Review shows economic impacts for farmers are mixed
EXCERPT: Existing evidence is contradictory and inconclusive. Impact studies from the Global North are virtually non-existent. Moreover, two-thirds of publications are based on previously published empirical evidence, indicating a need for new empirical investigations into the social impacts of GM crops in agriculture.
Comprehensive studies on the social impacts of GM crops seriously lacking
Third World Network Biosafety Information Service, 19 August 2015
A review of 99 peer-reviewed journal articles published since 2004 on the social impacts of GM crops has been done, summarising current knowledge and identifying research gaps, with the aim of determining the current state of knowledge in order to contribute to a more evidence-based and less polarised dialogue on GM crops in agriculture.
The review found that very few studies took a comprehensive view of the social impacts of GM crops in agriculture. The literature was dominated by studies on economic impacts which presented a more positive picture of the role of GM crops in socially sustainable agriculture than was warranted. The review showed that economic impacts for different groups of farmers were in fact very mixed and that the political and regulatory context had significant impact on the ability of different groups of farmers in different locations to benefit. In addition, while wellbeing was frequently discussed, it was rarely studied and cultural heritage and farm level risk from GM crops were rarely covered.
Another finding was that the way in which GM crops were governed today reinforced market dominance by private industry and particularly reduced the possibilities for GM crops to benefit poorer and more marginalised farmers. In addition, there was a clear lack of knowledge regarding the social impacts of GM crops on farmers in the Global North. Existing literature focused almost exclusively on farming in the Global South.
Moreover, the review found that two-thirds of publications are based on previously published empirical evidence, indicating a need for new empirical investigations into the social impacts of GM crops in agriculture.
The Abstract, Discussions and Conclusions of the paper are reproduced below.
Social impacts of GM crops in agriculture: A systematic literature review
by Fischer, K., Ekener-Petersen, E., Rydhmer, L., & Björnberg, K. E.
Sustainability, 7(7), 8598-8620.
It has recently been argued that the fragmented knowledge on the social impacts of genetically modified (GM) crops is contributing to the polarised debate on the matter. This paper addresses this issue by systematically reviewing 99 peer-reviewed journal articles published since 2004 on the social impacts of GM crops in agriculture; summarising current knowledge, and identifying research gaps. Economic impact studies currently dominate the literature and mainly report that GM crops provide economic benefits for farmers. Other social impacts are less well studied, but present a more complex picture. Studies on access to and benefits of GM crops show that these vary significantly depending on the political and regulatory setting. Substantial evidence indicates that intellectual property rights (IPR) and the private industry’s dominance limit the access and utility of available GM crops to many farmers. Wellbeing is frequently discussed in the literature, but rarely investigated empirically. Existing evidence is contradictory and inconclusive. Impact studies from the Global North are virtually non-existent. Moreover, two-thirds of publications are based on previously published empirical evidence, indicating a need for new empirical investigations into the social impacts of GM crops in agriculture.
Discussions and Conclusions
The aim of this systematic review was to determine the current state of knowledge on a broad set of social impacts of GM crops, in order to contribute to a more evidence-based and less polarised dialogue on GM crops in agriculture.
Firstly, it can be concluded that very few studies take a comprehensive view of the social impacts associated with GM crops in agriculture. The literature reviewed here (99 papers) was dominated by studies of economic impact. That this trend goes beyond our review is illustrated by a recent meta-analysis published by Klümper and Qaim , which initially indicated that it would take a broad approach to social impact but then focused only on economic impacts (specifically impacts on crop yield, pesticide quantity, pesticide cost, total production cost and farm profits). The belief that social impacts can be measured by only addressing economic aspects has resulted in a general past trend of measuring social progress only in economic terms . However, this belief has been questioned, not the least by the renowned welfare economist Amartya Sen [104,105]. The wider understanding of development and sustainability has also penetrated policy, as seen in the SAFA guidelines  and the new UN SDGs , where the social and economic dimensions of sustainable development are conceptualised as extending far beyond economic development. Thus, while there is strong support in the literature reviewed here for GM crops contributing to average economic gain across years and groups of farmers, unlike Klümper and Qaim  we do not agree that this finding can be directly interpreted as showing that farmers benefit from GM crops. By going beyond focusing on farm-level economics, this review showed that economic impacts for different groups of farmers are very mixed and that the political and regulatory context has significant impact on the ability of different groups of farmers in different locations to benefit. The review also showed that we still know little about the effects of different GM crops on wellbeing and cultural heritage. The results show that while wellbeing is frequently discussed in the literature, but in fact rarely studied, cultural heritage rarely appears in the reviewed literature.
