Promises but no results - GM crops in development cooperation

[img_assist|nid=178|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=100|height=43]GM plants are often put forward as a chance for developing countries to combat hunger. However, the evaluation of GM plants grown in developing countries or developed for them show that they fail to reach this goal. The examples of virus-resistant sweet-potatoes, pro-vitamin A rice and Bt maize show that these GM crops are an inappropriate approach to solve the issues that cause hunger and poverty. GM crops are a technology and supply-driven approach to development cooperation, instead of an demand-driven approach, and their introduction is often against the outspoken wishes of developing countries.

It is often claimed as a moral imperative that industrialized countries have to allow GM crops so that developing countries will also be able to use it. Some of these concerns might be genuine, but others are clearly put forward as unrelated arguments by lobby organisations like the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) or by PR companies like Burson-Masteller (Paul/Steinbrecher 2003: 52).

On the other hand, developing countries have spoken for themselves on this issue for decades. Representatives of NGOs and farmer organisations, as well as official delegates of have strongly objected, against attempts to use developing countries and their problems as an argument by third parties to introduce GM crops (for examples see Hickey/Mittal 2003). One of those statements was issued as reaction on a Monsanto PR campaign by all African delegates, with the exception of South Africa, during a meeting of the FAO Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (1998):

"Let's Nature's Harvest Continue...

We, the undersigned delegates of African countries [...] object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is used [...] to push a technology that is neither safe, environmental friendly or economical beneficial to us. [...] We do not believe that such companies or gene technology will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On contrary, we think that it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia and that will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves."
(quoted in Hickey/Mittal 2003: 5-6)

This article deals with the question whether GM have contributed to solve hunger problems or might in the future do so in developing countries, by focussing on three different issues:

  1. What are the reasons for hunger in the Global South? Can genetic engineering be a contribution to solve the problems?
  2. Did GM crops in the South fulfil their promises? Examples are virus resistant (VR) GM potatoes, rice containing beta-carotene ("Golden Rice"), herbicide resistant (HR) maize, and maize that produce a bacterial toxin against certain insects (Bt maize).
  3. Why are GM crops put forward for developing countries?

Several issues that are relevant for GM crops in general will not be covered: Environmental issues, problems of the agricultural sector and changes brought about by GM crops, intellectual property right (IPR) issues including patents and changes in seed production systems, co-existence, labelling, liability, and food safety – all these issues have to be solved no matter whether GM crops are to be grown in an industrialized or developing country. Some of the solutions that are drawn up, like labelling and liability, require regulatory frameworks and control mechanisms that currently seem to be beyond the reach of numerous countries. However, this does not imply that these questions are not relevant for developing countries. Especially the African countries ask for a strong regulatory framework, for example in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Many of these countries like Zambia also strongly reject the notion of receiving GM crops in food aid as a way of the exporting country to avoid approval procedures and risk assessments. It would be incomplete to look at GM crops in developing countries only in terms of hunger or poverty, but this paper will focus on the latter and refer to other publications for the general issues.

Reasons for hunger

Hunger is not caused by too little agricultural production but by lacking access to food. In July 2000, the FAO Global Perspective Studies Unit published the report Agriculture: Towards 2015/30 (FAO 200). It showed that, contrary to other claims, there would be enough food to feed the world over the next half-century. The report specifically did not base its predictions on future technological developments in crops, in particular GM crops, because of the ongoing uncertainties regarding the technical performance, safety and acceptability to consumers of GM crops. Even if higher yields could be gained through technology in agriculture, these do not ensure access to food. Reducing hunger is a socio-economic and political issue, not an agricultural one. Industrialized agriculture (like the long-term effects of the Green Revolution; Paul/Steinbrecher 2003: 4) in combination with top-down research structures and extension systems has shown to worsen relevant problems instead of solving them.

