The use of genetically modified crops in developing countries.

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Abstract or Summary

Main findings of paper: We have explored the potential of GM crops to improve agriculture in developing countries by means of eight case studies. These concern the use of GM cotton, rice, sweet potato, banana and soybean, and the production of biopharmaceuticals. Most GM crops have been developed by companies to suit the needs of large-scale farmers in developed countries. With the exception of GM cotton, soybean and maize, only a limited number of commercially available GM crops are currently suitable for conditions in developing countries. However, of the approximately six million farmers who grew GM crops legally in 2002, more than three-quarters were resource-poor, small-scale cotton farmers in developing countries, mainly in China and South Africa.

Our main conclusion is that possible costs, benefits and risks associated with particular GM crop scan be assessed only on a case by case basis. Any such assessment needs to take into account a variety of factors, such as the gene, or combination of genes, being inserted, and the nature of the target crop. Local agricultural practices, agro-ecological conditions and trade policies of the developing country in which GM crops might be grown are also important. We therefore recommend that in considering whether GM crops should be used or not, it is essential to focus on the specific situation in a particular country, asking the question: “How does the use of a GM crop compare to other alternatives?”

All possible paths of action must be compared, including inaction, in respect of improving, in a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way, human health, nutrition, and the ability to afford an adequate diet. The improvement of agriculture and food security depends on several factors. These include stable political environments, appropriate infrastructures, fair international and national agricultural policies, access to land and water, and improved crop varieties, which are suited to local conditions. In focusing on current and potential uses of GM crops we therefore consider only part, albeit an important one, of a large and complex picture. However, we are clear that in particular cases, GM crops can contribute to substantial progress in improving agriculture, in parallel to the (usually slow) changes at the socio-political level. GM crops have demonstrated the potential to reduce environmental degradation and to address specific health, ecological and agricultural problems which have proved less responsive to the standard tools of plant breeding and organic or conventional agricultural practices.

Thus, we affirm the conclusion of our 1999 Report that there is an ethical obligation to explore these potential benefits responsibly, in order to contribute to the reduction of poverty, and to improve food security and profitable agriculture in developing countries..

Paper reproduced by permission of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics

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