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Debates around the potential benefits of GM crops for developing countries must be reasoned and evidence-based, says Albert Weale.

The World Bank recently estimated that a doubling of food prices over the last three years could push 100 million people in low-income countries deeper into poverty. And the future does not look brighter. Food prices, although likely to fall from their current peaks, are predicted to remain high over the next decade.

As the world considers how to respond, the debate about genetically modified (GM) crops has inevitably reared its ugly head. 'Ugly' because the public exchange about this technology has usually seen extreme viewpoints gaining the most airtime. For example, in the United Kingdom, Prince Charles' spirited but ill-informed attack on GM crops this summer led to a flurry of opinionated responses. We could have been back in the polarised debates of the earlier part of this decade.

Since 1999, my organisation, the UK-based Nuffield Council on Bioethics, has twice examined the ethical issues raised by GM crops. In a 2003 report, the Council specifically focused on developing countries. Two of the conclusions are still particularly relevant today.

Ethical obligation

First, the council concluded that there is an ethical obligation to explore whether GM crops could reduce poverty, and improve food security and profitable agriculture in developing countries. In coming to this conclusion, the council considered differing perceptions of risk. When people have enough food, as in developed countries, consumers and producers will feel free to avoid risk — even if that risk is theoretical rather than real. But developing nations, struggling with widespread poverty, poor health,limited pest control and poor agricultural sustainability, have a different risk-benefit calculation.This is perhaps why the acreage of GM crops has tripled in developing countries over the past five years, compared to just doubling worldwide.

Consumers in prosperous countries are being asked to suppress their doubts about GM crops so that research relevant to the developing world continues. In effect, they are being asked to concede that any potential losses to them are outweighed by potential gains to poor countries, where yields are declining and conventional agriculture is increasingly unsustainable.

This does not belittle other factors needed for poverty reduction and food security — such as stable political environments, appropriate infrastructures, fair international and national agricultural policies, and access to land and water. GM crops are just one part of a large and complex picture. But we will not know how important a part until we explore their potential.

Case by case consideration

The Nuffield Council's second key conclusion was that the wide range of GM crops and situations must be considered individually. Those who oppose or support GM crops per se make an unhelpful generalisation.

Each time, the gene or combination of genes being inserted, and the nature of the target crop, must be assessed. It is also important to compare a GM crop with local alternatives.

For example, Golden Rice — enhanced for b-carotene to help fight vitamin A deficiency — is not needed where people have sufficient vitamin A from leafy greens, or ready access to vitamin supplements. But where this is not the case, the crop may significantly improve nutrition.

Similarly, herbicide-resistant soybeans can reduce demands for local labour. This may be devastating if a community relies on wages from manual weeding. But it may help communities struggling with a labour shortage due to high prevalence of diseases such as HIV/AIDS.

The role of research

Scientific and other evidence must be central in the debate, and over the past few years evidence about GM crops has grown.

For example, according to a recent news report in Science, soon-to-be-published research will clarify the amount of Golden Rice a child would need to eat each day to prevent vitamin A deficiency. This kind of research is vital if governments and farmers are to make informed decisions about GM crops. Indeed, before new research is funded, national and regional bodies in developing countries should be consulted about their priorities for crops and desirable GM traits.

In the United Kingdom, the government has committed £150 million (US$263 million) over the next five years to research aimed at making agriculture more resilient to the pests and diseases affecting poor farmers, and increasing smallholders' agricultural productivity.

Research efforts are also growing in the developing world, with South African scientists developing and working to commercialise virus-resistant maize, and countries like Kenya and Nigeria hosting projects to develop virus-resistant varieties of key African crops (see 'Agri-biotech in sub-Saharan Africa: Facts and figures').

Striking a balance

Many people worry about possible environmental risks from GM crops, such as gene flow to other plants, and this is something that scientific research must clarify. But alarm-raising without evidence is as helpful as calling 'fire' in a crowded theatre. Similarly, demanding evidence of zero risk before allowing a new technology is fundamentally at odds with any practical strategy for investigating new technologies. Mobile phones or aeroplanes might never have seen the light of day if such stringent demands had been placed on them.

In the case of GM technology it is clearly crucial to ask what the risks of adopting GM crops are. But it is also important to ask what the risks of not doing so are. Realistic cost-benefit analyses that consider local social and environmental conditions and development goals are needed on a country-by-country basis.

Heated debate about the food crisis must not detract from an evidence-based assessment of biotechnology's potential for improving agricultural productivity in developing countries. The benefits of GM crops must not be overstated. But neither can poor arguments be allowed to obscure strong arguments for a good cause.

Professor Albert Weale is chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and professor of government at the University of Essex, United Kingdom.

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