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Explaining restricted approval and availability of GM crops in developing countries. AgBiotechNet 4:1-6

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Abstract

Agricultural food and feed crops improved through recombinant DNA are grown widely on farms in wealthy countries such as the USA and Canada, but are scarcely grown anywhere in the poor developing world. The reasons often given for this slow uptake of genetically modified (GM) crops in developing countries include weak scientific capacity, intellectual property rights (IPR) constraints, and fears concerning biological and/or food safety. Upon examination, none of these concerns is strong enough within the developing world to explain the slow adoption of these crops. The most powerful explanation proves to be a growing commercial fear of lost export sales to Europe and East Asia, as this and other political factors complicate biosafety approvals in developing countries. Consumer misgivings toward GM foods in these rich importing countries, coupled with restrictive or stigmatising import and labelling policies, are prompting food exporting countries in the developing world to remain GM-free. The long-term costs of these decisions for food security in poor countries could be substantial. Agricultural crops improved through genetic engineering, such as insect-resistant maize and herbicide-tolerant soyabeans, have been grown widely in the USA and in several other countries since around 1995-1996. Currently, 34% of all US maize acreage and 75% of all US soyabean acreage is sown with seeds improved through recom-binant DNA technology. The reduced production costs made possible by these GM seeds should also eventually become attractive to farmers in poor countries, particularly in Africa and South Asia, where lagging farm productivity remains a major cause of rural poverty and hunger. 1 For this reason, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations endorsed GM crops at its June 2002 World Food Summit. 2 Yet very few farmers in poor countries have planted GM crops so far. As of 2001, the total area planted to GM crops worldwide was 52.6 million hectares (130 million acres), or just 1.3% of total global cropland area, and 99% of this
AgBiotechNet 2002, Vol. 4 October, ABN 097 1
Review Article
Explaining restricted approval and availability of
GM crops in developing countries
Joel I. Cohen1 and Robert Paarlberg2
1International Service for National Agricultural Research, The Hague,
The Netherlands
2Department of Political Science, Wellesley College, Wellesley,
MA, 02481, USA
Abstract
Agricultural food and feed crops improved through recombinant DNA are grown widely on
farms in wealthy countries such as the USA and Canada, but are scarcely grown anywhere in
the poor developing world. The reasons often given for this slow uptake of genetically
modified (GM) crops in developing countries include weak scientific capacity, intellectual
property rights (IPR) constraints, and fears concerning biological and/or food safety. Upon
examination, none of these concerns is strong enough within the developing world to explain
the slow adoption of these crops. The most powerful explanation proves to be a growing
commercial fear of lost export sales to Europe and East Asia, as this and other political factors
complicate biosafety approvals in developing countries. Consumer misgivings toward GM
foods in these rich importing countries, coupled with restrictive or stigmatising import and
labelling policies, are prompting food exporting countries in the developing world to remain
GM-free. The long-term costs of these decisions for food security in poor countries could be
substantial.
Agricultural crops improved through genetic engineering, such as
insect-resistant maize and herbicide-tolerant soyabeans, have been
grown widely in the USA and in several other coun tries since around
1995-1996. Currently, 34% of all US maize acreage and 75% of all
US soyabean acreage is sown with seeds improved through recom-
binant DNA technology. The reduced production costs made
possible by these GM seeds should also eventually become attractive
to farmers in poor countries, particularly in Africa and South Asia,
where lagging farm productivity remains a major cause of rural pov-
erty and hunger.1 For this reason, the Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) of the United Nations endorsed GM crops at its
June 2002 World Food Summit.2 Yet very few farmers in poor coun-
tries have planted GM crops so far. As of 2001, the total area planted
to GM crops world-wide was 52.6 million hectares (130 million
acres), or just 1.3% of total global cropland area, and 99% of this
total GM crop acreage was confined to only four countries: the USA
(68%), Argentina (22%), Canada (6%) and China (3%) (James,
2001ab).3
What explains the restricted availability and uptake of GM crops in
poor countries? The four explanations offered most frequently are:
(1) weak scientific and research capacity in developing countries,
(2) intellectual property rights constraints, and concerns with
(3) biological safety and
(4) food safety.
Upon examination, none of these explanations alone is persuasive.
