difficult. It has also been suggested that use of risk management strategies such as refugia is not adequate because farmers may not be adhering to them. One way around this has been to combine two or more Bt genesto minimise the risk of resistance developing.
  • Potential effects of Bt on non-target organisms: Fears have been raised that because the toxin is expressed in all tissues throughout the lifespan of the crop, non-target organisms may be affected adversely.
  • Potential for development of herbicide resistant weeds:  Adoption of herbicide tolerant crops comes with a shift in practice. Concerns have been raised that this may in the long term result in weeds developing resistance to the herbicides concerned making their management difficult.
  • Potential transfer of transgenes to landraces, wild and weedy relatives of crops:Fears that transgenes may be transferred to landraces as well as wild and weedy relatives of crops have also been raised. This is particularly important in areas that are centres of origin and/or centres of diversity for important crop species.
  • Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights and implications for resource constrained farmers: Companies have invested heavily in development of modern biotechnology crops and as such have Intellectual Property Rights over them. One way in which they enforce this right is to charge a technology license fee which makes genetically modified seed more expensive than hybrid seed and even more so than open pollinated varieties. Many farmers in traditional farming systems rely on farm saved seed which may even be freely exchanged with relatives and neighbours. Fears have been expressed that enforcement of IPRs with adoption of genetically modified crops will compromise the right of farmers to freely exchange and use farm saved seed.