The review confirmed that the existing literature focuses almost exclusively on farming in the Global South. Including the term “poverty” in the search to capture all relevant references increased the number of hits focusing on the Global South, but the need for its inclusion to capture relevant hits also indicates the dominance of the Global South in the literature. This is not surprising, as the Global South and poor farmers have dominated the discussion in research and society since the beginning of the GM crop era [106,107]. The reasons for this are unclear, but there is some evidence that the industry has helped shape the trend as part of its marketing strategy . The fact that both the EU and the US have engaged politically in making countries in the Global South adopt their (restrictive versus liberal) approaches to GM crop policy and implementation  further demonstrates that this focus has a political dimension. As the social impact studies reviewed here were dominated by a focus on raising yields, another possible reason is that many countries in the Global North have long had to deal with overproduction rather than insufficient production of agricultural products. From a purely economic perspective, it might thus seem less relevant to study the Global North. However, farmers in the Global North are also struggling to make a decent and meaningful living from farming, and numerous studies confirm that farmers’ struggles in the Global North concern issues similar to those in the Global South, including how to deal with powerful multinational corporations, access and ownership over seed, gendered divisions of labour etc. [110–113]. If and how new technology, such as GM crops, can help farmers making a living is thus an equally relevant research question in the Global North and Global South. Studies from the Global North can also provide examples comparable to the situation in the Global South. In this review, such comparisons were used to examine the importance of a supporting institutional setting in making GM crops beneficial to farmers. Introduction of Bt cotton within a regime for IPM succeeded in Australia , whereas in parts of India the introduction of Bt cotton without comprehensive agricultural advice reportedly perpetuated the “pesticide treadmill” [76,77].
Despite the dominant focus on farmers in the Global South, only two of the papers reviewed focused on production risks relating to GM crops (HT maize and Bt cotton in South Africa) [99,114]. Looking beyond the review, there is a large body of literature discussing different framings of risk in relation to GM crops [115–119], but we found very few additional empirical studies on farm level risk and GM crops [37,120,121], confirming the statement by Shankar et al.  about this field being unexplored. It is well known that smallholders, because of their greater socio-economic constraints and often more marginalised locations, experience higher production risks than large-scale farmers [122,123]. Thus, it is important to study production risks relating to different GM traits and crops if we are to learn more about how GM crops can be of benefit to smallholders. Drawing lessons from the introduction of new high-yielding crop varieties during the Asian Green Revolution, it is worth noting that significant poverty reduction impacts were reported only when the second generation Green Revolution crops, where the focus in plant breeding was broadened from increasing yield to creating more robust varieties, became available to farmers . Indeed, two papers in the review claim that lessons must be drawn from the Green Revolution in order to make GM crops of relevance to more marginalised farmers [75,125].
In addition to adjusting breeding efforts to suit marginalised farmers, the literature also claims that the regulatory regime needs to be revised if GM crops are to be widely accessible and useful. The free sharing and recycling of crops amongst farmers that permitted the successful spread of Green Revolution crops  is rarely possible today due to changes in the IPR system giving private companies much more control over agriculture by allowing them to patent genes in many jurisdictions . Indeed, this review showed that the current private sector control of GM crops, which is reinforced by the IPR system implemented in many countries, reduces the benefits of GM crops for poor farmers due to high seed costs and distributional constraints. Therefore, several publications state that increased government engagement is important in ensuring that poor farmers benefit [44,55,75]. In countries such as India and China, with less comprehensive implementation of IPR, more of the economic benefits of GM crops have gone to farmers. However, the literature also shows that when the GM seed market is less controlled, the quality of the seed is sometimes doubtful. It is also likely that farmers do not receive the information and advice needed to cultivate the crop correctly. Resistance development in pest insects has been confirmed for both Bt maize and Bt cotton [127,128] and may partly be the result of inappropriate management regimes. This leads us to support previous claims for the importance of resolving the conflict between sufficient regulation of GM crop use and making GM crops accessible to marginalised farmers .
Three key findings of this review were that:
- Economic studies present a more positive picture of the role of GM crops in socially sustainable agriculture than is warranted, looking at the broader set of social impacts.
- The way in which GM crops are governed today reinforces market dominance by private industry and particularly reduces the possibilities for GM crops to benefit poorer and more marginalised farmers.
- There is a clear lack of knowledge regarding the social impacts of GM crop introduction for farmers in the Global North.