The “GMO-LMO” antiscientific meme and the detrimental Biosafety Protocol

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– Abstract

According to a long-time and widespread scientific consensus, agri-food biotechnology regulation should focus on the risks and benefits of each agricultural product, without any pointless reference to the biotech processes used to create new cultivars, animals or microorganisms. Instead, most regulations of so-called “Genetically Modified Organisms” wrongly imply that such ill-defined bunch of products (mostly crops) hide an inherent, peculiar risk for the environment and human/animal health.

Indeed, the Biosafety Protocol (Cartagena agreement) and its Nagoya – Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress have been built on that unscientific mistake; beyond its anti-biotech stance, that treaty may use its “anti-GMO” keystone as a mask for protectionist intents. Moreover, oppressive and arbitrary red tape goes against the aims of the Convention on Biological Diversity, of which the Biosafety Protocol is a contradictory offspring. Almost twenty years after the entering into force of the Protocol, taking stock of its poor results means realizing that there is an ongoing waste of resources to implement its utterly wrongheaded rules. Even worse, nobody can calculate the opportunity costs, i.e. the lost occasions of biodiversity conservation, agricultural progress and balanced development which have been impeded, mostly in low-income countries.

The misguided and counterproductive treaty is heavily detrimental. A serious reflection about its desirable abolishment and a better utilization of financial means and human capabilities for agricultural progress, above all in the developing world, is badly needed.

– Introduction

The ongoing development of “green” biotechnologies raises questions, problems and the need for regulation in three broad areas: the healthiness of agricultural products, i.e. food and feed produce; the impact on natural environments, which are more or less affected by the interventions connected to cultivation and animal husbandry; and the complex social, legal, ethical, political and economic issues involved. On the environmental subjects, the primary international organization is the Convention on Biological Diversity of the United Nations Environment Program (Convention on Biological Diversity 1992). The Convention is an international treaty, the aim of which is to reconcile the reasonable use of technologies, including agricultural technologies, with the highest possible protection of the environment and the diversity of nature.

Within this wide area of scientific, legal and juridical issues, particular attention has been attracted, in recent decades, by so-called “Genetically Modified Organisms”: but this expression and the oft cited acronym “GMOs” (inverted commas are mandatory, due to the unsteadiness of its supposed grounds), used with reference to an ill-defined bunch of agricultural products (mostly crops), obtained via several different recombinant DNA (rDNA) techniques, does not indicate a consistent group of objects, with even a minimal amount of homogeneity. For many years a rickety fence has been erected on a fuzzy border, which is supposed to separate “GMOs” from other biotech methods (comprising physical and chemical mutagenesis), even when the traits obtained are the same (e.g. resistance to pests, tolerance to herbicides, reduced risks of toxicity or allergenicity, higher levels of nutrients, ability to thrive in adverse conditions such as drought, flood and climate change). Since the early 1980s, life scientists have been recommending any regulatory approach to be focused on single (agricultural) products, not on the processes (Tagliabue 2017) used to create new varieties of plants or microorganisms or animals. Therefore, most experts think (e.g. Ammann 2014) that the supposed “GMO” ensemble is actually void of any taxonomic or even semantic value: many scientific societies (National Research Council 2004; American Society for Microbiology 2000; American Phytopathological Society 2001; American Society of Plant Biologists 2006; American Society for Cell Biology 2009) have repeatedly stated that the pseudo-concept has no basis in biology and genetics, let alone in agronomy; numerous scientists affirmed the same stance. (Prakash et al. 2000-2014. Statement signed, since 2000, by 3400 scientists, among them 25 Nobel laureates)

In other words, there is no theoretical basis to establish an a priori distinction among various agri-food groups of biotechniques, as far as potential risks for human/animal/plant or the environment are concerned; from an epistemological point of view, even the outcomes of natural variations are relatively unpredictable: “conjectural risks of genetic engineering must be of the same order as those for natural biological evolution and for conventional breeding methods. […] There is no scientific reason to assume special long-term risks for GM crops.” (Arber 2010, Abstract)

Thus, single new agri-food cultivars, deriving from any method, on a case by case approach, should undergo rigorous tests and exams, which have to be proportional to the potential risk (e.g. new potato varieties are usually checked for solanine level); on the contrary, diverse “GMOs” cannot be subject, as a supposed ensemble, to all-encompassing evaluations, whether positive or negative. Note that if other groups of products, e.g. those 3000+ varieties obtained via mutagenesis (FAO-IAEA 2017) were singled out to be governed apart for the sole reason that they derive from certain processes, the rationale would be equally anti-scientific: yet, only “GMOs”, in most regulators’ eyes, form a caste that merits unwarranted suspicion.

To be clear, the confirmed safety and healthiness of each currently commercialized product from different biotechnologies do not represent any guarantee that a negative impact on the environment or health cannot appear in future products (rDNA or otherwise; agricultural-”green” or otherwise: e.g. “red”, pharmaceutical or “white”, industrial). The outcomes of more or less traditional biotech applications frequently do not live up to expectations: it happens all the time, the results of failed experiments ending up in the waste bin. The meaningless distinction between recombinant DNA cultivars and other similar agri-food products should be replaced by a meaningful divide between healthy, well-controlled foods/feeds and problematic or unsatisfactory ones – which are ditched.

Therefore, according to the scientific consensus (Tagliabue 2016b), recombinant DNA crops as a supposed entity cannot form the basis of any biotech sectoral regulation. Notwithstanding that, lawmakers at national and regional (European Union) levels have created specific rules to be applied to “GMOs”, and such an approach has also reverberated at international level. Our interest is in particular in an annex to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, with its Nagoya – Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress.

– Convention on Biological Diversity and biotechnologies: promises and suspicions

At the first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, there was the possibility of all the nations signing a very important international treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity (Convention on Biological Diversity 1992) – known informally as the Biodiversity Convention – which seeks to safeguard biodiversity, the long-term use of its elements and the fair division of the advantages from the exploitation of genetic resources. The Convention is legally binding: the signatory states are required to implement its contents; many nations around the globe have ratified it, with the important exception of crucial states such as the USA, Russia and Australia. (<a…

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