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CIMMYT’s Guiding Principles for Developing and Deploying Genetically Engineered Maize and Wheat Varieties

May 14, 2012
September, 2004

Many of the world’s poorest people are small-scale farmers, whose livelihood is at risk because of low productivity and insecure harvests. At the same time, poor urban and rural consumers suffer from malnutrition, the so-called hidden hunger, which impairs productivity. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), one of the Future Harvest international agricultural research centers supported by the CGIAR, together with its partners, works to solve these problems of poverty and food insecurity with a range of multidisciplinary research and capacity-building activities focused on food, agricultural, and natural resource maize and wheat systems.

In the last two decades, biotechnology has produced a number of valuable tools and techniques that can be used to help improve and conserve all crop species. Thus, CIMMYT believes that biotechnology (which includes a range of techniques such as tissue culture, marker-assisted selection, genomics, and genetic engineering) has an important role to play in improving the productivity, stability, quality, and use of maize and wheat varieties in developing countries while preserving the environment. CIMMYT, along with its CGIAR sister centers, is committed to making these new opportunities offered by biological sciences available as public goods and thereby complementing private-sector research so that technologies can reach resource-poor farmers and malnourished poor consumers.

While plant breeding that utilizes non-transgenic approaches will remain the backbone of CIMMYT’s crop improvement strategies, genetically engineered maize and wheat varieties (popularly called genetically modified organisms, GMOs) will not be excluded as products capable of contributing to CIMMYT’s principal goals. Indeed, in tackling certain intractable problems, using genetically engineered crops may be the best available approach for meeting the challenges of food security and environmental protection.

CIMMYT is conscious that the development and use of genetically engineered varieties is controversial in many countries. However, it also recognizes that these varieties have been commercially available since the mid-1990’s, initially in the USA, but increasingly in other developed and developing countries. While no technology is risk-free, major environmental or food safety issues have not been identified. Recently, developing countries have also commercialized genetically engineered varieties, and benefits to resource poor farmers and consumers are being realized. While the initially available varieties possess input traits (e.g., insect resistance or herbicide tolerance), the technology offers to improve many other traits such as drought tolerance and nutritional quality, all important for resource poor farmers and consumers in developing countries.

CIMMYT believes that it is important that any variety, genetically engineered or not, released to farmers be safe and effective. Thus, efforts will be focused on evaluating the environmental and food/feed safety aspects on all new varieties. Equally important is to ensure the sustainability of the technology for farmers. Thus, efforts will also focus on issues such as resistance management strategies, intellectual property rights and seed saving technologies that allow farmers long-term benefits, inexpensive access to the varieties and the ability to save seed from generation to generation.

Recognizing that both the scientific community and the general public express a range of conflicting opinions on the use of genetic engineering, CIMMYT favors public dialogue based on transparency and science. CIMMYT will take a holistic approach in this debate by examining, to the best of our ability, biosafety, food safety, trade, intellectual property rights, and ethical and cultural aspects, all of which shape the science and policy actions related to the development and use of GMOs.

This approach leads CIMMYT to the following guidelines:

  1. In keeping with its mission, CIMMYT will continue to engage in research designed to produce international public goods appropriate for use by resource-poor farmers. In doing so, it will typically use a range of technologies, including modern biotechnological methods, to produce germplasm containing traits important to and useful for resource-poor farmers. GMOs may be used in research and development by CIMMYT to the extent that they contain traits beneficial to farmers, and for which there has been careful consideration and due regard for the full range of social, economic, biosafety, public health, and environmental concerns. In addition, transgenic technologies are becoming an increasingly important basic research tool for studying the genetic, biochemical, and physiological mechanisms underlying important traits that will improve the efficiency of traditional breeding programs.
  2. For sound scientific and practical reasons, CIMMYT will continue giving priority to work with the gene pools of maize and wheat, including their wild or weedy relatives, as the first and often most effective means of bringing benefits to resource-poor farmers. Genetic engineering will be used to broaden conventional breeding strategies if it is believed to be a more efficient means for developing crops with improved quality, reduced dependence on agrochemicals, and more suitability for conserving natural resources. The formulation of these Guiding Principles is therefore not intended as a shift in emphasis or priorities in center research programs; conventional breeding techniques will continue to be used widely in improvement programs.
  3. All projects involving the use of genetic engineering will be listed on CIMMYT’s public web site, as part of its policy for transparency. Details regarding the target traits, genes, germplasm and countries will be provided. The information will be updated to provide the current status of each project.
  4. CIMMYT will continue to monitor, investigate, and assess the possible social, public health, and environmental implications of the use of genetically engineered plant varieties in the ecological regions in which they might be used and, especially, in the centers of origin or of diversity of the species that may be genetically engineered. As in other subject areas, these activities will be carried out in cooperation with national agricultural research and extension systems (NARES), farmers, and other partners. CIMMYT encourages and will continue to engage in complementary research on maize and wheat genetic diversity and its management in farmers’ fields.
  5. In all its genetic engineering-related research, CIMMYT will observe the highest standards of safety in the conduct of laboratory, greenhouse and field experiments.
  6. CIMMYT will comply with relevant national, regional, or international biosafety, food, environmental, and policy regulations for the conduct of research on genetically engineered organisms. The center will not use or conduct research on genetically engineered organisms in any country lacking such regulations, and will help to strengthen the capacity of developing countries to enact and enforce such regulations. In certain circumstances, the center may voluntarily adhere to higher or more stringent standards than the minimums imposed by national legislation and regulation. The center will not make GMOs available in a country without that country’s prior informed knowledge, consent, and support. All countries that receive GMOs and related products from CIMMYT must have biosafety regulations in place.
  7. CIMMYT will work with national partners, using the best expertise available, to examine potential risks and assure the safety of all of its products, including GMOs. If a recipient country lacks the expertise to conduct its own risk assessment, the center will work with national partners to help develop this capacity, and to develop appropriate strategies and methodologies. The center will also pursue active research in collaboration with advanced research institutes on the biosafety and deployment of GMOs.
  8. CIMMYT acknowledges that crop improvement research should adopt an integrated approach and should not become overly reliant on any single technology. Furthermore, in seeking to develop and promote agricultural systems that are productive, sustainable, and resilient, due regard will be given to the maintenance of appropriate diversity within those systems.
  9. CIMMYT adds new maize and wheat genetic resources each year to those that are already conserved under long-term ex situ conditions. The center will continue to develop and implement measures that are feasible given current technology and funding to protect the genetic integrity of incoming (and already held) accessions and to maintain them according to international standards. The data arising from screening undertaken during the implementation of these measures will be made available as produced and without restriction.
  10. CIMMYT will continue to abide by the letter and spirit of its 1994 agreements with FAO concerning the management of collections of maize and wheat germplasm held “in trust.” The center also reiterates its intention to associate itself formally with the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and, as in Article 15.1(c) of that Treaty, recognizes “the authority of the Governing Body to provide policy guidance relating to ex situ collections held by them and subject to the provision of this Treaty,” including guidance on the subjects covered by these Guiding Principles.
  11. CIMMYT acknowledges the importance of an open and informed discussion on issues related to biotechnology and recognizes the need and value of technologies available in the public domain that have the potential to improve the livelihoods of millions of poor farmers and consumers in developing countries and protect the environment.

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