The slow uptake of GM crops in the developing world is increasingly
attributable to commercial fears, specifically a fear of lost com-
modity export sales to Europe and East Asia.
1In Sub-Saharan Africa, 34% of all people are chronically malnourished and a disproportionate share of these hungry people are farmers suffering
from low productivity. Between 1980 and 1997, average agricultural value added per farm worker actually declined from $418 to $379 (Food
and Agriculture Organization, 2000; World Bank, 2000).
2The Food Summit said, “We call on the FAO, in conjunction with the CGIAR and other international research institutes to advance agricultural
research and research into new technologies, including biotechnology. Declaration of the second World Food Summit: Five Years Later.
Rome, FAO, June 2002.
3These data are from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). ISAAA, an organization dedicated to the
spread of GM crop technologies, bravely interprets these data as evidence that GM crops are overcoming international resistance (James,
2001ab).
2AgBiotechNet 2002, Vol. 4 October, ABN 097
Weak scientific capacity?
The scientific capacity and infrastructure of many developing coun-
tries is indeed weak, but sufficient in many cases to make local use of
GM crop technology and to conduct field trials to assess GM crops
introduced from abroad. Farmers in temperate zone developing coun-
tries (such as soyabean farmers in Argentina, or cotton growers in
parts of Mexico and China) can import GM seeds from the USA and
sow them successfully without modification. In order to access desir-
able transgenic traits, developing countries need not initiate their own
transformation programmes. Through conventional plant breeding,
certain, but not all, desired transgenic traits can be crossed into local
crops from those transformed abroad. This breeding capability, devel-
oped within public sector national agricultural research organizations
(NAROs) or universities, also forms the foundation for subsequent
local biotechnology development. Such capability strengthens the
chance that GM research will respond to the needs of poor farmers,
beyond the services targeting corporate or commercial growers’ inter-
ests. Examples of this capacity and capability are given below.
International partners will usually be needed to support GM crop
researchers in the developing world, but in most poor countries
NAROs are a lready in place, ready and able to engage in fruitful GM
crop development partnerships. These NAROs have a proven
capacity for defining research policy, priorities and agendas
(Dellacha, 1999; Herrera-Estrella, 1999; Moeljopawiro, 1999), and
managing funds for internal capacity and institution building
(Cohen, 2001; Falck Zepeda et al., 2002). In many countries public
funds have also be en used to create separate Departments of Biotech-
nology, such as in India, which award research grants on a
competitive basis to molecular biologists and plant breeders.4
At the international end, a number of institutional partners are able to
apply transgenic crop technologies for the needs of poor country
NAROs, including private international companies and bilateral
donors (James, 2001a), intergovernmental organizations and interna-
tional biotechnology programmes (James, 2001a), international
agricultural research centres (Morris and Hoisington, 2000), and phil-
anthropic foundations5. In more advanced developing countries (e.g.
Brazil or India) where farm seed improvement and distribution is
increasingly a private sector function, private-to-private international
partnerships can also help bring in transgen ic traits (Mubashir, 1999).
The scientific capacity of developing countries to absorb, adapt, and
develop transgenic crop technologies could and should be strength-
ened with more generous and better targeted national and
international assistance. National and international funding for
public agricultural research of all kinds, including biotechnology,
has been weak for more than a decade. If funding is not sustained for
basic public sector agricultural research capacities such as plant
breeding and germplasm development, then the ability of NAROs to
partner effectively in the introduction of locally useful GM crop
technologies will degrade. However, at present we cannot use the
relatively weak scientific capacity of developing country NAROs to
explain the slow uptake of GM crops.
In India, farmers are not yet growing GM food or feed crops but
researchers have for years been doing extensive laboratory and
greenhouse work with insect resistant varieties of GM rice,
pigeonpea and potato, and transformed varieties of eggplant, cab-
bage, cauliflower and tomato. GM mustard has been under field trial
in India since 1995 (Paarlberg, 2001). In China, GM crop acreage is
mostly restricted to cotton so far, but within China’s highly capable
national agricultural research system field trials have been underway
since 1999 on GM varieties of rice, wheat, maize, soyabean, potato,
rapeseed and peanut (Huang et al., 2002)6. Farmers in Indonesia are
not growing any GM food or feed crops commercially, but within
contained greenhouses Indonesian scientists are working on GM
varieties of rice, maize, potato, peanut, and soyabean7.
