Genetic modified organisms_a summary of the social and economic risks, all in one post.

GMO’s and the associated socio economic challenges for small scale farmers. Opportunity or threat?

Note from the author (me): in September 2011 I have written this paper as a student Agricultural Economics of Developing Countries. I post this now on my blog since I plan to refer in future blogs to the issue of GMOs and pesticide-driven agriculture. I believe, this paper gives a fair overview of the pros and cons of genetic modified organisms. If you consider that certain arguments are missing (pro or contra, or in between) please let me know.

Biotech crops can increase productivity and (farmer) income significantly, and hence, can serve as an engine of rural economic growth that can contribute to the alleviation of poverty for the world’s small and resource-poor farmers’

James. C (2010) Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops 2010 ISAAA-brief 42.

The biotech industry and its sponsors generate considerable hyperbole about the benefits that GMOs provide to farmers, consumers and the environment. It ignores increasing evidence showing that GM crops do not generate higher yields or help to solve hunger but are actually increasing pesticide use,contaminating seeds and food, and destroying poor famers’ livelihoods because of high costs and monopolies.

Friends of the Earth (February 2011) who benefits from gm crops? An industry built on myths

 There is a need to investigate opportunities to shape social and market conditions where biotechnology can contribute to the secure generation of nutritious foods according to regional needs. Such opportunities should be based on sustainable food production preserving biodiversity and respecting the values of nature, while taking into consideration ethical objectives and social equity in respect to regional conditions, needs and wants.

World Health Organisation (2005) Modern food biotechnology, human health and development.

I.                   Introduction

Food production would have to increase significantly according to wide-quoted forecasts of the FAO. In addition, the livelihood of small farmers should be improved since 75% of the persons living below the  absolute poverty line are small-scale farmers.  Genetic Modified Organisms (GMO’s or GMs) are increasingly proposed as an indispensable solution to address both major issues. However, since the first introduction of genetically modified crops in 1996, biotechnology has been at center point of a heated debate. Proponents  promise that GMOs will bring significant yield increases,  significant environmental benefits, enhance nutritional value of food and decrease the cost for the farmers and consumers.  Opponents state on the other hand just the opposite, GMO will in the mid long term significantly decrease yields, will have a devastating impact on the ecological system, decrease the nutritional value of food, and will increase the dependency of farmers on the technology and will sharply increase their costs. This raises the question: have GMOs over the past 25 years fulfilled their promises, do or will small farmers benefit from the use and cultivation of this technology, or should GMOs be massively rejected in modern agriculture?

For an analysis of the costs and benefits of GM food, the costs to be taken into account and the intended scope of beneficiaries should be defined. Cost–benefit ratios can relatively easily be estimated for manufacturers and farmers (who may benefit from certain GM products in the short term). But of more interest are the costs and benefits for society as a whole and in the long term. This includes aspects such as sustainability of agricultural production systems, and the cost of mitigating potential effects on health and the environment. Such estimates require a complex form of analysis[1].

In order to answer these questions in the limitations of this short paper, first we’ll provide an overview of the type of the biotechnology crops currently marketed. Next we’ll briefly focus on the main analysis of costs and benefits of the technology, seen from the perspective of  both sides.

II.                GMO: definition and substantial equivalence

a.      Definition

A GMO is …. A genetically modified organism (GMO) or genetically engineered organism (GEO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. Transgenic organisms, a subset of GMOs, are organisms which have inserted DNA that originated in a different species.[2]

 

b.      Substantial equivalence

International organisations, such as the OECD and the FAO, have claimed that from a regulatory point of view, GMOs are inherently not different from seeds obtained by cross-pollination.  Substantial equivalence is a concept, developed by OECD in 1991, that maintains that a novel food (for example, genetically modified foods) should be considered the same as and as safe as a conventional food; if it demonstrates the same characteristics and composition as the conventional food. ‘If a novel food is substantially equivalent to its conventional counterpart, then it could be covered by the same regulatory framework as a conventional food’[3]. The OECD also has stated that the technique of inserting genes in a laboratory setting would not entail any significant risks. “While rDNA techniques may result in the production of organisms expressing a combination of traits that are not observed in nature, genetic changes from rDNA [recombinant DNA] techniques will often have inherently greater predictability compared to traditional techniques, because of the greater precision that the rDNA technique affords; (and) it is expected that any risks associated with applications of rDNA organisms may be assessed in generally the same way as those associated with non-rDNA organisms” [4]

This view implies that the technique of transgenic engineering would not entail any intrinsic risk and that no specific  risk assessment should be applied to these GMOs. The logic holds that GMOs only use proteins,  which are already used for human consumption; as the former are already tested, the use of these ‘known’ proteins could not entail any further new risks. However, this perspective on the similarity of risks between GMOs and ‘traditionally’ breeded plants is not shared by all regulators and contested by many scientists.

