Genetic engineering at the heart of agroecology

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We discuss whether genetic engineering and agroecology are compatible. For this, we investigated three cases of genetically engineered crops and considered agroecology as scientific discipline as well as a social movement. One case was the use of cisgenic modifications to make potato durably resistant to late blight, the second was the use of CRISPR/Cas to make rice resistant to bacterial blight and as a third case, we evaluated experiences with cultivating transgenic Bt crops. These cases demonstrated that genetic engineering offers opportunities to grow crops in novel integrated pest management (IPM) systems with, as direct benefit, a decrease in the use of chemical crop protection agents, and as indirect effect that the role of predators and biological control agents can become more important than in present conventional systems based on pesticides. We used a framework based on four concerns (both cons and pros) that were gathered from an extensive societal interaction organized around the Dutch research project DuRPh, which produced a proof-of-concept of a cisgenic late blight-resistant potato. We concluded that genetic engineering and agroecology certainly have synergy in the context of agroecology as science, when applied to making crops less vulnerable to pests and diseases and when combined with cultivation using IPM. By contrast, within the movement context, genetically engineered varieties may be welcomed if they include traits that contribute to successful IPM schemes and are socially benign. Whether they would actually be deemed desirable or acceptable will, however, vary depending on the norms and values of the social movements. We propose that some concerns may be reconcilable in a dialogue. Deontological arguments such as naturalness are more difficult to reconcile, as they relate to deeply felt ethical or cultural values. A step forward would be when also for these arguments everyone can make an informed choice and when these choices can coexist in a respectful manner.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-28
JournalOutlook on Agriculture
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2020


  • Agroecosystems
  • CRISPR/Cas
  • ecology
  • gene editing
  • genetic modification
  • IPM


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