Can Agricultural Biotechnology be Pro-Poor? (5/10/2003)

Some interesting and thought-provoking contributions + some unbelievably simplistic ones - to coincide with the Institute of Development Studies meeting on this topic last week.

Contributors: Professor Tim Flowers, Dr. Walter A. Pengue, Andrew Bennett (Syngenta Foundation), Professor Michael Lipton (Nuffield), Alex Wijeratna, Devinder Sharma, Dr. Kees Jansen, Prof. Dayuan XUE, Professor C Kameswara Rao
Can Agricultural Biotechnology be Pro-Poor?
Examining the Politics of Policy in the Developing World
Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK
1-2 October 2003.

EXCEPTS from the Discussion Forum

Evaluation of claims that biotechnology can produce salt-tolerant crops reveals that, after ten years of research using transgenic plants to alter salt tolerance, the value of this approach has yet to be established in the field. Biotechnologists have reasons for exaggerating their abilities to manipulate plants.

If 'biotechnology' is to contribute tolerant crops, these crops may still be decades from commercial availability. The generation of drought tolerant crops is likely to have a similar period of development.

- Professor Tim Flowers
[School of Biological Sciences], University of Sussex
Argentine agriculture during the nineties

The special context in Argentina promoted a high adoption rate of GMOs (RR soybean, Bt corn  and Bt cotton) in an imported package, under a very input-intensive technology frame. Although short-term advantages for some types of farmers seem to be convincing, the success of the technology could turn sour when externalities are evaluated, weakening the country that has transformed a diverse and rich agroproductive system into practically a monoculture. The economic and ecological impacts are becoming very important.

Out of a national production of 70 million tons of crops, more than 50 per cent is transgenic soybeans. The intensification of the production system has been accompanied by a decline in soil fertility and advances over the agriculture frontier, with the new cultivars adapted to the different environments in the north-east, north-west and west. No-tillage, transgenic crops and glyphosate came as part of a technical package promoted strongly by companies and government during the nineties.

Increased use of glyphosate (from 1 million to 160 million litres between 1991 and 2003), the development of herbicide tolerance in weeds, the encroachment of agriculture over areas very rich in biodiversity, and the displacement of other crops are now important and verified consequences.
The country's authorities have not established any monitoring or research to tackle this new situation. The release of transgenic crops has no legal framework in Argentina, that has been discussed thoroughly in a democratic process in the National Congress.

Changes in the mode of production have led to a number of socioeconomic consequences: dependence on imports, de-industrialization, declining profit margins and concentration of land holdings. Between 1992 and 2003, the number of producers in the Pampas declined from 170,000 to 103,000, while the average size of a producer's holding increased from 243 to 532 has. Historically, agriculturists would produce on their own land. However, more than fifty percent of land is now owned by third parties (pools, banks and external capital). These parties neglect to take care of the soil for the future.

The model of intensification of Argentine agriculture, has allowed for the homogenization of landscape and production based on soybean as the dominant crop. This has put at serious risk the sovereignty and food security of the country, 50 per cent of whose own population faces important problems in gaining access to food (grains, meat or milk).

Trying to incorporate transgenic crops by force into the foodstuffs of poor people in Argentina, (who know nothing about soybean, having never eaten it before), as has been done by big companies and their local representatives (through the 'Solidarity Soybean Campaign') is a serious situation, affecting both food security and issues of culture, identity and choice about what to eat.

Dr. Walter A. Pengue
Grupo De Ecologia Del Paisaje Y Medio Ambiente (GEPAMA)
University of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Many universities and public research establishments are patenting and finding other ways to safeguard their investments. Most companies are prepared to release proprietary knowledge and technologies for use in developing countries if reliable partners can be found. I think that the IPR constraint is overplayed; under-investment is the main problem.

I believe with adequate and strategic public investment GM and other biotechnologies can work for the poor, and that with the right incentives, the private sector can also help.