Institutes such as The US National Academy of Sciences (2000), The UK Medical Research Council) (2000), The Royal Society of Canada (2001) have rejected the principle of substantial equivalence. The Royal Society of Canada has stated that not further testing GMOs  ‘exposes Canadians to several potential health risks, including toxicity and allergic reaction’[5].

More bluntly, 160 scientists have demanded in an open letter in 2000 to governments ‘The principle of substantial equivalence has no scientific basis. Since this is the standard which has been used for approving GE foods, it follows that none of the GE foods on the market today can be considered safe. In the worst case exposure of the population may have disastrous consequences. Therefore, GE foods at present on sale should be withdrawn from the market immediately. No new GE foods should be introduced until proper methods of assessment have been applied.’[6]

In addition, in 1995 Árpád Pusztai began research on genetically modified potatoes containing the DNA lectin gene from the snowdrop plant.  He compared rats fed ordinary potatoes and potatoes that had been genetically modified with a lectin from snowdrops. The rats on the GM diet grew less well and had immune problems even though the lectin itself caused no adverse effects at high concentrations. His conclusion was that the GM process had somehow made the potatoes less nutritious and toxic.[7]  However, the professor never could finalise his research, as he was fired from his institute following public statements on his findings. Environmental activist groups believe that the professor has been subjected to a campaign to discredit him.

There seem to be sufficient reasons to conclude that GM foods should be evaluated through rigorous specific risk assessments before these can be accepted as safe. In the following I’ll present the types of GM foods, and the several risks and opportunities that are linked to the different types.

 

III.             GM’s: state of affairs

a.      Status of Commercialised GM crops

According to figures of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), in 2010 15,4 million farmers were cultivating GM corps in 29 countries on a global surface of 148 million hectares[8]. However, the lion share of GM crop cultivation is confined to a limited number of countries in the world. 77% of all GM corps are cultivated in the USA, Brazil and Argentina.[9] In spite of the widespread international use of GM crops, the portfolio of available crop-trait combinations is still very limited. At present, only a few first-generation technologies have been commercialized.[10] In the literature, two further generations of GM traits are distinguished.

b.      First-generation GM crops

The first-generation GM crops,  involve improvements in agronomics, such as better resistance to pests and diseases. The dominant technology is herbicide tolerance (HT) in  soybean, maize, canola, cotton, sugar beet and alfalfa; which occupied 61% or 89.3 million hectares of the global biotech area of 148 million hectares in 2010. Biotech soybean continued to be the principal biotech crop in 2010, occupying 73.3 million hectares or 50% of global biotech area.[11]

The second most used technology are insect resistance varieties, that covered 17% of total area.  The most commonly applied  technology inserted to enhance insect resistance is based on different genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (BT). These BT genes control the European corn borer, the corn rootworm, and different stem borers . Varieties with inserted BT genes, include GM cotton (21.0 million hectares at 14%) and biotech canola (7.0 million hectares at 5%) of the global biotech crop area. In 2010 in  India, 6.3 million farmers reportedly were growing 9.4 million hectares of Bt cotton, equivalent to an 86% adoption rate[12]

c.       Second-generation GM crops

These would offer enhanced quality traits, such as higher nutrient contents of food products. Enhancing food crops with higher nutrient contents through conventional or GM breeding is also called biofortification.  Perhaps the best known example of a GM biofortified crop is Golden Rice,. Golden Rice is rice that has been genetically engineered to contain provitamin A (beta-carotene)  and other carotenoids in the endosperm (the edible part of the grain)[13]. Golden Rice has been created in 1999, but at this stage is not cultivated in ‘real-life’ applications in the world, and is not commercially available.  Another often quoted example of  a promising GM crop, the  drought-resistant crop varieties have also not yet been achieved. At the time of the editing of this paper, no second-generation GM crops were commercial available; nor are there clear timeframes when the commercialization of these products can be expected.[14]

