GM crops: still not a panacea for poor farmers

Bt cotton is a knowledge-intensive technology Copyright: Monsanto

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GM crops have been hailed as a ‘pro-poor’ technology, but the reality is much more complicated, says technology researcher Dominic Glover.

Genetically modified (GM) crops have been celebrated by some academics, commentators and analystsas a success for poor people in the developing world, with small-scale farmers able to benefit more than most from the technology.   

But a closer look at the experiences of farmers reveals a more complicated picture.

It takes much more than the introduction of one or two new genes into a crop plant to transform a complex farming system. Many other technical, agro-ecological, economic and institutional factors must also be in place before poor and marginal farmers can reap the potential benefits of GM crops. 

Bt cotton — a technical success

Take, for example, insect-resistant ‘Bt cotton’, which contains a gene taken from the common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, and which provides some degree of protection against insect pests known as bollworms.

It is the only GM crop to have been widely commercialised in developing countries and is routinely grown by small-scale farmers in China, Colombia, India and South Africa. It has recently been approved in Burkina Faso and Pakistan.

It is clear that the technology works — at least in the technical sense that GM plants containing the Bt gene produce a toxin that kills bollworms. Properly managed, the Bt trait can help farmers control pests and avoid crop losses. It has helped to improve cotton productivity in India, for example.

But, as highlighted in a paper from the UK-based STEPS Centre (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability), the impact of Bt cotton varies widely across farms, regions and seasons. Not all farmers have benefited equally from planting this GM crop — some have had negative experiences, while others may have been unable to plant it at all because of the costs associated with the technology, or other constraints.

Capacity is crucial

The truth is that getting a good yield from Bt cotton — as with any other crop variety or farm technology — depends heavily on institutional, infrastructural and agronomic factors, such as functioning markets, effective transport systems, a dependable water supply and good quality soil.

Unless these are in place, a favourable outcome is unlikely. Unfortunately, these are often the very resources that many poor and vulnerable farmers lack.

It is particularly important that the Bt trait is introduced into a variety suitable for local conditions. Even then, access to other inputs, such as fertiliser — and the credit to buy it with — will strongly affect a farmer’s capacity to take advantage of the technology.

Farmers also need to have confidence in the quality and effectiveness of their Bt cotton seeds; if not, they may well continue to spend money on pesticide sprays as an added insurance against crop failure.

This is why it is a mistake to think that GM crops will be easy for poor farmers to adopt — to assume that the ‘technology is in the seed’ and so will not require changes in farming practice. In fact, most agricultural technologies, including new crop varieties, involve essential new knowledge and management skills.

A need to know

Bt cotton is certainly a knowledge-intensive technology. To incorporate it into a pest-management strategy, a farmer needs to know a certain amount about how it works and how to monitor its performance in the field. 

For example, a farmer may need to know how the production of the Bt toxin in the plants might vary during the growing season. And regrettably, many Chinese and Indian cotton farmers have struggled to take full advantage of Bt technology because they lacked clear and reliable information about which kinds of pests the Bt toxin would kill.

The key lesson from smallholders’ experiences with Bt cotton is that, even though the technology ‘works’ in a technical sense, it is still not conspicuously ‘pro-poor’. The technical performance of a technology cannot be isolated from its agronomic, social and institutional contexts.

Technology does not consist merely of gadgets and machines, or seeds and genetic traits. It is a human process of doing, making, experimenting and adapting that requires various tools, skills, knowledge and practices that vary over time and from one social and agro-ecological setting to another.

Time for a redesign

For any farming technology to benefit poor and marginal farmers, their requirements, capacities, priorities and constraints must be incorporated into the technology’s design and performance. Bt cotton was originally designed for large-scale farming systems in North America. Marketers did not account for the constraints that smallholder farmers face in the developing world.

Fortunately, it is not too late for redesigns, which could learn from the experience of China, for example. There, Bt technology was developed by public sector agencies, in addition to Monsanto. It was released in the open-pollinated cotton varieties grown by smallholders, rather than in hybrids.

In India, an effervescent redesign process is taking place within a vigorous grey market for ‘unofficial’ Bt cotton seed. Meanwhile, a combination of government price controls, increased competition among private seed companies and the introduction of Bt varietal cotton by public sector agencies may help to bring the technology within the reach of poorer farmers.

Will the next generation of crop biotechnologies (GM or otherwise) be designed around the needs of such farmers from the start? Or will they have to make do, once more, with technology designed for the resources and capacities of richer farmers?

Dominic Glover is a post-doctoral fellow at the Technology and Agrarian Development Group of Wageningen University in the Netherlands.