The Socio-economic Aspects of GMOs and the Need for Applying Precautionary Principles


Hira Jhamtani(2)


The production and development of technology is not an isolated scientific activity; rather it is embedded in and influenced by the social, economic and political conditions. This holds true for modern biotechnology (such as genetic engineering), a technology that manipulates living organisms to produce ‘novel’ genetically modified crops, food, livestock, drugs/vaccines, etc.

Modern biotechnology has been hailed as a miracle to solve problems such as world hunger, health and environmental degradation, particularly by biotechnology companies, some scientists and governments. But, one needs to examine the socio-economic and political context in which the technology has been developed. To do this we need to ask questions such as: what was the purpose of developing the technology? who controls the technology? How much does it cost? What is the trend of GMOs being developed and for whose benefit?

Since modern biotechnology is mostly developed by multinational companies (although some public research institutions have also been involved), and the products are aimed at maximizing corporate profits, the socio-economic implications for the public, particularly in developing countries may not always be beneficial.

At present, most of GMOs are grown or developed in industrialized countries and developing countries will probably import them either for growing, food, feed or processing, at least in the next decade or so. As such, there is not yet enough evidence to determine whether GMOs would be beneficial in solving problems of developing countries. However, past experiences such as with the Green Revolution can be used as a gauge to analyze the socio-economic impacts of GMOs. The following socio-economic aspects of GMOs need to be considered.

Threat to food security. Given that many developing countries have to as yet develop their own GMOs, a policy to use GMOs would mean dependence for food production upon multinational companies and international research agencies. This would undermine any food security policies and practices that may be in place in many developing countries. In addition, few of the genetically modified crops or foods currently being studied or developed are those, which the poor people can afford. The high costs of genetically modified crops are also likely to squeeze many small and medium-sized farmers out of business. As a result more people will be unable to grow food or pay for the food they need.(3)

As an analogy, the Green Revolution had indeed increased food production, but food security had not been attained, and more people are starving today despite world cereal yields consistently outstripping population growth since 1980.(4) This is because hunger is not caused by inadequate levels of production but lack of access to land, money and other resources. Introduction of new technologies without solving the underlying structural problems will only exacerbate the problems of hunger and food security.

Threat to livelihood. Some companies have already produced or are now in the process of producing substitute for tropical plants of substances normally derived from tropical plants such as vanilla, chocolate, vegetable oil and sugar. For instance the livelihood of about 10 million sugar farmers throughout the South is being threatened by genetically engineered sugars and sweeteners being grown and processed in the North.(5) This would also threaten export earnings of the countries in the South.

Worsening debt trap and socio-political tension. New technologies are often accompanied with new credit package. The Green Revolution, for instance, could be implemented only with a credit package to buy high yielding varieties of seeds, chemical inputs and mechanical services (for harvest, etc.). A large number of small farmers who took loans when the Green revolution was introduced could not repay back the loan had to forfeit their land. Their lands usually were bought or confiscated by richer farmers thus causing social tensions. At the state level, the green revolution also compelled governments to take loans for construction of irrigation channels, dams, and extension services that encourage (sometimes coerce) farmers to accept the new technologies.

The introduction of GMOs and modern biotechnology would probably repeat the situation. Even if genetically modified seeds were given free, the price of inputs would be beyond the means of small and medium farmers. But most seeds are protected by Intellectual property rights regime, thus even the state will incur costs (usually borne by loans) in buying the more expensive seeds.

At the national level, the issue of GMO export-import is already creating tensions in relationships between countries, particularly between developing and industrialized countries. This is evident during the negotiations on the biosafety protocol under the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) over the last few years. When the behavior of certain GMOs become unpredictably hazardous and accidentally cross national borders into another country, it may also cause tension between the two countries.

Ethical issues and the right to choice. GMOs pose a number of ethical aspects to the public, which can cause social disruption. The insertion of human genes into genetically modified crops, livestock or food may be unacceptable to many people. The insertion of the genes of certain animals may also be unacceptable to certain religions. Finally, there is the matter of the right to choice. With GMOs being produced in secrecy and labeling regulation not always in place effectively, the public’s right to choice is not being adequately respected. GMOs, despite perhaps having similar appearance, do have different traits and are produced in different manners. Just as consumers in the North have the right to reject goods not produced in an environmentally sustainable way, consumers and farmers all over the world have the right to reject GMOs on whatever grounds. The rights of citizens in the South to healthy food and environment have always been violated; there have been cases of imported fruits with unacceptable levels of pesticides residue being dumped in the South, imported drugs whose expiry dates have long passed being sold in the markets of the South, obsolete technology for production (which produces pollution) being forced upon governments in the name of technology transfer, etc. Indonesia, for instance, may already have genetically modified soya and corn since some of its imports are from the US. The use of GMOs without proper caution and information will add on the list of consumer rights violations, which may lead to massive protests (as is already happening in the North).

