Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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More on Genetically Modified Crops

by Isobel Coleman
May 4, 2012

Martha Mafa, a subsistence farmer, stacks her crop of maize in Chivi, about 378 km (235 miles) south-east of the capital Harare in Zimbabwe on April 1, 2012 (Philimon Bulawayo/Courtesy Reuters). Martha Mafa, a subsistence farmer, stacks her crop of maize in Chivi, about 378 km (235 miles) south-east of the capital Harare in Zimbabwe on April 1, 2012 (Philimon Bulawayo/Courtesy Reuters).


Last month I posted a blog summarizing the views of Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at Harvard, on the potential of genetically modified crops to improve Africa’s agricultural productivity. Many of the comments that readers sent in complained that the post was one-sided–a valid criticism–so today I thought I would look at this topic again.

My own thoughts on GM crops are influenced by the reality that by 2050, the world will likely have another two billion mouths to feed and face an estimated 70 percent increase in global food demand. We need another Green Revolution to increase agricultural productivity, especially in Africa, and we should pursue a variety of approaches to meet that challenge. Undoubtedly, these approaches should include better farmer training and improved fertilization and irrigation, especially given that less than 4 percent of sub-Saharan African farmland is currently irrigated, versus 40 percent in Asia. A recent report from the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change proposes a thoughtful multi-pronged strategy to increase food production, including enhancing populations’ resilience to climate change and raising investment in sustainable farming. Solutions should also include waste reduction: Western consumers throw away roughly a third of the food that is produced, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, around a third of food produced ends up rotting due to inadequate transportation and storage. However, we would be remiss if we do not include GM crops in the toolkit.

Fearing adverse health consequences, critics refer to GM crops as “Frankenfood,” but years of studies have not demonstrated any harmful effects. A 2010 report from the European Commission—a body not known to be friendly to GM agriculture—summarizes a decade of large-scale government-funded studies, concluding that “biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.” Of course, no studies have proven that GM agriculture is NOT harmful, which is the measure of proof that some opponents of GM require. But with hundreds of millions of people experiencing food insecurity in the world today, and famine lingering in East Africa and brewing in the western Sahel, it’s not my bar. Quoting my colleague Jagdish Bhagwati, I would take the unproven “fears of Frankenstein” over “the inevitability of the Grim Reaper that promises the near certainty of continuing poverty and food crises in poor countries.” Emerging research also casts doubt on organic farming to meet the world’s food needs in a sustainable way: a recent Nature article suggests that organic farming, under certain conditions (when conventional and organic systems are most comparable), currently produces yields up to a third lower than conventional farming.

Of course, like most emerging technologies, GM agriculture does have risks, and below I attempt to summarize some of the more pertinent ones:

  •  GM technology is expensive, and farmers can face significant financial hardship in implementing it, particularly in developing countries. As GM agriculture becomes more widespread in the developing world, it is imperative to figure out how to sell and distribute farming technology in ways that are conducive to poverty alleviation. This problem is not dissimilar from the challenge of extending lifesaving pharmaceuticals in a cost-effective way to the developing world.
  •  Linked to the first issue, GM seed companies aggressively protect their intellectual property, a factor that increases costs for poor farmers and could hinder the kind of research and collaboration that would benefit the developing world and the environment.
  • Some studies and experts question how effective GM agriculture really is at increasing crop yields. We need more data and research on this issue.
  • GM agriculture systems like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops are designed to resist pesticides (e.g. the Roundup pesticide) so that farmers can easily spray to kill weeds without harming their crops. However, in some places, weeds have evolved to resist pesticides, creating costly and difficult problems. If farmers are to prevent pesticide resistance, they need to diversify the kinds of pesticides they use–yet some GM methods actually encourage pesticide dependency. This needs to be avoided.

At the center of criticisms of GM crops are concerns about the role it could play in expanding industrialized farming. After all, the original Green Revolution was not especially “green”–it resulted in deforestation, inefficient water use, and reduced genetic diversity, often at the expense of small farmers, but it also resulted in remarkable productivity increases. As we confront issues of food security in coming decades, GM crops will not be a silver bullet, but in some places it could be an important part of the solution, a solution that must, of course, include other farming systems. While the risks of GM agriculture are not small–and while we must anticipate, mitigate, and continually review these risks–refusing to pursue GM crops at this point would be irresponsible.

