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Decisions on whether to allow the planting of genetically modified (GM) crops in developing countries should compare the costs and benefits of all possible options – including "the potential cost of doing nothing" – according to Britain's top panel on the ethics of biological research.

In a discussion paper published today (28 December), the Nuffield Council on Bioethics warns against considering GM technology in isolation, and argues that there is an ethical obligation to explore the benefits that such crops could offer people in the developing world.

The council also underlines the importance of comparing the use of a GM crop to alternatives, focusing on the specific situation in a particular country, and weighing up all possible options.

"The possible costs, benefits and risks associated with particular GM crops must be assessed on a case by case basis,” says Sandy Thomas, director of the council.

The discussion paper follows up an earlier report on the topic, published in 1999, which argued that there was a moral imperative for making GM crops readily and economically available to people who want them in developing countries.

The new discussion paper is based on a consultation held by the council earlier this year, and reassesses the recommendations of the 1999 report in light of developments in science and policy over the past four years. 

Many of those consulted by the council agreed on the potential value of GM crops. But other 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," says Thomas. "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.” 

On the positive side, the discussion paper points out that GM crops could address significant health issues in the developing world. It agrees, for example, that rice modified to produce beta-carotene – so-called Golden Rice – could help to prevent vitamin A deficiency.

But in other situations, the Nuffield Council accepts that the use of a GM crop may be less appropriate. For example, it says that GM herbicide resistant crops may lead to reduced demand for labour, which could hinder the reduction of poverty in developing countries.

The discussion paper also endorses the widespread criticism that much GM research serves the interests of large-scale farmers in developed countries. In the light of this, the council recommends that research into GM crops should be directed towards the needs of small-scale farmers in developing countries, suggesting that national governments in Europe and elsewhere should increase their funding for relevant research.

Link to full report: The use of genetically modified crops in developing countries