GM crops ten years on: Hope, hype and reality

HarvestingBy Ian Scoones, co-director ESRC STEPS Centre

26 January 2011

A decade ago there was much hope and hype about the potential of GM crops. They were going to feed the world and solve poverty and development issues. It was claimed that pest-resistant crops using so-called Bt technologies to resist insect predation could reduce pesticide use and improve farmers' incomes, and that technologies for dealing with drought or nutrient deficits were in the pipeline. GM crops would help poorer farmers in the developing world, with a ‘gene revolution' succeeding the ‘green revolution' of previous decades.

However, others predicted disaster: GM crops would result in environmental and health catastrophes and global domination of agriculture by large corporations. Just as the pro-GM lobby could be accused of excessive, unfounded hype, anti-GM campaigners often generated doomsday scenarios based on limited evidence.

In reality a more complex and mixed story has emerged. In some circumstances, some farmers have benefited from GM crop technologies while others had bad experiences or were bypassed altogether. But even now, wild claims are still made and false expectations generated.

GM crops have expanded rapidly in some locations. Annual assessments by Clive James of ISAAA, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, show GM crops sweeping the globe selectively. GM crops were planted in 25 countries in 2008, but only eight countries planted more than a million hectares.

About 98 million hectares out of a global GM crop area of 125 million hectares were grown in just three countries, by large-scale farmers: the United States (62.5 million), Argentina (21 million) and Brazil (15 million). The GM crops which have been commercialised are primarily insect-resistant Bt maize and cotton, and herbicide-tolerant soy.

A recent book by Robert Paarlberg, Starved for Science: How biotechnology is being kept out of Africa, again makes the case for GM crops as a solution to agricultural development.

Paarlberg argues that Africa's poor have scandalously been denied the vital, life-saving technology of GM crops because of European anti-GM campaigns. He claims that inappropriate, precautionary biosafety regulation is a major hurdle to the widespread adoption of poverty-reducing technologies.

Paarlberg's arguments have been picked up by policymakers and lobby groups, the latter arguing the ‘tide is turning' in favour of GM crops as a result of the political recognition of the global food crisis. New efforts are making the case for a GM solution, especially for the potentially vast markets of the developing world, for example through the industry-based Alliance for Abundant Food and Energy.

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