The experiences from the Green Revolution show how different priorities can be set in agricultural production, even if they cannot be discussed in detail here: Through the introduction of high-yielding varieties, the yields of the crop in question could often be raised, but the overall production of the fields could be decreased at the same time. Top-down research structures tend to look for example only at the rice yield of a specific variety as a documented fact, while the additional food like leafy plants, herbs, fish frogs and edible snails go unnoticed. However these plants and animals were an important part of the overall food production, food diversity and food security. The introduction of agrochemical brought new dependencies into farming communities, especially dependencies from credits and cash production. (See Paul/Steinbrecher 2003, Hickey/Mittai 2003 and others).

[img_assist|nid=178|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=150|height=65]Hunger is a problem of poverty, and the reasons for poverty are manifold and interconnected. The following list (see also de Grassi 2003 and others) is only an overview over relevant issues globally, and in each case or region it needs to be defined which are the most pressing issues: HIV/AIDS and the need for health care on the one hand and reduced labour force and income on the other; inequitable treatment of women; inequitable access to income, goods and land; corruption; lack of clean drinking water; expensive and inaccessible health and education systems; declining prices for cash crops as tea, coffee, cotton and sugar; lack of local markets and credits; less urban jobs and lower income from part-time jobs in rural areas; insufficient transport facilities and infrastructure; local dam building and irrigation systems; tourism projects; conservative nature protection; displacements and lack of land reforms; too little or sporadic rain; low soil fertility; regional armed conflicts, and more.

Since the reasons for hunger and poverty are so complex, it is important to evaluate the appropriateness of different technologies for poverty alleviation. Unfortunately most claims for poverty alleviation through GM crops are not backed by empirical studies, or not even by studies that show the performance of the crops in an actual farming situation. One of the few studies that looked into the wider issue is an assessment of current evidence of GM crops (VR sweet potatoes, Bt cotton and Bt maize) in Africa by de Grassi (2003). He evaluated how "appropriate" each technology is for sustainable poverty alleviation, using six criteria: demand led, site specific, poverty focused, cost effective and environmental and institutionally sustainable. This approach can be used to evaluate other crops and technologies in other parts of the world as well. De Grassi (2003: i) summarizes the methodological issues as follows:

"Simply because technologies exist is not sufficient reason to utilize them - criteria are needed to select which technologies are best to develop and disseminate. Crop breeding has come to recognize that different farmers in different areas have different constraints, so agricultural research will have to generate site specific varieties. To ensure that research programs respond to farmers' diverse, changing priorities, research must be led by the demands of poor farmers. Further they recognize that these constraints encompass not only the technical measures, such as yield, or pests, but socio-economic ones such as marketing, or labor requirements. Increasingly, researchers are focusing their attention on poor farmers facing difficult agro-ecological and socio-economic conditions. Gone are the days when new technologies were thought desirable simply by virtue of being new or 'modern'; there is now a recognized need to prioritize and choose the most cost-effective technologies among the many at our disposal. Environmental sustainability encompasses not just second-generation effects of the Green Revolution (such as pesticide affects on ecology and human health), but also basic problems such as soil fertility. Donor fatigue has illustrated the need for institutional sustainability."

GM crops grown in the Global South

GM crops are offered to the Global South in general but they are grown in much more specific conditions and to a much lesser degree the often expected. The cultivation of GM crops in developing countries can be divided in three groups:

  • GM crops in developing countries are mainly used in large scale industrialized agriculture, like HR soy bean production in Argentine, and as are grown as cash crops like Bt cotton in India;
  • GM crops for subsistence agriculture are more advertised then in fact grown, and many developing countries especially those in Africa have not even approved of GM crop varieties;
  • GM crops are imported through food aid with or without the approval of the importing countries, and can be grown sporadically if the food aid contains seed. Even official regulations of GM seeds might not circumvent this: In Mexico where a ban of growing GM maize exists in order to protect the maize centre of origin and local land races, the contamination of these landraces probably occurred when farmers used GM maize grain from US food supplies unknowingly as seed. (see Quist/Chapella 2001 and an overview at

Virus-resistant sweet potatoes
Virus resistances technology was developed by Monsanto in the US, and then developed further in Mexico and Kenya. In both countries the GM crop research is officially aimed at small-scale farmers, but evidence is strong that they will not benefit from it. In Mexico virus-resistant potatoes are developed since 1991 claiming that virus infections are a primary problem for Andean potato farmers, but interviews with small-scale farmers revealed that their main problems are not virus infections but lack of storage and distribution infrastructure (Massieu et al. 2000).

