GM crops and the global food crisis - Institute of Development Studies
His paper reviews the literature that has been published in peer-reviewed journals on Bt cotton... It has a marginal impact on pesticide use, and has been shown in some studies to have less impact than farmer training... The impacts [of Bt cotton] are not, as has been claimed, necessarily significant, consistent or even positive.
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GM Crops and the Global Food Crisis
Institute of Development Studies, 15 June 2009
On Wednesday 10 June, three speakers from SPRU Science and Technology Policy Research, Wageningen University and the University of East Anglia spoke at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Debt, Aid and Trade on the often controversial topic of genetically-modified (GM) crops and their potential to counteract the global problems of poverty and hunger. The event marked the launch of a new paper by one of the speakers, Dominic Glover, entitled 'Undying Promise: Agricultural Biotechnology's Pro-poor Narrative, Ten Years on', which is a critical review of the available evidence on Bt cotton’s effectiveness in improving the incomes of poor farmers.
The example of Bt cotton
Glover began the debate, which was chaired by the Countess of Mar. There has been, he felt, a 'triumphalism' amongst advocates of GM crops, and too little attention paid to the environmental, social and political context surrounding their use. Glover has kept track of the evidence on Bt cotton, which he feels has been distorted, leading to the risk of poor policy decisions being made on the basis of insufficient facts.
His paper reviews the literature that has been published in peer-reviewed journals on Bt cotton. In it he explains that there are a number of limits to the potential usefulness of Bt cotton. It protects against pests, but will not improve yield in those years when pests are not a problem and in fact, in those years yield might even be less than with other seeds. It has a marginal impact on pesticide use, and has been shown in some studies to have less impact than farmer training. There is concern that secondary pests might increase in numbers to fill the ‘ecological gap’, which would mean the benefits are not sustainable. There is a chance poor farmers could suffer financially if they spend extra on Bt cotton, and then lose the crop anyway to a different pest.
Overall the impacts of Bt cotton have been diverse and contingent; but this is not what one would gather from some authors' summaries of their work. The impacts are not, as has been claimed, necessarily significant, consistent or even positive. There is the allure of the technological 'quick fix'; when a product is preconceived as effective and successful it can be tempting to swim with the tide rather than against it.
The complex problems of hunger and poverty need complex answers. There is a danger that a focus on GM crops could crowd out other possibilities, such as integrated pest management systems or irrigation, in the fight for donor dollars and government attention. Glover finished by emphasising that he was not in any way anti-science, or event anti-GM, but calling for careful research which takes account of policy and institutional frameworks.
The next speaker was Erik Millstone of SPRU. He began by setting out the question as he sees it; namely not 'is GM beneficial?’ but ‘under what circumstances are GM crops beneficial?’ Millstone said that there are examples in which GM could be very beneficial; for instance, if crops could be made unattractive to locusts.
He explained that in order for GM to benefit poor farmers, it would have to be very low cost. Making GM crops the same price as other seeds is too high; he spoke to farmers in Kenya who had not bought any seeds at all for years, making the GM debate essentially irrelevant to them. The technology should also be employment-generating, not labour-replacing, if it is to alleviate poverty. Patents raise the price of technologies beyond the reach of poor farmers; often farmers are not allowed to re-use seed but have to re-buy it each year. Other times the technology itself has not been sensitive to farmers’ situations; drought-resistant seeds contain more moisture, but this makes them more prone to mould and hence difficult for poor farmers to keep in good condition. He also dismissed the argument that GM crops are ‘scale-neutral’, saying that all technologies have economies of scale, and pointed out that introducing a new technology into an unequal society does not diminish poverty but can amplify inequalities.
A solution in search of a question?
Peter Newell of the University of East Anglia was the third speaker. He said that broader issues relating to poverty and hunger, such as land rights or social protection, were often ignored when talking about technology, and that GM crops could be seen as ‘a solution in search of a question’. Newell stated that we need to be more explicit in what we mean when we talk about the pro-poor benefits of GM; yield increases may not be sustainable year on year, assumptions are often made about affordability and focus has been on the genetic modification of cash crops rather than staple foods. Assuming a technology can bypass its political and institutional context does its potential a disservice. He pointed out the contradiction in expecting commercial entities like Monsanto to make poverty reduction their aim; but emphasised that where public money is being spent a different process should come into play. Viewing GM as a magic bullet is only going to entrench opposition to it; instead, we need to be realistic about which technologies can best address the issues faced by poor farmers.