Agricultural biotechnology and development: unintended consequences and unheard voices

 

Date palm tissue culture laboratory – Picture from FAO

GM crops have once again come under the spotlight with the recent news that Burkina Faso will no longer be growing Bt cotton (a genetically modified cotton variety, which produces a pesticide to counter the insect pest bollworm). Originally an early adopter of the technology, Burkina Faso became one of the first African countries to develop and release, with Monsanto, crosses of local and Bt cotton crops in 2008. As one of Africa’s largest cotton producers, their adoption of GM technology was ground-breaking. And, at least for some time, successful, increasing cotton production, yields and profits while reducing the number of pesticide sprays needed. With some 140,000 smallholders cultivating Bt cotton, it was also seen to de driving rural development, the average Bt cotton farming family reaping 50% more profits than families growing conventional cotton.

So why the reversal? The lint quality of Bt cotton varieties is poor and, as such, results in economic losses for the Burkinabè cotton companies that market it. Since they provide all seeds and inputs to cotton farmers, they have the power to phase out Bt cotton growing in the industry, which will take place over the next two years. In this case while the technology was boosting production and reducing pesticide use, an unintended impact on lint quality has become too big a hurdle for cotton companies to overcome. Now questions are being asked as to whether the same is likely to happen in other locations and situations, perhaps as a side effect of a “narrow, trait specific approach to addressing agricultural development”.

Despite this news from Burkina Faso, the argument in support of GM crops has somewhat intensified, with a recent article from Tim Benton, Professor of Population Ecology, University of Leeds reasserting that GM crops are one of a myriad of technologies and practices that we will need to feed the world. Since growth in yields are no longer increasing fast enough to meet projected food demand, we will need to expand crop land by an estimated 42% by 2050. This has broader consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem services as well as for greenhouse gas emissions, of which those associated with farming and food are currently set to push us past the 1.5℃ temperature-rise target set in Paris in 2015.

As Professor Benton explains, to avoid food shortages or the broader impacts of agricultural expansion we must either reduce demand for food or increase supply. The latter is about employing more efficient forms of agriculture, better land management but also technology to raise yields. How much of this technology will be comprised of biotechnology or genetic modification is unknown.

Some would like to see this be zero – for genetic modification to have no role in shaping future food supply. But could this opinion and the campaigning of anti-GM groups be harmful to food security? The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), in their new report, estimates that “the current restrictive climate for agricultural biotech innovations could cost low- and lower- middle-income nations up to $1.5 trillion in foregone economic benefits through 2050”. They also calculate that due to regulations and export limits that prevent widespread adoption of biotechnology, the lack of access to biotech innovations in farming has cost African agricultural economies at least $2.5 billion between 2008 and 2013.

There will be risks whatever course of action is taken and whatever type of technology is used, and so it is critical we assess these benefits and risks in each situation particularly as they compare to taking no action or to business as usual. The difficulty in doing such an assessment, as Burkina Faso have experienced, is in deciding whose benefits or risks matter more. The economic losses of the cotton companies are driving the reversal on Bt cotton while the benefits the technology has brought to smallholder farmers seems to be of lesser concern. Often those organisations which support smallholder farmers and rural development may be unsupportive of the growth of genetic modification, because the two have typically been at odds. And so alongside technical investigation of the unintended consequences of GM crops, conversations on the responsible use of GM crops for social change, equity and fairness need to become broader and more frequent.

And last week (15-17th February) the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) hosted a symposium in Rome, on “The Role of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Sustainable Food Systems and Nutrition.” It explored how agricultural biotechnologies might benefit smallholder farmers, particularly those in developing countries and those who need to improve nutrition, strengthen livelihoods and overcome threats to their production systems such as climate change, population growth, and other socio-economic factors. While the symposium did not have all the answers it strongly supported the argument that farmers should have the right to choose what they grow and sell. Details of the presentations can be found here.

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