The above research programmes, and those in other countries sup-
ported by public/international funds, loans, or grants, illustrates how
governmental funding is supporting modern biotechnology to meet
local needs. However, while financial support for research may be
available, scientists also realise that their countries have not
approved GM crops for food or feed. Thus, something other than
weak scientific capacity in developing countries must be con-
straining availability of GM food and feed crops.
Constraints from intellectual property rights
(IPR)?
The scientific challenge of adopting recombinant DNA crop tech-
nology may not be too great for poor countries, but what about the
legal challenge? Many essential technical and biological building
blocks used in recombinant DNA crop improvement in poor coun-
tries have been patented in rich countries by the companies or
universities that originally developed them. A frenzy of private cor-
porate patenting of GM crop technologies in the 1990s led some
observers to fear that GM traits might never reach NARO
researchers or poor farmers in the developing world (Conway, 1999;
Pray, 2001). NAROs might not be able to gain access to proprietary
transgenic technologies, or they might only be given permission by
IPR holders to use those technologies for research with restrictions
on commercial release. Poor farmers, accustomed to saving their
own seeds for resowing, might not be able to purchase expensive,
patented GM seeds from private companies every season.
These IPR constraints do present serious complications, but once
again they are not the principal reason for the slow uptake of GM
crops in poor countries to date. It is often forgotten that the IPR
claims made by companies or researchers in rich countries are
enforceable only in the nations where the patents or other IPRs were
granted and cannot be made in poor countries if the local laws have
not recognized such claims. Moreover, plant variety protection laws
in most developing countries are still either weak or non-existent. Of
the 50 states that are parties to the International Convention for the
Protection of new Varieties of Plants, only 16 are from the devel-
oping world, only 2 (Kenya and South Africa) are from Africa, and
none is from South or Southeast Asia.8 Innovations lacking national
legal protection inside developing countries are considered to be in
4While much local research on modern crop biotechnology remains focused on tissue culture or marker assisted breeding, in some larger developing
countries (including Brazil, China and India) a small but noticeable share is going now to genomics and crop transformation (Paarlberg, 2001).
5Here the Rockefeller Foundation has taken the lead, originally with a Ri ce Biotechnology Program in Asia. This programme began operat ing in
China as early as 1985, providing international training opportunities in molecular biology for Chinese scholars, helping equip Chinese labora-
tories, and brokering research contacts between China’s National Rice Research Institute and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in
the Philippines. Thanks in part to these Rockefeller efforts, Chinese scientists were able to synthesize their own Bt genes as early as 1991
(Paarlberg, 2001).
6China has given commercial release to a GM pepper and a GM tomato, but not yet to any major food crops.
7ISNAR 2002 in press.
ReviewArticle 3
the public domain, free to be exploited internally or even exported
commercially to other developing countries, so long as those other
countries also have weak IPR laws.9
Developing countries are being asked, under the TRIPS agreement
of the WTO, to upgrade their minimum level of IPR protections for
plant technologies. The TRIPS standard is a lenient one, ho wever, as
it requires only an “effective” form of Plant Breeder’s Rights (PBR)
protection. The protections afforded by either the 1978 or 1991
UPOV Conventions are generally regarded as meeting this standard.
However, compared to patents, these protections are relatively
weak, as they preserve the freed om of breeders to use protected v ari-
eties as an initial source of variation when creating their own new
varieties and allow farmers to replicate and then resow or, in the case
of the 1978 UPOV Convention, sell or exchange the seeds of pro-
tected crop varieties without penalty. There is no international
obligation in the WTO, or anywhere else, for governments in poor
countries to adopt the same form of patent protection for agricultural
crop inventions that the USA currently provides.
If poor countries fail to provide strong IPR guarantees, will the pri-
vate international companies that have developed valuable GM
technologies decide to keep them out? This, too, is an exaggerated
fear. Scientists in NAROs, particularly in Asia and Latin America,
have been able to make extensive use of materials or technologies
covered by patent protection (Salazar et al., 2000). Private compa-
nies have strong market incentives to share IPR with local seed
company partners or national research systems. They often must do
so to gain access to local germplasm, to local plant breeders capable
of backcrossing the desired recombinant DNA trait into local varie-
ties, to an in-country infrastructure for field trials and biosafety
testing, and to practical (and political) assistance in securing
approvals from national plant quarantine authorities and national
biosafety regulators. IPR sharing may also be the only way to gain
links to well-established in-country seed production and distribution
systems, and to public relations cover in the face of local anti-corpo-
rate critics.
