Make use of opportunities for gene technologies in agroecological agriculture

April 15, 2020

Wageningen University & Research (WUR) researchers argue that, given the right focus, new gene technologies and agroecology can reinforce each other in making agriculture more sustainable. This should be accompanied by a debate on issues such as prudent use, wide accessibility to these techniques, and mutual respect for the views of both supporters and opposers.

In a recently published paper in Outlook on Agriculture, WUR researchers Bert Lotz, Clemens van de Wiel and René Smulders explore the compatibility of new gene technologies and agroecology. This involves looking at how different genetic modification applications and new breeding techniques such as CRISPR/Cas can make crops more resilient to major diseases and pests. This can significantly reduce the use of pesticides, thereby creating better opportunities for inhibiting other pests by means of their natural predators, such as insects that eat plague insects or parasitise them.

Objectives of agroecological agriculture

The cases of gene technologies they looked at, contribute strongly to the objectives of agroecology-based agriculture: minimal dependence on chemical pesticides combined with preventive IPM (Integrated Pest Management) measures, which together create a robust cultivation system. In such a system, growers can also rely on biological disease and pest control, and the entire agroecosystem is subjected to minimal disruption. An added benefit is that the cost for growers can be reduced. Thus, under the right conditions, gene technologies can also contribute to the financial sustainability of agriculture.

Focal points in the synergism between genetic modification and agroecology

In their investigation of the compatibility of gene technologies and agroecology, the authors focus on the following aspects.

  1. Risk perception: The public debate around genetic modification often centres on potential risks that might be associated with growing crops that are improved using new technologies. In their publication, the authors demonstrate that the risks pertaining to the applications they have studied are equivalent to or even smaller than those associated with growing crops that are bred using conventional techniques.
  2. Power issues: The authors argue that broad access to new technologies and knowledge must be safeguarded. Smaller companies should also be given the opportunity to make use of new, sustainable cultivation methods that result from the introduction of crops improved through gene technology. A monopoly position of the large multinationals should not obstruct this. There are viable options to ensure a broad availability.
  3. An agroecological frame: The term agroecology can refer to both a scientific field and a social movement. Some adherents of the social movement view genetic modification exclusively in terms of intensive agriculture with minimal usage of natural mechanisms and principles. However, the use of gene technology in disease or pest management can bring us closer to the objectives of agroecology. The cases examined by the authors clearly support this insight.
  4. Ethics: For cultural or ethical reasons (such as ‘protecting the plant’s intrinsic values’), some groups within the agroecological movement see absolutely no place for gene technologies. The authors recognise that reconciliation between gene technologies and agroecology is problematic in this particular line of thought. They advocate mutual respect for these personal views. However, if new gene technologies cannot be applied at all, thereby allowing fewer opportunities to make agriculture more sustainable, this also has an ethical dimension: why should we as a society deny ourselves a technological solution that could help us to meet enormous challenges (including feeding the world’s rapidly growing population and mitigating the effects of climate change)?

The article addresses policymakers, politicians, NGOs and other groups in society that are concerned with the future of agriculture and food production.

Bert Lotz: ‘We hope to show that there are opportunities to bridge the gap between those who support and oppose the use of gene technologies in agriculture. This requires everyone to be well informed and to show respect for each other’s concerns, arguments and potentially different choices.’