[img_assist|nid=179|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=150|height=65]In Kenya, virus resistant sweet potatoes are a joint project of the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and Monsanto with additional funding from USAID and the World Bank. As de Grassi (2003) points out the initiative was not the result of farmers’ priorities or preferences, but rather resulted from pressure and existing technology of Monsanto and scientists in and/or from the US including Dr Florence Wambugu. Similar to the introduction of virus resistant technology in Mexico, in Kenya there are poor links between researchers, extension workers and farmers. In fact, many farmers already have (access to) several different varieties of virus-resistant sweet potatoes, making the GM project redundant before it even started and the urgency with which it is put forward quite questionable. Farmers have more important problems in sweet potato production, mainly insect pests like weevils (de Grassi 2003).

So far, only one variety has been genetically modified with a gene coding for a protein that should deliver resistance to Sweet Potato Feathery Mottle Virus (SPFMV). However, the resistance is against an American strain of the virus, and the variety chosen is rather unpopular. There are more then 89 different sweet potato varieties in Africa, and the chosen one has not been tailored to meet farmers numerous site-specific preferences (de Grassi 2003).

According to recent newspaper reports in the Kenyan press and in the New Scientist (Gathura 2004), a report on the GM sweet potatoes by KARI’s Biotechnology Centre shows that the technology has failed to produce a virus resistant strain. The researchers, Dr Francis Nang’ayo, and Dr Ben Odhiambo state "there is no demonstrated advantage arising from genetic transformation using the initial gene construct." The report reveals that GM sweet proved not to be virus resistant in the field, and that the control groups produced higher yields. "The transgenic material did not quite withstand virus challenge in the field," says the report, doubting whether the gene expression was adequate or it failed to address the diversity of virus in this region or just that the gene construct was inappropriate. "All lines tested were susceptible to viral attacks." After more then 12 years of research KARI is now reported to reverted to working with a gene construct based on a Kenyan strain of the virus (Gathura 2004).

Sweet potatoes are an important crop for food security, predominantly in East African countries. However, in these areas poverty does not result from an inadequate sweet potato production but rather from corruption, HIV/AIDS, declining migrant incomes, declining commodity prices, armed conflicts, and large inequalities in land, wealth and income. Kenya is reported to lose 180 times more money to corruption than to sweet potato viral diseases, so benefits from additional virus resistant sweet potato varieties will never be more then insignificant (de Grassi 2003).

[img_assist|nid=22|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=150|height=65]Before the results of the latest KARI study were published (Gathura 2004), the econometric evaluations forecasted a significant rate of return on the GM project, based on a maximum projected yield gain of 18 percent. These estimates have proven to be wrong, as the GM varieties in fact yielded less then the control groups. Besides that, the evaluations left out opportunity costs. The sweet potato project has now been going on for more then 12 years. It involves 19 scientists, 16 of whom with a PhD, so far with an estimated cost of US$ 6 million. In contrast, conventional sweet potato breeding in Uganda was able in just a few years and with a small budget to develop a well-liked virus-resistant variety with yield grains of nearly 100 per cent (de Grassi 2003).

Environmental sustainability of GM virus resistance is expected to be little. The resistance is only conferred by one gene (given that resistance can be conferred successfully), and according to evolutionary principles one can expect that new resistant varieties will evolve soon, depending on the selection pressure (see de Grassi 2003 for further references).

The dependence on Monsanto for funding lowers the institutional sustainability of the project (de Grassi 2003). The project so far might have resulted in considerable training of KARI scientists in genetic engineering methods, but "such discipline-specific capacity building in biotechnology building may produce a 'lock-in' affect diverting resources from other potentially productive issues and methods."

