GM crops ten years on: Hope, hype and reality - part 2

A complex story with mixed impacts

Dominic Glover's research at the ESRC Social Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability (STEPS) Centre reveals a complex story with mixed impacts. Glover shows that economic returns are highly variable. GM crops only perform well in good varieties, GM seed start-up costs and technology fees are sometimes too expensive for poorer farmers, and major adopters are usually richer, with more land. Meanwhile the institutional and policy environment is vital: without support, credit and sustained backing, new technologies often fail.

Lessons for the future

The ‘pro-' versus ‘anti-' fundamentalists of the GM debate have become entrenched. How do we get beyond this stalemate? STEPS Centre research suggests five ways:

  • GM is not the only biotech solution on offer. Marker-assisted selection and other genomic techniques offer could enhance conventional breeding through biotechnology. Investment in long-term, local, context-specific breeding and crop development programmes is needed.
  • Technologies are never isolated from social, economic, political contexts. The many ways in which farmers manage plants, their soils and the wider environment matter.
  • Biotechnology companies are accountable to their shareholders, not the rural poor of the global south. Their business models are focused on widespread adoption of standardised technologies on large farms.
  • The ownership of technologies, and the control of their development, matter. Involving farmers in priority-setting and upstream technology design is vital. Users of technology understand their own problems best.
  • In the face of deep uncertainty, a precautionary stance makes for sound policy. Appropriate regulatory infrastructure is a developing world challenge - each context requires particular regulatory and policy responses based on local evidence. Making technologies work for the poor is inevitably a ‘slow race', resulting in more robust and effective governance.

From the ESRC magazine Britain in 2011

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