In a December Science editorial, Calestous Juma called for African countries to form an “International Institute for Biotechnology” that would bring together entities like government agencies, farmer groups, research institutions, and private sector companies to make biotechnology a positive force for African agriculture. Protecting the interests of and giving voice to the world’s poor is essential to implementing GM crops successfully. Organizations like Professor Juma’s proposed collaboration could help lead the way forward.

Post a Comment 13 Comments

  • Posted by Patrick Wong

    Aggressive protection of “intellectual property” is rapidly becoming a security issue. Why should the farmers of a country utilize GM agriculture if this will result in a legal and financial invasion of their territorial sovereignty?

  • Posted by Daniel

    This article may have more impact with a diverse crowd if the author would disclose whether or not she has any stock ownership, benefits financially from Monsanto, genetically modified crop related companies, biotechnology firms or any of their subsidiary companies. Also, do you serve on any of the boards of these companies? Reporters these days disclose private matters ranging from marriage to stock ownership, so I think this would only make things more transparent.

    1. Saying a second “Green Revolution” is the answer when the evidence is to the contrary of the first

    “Reality: The production advances of the Green Revolution are no myth. Thanks to the new seeds, million of tons more grain a year are being harvested. But focusing narrowly on increasing production cannot alleviate hunger because it fails to alter the tightly concentrated distribution of economic power that determines who can buy the additional food. That’s why in several of the biggest Green Revolution successes—India, Mexico, and the Philippines—grain production and in some cases, exports, have climbed, while hunger has persisted and the long-term productive capacity of the soil is degraded. Now we must fight the prospect of a ‘New Green Revolution’ based on biotechnology, which threatens to further accentuate inequality.” (12 Myths About Hunger based on World Hunger: 12 Myths, 2nd Edition, by Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset, with Luis Esparza (fully revised and updated, Grove/Atlantic and Food First Books, Oct. 1998))

    2. What also to say about regulations for genetically modified food?

    “Because FDA determined that bioengineered foods should be regulated like their conventional counterparts, FDA has not to date established any regulations specific to bioengineered food.”

    “’When a company comes in with data, the FDA looks at it and writes a letter saying, ‘Dear Monsanto, you supplied information regarding the safety of corn variety X and we are confident about what you’ve shown,’ Halloran says. ‘It is your responsibility.’” (Myth: The FDA Conducts Safety Tests of All GM Foods)

    “the FDA put out what was a political document, not a scientific document, that said genetically engineered foods are no different than natural foods, and therefore they don’t need to be labeled or regulated any differently. And the other agencies pretty much fell in line with that approach”

    3. Also you say “Protecting the interests of and giving voice to the world’s poor is essential to implementing GM crops successfully”

    How would the poor’s interest be protected when they would be even more susceptible to a company that is only interested in its bottom line. After all, Monsanto sells you seeds that you can’t re-use and have to buy new ones every year. You also have to buy its own herbicide, Roundup.

    “Farmers who buy Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready seeds are required to sign an agreement promising not to save the seed produced after each harvest for re-planting, or to sell the seed to other farmers. This means that farmers must buy new seed every year. Those increased sales, coupled with ballooning sales of its Roundup weed killer, have been a bonanza for Monsanto.”

    I suggest you read the above article

    4. What also about corruption charges stemming from illegally bribes paid by Monsanto to government officials?

    “Government officials around the globe have been coerced, infiltrated, and paid off by the agricultural biotech giants.”

    And some of this for favorable data for genetically modified food

    Noting that this is also against “The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act”

    If you want to look at really what U.S. policy is in the developing world, it certainly isn’t giving voice to the world’s poor through Genetically Modified Crops

  • Posted by A Critic

    ““biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.””

    Not true. GMOs put all of your eggs into a few baskets. Conventional plant breeding puts all of your eggs into hundreds or thousands of baskets.

    Which crop is more likely to completely fail – the one with a single set of genes, or the one with thousands of sets of genes? GMO is inbreeding on a previously impossible scale – it makes the plants weaker (Monsanto even says so). This will not end well.

    Also – are GMO plants adapted to local conditions, or are they mass produced in laboratory conditions?

    “a recent Nature article suggests that organic farming, under certain conditions (when conventional and organic systems are most comparable), currently produces yields up to a third lower than conventional farming.”

    Conventional is superior when you monocrop. Organic/beyond organic isn’t restrained to monocropping, to really do it you have to polycrop, and then you get far higher yields. The proponents of monocropped petrofueled GMOs never mention that.

    “refusing to pursue GM crops at this point would be irresponsible.”

    No, making any significant portion of the food supply reliant on the tiniest gene pool which rapidly grows weaker is irresponsible.