In cases of emergencies (such as in natural or social disasters) which often happen in developing countries, it is often said that the choice is to provide victims with genetically modified foods or to let them starve. But this goes against the principles of humanity; just because people are suffering, it does not mean that they should not have the choice to choose or the right to have information on the food aid they are receiving. Unfortunately, governments often are forced to accept food aid without information about the food stuff.

The above socio-economic issues of GMOs have been somewhat recognized in the only international legal regime to regulate the movement of GMOs that is the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (to the UN CBD). Article 26 of the protocol states that “The Parties, in reaching a decision on import under this protocol or under its domestic measures implementing the protocol, may take into account, consistent with their international obligations, socio-economic considerations arising from the impact of living modified organisms on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, especially with regard to the value of biological diversity to indigenous and local communities”. Although the words ‘may take into account’ provide ambiguous meaning, it guarantees a state to use this clause to reject GMOs that may have adverse socio-economic impacts on the communities. Countries can begin to assess the socio-economic aspect of GMOs and then take the necessary steps to prevent the possible adverse impacts. The biosafety protocol deals mainly with transboundary movement of GMOs, but countries can also have regulations to deal with various other aspects of GMOs, including protecting the socio-economy of their communities from possible adverse impacts of GMOs.

Analysis the socio-economic impacts of GMOs can also be considered as a tool for precautionary approach in the socio-ecological field, i.e. a GMO might be deemed safe from the ecological and health aspect, but might have adverse impacts on local and indigenous communities. In this case, a country may reject the import of such a GMO.

Indeed the precautionary approach is provided for very clearly in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, both in the preamble as well as in Article 1 (objective). Many parties, including scientists and government officials (mostly from the Ministry of Agriculture) in developing countries are worried about this precautionary principle. They say that precautionary approach might hinder the advancement of knowledge of modern biotechnology at the national level and thus developing countries will lag even behind in the development of this technology. Also, they say that precautionary approach will hamper transfer of technology. Both assumptions can be proven to be wrong.

Firstly, the precautionary principle enhances the search for scientific knowledge by initiating a scientific risk assessment and thus collecting data and providing scientific evaluations on ecological, health and socio-economic risks of GMOs. Apart from the advantages that this principle can ensure effective health and environment protection, the implementation of the Precautionary Principle in the Biosafety Protocol will have direct effects on the quality of science and progress of knowledge. Thus the application of Precautionary Principle will in fact stimulate scientific accuracy and progress in risk assessment. Existing European legislation adheres to the Precautionary Principle (6) and knowledge about modern biotechnology keeps advancing.

Secondly, technology transfer to the South is not happening anyway, despite promises made by northern governments during the Earth Summit. This is due to many reasons, one of which is that multinational companies control most of modern biotechnology. They only transfer either the products for direct use or field trials for growing certain crops. In Indonesia for instance, some companies provide scholarships to government scientists to study genetically engineered crops that are produced by those companies and therefore the measure is more beneficial to the companies. In addition, protection of Intellectual Property Rights has hampered transfer of technology whereby knowledge advancement is restricted due to restriction in the use of the technology.

As stated, the Cartagena Protocol recognizes the need for precautionary approach, and the basis for this is Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. This is interpreted as: where there is no scientific certainty after a risk assessment of a certain GMO is carried out, a party can take the necessary steps to stop or restrict the import of that GMO. (7) In many cases, developing countries face difficulties in proving that a certain GMO may not be safe because proponents would demand a ‘solid’ proof of ‘something going wrong’. However, in the case of GMOs, which are living beings that can mutate and reproduce over periods of time, ‘solid’ proof will be obtained only after a disaster occurs. By then it would be too late and these living beings cannot be recalled back. The precautionary approach is precisely aimed at preventing such a condition from occurring.

Developing countries, who do not as yet have regulations on the biosafety of GMOs in place, can take advantage of the Cartegena Protocol to start their own laws on biosafety. On the socio-economic considerations and precautionary approach, developing countries can take the following steps:

* Conduct analysis of socio-economic implications of GMOs at various levels of the society and at the national level (export earnings) and exchange information on the results effectively among the countries

* Based on the analysis, decide on the mechanism in which to comply with article 26 of the Cartagena Protocol

* Develop their own precautionary approach and regulations on GMOs, through cooperation in developing knowledge and capacity on modern biotechnology at the national and regional levels, using the Cartagena protocol as a first step.


1. Paper presented at the ASEAN Workshop on Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms, Kuala Lumpur, 24-26 April 2000.

2. Member of the National Consortium for Forest and Nature Conservation in Indonesia (KONPHALINDO)

3. The Cornerhouse, 1998. Genetic Engineering and World Hunger. The Cornerhouse Briefing No. 10.

4. Ibid

5. Nottingham, S., 1998.Eat Your Genes. Zed Books, London

6. Meyer,H., 1999. Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society 19(2).

7. Lim, L.L., 2000. Biosafety protocol – main provisions.Third World Resurgence, No. 114-115, TWN.

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