The benefits of safe and responsible use of modern biotechnology

Author // Violeta Villegas Categories // Golden Rice blog

The benefits of safe and responsible use of modern biotechnology

The 10th National Biotechnology Week starts today in the Philippines, and with it I am heartened to continue hearing about how modern biotechnology has helped uplift the lives of Filipino farmers.

For a plant breeder like me, real testimonies of better harvests, increased income, and less-burdensome farming are a very encouraging. These are solid proof of the positive impact of safe and responsible use of modern biotechnology. Listening to success stories is a form of "psychic income" for me. Knowing that we are able to help is a great moral boost that we can't exactly quantify.

Over the last three decades, I witnessed how advanced biotechnology techniques were used increasingly to breed better crops. In the 1980s, I used tissue culture in breeding better papaya and pineapple varieties as a researcher at the Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB) of the University of the Philippines Los Baños. Today, tissue culture is seen as one of the simplest tools in biotechnology. Later in that decade, I used wide hybridization and embryo rescue in papaya to get virus resistance from wild relatives into cultivated papaya. At the time, scientists at Cornell and at the University of Hawaii were already using genetic engineering, and quite successfully, as in the development of the ringspot virus-resistant papaya that saved Hawaii’s papaya industry. In the mid-1990s, I was part of the research team at IPB that developed the delayed-ripening papaya by suppressing a ripening enzyme using genetic engineering.

I was joking with my mentors once, saying that during their time, conventional breeding was the only method available. During my time, more tools became available for plant breeders to transfer genes of interest and improve selection efficiency. My mentors said we should be thankful that science is "dynamic and never sleeps," as we have to find ways to develop new and better crops for our growing population and decreasing land area and resources."

How true! Now, advances in bioinformatics, molecular markers, genetic engineering, and gene editing tools such as Zinc Finger Nuclease Technology, Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nucleases, and Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats are available to scientists who wish to explore ways of doing things better and faster. Biotechnology has also made headway not only in agriculture but in medicine and industry. What Mother Nature will accomplish in thousands or millions of years through evolution, scientists can now do in a remarkably shorter time. This has huge implications in the way science responds to current needs in food, medicine, and other fields.

Increasing use of genetic modification (GM) techniques, however, has given the impression to some groups that (A) it is the automatic tool of choice among breeders, and (B) health and environmental safety are brushed off in the list of concerns. These are fallacies and simply alarmist.

While GM enables faster crop development, experienced breeders use GM only when other methods of breeding have been exhausted and when it offers a potentially very high humanitarian, productivity, or environmental benefit.

In the case of Golden Rice, GM was used only after extensive surveys of rice varieties around the world failed to identify any that contain significant amounts of beta-carotene. Conventional breeding thus could not be used to develop Golden Rice.

An advantage of using GM is that it greatly increases accuracy in incorporating genes—and only those genes—for a desired trait into a rice variety. In comparison, conventional breeding can transfer many genes, including those unintended for transfer or are unknown.

It is also simply false to say that safety is automatically precluded when one uses GM. I often state that, in using GM, us breeders think of safety from the start—from conceptualization of the project up to its post-market stages. We have to ensure safety when choosing genes, proteins, or crops to be used; during testing in field conditions; in weighing human health risks; and upon release of the product and its exit in the market.

On top of these, us breeders must adhere to rigorous safety protocols and pass assessments required by our national regulators. There is no shortcut.

Some groups argue against these protocols while peddling the idea that our Philippine regulators merely accept any data given by proponents.

It must be noted, though, that the Philippines has its own set of rigid regulations that govern all stages of GM product research and development—from import for direct use as food, feed, or for processing; confined field trials; multilocation field trials; and propagation. One can progress to the next stage only if the required conditions for the previous stage have been met.

Thus, to claim that regulators merely accept studies of proponents, without health and safety in the picture at all, shows a lack of experience and understanding of the strict approval process for GM products in the country.

It is also worth mentioning that IRRI has taken extra steps to help ensure environmental and health safety of the research that is being done. IRRI has built a specialized transgenic facility, hired a biosafety officer, and created the Transgenic Development Committee, which, along with its Institutional Biosafety Committee, will see to our safe and responsible use of GM.

The safe and responsible use of GM and modern biotechnology tools requires our adherence to regulatory standards and protocols. It also binds all of us to rely on science-based evidence to assess a crop or technology, and not on the basis of emotional appeals and fearful speculation.


About the Author

Violeta Villegas

Violeta Villegas

Violy Villegas is the former Golden Rice project and network coordinator at IRRI.