d.      Third-generation GM crops

Third-generation GM crops involve molecular farming where the crop is used to produce either pharmaceuticals such as monoclonal antibodies and vaccines or industrial products such as enzymes and biodegradable plastics. [15] The BASF Amflora starch potato, is an example, as it is tailor-made  for industrial use to produce pure amylopectin. BASF explains that Amflora starch can be used in many different ways. It makes yarn stronger and paper glossier; it also makes spray concrete adhere better to the wall and keeps glue liquid for longer. The European Commission has approved Amflora for commercial application in Europe in 2010.[16]

Since the majority of GM crops cultivated currently, and that are commercially available at this stage are of the first generation; we’ll concentrate mainly hereafter on these crops. We add some remarks on the opportunity costs the further research and regulation of the second-generation crops would entail. It is mainly these crops that would hold to solve specific problems that farmers face in adverse  conditions.

IV.              GMOs alleged risks and proclaimed benefits

a.      Yield increase and use of external impact

Proponents of GMOs claim that these crops lead to  higher productivity, with  yield increases of up to 30% on the same amount of land. Furthermore, they also hold that the use of GMOs would entail a reduced herbicide and pesticides applications. The net economic cost-benefit analysis of the increased yield, the diminished cost of applying herbicides and pesticides and the reduced amount of labour, would outweigh the cost of paying the licence to use the GMO seed and its associated products. [17]

The ISAAA, in its 2010 report states that ‘Biotech crops already play an important role by increasing productivity per hectare and coincidentally decreasing cost of production as a result of reduced need for inputs. Economic gains at the farm level of  US$65 billion were generated globally by biotech crops during the period 1996 to 2009, of which just less than half, 44%, were due to reduced production costs (less ploughing, fewer pesticide sprays and less labor) and just over half, 56%, due to substantial yield gains of 229 million tons.’[18]

However, the  claims of the yield improvement have been questioned. Highly influential NGOs such as Oxfam even considers it as ‘commonplace knowledge’ that ‘genetically engineered (GE) crops to date do not increase intrinsic yield and that they are limited in improving yield (with the exception of Bt varieties)’  and that ‘other approaches have demonstrated improvements to yield’.[19] The positions and the scientific claims are clearly positioned diametrical against each other. Below a short non exhaustive overview is provided of studies that have demonstrated that yields did in fact decrease when applying GM based seeds.

US: decreased yields

In 1999, Benbrook analysed US field trials finding an average decrease in yields of 5.3% for Roundup Ready soya, in some locations the best conventional varieties reported 10% higher yields than Round up Ready[20]. In 2001, Elmore and colleagues compared Roundup Ready and conventional soya lines in field trials. They reported that the decrease of yield was linked to the genetic manipulation and not to other factors.[21] Elmore estimated that Round up Ready soya leads to a decreased yield of 5%-10%, depending upon variety and external conditions.[22]

Herbicide resistance

The US is the country with the highest use of GMOs, in particular Roundup ready[23]. These are GE manipulated plants that are resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup). It has been documented that palmer pigweed has recently acquired glyphosate resistance and is spreading in the US south and Midwest, infesting fields of Roundup Ready cotton soya and mais. The weed has been nicknamed ‘superweed’ as no effective control exists for this resistant weed, except large increases in the use of persistent herbicides, hand weeding[24] of crops and increased tillage, resulting in topsoil loss. These control options are labour and chemical intensive, raising costs for farmers and the environment.[25]

Net effect of GMO does not explain yield increase

A report released in March 2009, Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered crops[26] , has reviewed  ‘the overall effect genetic engineering has had on crop yields in relation to other agricultural technologies. It reviewed two dozen academic studies of corn and soybeans, the two primary genetically engineered food and feed crops grown in the United States. Based on those studies, the UCS report concluded that genetically engineering herbicide-tolerant soybeans and herbicide-tolerant corn has not increased yields. Insect-resistant corn, meanwhile, has improved yields only marginally. The increase in yields for both crops over the last 13 years, the report found, was largely due to traditional breeding or improvements in agricultural practices’.

