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Most genetically modified (GM) crops will do relatively little to help the world’s poorest people because they are being developed primarily to improve herbicide tolerance and pest resistance, rather than to directly boost crop yields, according to a new study.

A survey of GM field trials shows that only 27.8 per cent of research in the United States and 12.5 per cent in the European Union relates directly to crop yield — considered the most important factor in meeting the food requirements of the developing world.

By contrast, 70 per cent of GM tests deal with herbicide tolerance and pest resistance, which only indirectly improve crop yields, although these substantially reduce the costs of food production.

The survey, published by the Netherlands-based United Nations University Institute for New Technologies (UNU/INTECH), also reveals that almost half of the US trials, and a quarter of EU research, is conducted by three companies — Monsanto, Pioneer and AgrEvo.

“This has massive control and rights implications,” says Alex Wijeratna, a campaign coordinator at ActionAid, a UK-based non-governmental organisation that aims to combat poverty worldwide. “The other fear is that [these companies] will not necessarily work on crops that resource-poor farmers need.”

Currently, two-thirds of US and EU research is focussed on just three crops — maize, potatoes and soybeans. And less than 1 per cent of trials involve plant varieties common in sub-tropical and tropical climates — of particular relevance to many developing nations.

But Gary Barton, a spokesman for Monsanto, argues that technology developed in commercially grown crops can easily be applied to plants that feed the world’s poor. “Once you can put gene into maize, it is transferable to wheat and rice,” he says.

He adds that most research so far has focussed on pest resistance and herbicide tolerance because these traits are controlled by single genes, whereas improving yield involves multiple genes.

And improving resistance to pests and weeds, he argues, is “not a cosmetic practice — it is directly related to yield” and so can boost crop yields in the developing world.

UNU/INTECH director Lynn Mytelka, however, believes that it will be a long time before GM crops that really serve poor nations reach the market. “The benefits of agricultural biotechnology to developing countries — one of its main public selling points — will require development of stress resistant crops and new types of crops adapted to tropical climates,” she says.

In a statement released on 16 April, UNU/INTECH concludes that more public sector research is needed to allow GM crops to fulfil their potential in helping farmers in the world’s poorest nations.

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Photo credits: Monsanto