Evidence indicates that a number of private biotech seed companies,
led by the Monsanto Company, have been ready to extend their pro-
prietary GM crop technologies into the developing world even where
little or no IPR protection is provided. Monsanto exposed itself to sig-
nificant local piracy of its Bt cotton seeds in China where it knew IPR
protections would be weak, as a price that had to be paid for gaining
access to that nation’s large commercial seed market. In the case of
Bt cotton in India, Monsanto again went in without local IPR protec-
tion guarantees, but hoped to protect itself by introducing a hybrid
variety that farmers and competitors could not replicate locally. In
humanitarian cases, including the development of a virus-resistant
sweet potato to Kenya, Monsanto has been willing to allow royalty-
free use of its IPR by researchers and eventually by farmers within
the developi ng world. Furthermore, Monsan to provides t echnical and
other capacity building resources over the life of such projects. All
four of the private companies holding patents on the technologies
used in vitamin A enriched “Golden Rice” agreed promptly to make
the IPR available within poor countries on a royalty-free basis. IPR
constraints are therefore real, but not the primary reason that poor
country farmers have been unable to plant GM seeds.
Biological safety risks?
In the developed world, GM crops are not released to farmers until
they are tested and approved by national regulators for both safety
to food consumers (food safety), and for safety to the biological
environment (biosafety). Also, in the developing world, GM crop
biosafety regulations have come into force, partly at the insistence
of environmentally-conscious development assistance agencies.10
These regulations and their implementation assure that national
biosafety procedures and risk assessments are followed for intro-
duction and testing of GM crops and materials. However, one
reason GM crops are not being planted is that these national
biosafety regulat ory systems are giving very few commercial ization
approvals.
In all of developing Asia, not a single national government has given
its farmers official permission to plant any significant GM food or
feed crops. The only important biosafety approvals given so far in
Asia have been for cotton, an industrial crop. Insect-resistant Bt
cotton has now been released to farmers for commercial use in India
and Indonesia as well as in China. In all of Africa, only the govern-
ment of South Africa has yet approved the commercial growing of
any GM crops (Bt cotton and Bt maize), while the remainder of
Africa is still officially off limits for GM crops.11 All of North Africa
and the Middle East is still off limits to GM. And in South America,
though the government of Argentina was quick to go ahead with sev-
eral important GM crop approvals in the mid-1990s (for soyabeans,
maize, and cotton) these same Argentine authorities after 1998
imposed an effective freeze on new food and feed crop approvals, so
as to avoid losses in export sales to Europe. In several other impor-
tant agricultural states in Latin America (including Brazil and Chile)
no official permission has been given to plant any GM crops. What
explains this unusual regulatory caution toward GM crops in the
developing world?
In most cases, regulatory reviews have not stalled because of scien-
tific evidence that the GM crops being reviewed pose new risks to
the environment (Dale et al., 2002). The slowdown has come instead
from a variety of non-scientific factors, including political and legal
opposition from domestic and international NGOs, thereby weak-
ening national political will. In addition, there is a growing fear of
lost export sales should GM food or feed crops be given commercial
release.
8“States Party to the Inte rnational C onvention,” UPOV, http://www.upov.int/eng/ratif/index.htm, June 2002.
9Developi ng cou ntry governments have other op tions: they can import and use proprietary recombinant DNA techno logies after requesting either a
waiver or a royalty-free license from the IP holder; use recombinant DNA techniques on which IP protection has lapsed; seek access to recom-
binant DNA technologies or training through international agricultural research through the CGIAR centers; or they can seek a compulsory
license, through their local government or court system.
10GM crop biosafety training has emerged since the mid-1990s as a major donor thrust. USAID does this through its Agricultural Biotechnology
Support Project (ABSP) project. The Netherlands promotes biosafety through DGIS and also its environment ministry. Germany’s GTZ oper-
ates a BioFACT programme. Japan has a Biosafety for Asia programme. A number of intergovernmental organizations including UNEP/GEF,
UNIDO, and the IPPC promote GM crop biosafety training as well.