Golden Rice

[img_assist|nid=143|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=150|height=65]The so-called Golden Rice contains beta-carotene (pro-vitamin A) in the grains. It is only experimental, and has not reached a commercial stage yet. Pro-vitamin A rice was developed by Prof. Ingo Protrykus and his colleagues at the ETH Zurich, and publicized widely as 'the' means to save dying children. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) affects about 100 to 400 million children worldwide and causes 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children to turn blind every year. Half of them die within 12 months of losing their sight (WHO 2003). In general vitamin A-deficiency does not occur on its own, but is a symptom of a much broader malnutrition, lacking vitamins and essential micronutrients, like vitamin C and D, zinc, folate, riboflavin, selenium and calcium. The daily pro-vitamin A intake required by a pre-school child is quite low, and can be taken up by two table spoons of sweet potatoes, or half a cup of green leafy vegetables, or a small mango.

The question is not only whether pro-vitamin A-rice could be solution to VAD, and evidence is strong that it cannot be (Lorch 2001). The questions reach much further: What happened to the natural sources of vitamin A and pro-vitamin A (beta carotene), to animal products like eggs, dairy products, liver, meat or salt water fish, and plant products like carrots, yellow cassava, yellow sweet potato, dried and fresh mango and apricots, leafy greens such as spinach, coriander, curry and radish leaves, and red palm oil. What happened that so many children have live on a diet that consists predominately of rice?

Hence, the problem is not the lack of food containing vitamin A or beta-carotene, but the lack of access to it. It is 'hidden hunger', that also includes the loss of knowledge about the relation between diet and health, and the consequence of only eating rice. Even if offering vitamin A-rice on a large scale might help against VAD, it might lock even more children in a diet that is restricted solely to rice, instead of diversifying food. Furthermore beta-carotene is fat-soluble and can only be absorbed in the presence of fat or oil. Beta-carotene could not be taken up from rice boiled with water only. Children who suffer from diarrhoea due to dirty water and poor hygiene are also unable to take up beta-carotene from the food, while they require an even higher daily intake then a healthy child.

[img_assist|nid=180|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=150|height=65]Effective programmes targeting VAD aim for greater food security and food diversification, and they include schooling for girls as well as better sanitation. Higher vitamin-A levels in the diet are reached through the (re-)introduction of house gardens, when herbs and small quantities of vegetables and fruit can contribute to the daily diet. Changes in cooking habits are a sustainable way for an overall health increase like the (re-)introduction of red palm oil instead of refined palm oil, using herbs, and sun drying and storing mango and leafy vegetables for seasons with less fresh vegetables. These programmes already led to a decline in VAD figures (Lorch 2001, Hickey/Mittal 2003). Changes in agricultural practices like the avoidance of agrochemicals can increase the overall productivity of fields, a productivity that was lost through the Green Revolution, as the following two examples sketch:

"I remember that before [the introduction of 'high yielding rice varieties' and agrochemicals] we always brought something home from our farms even between harvesting seasons. There were mudfish, snails and frogs. In this respect, our farms were much productive then." (Marino 2001, quoted in Hickey/Mittal 2003: 6).

"It is also argued that the Indian peasants in Chiapas, Mexico [...] are backward, they produce only two tons of maize per hectare as against six on modern Mexican plantations. But this is only part of the picture – the modern plantation produces six tons per hectare and that's it. But the Indian grows a mixed crop – among this corn stalks, that also serve as support for climbing beans, he grows squash and pumpkins, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and all sorts of vegetables, fruit and medicinal herbs. From the same hectare he also feeds his cattle and chickens. He easily produces more then fifteen tons of food per hectare and all without commercial fertilizers or pesticides and no assistance from banks or governments or trans-national corporations." (Lutzenberger/Holloway 1998, quoted in Paul/Steinbrecher 2003: 5)

"Golden Rice" is a technological approach to an isolated part of a much bigger problem, a techno-fix, and therefore unsuitable to solve the socio-economic and agricultural problems. Unfortunately, the focus on high-tech solutions can easily draw attention and money away from other solutions and (research) programmes. Or, as a report of South-East Asian NGOs puts it: Vitamin A deficiency will not be solved by Golden Rice technology since it does not address the key to the problem of poverty which is landlessness. "They are cheating us. If the poor had land, they would have better diets. The poor don't need Vitamin A. they need Vitamin L, that's Vitamin Land. And they need Vitamin M, that's Vitamin Money. Malnutrition is because of poverty not [a lack of] technology." (Biothai et al. 2001)

Maize production in Africa

Maize production in Africa encounters several problems, especially from pests like the African stemborer (Maliarpha separatella) and Asian stemborer (Ostrinia furnacalis) and the parasitic weed Striga. Striga's roots grow into the roots of the maize crop and take their nutrients from there. The weed can therefore not be targeted by herbicides that are taken up from the soil. Genetic engineering came up with different solutions.

