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February 28, 2010

Crop gene-modification technology continues to spread despite controversy

A decade ago, after European activists whipped up lots of negative coverage about the perils of toying with nature, the future of genetically modified (GM) crops seemed uncertain. The technology was adopted by farmers in the rich world outside Europe, but poor countries seemed likely to be left behind. However, according to a report released on February 23rd by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a non-profit outfit that monitors the use of GM crops, the sector is blossoming, especially in the developing world, where poor and unproductive farmers have the most to gain from such advances.

Despite the decline in food prices and the global economic downturn last year, the use of GM technology increased by about 7%, according to ISAAA. More than three-quarters of the soyabeans grown around the world are now genetically modified, as is roughly half the cotton and over a quarter of the maize (corn). Crucially, developing countries now account for nearly half of the world’s 134m hectares of transgenic crops, with Brazil, Argentina, India and China in the vanguard (see chart). Of the 14m or so farmers now benefiting from the technology, perhaps 90% live in poor countries.

Better yet, for the most part, this trend is now being driven not by pushy Western multinationals, but by domestic political pressure to increase agricultural productivity, and the home-grown research that this has fostered. Brazil’s dramatic rise to the global number two spot (after the United States) owes much to the government’s investment in local research centres like Embrapa, which in February won approval for an herbicide-tolerant soyabean developed locally in partnership with BASF, a big German chemicals firm.

The greatest potential for growth is probably in China. In late November the government gave its blessing to GM varieties of rice and maize. Both were developed by local researchers, without funding or other help from Western firms. As rice is the most important food crop in the world and maize is the main form of animal feed, these decisions could have a big impact. Clive James of ISAAA calculates that the GM rice alone could deliver benefits (in the form of higher yields, greater productivity, savings on pesticides and fertilisers, and so on) of $4 billion a year to China’s 100m-odd rice-growing households.

Africa’s leaders have been reluctant to accept GM crops. But that is changing, argues Calestous Juma of Harvard University. South Africa, Egypt and Burkina Faso are encouraging the use of the technology. China is also beginning to pioneer “South-South” technology transfers in Africa and elsewhere, he says.

Attitudes are also changing at Western agribusinesses, some of which used to dismiss poor farmers as mere “seed pirates”. As developing countries develop GM crops of their own, these firms are now pursuing public-private partnerships or joint ventures with local firms and otherwise softening their stance. Monsanto, a hard-nosed pioneer of transgenic crops, is donating its drought-resistant technology to a coalition called Water Efficient Maize for Africa, for example.

Yet in Europe, opposition to GM food appears as strong as ever, despite increasingly strident scientific dissent. The European arm of Greenpeace, a green pressure group, still denounces the technology and gloats about a decline of over a tenth in cultivation of GM crops in Europe last year. Sir David King, a former scientific adviser to the British government, argues that the unjustified vilification of GM is leading to needless deaths. He thinks the delay in the introduction of flood-resistant GM rice, for example, has condemned many in the poor world to starvation.

India, too, has recently been caught up in a Frankenfood fight. In mid-February the government issued a moratorium on the development of GM aubergine (Bt Brinjal, as it is known locally), despite a ruling last year by an official scientific advisory body in favour of the technology. The government’s decision was all the more puzzling given India’s success with GM cotton, which has helped transform the country from an importer of cotton into the world’s biggest exporter.

Ask Robert Fraley, chief technology officer of Monsanto, what he makes of Chinese and Indian GM technology, and he gives it a hearty endorsement: “I hope in future we can license it.” That would depend, of course, on governments approving its use in the first place.

The Economist

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