11Officially, much of Sub-Saharan Africa is still off limits even to the import of GM commodities. In May 2002, the government of Zimbabwe actu-
ally turned away a donation of 10,000 tons of US maize because it could not be certified as GM-free, despite the fact that the country was fac-
ing a severe food emergency. According to the World Food Programme, half of Zimbabwe's population needed food aid in 2002 in order to
avert starvation.
4AgBiotechNet 2002, Vol. 4 October, ABN 097
In Kenya, regulators moved slowly on approving the import and
testing of a virus-resistant GM sweet potato, even though the scien-
tifically grounded biosafety concerns have been minimal. The
probability of unwanted gene flow in this case was minimal because
the sweet potato will be propagated vegetatively, it hardly flowers,
and when it does, the pollen is usually infertile. Introgression of GM
traits into wild relative species is not an issue in Kenya, given the
complete absence of wild relatives (sweet potato originated in South
America). Regulators in Kenya moved slowly because of weak
bureaucratic and technical capacity, leading to timidity and delay,
and in part because they know that a commercial release decision on
any GM food crop will attract critical attention in the media, from
environmental NGOs, and possibly from important European donors
(Paarlberg, 2001).
Also, in Brazil, legal and political opposition from NGOs rather than
evidence of any specific biohazard has held up the commercial
release of GM soyabeans. When Brazil’s national technical com-
mittee on biosafety (CTNBio) gave approval to five varieties of GM
soyabeans in 1998, environmental and consumer protection NGOs
filed a lawsuit claiming that on constitutional grounds technical
approval had to come instead from an environmental impact assess-
ment institute within the environment ministry. A federal court judge
accepted the lawsuit, and GM soyabeans have yet to be released in
Brazil. Once again, specific biosafety worries about glyphosate-tol-
erant GM soyabeans were mostly absent. Farmers that grow these
soyabeans are able to use fewer, less toxic, and less persistent herbi-
cides, and gene flow to wild relative species was not an issue in
Brazil, since there are no wild relatives of the soyabean anywhere in
the Western Hemisphere.
In India, the long delay before biosafety approval of GM cotton in
2002 was another case where specific biohazards were not at the
centre of debate. The environmental gene flow risks were few, since
there were no identified non-cotton plants sexually compatible with
cultivated Bt cotton. The largest policy concern in India was interna-
tional corporate control over national seed markets, and the debate
centred for a time on an (erroneous) assertion that Monsanto’s Bt
cotton seeds contained a “terminator” gene intended to deprive
Indian farmers of their traditional right to save and replant seeds
from their own harvest. Taking up this anti-corporate (especially
anti-Monsanto) line, Indian NGOs and international NGOs used
media campaigns, public interest litigation, and direct action against
GM cotton test plots (uprooting and burning the cotton plants) to
intimidate regulators into going slow with approvals.
Biosafety regulators have therefore been slow to approve the com-
mercial release of GM crops in many poor countries, but usually not
because of any scientifically identified biosafety risk. When these
delays or lack of approval occur (due to factors other than actual
risks as determined by risk analysis), the public perceives them as a
failure of agricultural biotechnology.
Food safety fears in poor countries?
In countries such as India, Indonesia, and China, regulatory approval
has eventually been given for the commercial release of GM indus-
trial crops such as cotton, but never, or almost never, for GM food or
feed crops. This seems to confirm that food safety fears have been a
key blocking factor. Yet the fears come not so much from poor
country consumers as from rich country consumers.
Food consumers in poor countries, in contrast to their wealthy Euro-
pean and Japanese counterparts, have to worry about the price and
the simple availability of food, not just the safety of food. And when
these poor country consumers do worry about safety, they focus
(correctly) on matters such as pesticide residues on food, poor pack-
aging, poor refrigeration, or illegal adulteration. Governmental food
safety regulations in poor countries still tend to focus on these real
and present dangers, versus the still hypothetical health risks associ-
ated with consuming GM foods. Only where affluent or
cosmopolitan communities in developing countries enjoy close cul-
tural or institutional ties to Europe (e.g., among urban dwellers in
southern Brazil) have food safety fears linked to GM become a
serious political issue in the developing world.