Colombia : GE Cotton, susceptible to secondary pests

In Cordoba province, which normally produces nearly 50% of Colombia’s cotton, two new varieties of GE cotton apparently failed. The types contained both herbicide (glyphosate) and insect resistance (BT Bacillus thuringiensis) genes. Farmers reported that, the cotton was highly susceptible to armyworms and damaged by the herbicide glyphosate. This events were contrary to company’s assertions. CONALGODON estimates that Cordoba’s farmers lost 12.8% of their total harvest as a result.[27]Strikingly enough, the best-performing variety n Cordoba in 2008/9 was the conventional seed Delta Opal, which out-yielded herbicide-resistant and BT GE seed types. [28]

As remarked in the comprehensive report of the IAAST, ‘The pool of evidence of the sustainability and productivity of GMOs in different settings is relatively anecdotal, and the findings from different contexts are variable, allowing proponents and critics to hold entrenched positions about their present and potential value.’ However, reading through the evidence presented by the industry and contrasting their claims with the several reports on the decreased yields of GMOs and higher need for chemical inputs, leaves a starting researcher  with an overall negative sentiment towards the validity of the promises of the biotechnology. Indeed, at this stage only first-generation GM crops, which have to be applied with a significant amount of chemical inputs (or contain pesticides in their seeds) are currently available. Even when the claims of the industry of decreased external inputs would uphold; the very use of the chemicals, with potential negative impact on health and environment, are intrinsically connected to this product. Furthermore, when taking into account the, for the moment anecdotic but worrying reports described above, the application of GMOs would further significantly increase the use of these external chemical inputs. This negative sceptical sentiment towards the proclaimed benefits of GM technology is further fuelled, when contrasting the highly contested claims of the biotechnology industry  with the benefits that agro-ecology solutions could bring. Agro-ecology would offer significant improvements in yield, when accompanied with dedicated knowledge sharing and training facilities. However, the huge difference would be that agricultural practices based on agro-ecology would not lead to environmental degradation. Furthermore, as we notice in the following section there are some further serious concerns on the socio-economic level associated with the research to and implementation of biotechnology in agricultural practices.

  1. Gene flow: impact on local crops

Varieties of crop plants, including GMOs, can potentially create a risk for the local biodiversity and crop diversity (also called plant variety). The so called gene flow is the transfer, or migration, of genes of one population in the other. Migration into or out of a population may be responsible for a marked change in allele frequencies (the proportion of members carrying a particular variant of a gene). Immigration may also result in the addition of new genetic variants to the established gene pool of a particular species or population[29].

Purebred, naturally-evolved, region-specific, wild species can be threatened with extinction[30] through the process of genetic pollution, potentially causing uncontrolled hybridization, introgression and genetic swamping. These processes can lead to homogenization or replacement of local genotypes as a result of either a numerical and/or fitness advantage of introduced plant or animal.[31]

The potential risk of out crossing and contamination by dispersed material from GM plants can pose severe problems for traditional farming as it threatens the crop diversity. And  perhaps even a greater risk is that the local ecosystem could be altered, since the often fragile equilibrium of plants and animals can be severely distorted when some invasive plants would become too dominant. Dispersal of materials from GMO crops (e.g. seeds) can occur over wide distances, depending on the plant characteristics and climatic conditions. Out crossing and dispersal are natural phenomena that can affect the production of conventional seeds. The future prospects of providing GMO-free seeds and crops have been debated as a solution for addressing consumer choice.[32]

The threat of gene flow, linked to GMOs, was recently confirmed by the United States Supreme Court. In 2006, the Center for Food Safety filed a lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as it planned to allow commercialisation of alfalfa seed designed to tolerate Monsanto’s Herbicide Roundup, despite concerns over environmental, health, and economic impacts on farmers and consumers. GM alfalfa can spread uncontrollably through the cross-pollination of plants by bees, contaminating non-GM alfalfa fields.[33]

On 21 June 2010, in the case of Monsanto versus Geerston farms, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favour in favour of a ban on Roundup Ready alfalfa. The Court recognised that the threat of transgenic contamination is harmful to organic and conventional farmers and that any injury would allow them to challenge future biotech crop commercialisations in court.[34]

