Overline: Fifth Gene Technology Report
Headline: Can Gene Technology Contribute to More Sustainability in Agriculture?

Agriculture is a large but controversial area of gene technology. What opportunities and risks for sustainability are associated with applications like resistance breeding and genetic engineering to improve nutritional quality? IASS Director Ortwin Renn examines these issues in the “Fifth Gene Technology Report” of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. He also recommends new forms of dialogue that can promote the responsible use of “green gene technology”.

For agriculture, applications of genetic engineering offer a variety of opportunities and risks.
For agriculture, applications of genetic engineering offer a variety of opportunities and risks. Shutterstock/Raland

In his article, Renn uses the established grouping of environmental, economic and social sustainability to review and categorise the most important effects that different forms of gene technology have on sustainable development:

Environmental sustainability: Gene technology only marginally reduces carbon-dioxide emissions and the material used in end products. For renaturalisation and biodiversity, the opportunities and risks are higher. If genetically modified plants guarantee yields on less fertile soil, are adapted to environmental conditions and have no or little chance of accidental release into the environment, they could make a fundamental contribution to environmental sustainability. If these conditions are not met, the contribution would be negligible or even negative.

Economic sustainability: Gene technology might offer agricultural workers, seed producers and farms medium- and long-term economic benefits. But who will receive the lion’s share of these benefits? This largely depends on how gene technology is deployed. It is important to consider that many income and structural effects are more strongly influenced by other factors and that the use of gene technology only plays a small role here.

Social sustainability: The opportunities here tend to be minimal, while the risks are extensive, though not necessarily serious. These are often two sides of the same coin. For instance, higher yields – linked to lower costs for pesticides and herbicides – lead to more income for farms. Yet this can promote concentration processes, forcing smaller farms either to grow or to sell. Many thus associate gene technology with an overwhelming focus on profit margins, industrialised practices, the inhumane treatment of livestock and the concentration of wealth. Minimal acceptance is linked to correspondingly strict state regulations. The verifiable effects of gene technology on the environment, the economy and social relations are increasingly being overshadowed by compliance with regulations, without any reference to verifiable damage.

Ortwin Renn argues that in order to implement sustainability as a guiding principle for gene technology, we need new cooperative forms of understanding among industry, farmers, environmental organisations and regulatory authorities. After all, more would be gained with a comprehensive approach focusing on “new models for future agriculture and land use” than with a narrow dialogue on the issue of gene technology. This would make it possible to bring together topics like health, agriculture and food without ideological blinders and to review the implications of different models of agriculture based on sustainability criteria.

Renn, O. (2021): Gentechnische Anwendungen im Spiegel der nachhaltigen Entwicklung - In: Fehse, B., Hucho, F., Bartfeld, S., Clemens, S., Erb, T., Fangerau, H., Hampel, J., Korte, M., Marx-Stölting, L., Mundlos, S., Osterheider, A., Pichl, A., Reich, J., Schickl, H., Schicktanz, S., Taupitz, J., Walter, J., Winkler, E., Zenke, M. (Eds.), Fünfter Gentechnologiebericht. Bilanzierung einer Hochtechnologie, (Forschungsberichte / Interdisziplinäre Arbeitsgruppen, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften; 44), Baden-Baden : Nomos, 481-503. https://doi.org/10.5771/9783748927242