There are good reasons for most poor country governments to down-
play the GM food safety issue. All the GM foods now on the market
have already been screened for safety in rich countries, and food
safety risks assessments, unlike biosafety risk assessments, do not
have to be location specific; a risk assessment on a particular GM
food done in the USA or Europe applies to consumers in Asia or
Africa too, since people are people the world over. In any case, all of
the official GM food safety risk assessments done so far by regula-
tors in rich countries have been uniformly reassuring, even in
Europe.12
Since the planting of GM crops is still illegal in most developing
countries, GM food safety issues tend to arise only in relation to
imports. Increasingly, developing country governments have begun
to place barriers in the path of GM food and commodity imports, so
as to preserve their official “GM-free” status. Yet they are doing this
not to protect consumers at home from the still unproved safety risks
of eating GM foods, so much as to protect their food and commodity
exporters, who are coming to sense that it might be difficult in the
future to sell “GM-contaminated” products to consumers in some
large rich-country markets.
Fear of lost export sales?
There is not yet any scientific evidence that the GM foods approved
so far by regulators in Europe or the USA present any enhanced risk
to human health.13 Nonetheless, consumers in Europe, Japan, and
South Korea since 1996 have developed deep anxieties about GM
(Vogel, 2001). In response to these anxieties, private food retailers in
these regions have begun to seek “GM-free” food supplies, and gov-
ernments in these regions have begun to adopt more restrictive
policies regarding the import and labelling of GM foods and animal
feeds. Beginning in 1998, the EU stopped importing bulk shipments
12In the autumn of 2001, the EU Commission released an official summary of the results of 81 separate scientific studies, funded by th e E U a nd
involving over 400 scientific teams from many parts of Europe. None of these studies found any harm to human health or the environment from
any GM crops approved so far by regulators (Kessler and Economidis, 2001).
13This lack of evidence of harm, so far, is acknowledged even within Europe. In 2001 the EU Commissioner for Research, Philippe Busquin, noted
the “excellent safety record to date” regarding GM food and environmental regulation in Europe (Kessler and Economidis, 2001). In May 1999
the UK Nuffield Council on Bioethics reached the following conclusion: “We have not been able to find any evidence of harm. We are satisfied
that all products currently entering the market have been rigorously screened by the regulatory authorit ies, that they continue to be monitored,
and that no evidence of harm has been detected”: Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 1999, pp. 126-127.
ReviewArticle 5
of maize from the USA (implying annual export sales losses to the
USA of $250 million) because those shipments might contain GM
varieties that were unapproved in Europe, owing to a continuing
moratorium on all new EU approvals. Then in 2001 the European
Union Commission proposed a strict new regulation on the labelling
and traceability of all GM foods and feeds (CEC, 2001). Under this
new regulation, GM food and feed products entering the EU, even
processed products where the GM content can no longer be detected
through physical testing, will have to come in with a stigmatizing
“GM” label, so private importers in Europe might begin shunning all
such products.
Food and commodity exporters in the developing world have
watched this tightening of formal and informal EU import restric-
tions on GM products with growing apprehension. Similar policy
and market trends have been discernible in Japan and Korea, partic-
ularly since the StarLink maize market contamination incident of
2000–2001.14 On strictly commercial grounds, both farmers and reg-
ulators in these poor countries are now sensing that it might not be
prudent to introduce GM crops.
Even some developing country governments initially ready to
approve GM crops have now put an effective hold on new appro vals,
largely for commercial reasons. China placed an informal halt on the
approval of any new GM food or feed crops in the spring of 2001.
This decision followed the StarLink maize scare of the previous
winter, which prompted importers such as Japan and Korea to switch
purchases away from countries such as the USA that grew GM
maize, and toward countries such as Brazil that did not.15 Argentina,
another early enthusiast for GM crops, has also pulled back. As a
result of the approval moratorium in Europe, Argentine officials
began in July 1998 to hold back on the release of any new GM food
or feed crops pending EU approvals of those crops (Burachik and
Traynor, 2002). For similar reasons, the USA and Canada are now
both going slow in approving GM wheat, for fear of lost export sales
to Korea or Japan. The Chair of the Canadian Wheat Board has esti-
mated that the first major exporting country to begin planting GM
wheat could immediately lose one third of its foreign customer
base.16
Combined European and Japanese purchasing power in global mar-
kets has become the most important reason why so many developing
countries are now aspiring to remain GM free in food an d feed crops,
even though we sometimes think of the USA as the rule-maker in
international commodity markets, because of its unmatched prowess
as an exporter. Yet in most competitive commodity markets it is the
biggest importers, not the biggest exporters, that enjoy leverage,
because of the relative ease with which they can seek alternative sup-
pliers. In world food markets the biggest importers are the Europeans
and the Japanese, not the USA.17 These two GM-averse regions
offer a commercial import market more than twice as large as the
import market offered by the USA, a GM-tolerant country.