  1. Competition for limited agricultural government budgets

The FAO Anti-hunger Programme reported that increasing investment in agriculture and rural development can reduce hunger. To reduce the number of hungry people by half by 2015, it estimated that funding of US$24 billion would be required for agricultural research, emergency food assistance, and improving rural infrastructure.[35] The costs on a governmental budget is roughly situated on the research level, the controlling and monitoring level, and on the further training that would need to be provided to local farmers adopting the technology. Furthermore, the opportunity cost of allocating scarce resources to these activities which are in direct competition with resources that could be allocated to for instance promoting agro-ecological practices should also be taken into the cost-benefit decision.

Research budget

It has been alleged that focusing on modern biotechnology may ‘narrow the research agenda of many countries and deny them the opportunity to explore solutions that can be freely adopted, adapted and exchanged’ .[36] The research budget of agricultural government departments, and the dedicated agricultural divisions of universities is limited. Consequently the choice for the research topic should be framed in a clear perspective on potential costs and benefits that should serve a clear framed target group. The research choice to dedicate research funds to GMOs entails also further-reaching opportunity costs , as it could create a kind of deadlock in the future availability of a more diverse range in research options and the consequential applications. Indeed, ‘an emphasis on modern biotechnology without ensuring adequate support for other agricultural research can alter education and training programs and reduce the number of professionals in other core agricultural sciences. This situation can be self-reinforcing since today’s students define tomorrow’s educational and trainings opportunities.’[37]

In this paper, we consider that the target group are both consumers, farmers and the industry alike. However, we do believe that some fundamental rights should be respected for each of the group that can never be compromised by the gains of the other groups. This means also that we accept that a precautionary principle should be applied in case of doubt, and in this context the research budget should first be allocated to solutions that would bring the greatest gain for the three groups, while respecting the fundamental rights on food security and food sovereignty of these groups.

Monitoring and risk assessment costs

Based on the considerations listed above it is clear that national regulators should conduct safety assessments and risk assessments  on GMO’s. In addition, establishing  an efficient governmental administration to assess the health, environmental, economic and societal risks would entail a further cost, which could consist a significant burden on the limited agricultural budget of a given country. Indeed, the WHO has stated in 2005 that  ‘Many developing countries cannot afford the seemingly considerable capacities required for the adoption of modern biotechnology. Measures must be taken to ensure that developing countries are not impeded in effective regulation by development problems, and that they derive benefit from their participation in international regulatory instruments.’[38]

 

  1. Dependence on  external inputs. (volatility of prices)

GMOs need significant financial resources to conduct specific  research and development. In order to stimulate this types of efforts, new varieties can be patented; which offer temporary monopoly privileges to plant breeders and patent-holders. Farmers have to pay an additional cost for the license use this type of seeds. This process has created a lot of concerns that the farmers would become increasingly dependent on expensive inputs, which would create the risk of indebtedness in the face of unstable incomes.[39]

Increase of price

For several years the prices of GM seeds being sold with an additional technology fee have significantly increased. Prices for seeds from crops that have been genetically engineered and patented (maize, soya and cotton) have risen much more rapidly than those in conventional seed markets.[40]

 

As we have explained before, current available first-generation seeds are also linked to external inputs (herbicides, pesticides). The combined use of these products will consequently expose the farmer to a accumulation of the risks of volatility of the prices.

  1. Access to seeds

In certain regions, the dominance of certain seed suppliers has led to a limited supply of seeds in the market. In addition, this system can threaten traditional farmers’ seed systems, used to save, exchange and sell seeds. This system is for these farmers often a source of economic independence., the more traditional seeds often are more adapted to local circumstances, which would to gain resilience in face of adverse climate changes, pests or other environmental changes. [41]