On the one hand Bt maize is offered; a maize variety that produces a Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin and that should protect the maize crop against the target insect. However, several problems are associated with this approach. First of all the Bt maize is developed to combat the European stemborer (Ostrinia nubilalis, the predominant pest species in North America), so it is unclear whether it will actually work against the African and Asian stemborer species. Secondly, if it works, resistance is bound to develop through the high selection pressure. In the US, refuge areas with non-Bt maize on fields are requested to slow down development of resistance to the Bt toxin. Even in a country like the US where farmer have easily access to information and additional seeds, compliance to these measures is difficult, and it can be expect that such a regime is even more difficult to ensure in a developing country. Bt maize was developed with very little input from small-scale farmers, and on the cost of alternatives (de Grassi 2003).

The other approach to combat Striga is the introduction of herbicide resistant maize. There are technical difficulties, because depending on the form of resistance the herbicide might not reach the weeds. Besides that HR maize would bring all known economic, environmental and health problems of agrochemical use.

[img_assist|nid=181|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=150|height=65]Meanwhile the ICIPE in Kenya developed a sustainable push-and pull system against Striga and stemborer (Lorch 2000). It consists of intercropping the maize plants with Desmodium uncinatum, a leafy plant that suppresses the growth of Striga. Napier grass (Pennisetum purpureum) as a third crop is planted at the outer edge of the field. While stemborer are put off by they smell of Desmodium, they are attracted by napier grass even more then by maize, and the insect therefore stays on the surrounding grass. Due to some characteristics of the napier grass, eggs laid in it do not develop well, so the reproduction of stemborer is also slowed down. Desmodium and napier grass are suitable as fodder as well. This system was developed locally in cooperation with farmers, who for example choose Desmodium and napier grass from a spectrum of plants proposed by the ICIPE scientists.

Such an intercropping system is suitable for small-scale farmers who work their fields by hand, even if it is unsuitable for large farms in which fields are worked by machinery. Seeds can be exchanged easily, and the introduction of this system can be easily done by word of mouth - without extension workers or agrochemical companies. The push-and-pull system against Striga and stemborer is an example for a local and sustainable development of farming practice that benefits small-scale farmers.

Why are GM crops proposed for developing countries?

[img_assist|nid=107|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=150|height=65]The push-and-pull system explained above can also function as a more general example of an integrated approach to find solutions for agricultural problems. However, with the introduction of genetic engineering, more and more biologists specialized on genetic engineering are employed in finding solutions for agricultural problems through university and company research. They are specialists in their technological field, but as a biologist they do not have any training in defining and/or solving agricultural or socio-economic problems. The only solutions they can offer are those from their field of speciality: genetic engineering. Besides that, and like other scientists, geneticists are caught in a system that requires them to find funding for their work, and to find applications for their ideas. This is of course not the fault of the individual scientists, but the blame lies with a general set-up of research systems. For example the evaluation of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in general and about it attitude towards GM crops and privatisation of genetic resources is so long overdue, that the NGOs involved in the CGIAR decided to 'freeze' their involvement in 2002 (Paul/Steinbrecher: 108)

When it comes to companies, one should keep in mind, that it is not the aim of companies to make the world a better place. It is the aim of a company to sell products, and all companies all have PR divisions and marketing strategies, that not necessarily have anything to do with the actual product. Critics call this corporate strategy greenwashing, poorwashing, hopedashing:

  • "Greenwashing – biotech will create a world free of pesticides,
  • Poorwashing – we must accept genetically engineered foods if we want to feed the poor in the Third World, and
  • Hopedashing – there are not alternatives." (Hickey/Mittal 2003).