Andrew Bennett
Executive Director,
Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture
GMCrops have good side-effects as well as bad: Bt cotton and corn are being snapped up and adapted by small farmers in India, S Africa, Mexico and especially China, for their insect resistance, and to cut pesticide use.
The precautionary principle must be applied to risks and costs of inaction as well as  action. Each year of delay in introducing golden rice means about 9,000 new cases of child blindness and 950 deaths in the Philippines alone (Zimmerman and Qaim, ZEF, Bonn, 2003).

Health and environmental risks of all new crops and foods need careful scrutiny, but the USA has been planting and eating GM soy and maize for ten years without recorded harm.

...The really harmful side-effect is on those left out [of GM crop development]. How will developing-country small farms compete, if their rivals enjoy productivity-raising innovations and they miss out? The privatisation of frontier agro-science has meant concentration on crops, traits, farm sizes, and areas relevant to rich farms, agro-industry, and wealthy consumers.
What changes are needed? Massive growth in public-sector, publicly accountable GM research, aimed at the crops, traits and areas most relevant to poor, smallholder farmers.
Big firms must be included, but it must be based in the national agricultural research systems of developing countries supported by international public agricultural research systems; and accountable, through participatory crop planning and breeding, to the priorities of the poor.

Professor Michael Lipton
Poverty Research Unit, University of Sussex [and Nuffield]
GM diverts resources from appropriate and sustainable solutions

The biotech lobby claims that GMOs will increase food production, reduce environmental degradation, provide more nutritious foods and promote sustainable agriculture. 'Miracle' crops such as Golden Rice are promoted as a means of combating the vitamin A-deficiency (VAD). But children do not suffer from VAD because rice contains too little vitamin A, but because they eat little else besides rice. A child would need to eat about 7kg (20 bowlfuls) of cooked Golden Rice per day to obtain the required amount of vitamin A. Encouraging people to grow and consume crops such as beans, pumpkins, ivy gourd and leafy green vegetables would tackle VAD more effectively.

There is also no consistent evidence that GM crops yield more. In one study, GM soya produced by Monsanto had 11% lower yields than high-yielding ordinary soya.

We have been here before. The Green Revolution (GR) introduced a few uniform hybrid crop varieties, which were grown in large monocultures and relied on high chemical inputs and irrigation. The initial yield increases - mainly of hybrid rice and wheat grown by commercial growers in Asia and Latin America - were eventually offset by soil erosion and the evolution of new pests and diseases. In Africa, the GR failed because the technologies were unsuited to local conditions, ineffective, expensive and unpopular with poor communities.

Just four multinationals control most of the GM seed market. They are effectively privatising the world's food chain and protect their investment through intellectual property rights (IPRs). Up to 1.4 billion people depend on saved seed. Yet IP regimes threaten centuries-old practices of saving and exchanging seeds. Poor farmers who opt for GM must purchase expensive seeds and pesticides every season.

Hunger can only be addressed by tackling poverty and inequality. GM's expansion is more likely to benefit rich corporations than poor people. Poor people really need better access to land and water, improved storage and better roads, agricultural training and affordable credit schemes.

Money would be better spent tackling these problems than poured into GM technology.

Alex Wijeratna    
ActionAid Food Rights Campaigner
GM Crops: adding to hunger and 'hidden hunger'

Knowing that hunger cannot be removed by genetically modified crops, the biotechnology industry has now shifted its focus to talk of malnutrition, the 'hidden hunger' that plagues developing societies. Addressing micro-nutrient deficiency has suddenly become the most important weapon for a discredited industry to win back consumer confidence.

At almost all the genetic engineering laboratories, whether in the North or in the South, the focus of research is on crops which will produce edible vaccines, or address the problems of malnutrition by incorporating genes for Vitamin A, iron, and other micro-nutrients. But what is not realised is that if global scientific and development efforts were aimed at eradicating hunger altogether, 'hidden hunger' would be automatically taken care off.

