There is an ethical obligation to explore the benefits that genetically modified (GM) crops could offer people in developing countries, according to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. “The possible costs, benefits and risks associated with particular GM crops must be assessed on a case by case basis,” said Dr Sandy Thomas, Director of the Nuffield Council.

Dr Thomas was launching a discussion paper, The use of genetically modified crops in developing countries, which argues that GM crops could significantly improve agriculture in developing countries but warns against considering GM technology in isolation. “We recommend asking how the use of a GM crop compares to alternatives,” continued Dr Thomas. It is essential to focus on the specific situation in a particular country, and to compare all possible options. This comparison should include not only other approaches in agricultural research and practice, but also the potential cost of doing nothing.

The Council held a consultation during summer 2003, and the responses received highlighted the complexity of the debate. While many respondents described the benefits they had experienced from GM crops, others argued that economic, political or social change was more important than new technologies. “We recognise that we are discussing only part of a much larger picture. We do not claim that GM crops will feed the world but we do believe that, in specific cases, they could make a useful contribution to improving the livelihood of poor farmers in developing countries,” commented Dr Thomas.

GM crops could be used to address agricultural problems, such as drought and salty soils, where other methods of plant breeding or conventional agriculture have been less successful. GM crops could also address some health problems. For example, Golden Rice, modified to produce ß-carotene, could help to prevent vitamin A deficiency. However, in other situations, the use of a GM crop may be less appropriate. GM herbicide resistant crops may lead to reduced demand for labour, which could hinder the reduction of poverty in developing countries.

Currently, much GM research serves the interests of large-scale farmers in developed countries. The Council recommends that research into GM crops must be directed towards the needs of small-scale farmers in developing countries. The UK Department for International Development, the European Commission and other national governments should commit additional resources to expanding relevant research.

The paper also emphasises the impact of European regulations on GM crops, concluding that the freedom of choice of farmers in developing countries is being severely challenged by EU agricultural policy. 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 export markets for non-GM crops.

Notes for editors
  • In 1999, the Council published a report, Genetically modified crops: ethical and social issues. This report recommended that there was a moral imperative for making GM crops readily and economically available to people in developing countries who want them. The Council conducts regular follow-up of all its publications, and has recently returned to the topic. The discussion paper, The use of GM crops in developing countries, reassesses the recommendations of the 1999 report, in light of developments in science and policy over the past four years. A draft version of the paper was published in June 2003 for comment. The final version of the paper, taking account of the many comments received, is published today.

  • The government organised a public debate, 'GM nation?', during 2003 and the use of GM crops in developing countries was acknowledged as an area of special interest. However, there was a clear divergence between the views of respondents to the debate and those expressed in the focus group sample. The former rejected, by a majority, the idea that GM technology would benefit developing countries: the latter supported it, and their support slightly increased after people got more engaged in GM issues’. The Strategy Unit’s report also suggested ‘a need for further research about the use of GM crops in developing countries’.

  • The discussion paper makes recommendations about the use and governance of GM crops in developing countries, issues of liability, intellectual property rights, and control of and access to GM technologies. There is also detailed discussion about the case of food aid, the impact of GM crops on biodiversity and micronutrient-enriched GM crops.

The discussion paper considers a number of case studies including:
  • Bt cotton: 16 million hectares of GM crops are currently being grown in developing countries, by 4.5 million farmers. Most of these are small-scale farmers in China and South Africa, growing GM cotton. Half the cotton grown in China in 2002 was Bt cotton, modified to produce a toxin to the cotton bollworm, a pest that devastates many cotton crops. The average application of pesticides was reduced by 60-80% (falling by as much as 50 Kg per hectare). Bt cotton yields, compared to yields from non-Bt cotton, were estimated to have increased by 10% in 2001. Reports of farmers suffering toxic effects as a result of exposure to pesticide were also reduced by 60%.

  • GM bananas: research is currently being undertaken 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.