The need of companies to expand GM crops to developing countries has even been recognised by strong proponents of GM crops like Florence Wambugu (2002) who stated at the DuPont company website: "The North is looking for additional markets for the technology they have developed. The South represents untapped markets for the North".

The discussion on GM crops or on appropriate solutions for socio-economic problems is getting more and more difficult in a situation where different stakeholders work for contradicting goals and where connections between groups remain invisible. Several lobby organisations, so-called "industry NGOs" and think tanks financed by trans-national cooperation have joined the public discussions in the last years. Scientific articles are published without disclosure of the funds received by the authors. (see Paul/Steinbrecher 2003 and Corporate Watch for more details.)


Summing up it is obvious that genetic engineering as a technology has so far failed in many respects to fulfil a lot of its promises. GM crops are rejected as an option by farmers’ and consumers’ organisations worldwide. Resistance to GM crops comes from very different individuals and organisations, ranging from environmental NGOs and governments in African states like Ethiopia, Zambia and South Africa to conventional farmers and their lobby organisations in the US and Canada. More the 80 countries so far have ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, and thereby object to the unregulated import of GM crops. In these negotiations, the developing countries are not countries that are deprived of the ‘benefits of GM crops’ as the US and Canada are picturing them in the WTO and in public debates. Quite the contrary: especially the African countries are the strongest fighters for the right of every country to make its own decisions, and also to decide not to grow GM crops.

It is important to judge GM crops in development cooperation on several levels.

  • In order to judge the potential effect of GM crops it is necessary to evaluate the scientific studies about agricultural, environmental and socio-economic impacts of the different GM crops, and not to rely on forecasts, lab studies and promises. It is normal that farmers will use a plant or agricultural practices different then (especially biological) scientists had in mind. Crops in day-to-day agricultural practices will also grow under much more diverse conditions then can be simulated in the lab, and especially socio-economic impacts are beyond the reach of what natural scientist can study. However in the public and political debate, promises and ideas on the one hand, and facts and surveys on the other are often mixed up, either unknowingly or on purpose. To judge GM crops and the potential it is necessary to stick to the facts, and to define what is relevant. All in all, there is no to little positive impacts of GM crops, compared to a range of negative impacts.
  • A second step is to evaluate why certain crops are developed and offered to developing countries. In many cases, like with the ‘virus-resistant’ sweet potatoes, the development is supply and technology-driven, not demand driven: Virus-resistant sweet potatoes (and especially resistance against a North-American virus strain) was developed because the technology existed, and not because yield loss through viruses is the most pressing agricultural problem in Kenya. In other cases, the publications by the PR departments of companies do not match the scientific developments. Such discrepancy is normal in situation in which companies are obliged to make money. PR spins and advertisements are a normal part of marketing, and statements about the potential benefits needs to be judge also by who is saying what for what purpose. Unfortunately such evaluations are getting more and more difficult, when the lines between corporations, public scientists, think tanks and other experts blur.
  • In development cooperation it is more important to find appropriate solutions then to promote a specific technology. In the context of agricultural production, poverty and hunger, it is therefore important to define the problem at hand properly and then look with an open mind for solutions. The development of the push-and-pull system against Striga and European stemborer in small scale maize production is an example in which a solution for a problem was found. This example also shows that there will not be one solution to a problem like ECB infestations that fit all. In other regions, or for bigger farms other solutions might be necessary. However, case-by-case solutions will lead to much more sustainable practices then the development of one or a few crops to be grown under very different conditions around the world. The development of GM crops however goes towards an even higher uniformity of plant varieties.

And last not least, it is important to listen to the stakeholders in developing countries themselves. There is a high level of knowledge about problems at hand, as well as informed choices. A lot would be lost in development cooperation if the explicitly voiced opinions and decisions of stakeholders in developing countries would be set aside by development agencies.

A. Lorch, Die richtingen Maße für die Nahrung. Ethik in den Wissenschaften, October 2005.