Genetic technology, also called genetic engineering, is a technique that is already a few decades old. It consists in modifying the genes of a plant in order to give it the desired characteristics. It was a method that was still imprecise and difficult to control, and that generated undesirable effects. This technology is subject to regulation by Swiss law. In recent years, new techniques, called new genetic engineering technologies (NTGG), have appeared. They are said to have the power to “alter the genome and gene regulation, without significant side effects, in a targeted and deliberate way.”

A monopoly rather than a profit

These new processes are supposed to allow seed breeders in the South to produce new varieties with useful properties, for example more resistant to drought. However, there is more than one shadow in the picture. There are already thousands of patents on seeds created by genetic engineering processes and most of them are in the hands of the three big agricultural groups: Corteva, Bayer and Syngenta. So, in most cases, in order to use these seeds, breeders need the agreement of the patent holders. Not to mention the costs of using patented seeds. Instead of democratizing breeding, the new genetic engineering leads to a new monopolization of genetic diversity.

It is not only the technology itself that is problematic, but also the power relations and the industrial agricultural system behind it, Simon Degelo tells swissinfo.

Much more sustainable natural solutions

Robust varieties already exist among farmers in the South. For thousands of years, they have been growing seeds that are perfectly adapted to local conditions, such as saltwater-tolerant rice varieties or millet varieties that can withstand periods of heat and drought. These are far more sustainable and less expensive solutions than the promises of genetic engineering.

The agricultural industry is lobbying intensively for these new technologies to be put on an equal footing with traditional breeding, without any regulation. The way in which Switzerland and Europe regulate genetic engineering influences the way in which these technologies are evaluated and regulated in the countries of the South. SWISSAID is therefore calling for an extension of the moratorium on GMOs in Switzerland.

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The former genetic engineering has mainly produced plants that are resistant to herbicides or that produce pesticides themselves, promising juicy profits for agricultural groups, as they can be sold with the corresponding chemicals. Even with new genetic technologies, it is unlikely that varieties will be obtained that offer a real additional benefit to women farmers in the South. Drought-resistant varieties, for example, were already promised thirty years ago with the old processes, yet no variety with such characteristics is yet available on the market.

In contrast to “old” genetic engineering, new technologies such as Crispr/CAS allow for some control over where a modification is introduced. However, many of the steps remain the same as in the old genetic engineering methods and plants are created that would never have occurred naturally. In addition, the methods are far less precise than the industry would have us believe and there are many unintended modifications that are difficult to detect.

An example of the risks is in the United States, where a gene for antibiotic resistance was mistakenly inserted into a genetically engineered breed of cattle. This gene was only discovered because the US still requires a full risk assessment for animals, which is no longer necessary for genetically engineered plants. But the social consequences would be even more serious if the new technologies continued to fuel the patenting and monopolization of seeds.