Consequences of the slow uptake of GM crops in
developing countries
If the current halt on new GM food and feed crop approvals con-
tinues in the developing world, how much will be lost? In wealthy
industrial countries where farmers are already prosperous and con-
sumers are already well fed, the consequences of stopping the GM
crop revolution might be minimal. Even in the USA, where GM
crops are now pervasive, if farmers had to give up planting GM vari-
eties in response to international market pressures, farm production
costs would go up only slightly (US$1.5b) and the spraying of her-
bicides and insecticides would increase by 140+ million pounds.18
Even without any GM crops, farmers would remain prosperous and
consumers would remain well fed. For farmers and consumers in
poor countries, however, doing without GM crops in order to avoid
lost export sales to Europe and East Asia would be a more costly
future outcome.
Most farmers in the developing world are not currently prosperous
and many consumers in poor countries are not well fed. There are
complex reasons for these difficulties and many strategies to alle-
viate them. Biotechnology is but one input which can help. For
example, a subsistence farmer in Kenya trying to produce maize to
feed her family might need Bt maize in the future to control stem
borer infestations. A woman in rural Niger trying to produce cow-
peas to add protein to the diet of her children might need a GM
variety to help fight against pod borers or weevils. Drought-resistant
or nitrogen-fixing GM varieties of basic grains might someday pro-
vide an escape from destitution and hunger for tens of millions of
poor dryland farmers in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, pro-
viding the research investments needed to produce such varieties are
not driven away by the current rich country aversion to GM. If
today’s rich countries decide to turn back the clock and do without
GM crops, they will still be rich and well fed. If in the process the
clock is stopped for farmers in the developing world, they will still
be poor and food-insecure.
Acknowledgements
The authors would like to acknowledge Reynaldo V. Ebora, Vibha
Dhawan, Shawn Sullivan, José Falck Zepeda, Victoria Henson-
Apollonio, Jill Montgomery and Rob Horsch for their review, com-
ments and suggestions that have greatly improved the content and
relevance of this paper.
14In this incident, traces of a GM maize variety, approved in the USA for animal feed use only, leaked into food use market channels, including
export market channels. There were no confirmed cases of harm to human health, but consumer alarm – and NGO activist protests – forced a
recall of all StarL ink.
15China began to see some commercial profit from its decision to remain GM-free in maize in March 2002, when Korea bought 105,000 tons of
non-GM maize from China for human consumption, as an alternative to GM-contaminated US or Argentine maize (Reuters, March 29, 2002).
China has also profited from remaining a GM-free source of soyabeans. Late in 2001, Korea purchased 300,000 tons of Chinese soyabeans for
food use, as an alternative to GM-contaminated soyabeans from USA or Argentina.
16Michael Raine, “Seed Growers See Little Good in GM Wheat,” The Western Producer, 17 January, 2002. Under pressure from frightened US
wheat growers and exporters, Monsanto announced in February 2002 that it was pushing back the commercialization of its new GM wheat vari-
eties in the USA until 2004 or 2005 at the earliest.
17In 2000, the EU 15 as a group imported from the rest of the world $54.8 billion in agricultural products. The EU and Japan together imported
$91.0 billion in agricultural products.
18Eliminating GM crops in the USA might imply a 3% reduction in annual net farm income. The planting of GM crops in the USA has so far
allowed farmers to increase their income by $1.5 billion (compared to an average $46 billion for total net farm income). GM crops have al so
allowed US farmers to reduce the volume of pesticide use by 46 million pounds annually (Gianessi et al., 2002).
6AgBiotechNet 2002, Vol. 4 October, ABN 097
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