  • Posted by Mary

    This now unfairly characterizes GM. By saying “GM technology is expensive” without saying that there are public and non-profit providers who are trying to participate, it suggests that GM has to be patented and pricey. That is not the case.

  • Posted by ptidwll

    You are purposefully ignoring hive death syndrome links, the probability of superweed and superbug propagation, further disruption of peasant and subsistence farm culture because yor goal is not to feed the poor, but to transition Africa to GM in order to force the EU to drop their ban. Africans will remain hungry as exports to Europe increase. GM is agricultural recolonization.

  • Posted by M.

    No way in heck that 3rd world farmers with little or no education will understand how to farm technologically! Teach them what they know, organic farming, but with new and improved methods they can understand and afford. Saving their traditional seeds and education is the key.

  • Posted by John

    Overall a nice article. However, you statement that “GM agriculture systems… are designed to resist pesticides… weeds have evolved to resist pesticides, creating costly and difficult problems” is somewhat off the mark: This is true for virtually all forms of agriculture. For instance not only GM but also “conventional” breeding is used to develop herbicide-resistant plants. Yet, these crops are not opposed, even though they come with the same problems. And the build-up of resistance against pesticides is even a problem in organic agriculture. (If I’m not mistaken, the first case of insect resistance against Bt – toxins that are used both in organic farming and in GM crops – occurred in organic agriculture.) One solution against resistance to glyphosate (Roundup) would actually be to have more GM crops that are tolerant to different herbicides – these could then be used to manage weeds much more efficiently as weeds could hardly develop resistance to multiple herbicides at once. Indeed, as you also suggest to some extent at the end of your article, decisions should not be based on ideological rejections of certain technologies but on what works in a sustainable way (i.e. what is environmentally, socially and economically superior to and at least not worse than current alternatives)! Whatever the system, process or product…

  • Posted by MapsofWorld

    All- New Infographic & Analysis About Genetic Engineering Of Crops & GMO

  • Posted by Paul Roberts

    I’d just like to share a statement made last week by Gathuru Mburu, Coordinator of the African Biodiversity Network:

    “We have seen the negative effects that crops like this have had in India, where GM cotton crops failed in their claims of pest resistance, and sent farmers into spiraling debt. Experimenting with staple crops is a serious threat to food security. Our resilience comes from diversity not from monocultures of GM. Seed saving is the basis of African farmers’ security and livelihood, but patented GM crops forbid farmers from saving their own seed. This is a violation of Farmers’ Rights. Furthermore, there is always a strong likelihood that GM will cross-pollinate with our crops, and that we will lose our indigenous diversity forever. Indigenous seed is traditionally celebrated in African rites of passage, so GM will further erode Africa’s Rights to indigenous, cultural foods and the knowledge systems which surround these.

    Beneath the rhetoric that GM is the key to feeding a hungry world, there is a very different story – a story of control and profit. This story is about controlling seed, and thereby the farmer, his land, and the food system. The globalisation of food markets has led to growing hunger, and the unrelenting greed of corporations who see the huge financial potential in controlling the global food system. Farmers and communities in the areas most affected by food shortages and climate change do not want GM. GM does not support a resilient, nutritious or sustainable food system. Instead it creates dependence on corporations and increased vulnerability to hunger and poverty. Actions against GM, by movements like the African Biodiversity Network, Via Campesina, and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, are happening across Africa and beyond. The fact is that we need a diversity of genetic traits in food crops in order to survive worsening climates. Above all, people need to have control over their seeds.”

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    In response to a comment above, I do not serve on the board of any GM-related companies and I do not stand to benefit financially from GM agriculture.

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    Thank you to all those who commented for adding to the conversation about GM crops. Your diverse perspectives contribute to an important discussion on this complex topic, a conversation that needs to be continued as the role of GM crops evolves and new research becomes available.

  • Posted by Carlos Deegan

    Should GM food become available and satisfy the nutritional needs of two billion more by 2050, what is the larger plan to limit population growth that is surely the greater problem.

  • Posted by A Critic

    “The main characteristic of Nature’s farming can therefore be summed up in a few words. Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance
    one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.” – An Agricultural Testament by Albert Howard

    Isobel – note the above description of the role model for agriculture. Compare it to “conventional” and GMO. Today Howard would have to add “each species breeds within itself and never with a species from a different kingdom”.

    GMOs aren’t necessarily a bad thing – but until humanity masters replicating the operating principles of nature it is sure to be a bad thing.

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