Genetically Modified Crops and Their Role in International Development

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Since their commercial introduction in the mid-1990s, genetically modified (GM) crops have stirred public debates. In particular, the scaled use of GM crops raised concerns regarding their potential environmental and health risks and patenting of life, as well as over multinational corporations’ domination of food chains. While GM crops are not a magic bullet to fight hunger or to resolve natural resource scarcity, research shows that these crops are safe and can contribute to sustainable production growth and food security worldwide.

Evidence suggests that GM crops could be socially beneficial, particularly for smallholder farmers and rural communities in developing countries. Yet, introducing GM crops in developing countries is difficult due to regulatory hurdles associated with testing and approving new GM crop applications. Prevailing discourse suggesting GM crops are harmful to humans and the environment has also fueled public opposition from policymakers and multilateral organizations, thereby creating additional challenges for widespread GM crop use in developing economies.

Such obstacles need to be overcome to address emerging global development challenges—particularly with regards to food security. Future food security is hardly possible without tapping into the efficiencies that come with modern plant sciences. If developed and used on a broad scale, GM crops and other new plant-breeding technologies, can increase food production, improve nutritional quality, make plants more resilient to pests and climate shocks, and reduce reliance on chemicals in agricultural practices.

In 2015, there were 180 million hectares of GM crops globally—equivalent to 13 percent of the world’s arable land. Many GM crops, such as soybean, maize, canola, and sugar beet, have genes that instigate plant tolerance to certain herbicides used to facilitate weed control. Other GM crops have genes that code for insect resistance. While many farmers spray chemical pesticides to reduce crop losses caused by insects, such pesticide sprays are not always effective. Therefore, GM insect resistance can not only help to reduce pesticide use, but can also reduce crop losses and increase yields.

Over the last 20 years, over 200 studies investigated the effects of GM crops on agricultural productivity, pesticide use, and farmers’ incomes in developed and developing countries. Most of these studies were conducted by independent university researchers, funded by public research money, and published in peer-reviewed academic journals. A recent meta-analysis of these published results revealed sizable benefits to farmers. On average, GM varieties have 20 percent larger effective yields and need 40 percent less chemical pesticide sprays than conventional crops. Although GM seeds are more expensive, farmers using GM varieties saw profits 60 percent higher than did those farmers who continued to use conventional varieties.

The benefits, however, vary by the type of GM technology used. Insect-resistant crops result in larger income gains and pesticide reductions than do herbicide-tolerant crops. The meta-analysis also showed geographic variation; in particular, farmers in developing countries benefit more from GM crop adoption than do farmers in developed countries. The reason is that many developing countries are in the tropics or subtropics, where pest and weed problems are more severe than in temperate climates.

Genetically modified crops also produce important social benefits. For instance, insect-resistant GM cotton is widely grown by smallholder farmers—those with land holdings of less than five hectares—in Africa and Asia. In India, where over eight million cotton growers have switched to GM varieties, higher yields and profits contributed to the rising incomes of poor farm households. This, in turn, reduced poverty, improved nutrition, and increased food security by 15 to 20 percent. Rural workers benefit from more employment in the cotton sector, which is particularly significant for women from poor, landless households. China, Pakistan, South Africa, and other developing countries have experienced similar benefits from using GM crops.

The effects of commercialized GM crops are promising, but still limited in scope. Many other GM technologies developed by private companies and public research organizations have already been tested in various countries, but have yet to receive commercial approval. Examples include engineering traits, such as fungal resistance, drought tolerance, higher nitrogen-use efficiency, and improved nutritional quality in food crops, such as rice, wheat, and bananas. Such GM technologies can contribute to food security, reduce the environmental footprint of farming, and make agriculture more resilient to climate shocks.

Despite the benefits of GM technologies, there are widespread fears about GM crop risks. These fears revolve around the possibility that genes newly introduced to crop plants could be toxic to humans or contribute to biodiversity loss. Some caution is warranted whenever new technologies are being introduced. Experience shows that agricultural technologies—such as chemical pesticides—have indeed contributed to health and environmental problems over the last few decades. However, GM crops can mitigate these risks and reduce reliance on chemical pesticides. Thirty years of risk research indicates that GM crops are no more risky to human health and the environment than conventionally bred varieties. The GM crops available on the market have an unblemished safety record. In some cases, weeds or insect pests developed resistance to GM technologies, but the problem of resistance development is not unique to GM crops; resistance problems also occur when using chemical or biological pest control strategies.

Nevertheless, GM crops are regulated differently than are conventionally bred varieties. Before any GM crop can be grown commercially, formal safety approval is required following many years of testing. Furthermore, approval procedures differ depending on the country. In the European Union (EU), testing and approval processes are highly politicized. While scientists evaluate the risks of GM crops, the EU Commission is responsible for the final approvals. These approvals are hard to come by, as the majority of Europeans favor a complete ban on GM crops. As a result, many GM technologies deemed safe by experts after years of testing are never approved for commercial use.

The EU Commission is hesitant to approve new GM crops because of public opposition. Despite scientific evidence of GM crops’ low risks and tested benefits, opposition remains unabated. Interest groups, including environmental NGOs, benefit from perpetuating negative public sentiments toward GM crops. For many NGOs, organizing campaigns against GM crops is a significant field of activity, an important source of revenue, and the primary driver influencing public opinion both within and outside of the EU.

Issues of public acceptance, coupled with regulatory and political hurdles, contribute to the stalemate over new GM crop applications. In the meantime, new genome editing techniques further enlarged the methodological toolbox available to plant scientists. Genome editing techniques, such as CRISPR/Cas, allow researchers to modify the plant genome in a targeted way, often without introducing foreign genes from another species. Whether the public will accept new crop varieties generated with genome editing is still up for debate. Stigmatizing them in the same way as GM crops would stifle progress and negatively impact international development.

Breaking the stalemate for new plant breeding technologies requires more science-based public discourse and reforms of approval processes to make GM crops less susceptible to political opportunism. While entrenched regulatory obstacles still exist in Europe, many other countries are demonstrating that progress is possible. Canada is a good example for a much more science-based approach to regulating new crop technologies. A number of developing countries have also moved ahead with new GM crop applications. Bangladesh recently approved the use of insect-resistant GM eggplant despite opposition from European NGOs.

In Africa and Asia, poor and rural populations depend on smallholder agriculture for basic food security and their economic livelihood. GM crop technologies can not only help increase and stabilize food production sustainably, but can also contribute to lifting poor farm families out of poverty. GM cotton, grown in a few African and Asian countries, has led to remarkable benefits, but the positive effects of other GM crop applications could be even greater. Seizing these opportunities will require policymakers to push for more efficient regulations and changing prevailing discourse on the viability of GM technologies. Failing to do so will entail unnecessary human suffering and environmental degradation.

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Matin Qaim is professor of agricultural economics at the University of Goettingen in Germany. His research focuses on poverty, food security, and sustainable agricultural development. He has worked for over 20 years on evaluating the impacts of GM crops, especially in developing countries.

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