Teresa Anderson, of the Gaia foundation, which partners with the African biodiversity network to prevent the industrial commoditisation of the continent’s agriculture, says Kenyan farmers’ opposition to the new legislation is a testament to how devastating GM could be for their farming practises. ‘There is a strong resistance from African farmers in particular who are concerned about the impacts’, Anderson says. ‘80 per cent of small scale farmers save their seed; this practise is crucial for African farmers’ livelihoods.’  If a GM seed contaminates a nearby farmer’s non-GM seed (say by accidental wind cross-pollination), the farmer would no longer be able to save his seed for the next planting season, as he would be in possession of a patented product. (see also below farmers face new liabilities)[42]  In Colombia, farmers have reported a lack of conventional seed supply, forcing them to buy the more expensive GM seeds.[43]  Also in Uruguay, similar problems have been reported, in this country all maize seeds are imported. According to the National Institute of Seeds, in 2009 90% of these were GM.[44] FOE interferes that non-GM seeds are being imported merely because the  provisions in force in Uruguay require that at least 10 of the area of a filed has to be planted with non-GM maize. As a result, farmers are unable to secure access to conventional seeds in the domestic market.[45]

  1. Farmers face new liabilities

Furthermore, farmers face new liabilities: GM farmers may become liable for adventitious presence if it causes loss of market certification and income to neighbouring organic farmers, and convential farmers may become liable to GM seed producers if transgens are detected in their crops.

On the one hand numerous farmers have been brought to court by seed-producing companies for the alleged breach of the use of the company’s license. The practices of Monsanto have received wide attention. Indeed, Monsanto is known for aggressively pushing seeds, especially GMOs seeds, in both the global North and South, including through highly restrictive technology agreements with farmers who are not always made fully aware of what they are signing.  Small farmer organizations,  find themselves forced to buy Monsanto seeds each year, under conditions they find onerous and at costs they sometimes cannot afford.[46]

Furthermore, it has been alleged that the techniques used by Monsanto in order to detect potential breaches of their license would have undermined the trust between farmers in certain regions, in specific in the United States. In particular the company’s hotline where ‘farmers can report farmers’, this is growers of Monsanto’s products can ‘name neighbouring farmers they are suspect are planting saved seed’[47]

As of 2007, Monsanto had filed 112 lawsuits against US farmers for alleged technology contract violations of GMOs patents, involving 372 farmers and 49 small agricultural businesses in 27 different states. From these, Monsanto has won more than $21.5 million in judgments. The multinational appears to investigate 500 farmers a year, in estimates based on Monsanto’s own documents and media reports. “Farmers have been sued after their field was contaminated by pollen or seed from someone else’s genetically engineered crop [or] when genetically engineered seed from a previous year’s crop has sprouted, or ‘volunteered,’ in fields planted with non-genetically engineered varieties the following year,” said Andrew Kimbrell and Joseph Mendelson of the Center for Food Safety.[48]

On the other hand, farmers applying the GM technology are also exposed to liabilities. In many jurisdictions it is accepted that GM should not cross-pollinate with organic crops. this type of cross-pollination can lead to significant amounts of compensations the GM producing company should pay to its affected organic producing neighbouring farmer.

V.                 Conclusion:

When analysing the costs and benefits of GM seeds and crops, we started with analysing the most prevailing argument for the use of GMs, the increase of yields and the decrease of the use of herbicides and pesticides this crops would bring. However, when compiling some of the recent (meta)-studies, we could already conclude that this basic claim is at least contestable. In the perspective of growing food demand, the one-sided focus on the adoption of GM crops could prove to be a shot in the dark, that could even undermine the availability of sufficient food in the long run. Furthermore, GMs are proposed as the panacea for enhancing the development of small scale farmers, or even lifting them from abject poverty. In the second part we briefly pointed out some of the socio-economic risks that could threaten some of the fundamental pillars of farmers sovereignty and development. Serious concerns have been raised that a monopolisation on the distribution of seeds (not limited to GMs) could endanger the existing local seed systems. Indeed, these traditional systems could profit from the integrated use of new innovations on the level of breeding, or from the level of new communication and distribution techniques. But, it has  been noted that these systems, and the relevant seeds, are more adapted to local circumstances. The particularity of the GM seeds, is that it could threaten the local availability and the very existence of traditional seeds.  Since the rapid nature of inserting alien genes in a given plant, GMs  gene-flow could endanger the diversity of the local crops. Furthermore, the increased resistance of weeds could also negatively impact the resilience of local plant varieties, which could further endanger the ecosystem. Let us not forget that the ecosystem provides much needed services to local farmers, and its balance is necessary to provide clean water, fresh air. Already farmers adopting new technologies are exposed to  external risks linked to the accessibility of these external inputs and the volatility of the prices of these products. The first-generation GMs, all associated with external inputs, would even cumulate the  probability that a farmer would be exposed to serious price increases. Insurance techniques, including futures on external inputs, could offer relevant tools for the farmer to mitigate this risks. However, often farmers in developing countries have limited education and limited access to the adoption of this type of more complex financial products.

