The gene revolution: GM crops and unequal development

26 March 2007 12:00 - 13:30 GMT+00
Public event

Speaker:

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Editor and Main Contributor and Visiting Professor, New School University, New York

Discussant:

Prof Michael Lipton, Institute of Development Studies

Chair:

Simon Maxwell, Director, ODI

Description

The high-yield selective breeding of 'the Green Revolution' of the 1960s and '70s is now being overtaken by 'the Gene Revolution' - the development and spread of GM crops across the world.

With over 90 million hectares already under cultivation and 60 countries conducting research, GM is reviled by some as a vast Pandora's Box and corporate sell-out, while hailed by others as the necessary technological solution to stagnating agricultural output, ballooning populations, climate change and drought. Sandwiched in between are developing and transitional countries where the need to feed vast populations and to compete against the US in international markets are compelling reasons to get on the GM bandwagon.

'The Gene Revolution' claims to be the first book to bridge the gap between the 'naysayers' and 'cheerleaders', and to provide a penetrating examination of the realities, complexities, benefits and pitfalls of GM adoption in developing countries that are desperately fighting poverty while trying to stay afloat in the hyper-competitive global economy.

At this ODI and Earthscan discussion event, the editor and main contributor to the book, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr presented her research findings and responded to questions and comments from the audience. Prof Michael Lipton also presented his comments on the book and the issues it raises. The event was chaired by Simon Maxwell, Director of ODI.

About the book
Contents
Part I: National Development Priorities and the Role of Institutions
Part II: GM Crops for Development: The Experience of Argentina, Brazil, China, India and South Africa
Part III: Comparing and Analysing Developing Country Experiences, References, Index

Bibliographic details
Paperback £22.95 ISBN 1844074099
Hardback £80.00 ISBN 1844074102
Publication date: December 2006
224 pages; 234x156mm; Figures, tables, boxes, index

1. Simon Maxwell introduced Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Visiting Professor at New School University, New York and author of the recently published 'GM Crops and Unequal Development.'


Sakiko Fukuda-Parr

2. Fukuda-Parr clarified that, in the course of her presentation about the book's findings, she would be discussing the commercial production of Genetically Modified (GM) Crops, not the latest advances in the GM laboratories.

3. GM crops have been in production since 1996, and they include four main crops: soy, maize, cotton, and canola.

4. There are four institutional and policy options that shape the use of this technology:

     I.        Research and Development (R&D)

    II.        Intellectual Property (IP)

  III.        Biosafety Regulation

   IV.        Seed Market Structure


5. In order for the R&D to successfully reach the GM farmer, the following steps are required:

     I.        Biotech research (lab and field testing)

    II.        Biosafety approval

  III.        IP approval

   IV.        Plant breeding research-adapted product


6. GM has evolved differently throughout the world based on different levels of government involvement:

     I.        In the US, there has been a continuous shift in agricultural R&D from the government to the private sector since the 1980s. This has led to the growth of large agricultural biotech corporations which receive large amounts public funding.

    II.        In the EU, consumer preferences and NGOs have blocked GM imports. Tight biosafety restrictions have also restrained GM development.

  III.        In Argentina and South Africa, governments supported GM, but created only limited domestic capacity, leaving most GM production to the private sector.

   IV.        In India and Brazil, there is government gridlock on GM policy. Agricultural and environmental government agencies are pitted against one another.


7. There are many problems with the planting of non-certified seeds, or “white bags.” Legal and institutional barriers are preventing bio-safety agencies from enforcing restrictions on GM production.

8. Countries growing GM crops should be actively participating in biotech and breeding R&D in order to stay at the forefront of the technology. This includes developing nations.

9. Fukuda-Parr then moved on to the subject of GM and the pro-poor agenda, and advised developing countries and anti-poverty advocates to take the following steps:

     I.        Invest in priority traits (increased yield; reduced variability-drought tolerance; disease resistance).

    II.        Plant crops that are consumed by the world’s poor (primarily rice, wheat).

  III.        Do not follow exactly the model established by the large biotech corporations, as they tend to focus on profitable crops to meet demand from developed countries.

   IV.        Establish a seed supplying institutional structure that will provide a supply of locally-adapted varieties at competitive prices for farmers.


10. Fukuda-Parr stated that unless the public sector, both nationally and internationally, engages with agricultural biotechnology, the sector will continue to be led by the large biotech corporations, and will not be likely to cater to the needs of poor farmers.


Michael Lipton

11. Michael Lipton, at the start of his presentation, raised the issue of transgenic plant production, which has increased sharply in recent years. Ninety-four percent of the world's soy, for example, is now transgenic.

12. Lipton stated that there are three major concerns associated with the continued development of GM crops and seeds:

     I.        The impact of GM on poverty - there is mixed evidence on this relationship. In Brazil, transgenics have benefitted small farmers, and this has provided income for workers by creating a demand for labour. In Argentina however, GM seeds have disproportionately favoured large-scale farmers. In order for GM seeds and crops to benefit the world’s poor, wheat and rice must be favoured over other crops.

    II.        The EU’s response - European scientific institutions are often pitted against “NGO-generated consumer opposition”. There has been a huge fall in EU imports of soy, even though no health risks associated with transgenics have been proven. Many of the myths which currently exist about transgenics must be debunked in order for scientific institutions in the EU to overcome NGO opposition to imports.

  III.        Incentives for the private sector to make transgenics more “pro-poor”- agricultural biotech corporations are caught in a “royalties trap”, which means that they must focus on producing seeds and crops which will yield the highest profits. If such corporations are given financial incentives to focus on rice and wheat rather than crops which meet rich country demands, the world’s poor will benefit from increased availability of their staple foodstuffs.


Discussion

Comments and questions raised in the discussion included:

  • The stigmatisation of GM crops has led to a distortion of priorities.

  • There has recently been a sharp decline in agricultural research in general.

  • The Gates Foundation is supporting an initiative to produce an enriched variety of sorghum with increased levels of vitamins, amino acids, and proteins.

  • The public has to be convinced that a particular type of new GM crop will not have deleterious effects. This is difficult to prove without years of research.

  • Small-scale farmers in developing countries are resistant to dependency on GM seeds because of concerns about losing their economic independence to large biotech corporations.

  • The biotech corporations must not be allowed to monopolise a technology that can help to combat famine in developing countries.

  • Making headway in agricultural biotechnology will require cross-national, cross-regional research.

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