...Scientists and socio-economists need to develop strategies that make available the abundant food rotting in the countryside, to the needy. By diverting attention from the more pressing problems of hunger and starvation, scientists are merely trying to protect their own livelihood security. 'Hidden hunger' cannot be removed without eradicating hunger. That is what 'cutting-edge' science refuses to accept.

Devinder Sharma
Food and trade policy analyst
New Delhi
Is there a tendency in 'biotechnology for the poor' discussions to overlook, or maybe to simplify, the complexity of the structures underlying technology innovation and agrarian modernization, as well as the current discourse-formation around agrarian futures? 'Biotech for the poor' is sometimes proposed as a Third Way between, or going beyond, pro- and anti-biotech campaigns. But is this Third Way not simply a difficult way of saying that a 'pro-biotech' choice has already been made? More importantly: the agrarian world of the Third Way seems to be divided into single, individual actors with their rationalities. Pro-poor action then is often framed in terms of rights. Thinking in terms of rights may strengthen individualistic approaches and single issue questions ('I have the right to cultivate Bt varieties'). It may reproduce the idea of uniform actors with single interests. But is it farmers versus corporations? Public versus private? NGOs versus the rich and environmental deterioration? Local communities versus capitalism? If one views the world as such, yes, then biotech for the poor is anti-corporations, anti- the conventional agro-industrial complex, and an entirely new route to agricultural innovation.

But what if the real world of both agricultural practice and discourses about technology innovation is more complex? Some poor farmers will benefit from certain biotechnologies and others will lose (Can we really talk about 'farmers' priorities'?). Some public action serves the benefits of the marginalized while at the same time, other public action may work to the detriment of poor farmers.
Pro-poor technologies may be environmentally harmful (requiring restrictive regulation). Pro-poor actions may be anti-poor in the long run. And so on.

In short, a lot of questions can be raised that are difficult to address if the issue of the applicability of pro-poor technologies is not contextualized in a broader framework of critical thought. We must also be aware about the discursive implications of 'biotechnology for smallholders' projects.
Biotech's potential to benefit poor farmers is being misused (used?) to convince the European consumers that opposition to GMOs is unethical. It is not my intention to discourage any undertaking to reshape technology innovation to the benefit of more marginal groups and food security. But idealized claims that this in itself will restructure current systems of control are far too ambitious.

Dr. Kees Jansen,
Technology and Agrarian Development Group (TAO)
Wageningen University, Netherlands
Although conventional varieties produce high yields and good quality, farmers worry that they might face a large loss in a bad year for cotton bollworm [and so often use Bt cotton].

Chinese imports of GM soybeans from the USA and Argentina have resulted in a great loss of income for local soy farmers. Small farmers in China cannot compete with large farmers with modern machinery and high subsidies. While imports of (mainly transgenic RR) soybeans rose from 1.11 million tonnes (MT) in 1996 to 13.94 MT in 2001, the price of soybeans fell from 1.5 yuan per kg to 0.75 yuan per kg.

Modern agri-biotechnology has produced significant benefits for commercial companies but not for small farmers in China. Farmers have benefited from savings in pesticide spraying, but this is mainly limited to northern areas. On the other hand, the large import of GM soybean has damaged small-farmer soybean production and livelihoods.
Prof. Dayuan XUE, 
Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science,
State Environmental Protection Authority (SEPA), China
GE is mired in corporate, national and continental politics

Misinformation, disinformation and facts used 'out-of-context', dominate the anti-tech arguments. Activists even indulge in violence and vandalism. They forget that it is consumers who have the right to decide what is wanted. The miniscule minority which does not want the technology has no right to impose its will on everyone else.

The activists have taken advantage of the huge information gap, mixing up ethical, economic and political issues in order to create public suspicion and fear and serve diverse vested interests. Only an informed public involved in decision-making can counter this.

Professor C Kameswara Rao
Executive Secretary
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education
(Bangalore, India)

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