Furthermore, several relevant stakeholders, including the UN Special Representative on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter are proposing a radical paradigm shift from industrialised (green revolution type) agriculture to agro-ecology. In this paradigm of organic agriculture, or agro-ecology the use of external inputs (including GMS but also pesticides and herbicides, synthetic fertilisers) should be minimal or even absent. However, adopting agro-ecology principles would need to include the traditional knowledge of farmers, but should also be supported to further research in order to apply the most efficient solutions in a given local context. But, this type of research should also need additional financial resources and support of governments. As discussed above the research on GMs and the monitoring of the risks associated with this technology would demand a significant amount of these limited budgets. Considering the possible threats this technology would entail, a more focused research on agro-ecology, adapted to local needs, would in our view be the most sustainable from an ecological, social, and even economic perspective. Perhaps the time has not come to invest the significant amount of the scarce resources in the research of a technology that could offer many opportunities but is also associated with a considerable high level of known and unknown risks. It seems more rational to further expand the scope of research, and support of governments, foreign-aid agencies and corporations alike in the field of applications of agro-ecology based techniques.

Evidence from regions across the globe on almost every continent,  such as Latin America. Till know, I could not detect a comprehensive Cost–benefit assessment that provides an in-depth overview of the social, political, environmental, economical dimensions balanced in order to provide a societal acceptable answer to the question to invest in GMOs or not. The first challenge would be to chose or and/or adapt an appropriate model, suited to the needs of this specific complex topic. A promising candidate would be a multi-attribute decision theory[49] adapted to the needs of this specific debate. This model should include an, as much as possible, exhaustive overview of the costs and benefits of certain regions of GM related technology compared with their traditional agro-ecological alternatives could be listed. This would perhaps serve as a sound basis for deciding on the investing in GMOs for policy makers, researchers, farmer associations and the end consumers alike.


[1] WHO study on modern food biotechnology, human health and development. (In 2005 WHO published the results of an evidence-based study of the human health and development implications of GM organisms and food products. This study involved a wide range of stakeholders, including FAO, UNEP, OECD and other international organizations.) http://www.who.int/foodsafety/biotech/who_study/en/index.htmlp. 59

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GMO; accessed on 15/08/2011

[3]

[4] http://www.colby.edu/biology/BI402B/Miller%201999.pdf1986 OECD Recombinant DNA Safety Considerations. Paris: OECD, 1986, cited by Miller (1999) , Substantial equivalence: Its uses and abuses Henry I. Miller, Hoover Institution Nature Biotechnology 17, 1042 – 1043

[9] Ibidem supra (Calculation based on ‘table 1 Global Area of Biotech Crops in 2010: by Country (Million Hectares)

[10] The Economics of Genetically Modified Crops, Martin Quaim. Annu. Rev. Resouc. Econ. 2009. P.666-66

[14] This claim is based on the absence of any data on the commercialisation of these crops in the Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2010 (supra). Nor are references made to commercial available second generation crops in the consulted scientific articles in the biography. Nor on the sites of Monsanto or Syngenta the largest GM producing companies (20/08/2011)

[15] Moschini 2006, Halford 2006; as quoted in

[16] BASF news release 02/03/2010 , European Commission approves Amflora starch potato, http://www.basf.com/group/pressrelease/P-10-179

[17] GM crops: Reaping the benefits, but not in Europe. Socio-economic impacts of agricultural biotechnology. Europa Bio (The European Assoication for Bioindustries) 31/05/2011. (http://www.europabio.org/positions/GBE/EuropaBio%20SocioEconomics%20May%202011.pdf)

[19] Oxfam America, 14/04/2011, Comments on new UCS report “Failure to Yield” http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/food_and_agriculture/Oxfam-statement-on-FTY.pdf

