GM Crops Ten Years On: The Undying Promise

GM Crops Ten Years On: The Undying Promise

10 June 2009  Dominic Glover

At an IDS Dangerous Ideas in Development event in Parliament this evening (10 June 2009), the STEPS Centre Biotechnology Research Archive, spanning 10 years of GM research, will be launched along with Dominic Glover’s new STEPS Centre working paper, Undying Promise: Agricultural Biotechnology’s Pro-poor Narrative, Ten Years On.

Current thinking on GM crops and the poor 

In the last couple of years, government ministers, journalists and commentators have depicted transgenic (GM) crop technology as a vital tool for feeding an expanding global population.  These influential voices are aware that GM technology is intensely controversial.  They also know that one of the reasons for the controversy is the widely held suspicion that GM crops have been designed to benefit the biotechnology industry and could actually undermine the livelihoods of poor farmers in the developing world.  However, they now think that there is a good news story to be told about GM crops in developing countries.  They believe that their confidence is backed up by the encouraging conclusions reached by a number of academic studies that have been published in respectable peer-reviewed journals.  Those studies have been interpreted by some analysts as showing that GM crops have proved to be broadly beneficial for poor farmers in places like China, India and South Africa.  But is that view based on a firm foundation?

New analysis reveals a more complex picture

Detailed analysis of the studies in question reveals a rather more complex and mixed picture – one that should strongly qualify any claim that ‘GM crops are good for the poor’.  Certainly, some farmers have benefited from the new technology, but others, especially smaller and poorer farmers, have not.  The data also confirms that the impacts of GM technology depend on an awful lot more than one or a few new genes inserted into a crop plant.

Key facts lost in translation?

An intriguing gap has opened up between the story revealed in data collected from farmers’ fields and the ways in which that data has been interpreted and represented to policy makers and the general public.  It seems there is a marked reluctance by some people to let go of the alluring promise of GM crops as a biotechnological quick fix for the problems of hunger, poverty and underdevelopment.

The Archive, working paper, material from today’s event, plus new Eldis and id21 GM resources are all available on the Steps Centre website.

Dominic Glover is a Post-doctoral Fellow in theTechnology and Agrarian Development Group, Wageningen University, NL.


On Wednesday 10 June, three speakers from SPRU Science and Technology Policy Research, Wageningen University and the University of East Anglia spoke at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Debt, Aid and Trade on the often controversial topic of genetically-modified (GM) crops and their potential to counteract the global problems of poverty and hunger. The event marked the launch of a new paper by one of the speakers, Dominic Glover, entitled ‘Undying Promise: Agricultural Biotechnology’s Pro-poor Narrative, Ten Years on’, which is a critical review of the available evidence on Bt cotton’s effectiveness in improving the incomes of poor farmers.

The example of Bt cotton

Glover began the debate, which was chaired by the Countess of Mar. There has been, he felt, a ‘triumphalism’ amongst advocates of GM crops, and too little attention paid to the environmental, social and political context surrounding their use. Glover has kept track of the evidence on Bt cotton, which he feels has been distorted, leading to the risk of poor policy decisions being made on the basis of insufficient facts.

His paper reviews the literature that has been published in peer-reviewed journals on Bt cotton. In it he explains that there are a number of limits to the potential usefulness of Bt cotton. It protects against pests, but will not improve yield in those years when pests are not a problem – and in fact, in those years yield might even be less than with other seeds. It has a marginal impact on pesticide use, and has been shown in some studies to have less impact than farmer training. There is concern that secondary pests might increase in numbers to fill the ‘ecological gap’, which would mean the benefits are not sustainable. There is a chance poor farmers could suffer financially if they spend extra on Bt cotton, and then lose the crop anyway to a different pest.

Overall the impacts of Bt cotton have been diverse and contingent; but this is not what one would gather from some authors’ summaries of their work. The impacts are not, as has been claimed, necessarily significant, consistent or even positive. There is the allure of the technological ‘quick fix’; when a product is preconceived as effective and successful it can be tempting to swim with the tide rather than against it.

The complex problems of hunger and poverty need complex answers. There is a danger that a focus on GM crops could crowd out other possibilities, such as integrated pest management systems or irrigation, in the fight for donor dollars and government attention. Glover finished by emphasising that he was not in any way anti-science, or event anti-GM, but calling for careful research which takes account of policy and institutional frameworks.

Context matters

The next speaker was Erik Millstone of SPRU. He began by setting out the question as he sees it; namely not ‘is GM beneficial?’ but ‘under what circumstances are GM crops beneficial?’ Millstone said that there are examples in which GM could be very beneficial; for instance, if crops could be made unattractive to locusts.

He explained that in order for GM to benefit poor farmers, it would have to be very low cost. Making GM crops the same price as other seeds is too high; he spoke to farmers in Kenya who had not bought any seeds at all for years, making the GM debate essentially irrelevant to them. The technology should also be employment-generating, not labour-replacing, if it is to alleviate poverty. Patents raise the price of technologies beyond the reach of poor farmers; often farmers are not allowed to re-use seed but have to re-buy it each year. Other times the technology itself has not been sensitive to farmers’ situations; drought-resistant seeds contain more moisture, but this makes them more prone to mould and hence difficult for poor farmers to keep in good condition. He also dismissed the argument that GM crops are ‘scale-neutral’, saying that all technologies have economies of scale, and pointed out that introducing a new technology into an unequal society does not diminish pover!
 ty but can amplify inequalities.

A solution in search of a question?

Peter Newell of the University of East Anglia was the third speaker. He said that broader issues relating to poverty and hunger, such as land rights or social protection, were often ignored when talking about technology, and that GM crops could be seen as ‘a solution in search of a question’. Newell stated that we need to be more explicit in what we mean when we talk about the pro-poor benefits of GM; yield increases may not be sustainable year on year, assumptions are often made about affordability and focus has been on the genetic modification of cash crops rather than staple foods. Assuming a technology can bypass its political and institutional context does its potential a disservice. He pointed out the contradiction in expecting commercial entities like Monsanto to make poverty reduction their aim; but emphasised that where public money is being spent a different process should come into play. Viewing GM as a magic bullet is only going to entrench opposition to it; inst!
 ead, we need to be realistic about which technologies can best address the issues faced by poor farmers.


Related Audio

10 06 2009 GM Crops and the Global Food Crisis presentations

Recording of the three presentations from this event.

GM Crops and the Global Food Crisis presentations

10 06 2009 GM Crops and the Global Food Crisis full event recording

Recording of the whole event including questions and answers;

GM Crops and the Global Food Crisis full event recording

10 06 2009 GM Crops and the Global Food Crisis Glover presentation

Recording of Dominic Glover’s presentation.

GM Crops and the Global Food Crisis Glover presentation

10 06 2009 GM Crops and the Global Food Crisis Millstone presentation

Recording of Erik Millstone’s presentation. GM Crops and the Global Food Crisis Millstone presentation

10 06 2009 GM Crops and the Global Food Crisis Newell presentation

Recording of Peter Newell’s presentation.

GM Crops and the Global Food Crisis Newell presentation

Related Publications

Glover, D (2009) ‘Undying Promise: Agricultural Biotechnology’s Pro-poor Narrative, Ten Years on’, STEPS Working Paper 15, Brighton:

Glover, D. (2009) ‘Transgenic cotton: A ‘pro-poor’ success?’, STEPS Briefing 15

Related Links

STEPS Biotechnology Research Archive


articles post