Consultation: GM crops show promise for developing world

Press Release

9 June 2003

Genetically modified crops could help small-scale farmers in developing countries according to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in a draft Discussion Paper published today. The Nuffield Council is inviting comments on the draft paper which aims to contribute to ‘GM Nation?’, the public debate organised by the government in the UK during the next six weeks.

In 1999, the Nuffield Council recommended that there was a moral imperative for making GM crops readily and economically available to people in developing countries who want them. “We have reviewed the scientific developments since our last report as well as recent trends in poverty and hunger in developing countries. In the light of this evidence, we have no hesitation in affirming – and expanding – our previous conclusions,” said Dr Sandy Thomas, Director of the Nuffield Council.

“We recognise that we are discussing only part of a much larger picture,” continued Dr Thomas. Food security and the reduction of poverty in developing countries are extremely complex issues. “We do not claim that GM crops will eliminate the need for economic, political or social change, or that they will feed the world. However, we do believe that GM technology could make a useful contribution, in appropriate circumstances, to improving agriculture and the livelihood of poor farmers in developing countries.”

The impact of European Union policy

The draft considers developments in regulation and trade and concludes that European agricultural policy is likely to restrict severely the freedom of choice of farmers in developing countries. Many developing countries do not have the necessary infrastructure to meet strict EU requirements for labelling and traceability of GM crops. Additionally, there is concern that even planting GM crops only for domestic use might jeopardise an export market for non-GM crops. “We believe EU regulators have not paid enough attention to the impact of EU regulations on agriculture in developing countries and we recommend that the UK government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) should monitor this closely,” said Dr Thomas.

European scepticism may also deter people in developing countries from adopting GM crops, particularly when the risks of GM crops are exaggerated. “The current evidence from safety assessments of GM crops does not suggest any significant risk to people who eat them, and we believe it is unhelpful to suggest otherwise,” said Professor Derek Burke, a member of the Working Group.

Food Aid

Last year, two million people in Zambia were threatened with starvation. However, the Zambian government refused food aid donations from the US because the maize was genetically modified. The Nuffield Council discusses issues behind this controversy and recommends that developing countries must be given a genuine choice between GM and non-GM food aid. When developing countries prefer to receive non-GM food aid, the World Food Programme and other food aid organisations should purchase such grain, wherever possible.

Golden Rice

Scientists claim that Golden Rice, modified to produce ß-carotene, could help prevent vitamin A deficiency in Asia, but opponents question whether it would actually achieve this aim. The Nuffield Council recommends that it is essential to continue research to establish how effective the approach might be. Golden Rice could make a valuable contribution where other sources of vitamin A are not easily available, but it should be compared with alternative methods of improving micronutrients in the diet, for example providing vitamin supplements through public health programmes.

Case by case assessment

The possible costs, benefits and risks associated with particular GM crops can only be assessed on a case by case basis. “It is important not to generalise,” said Professor Michael Lipton, a member of the Working Group. “However GM crops do, in some cases, have considerable potential to increase crop yields. There is an ethical obligation to explore these benefits responsibly.”

Small-scale farmers in China and South Africa are already benefiting from GM cotton, modified to resist the cotton bollworm. Another example cited is research to genetically modify bananas to resist the Black Sigatoka fungus. Untreated, this fungus can reduce banana yields by as much as 70%. Currently, farmers spend one quarter of the production costs on fungicides, and farm workers may risk their health by applying the spray, up to 40 times per year. A GM banana, resistant to the fungus, could eliminate these problems, reducing the amount of fungicide required and, at the same time, increasing yields.

Genetic modification could also be used to address specific agricultural problems, such as drought and salty soils, where other methods of plant breeding have not proved successful. However, much GM research currently serves the interests of large-scale farmers in developed countries. There is also concern that only a few commercial companies control most of the seeds, chemicals and research technology. The Nuffield Council recommends that additional resources should be committed by governments and the EC to fund a major expansion of GM-related research relevant to the needs of small-scale farmers in developing countries.

The Council is inviting views on the draft version of the Discussion Paper, by 8 August 2003. “We look forward to hearing comments from members of the public, stakeholders and experts. We would particularly welcome comments from people in developing countries,” concluded Dr Thomas.

Read more: External consultation

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