[20] Benbrook (1999) Evidence of the Magnitude and Consequences of the Roundup Ready Soybean Yield Drag from University-Based Varietal Trials in 1998, AgBio Tech InfoNet Technical Paper 1, 12 July 1999; as reported in Greenpeace (2010)

[21] Elmore RW, Roeth FW, Klein RN, Knezevic SZ, Martin A., Nelson LA and Shapiro CA (2001). Glyphosate-Resistant Soybean Cultivar Response to Glyphosate. Agron Journal 93:404-407

[22] Elmore RW, Roeth FW, Nelson LA, Shapiro CA, Klein RN, Knezevic SZ and Martin A (2001b) Glyphosit Resistant Cultivar Yields compared with Sister lines. Agron Journal 93:408-412

[24] Hand-weeding on heavily infested plantings is costing Georgia cotton farmers as much as 240USD per hectare (Hollis, 2009) quoted in  FOE (2011)

[25]Problems with Genetically Engineered (GE) Crops in the Field, Publication – January 26, 2010

http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/publications/reports/counting-the-costs-of-genetic/

[27] Fonseca Prada LA (2009a). Balance y perspectivas del cultivo, Evaluación Valledupar (CONALGODON harvest evaluationconference presentation), 5 June 2009.

http://www.conalgodon.com/portal/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=58&Itemid=9 as quoted in Greenpeace (2010)

[28] ibidem supra

[30] Mooney, H. A.; Cleland, E. E. (2001). “The evolutionary impact of invasive species”.  98 (10): 5446–5451 ; as quoted in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_flow

[31] Aubry, C.; Shoal, R.; Erickson, V. (2005). Grass cultivars: their origins, development, and use on national forests and grasslands in the Pacific Northwest. Corvallis, OR: USDA Forest Service; Native Seed Network (NSN), Institute for Applied Ecology. As quoted in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_flow

[32] WHO (2005, p. 53

[33] Center for Food Safety (2010), Supreme Court Ruling in Monsanto Case is Victory for Center for Food Safety, Farmers, 2010. http://www.worc.org/userfiles/file/Food%20Safety/Geertson_Supreme_Court_Decision_CFS_Summary.pdf

Quoted in FOE 2011 (http://www.foei.org/en/resources/publications/pdfs/2011/who-benefits-from-gm-crops-2011/view)

[34] ibidem

[35] WHO 2005 (supra), p. 36

[36](Uneca 2002) as quoted in  WHO 2005, p.39

[37]Agriculture at a Crossroads, IAASTD Synthesis Report, 2009,  p. 8 http://www.agassessment.org/

[38] WHO study on modern food biotechnology, human health and development. (In 2005 WHO published the results of an evidence-based study of the human health and development implications of GM organisms and food products. This study involved a wide range of stakeholders, including FAO, UNEP, OECD and other international organizations.) http://www.who.int/foodsafety/biotech/who_study/en/index.html

 

[39] 21/10/2009: “Seed policies and the right to food: enhancing agrobiodiversity and encouraging innovation”. Report presented to the UN General Assembly (64th session) (UN doc. A/64/170). http://www.srfood.org/images/stories/pdf/officialreports/20091021_report-ga64_seed-policies-and-the-right-to-food_en.pdf

[40] Graph and data from Greenpeace (2010)

[41] 21/10/2009: “Seed policies and the right to food: enhancing agrobiodiversity and encouraging innovation”. Report presented to the UN General Assembly (64th session) (UN doc. A/64/170). http://www.srfood.org/images/stories/pdf/officialreports/20091021_report-ga64_seed-policies-and-the-right-to-food_en.pdf

[42] Does Kenya need GM crops as it battles famine in the Horn of Africa?, 8/11/2011, The Ecologist; http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/1044089/does_kenya_need_gm_crops_as_it_battles_famine_in_the_horn_of_africa.html

[43] Greenpeace (2010), genetically-engineered cotton fails to perform in Colombia.

[44] National Seed Institute, Uruguay http://www.inase.org.uy/ as reported in FOE (2011), p. 14-15

[45] FOE (2011), p. 14

[48] ibidem

[49] Buying into conservation: intrinsic

versus instrumental value

James Justus, M ark Colyvan, Helen Regan and Lynn Maguire ; Trends in Ecology and Evolution Vol. 24 No. 4 , p. 188

Author: Frederic Ghys

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