GM crops: continuing controversy

In 2002, the international press was full of headlines such as ‘Starving Zimbabwe Shuns GM Maize’. This was repeated again in 2010. The context was the refusal to import whole-grain GM maize from South Africa, as regulatory approval had not been granted, and there were fears that the food aid grain would be planted when GM crops had not been approved for release by the national regulatory authorities. The 2002 episode in particular caused a massive furore, with the governments of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique cast as villains, at odds with the needs of their people.

The debate has re-emerged recently with calls from a number of quarters, including the CZI and CFU, for Zimbabwe to accept the inevitable and formally approve the planting of GM crops. Of course GM crops, and especially maize, are planted widely as so much maize grain has been imported through informal routes from South Africa in recent years. An official acceptance of GM crops would, it is argued, increase productivity, reduce food aid dependence and tackle poverty. GM for some is the silver tech bullet that Zimbabwe urgently needs.

The Zimbabwe debate, not surprisingly, almost exactly replicates the international discussion that has heated up recently too. In the UK a group of science advisors to the Prime Minister have recently reported their view that the UK should lift its moratorium. The UK Chief Scientist, Sir Mark Walport, argued in his covering letter that ‘people will go unfed’ if such a response was not forthcoming. Some extreme press coverage, including in the normally restrained Sunday broadsheet, the Observer, has backed the advisors, with claims that such a move would help solve the global food crisis and world poverty. A similar narrative is being pushed by some commentators in a debate this week convened by SciDev.net.

Most sensible scientists would not go so far. Indeed these days much of the advocacy of GM crops is presented in terms of seemingly balanced positions on technology choices. The same lead author of the recent advisers’ report also led an inquiry for the Royal Society on ‘biological science-based technologies’ for crop production. Professor Sir David Baulcombe is a respected plant scientist from Cambridge, but also an ardent advocate of GM solutions. Yet the position of his 2009 Royal Society report seems at face value completely balanced: GM is only one part of a wider array of technologies, both genetic and agroecological:

Over the next 40 years, biological science-based technologies and approaches have the potential to improve food crop production in a sustainable way. Some of these technologies build on existing knowledge and technologies, while others are completely radical approaches which will require a great deal of further research. Genetic improvements to crops can occur through breeding or GM to introduce a range of desirable traits. Improvements to crop management and agricultural practice can also address the constraints identified….. There are potential synergies between genetic and agroecological approaches. Different approaches will be needed for different regions and circumstances. There is a need to balance investment in radical new approaches that may have major consequences on productivity with investment in approaches which deliver modest improvements on a shorter timescale.

What could be wrong with that? The strapline is ‘reaping the benefits’ from science-based ‘sustainable intensification’. Seemingly all good things – although see next week’s blog on some of the hidden politics of the ‘sustainable intensification’ buzzword. In his more recent report, Baulcombe is less circumspect: GM is most definitely central to the answer. Five years on there is a greater determination it seems to change the policy landscape, and deal with what they term ‘dysfunctional’ regulation imposed by the EU. Also the composition of the advisory group is distinctively different with strong industry links: no troublesome agroecologists amongst their number this time.

As someone who has tracked this debate now over 15 years, and studied the role of GM crops and the politics of regulation in India, Africa and the UK, it is interesting to note the changing patterns of discourse. Today the advocacy for new technologies to solve global food problems is particularly shrill. Yet where is the evidence for such approaches being ‘pro-poor’ and enhancing ‘food security’? Dominic Glover did a very detailed analysis of the available data, and found very little in the way of hard evidence to support the claims made. Others have provided similar assessments. Yes, GM pest-resistant cotton has been a success, but has it always benefited the poor and improved food security? Probably not.

This is of course no reason to reject a technology as part a mix, but the near obsession with GM solutions can act to crowd out alternatives. As explained by Gaëtan Vanloqueren and Philippe Baret in an excellent paper, agricultural innovation processes can become locked in to particular trajectory: through R and D funding flows, the need to recoup investment costs through intellectual property sales and via the biases and motivations of particular scientists’ professional careers. The GM hype that reached its apogee in the early 2000s has created such a dynamic, and some companies, most notably the US multinational Monsanto, have hooked their fortunes on GM technologies. As funders of much so-called public research, the big companies reinforce this too. This dynamic is unhealthy, and means that alternatives are not identified, funded and developed.

The counter to this is that the biotech and genomics revolution is throwing up all sorts of new possibilities. Certainly this is a frontier area of bioscience, and there are multiple exciting avenues being pursued. Indeed, many are not hooked into the transgenic GM promise at all, but more based on innovative applications of bioinformatics and genomics. The GM lobby for most of the past 15 years has promised an exciting ‘pipeline’ of new products that will solve inter alia constraints of drought, nutrients, aluminium toxicity and much more besides. Indeed, Baulcombe and colleagues provide a familiar list in their report. But while some may be forthcoming, others have been long promised. Unfortunately the hype fuels expectations, garners venture capital as well as public funding, and pushes R and D in ever narrower directions.

Despite the promises, GM science has yet to deliver anything approaching an effective product for tackling drought for example. Yet biotechnology and marker assisted selection has done wonders in improving drought tolerance in maize in Africa. This research, led by the CGIAR Centres CIMMYT and IITA, was pioneered in Zimbabwe, and has resulted in a suite of new varieties that have transformed farmers’ possibilities in maize farming. This work has used high-end biotech science, but it has not relied on proprietary technologies and has been publicly-funded. The result is a widespread use of drought tolerant maize, with traits embedded in well-adapted background genetics. In many ways this approach is far more sophisticated than the rather brutal technique of transgenics, where a gene (or a stack of them), usually owned by a company, is inserted into a variety that the company also owns. Sometimes, while the transgene may be effective, the background variety may be hopeless, and the net effect is negative (as was the case in the early years of Monsanto’s Bt cotton in India).

So should Zimbabwe hurriedly embrace GM crops? It’s a difficult question to answer generically. It depends on the trait, the crop, the intellectual property arrangements, the costs and risks relative to the benefits and the alternatives that exist. This is why a precautionary policy stance, backed by a solid regulatory framework, is essential, as I argued in a paper with James Keeley over a decade ago. This has been the position of the Zimbabwe government since the 1990s, and there doesn’t seem any reason to change now, despite the clamour.

Much of the simplistic advocacy of GM crops as the tech solution to ‘feed the world’, as illustrated by the recent flurry of reports and media articles in the UK, fails to take account of the political and social contexts in which such technologies (if they existed – remember most useful ones are ‘in the pipeline’) are used. It really does matter who owns, controls and oversees access. And when one technological track is favoured over others, then a whole raft of much more suitable and sustainable alternatives may be missed.

Contrary to the Observer’s claim that ‘there is no choice’, there certainly is, and the multiple choices available need to be thoroughly debated, including by those who are the users of technologies (as occurred in an interesting engagement on Zimbabwe’s food and farming futures in the early 2000s). We should always avoid being pushed in a singular direction by those who are (mis)using the authority of science, without a proper and open debate.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

 

 

 

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “GM crops: continuing controversy

  1. am

    A major objection to GM is capital and the return to capital. A further objection is return to American capital. It is almost xenophobic. Further South African GM is well established. I don’t see why it can’t be established here also.

    The main point though is that farmers are not being given freedom of choice. GM is not allowed to be part of the basket identified in the post.

    • The article points out some fallacies and misunderstandings about the biology, but also introduces some about the social, political and regulatory domain. My argument is that we need to get beyond all these misunderstandings, and leave the old GM debate behind, concentrating on what array of advanced biological techniques (not just the obsession with transgenics) may improve crop production.

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