GMO Crops in the Developing World
Sep 06, 2016
Farmers in the United States and other major agricultural powers such as Canada, Brazil, and Argentina have had access to seeds developed with the use of agricultural biotechnology for more than two decades now, and that technology has been widely embraced. For the three major GM crops in the United States and Argentina, corn, soybeans, and cotton, adoption rates typically exceed 90 percent, and in Canada, more than 90 percent of all canola and sugar beet acres are GMO, as well as more than 80 percent of corn and 60 percent of soybean acres. Farmers in Brazil got a bit later start, with the first legal adoption of GMO soybeans and corn in 2005 in Brazil, although it was believed that farmers were planting these seeds lacking legal sanction for several years prior to that decision, obtaining the seed from neighboring countries. Today, adoption rates for GM corn and soybeans also exceed 90 percent in Brazil.
As of 2015, farmers in developing countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa accounted for 54 percent of the total acres of GMO crops in the world. However, most of that production, about 90 percent, occurred in emerging economies such as Brazil, Argentina, India and China, and relatively little in the least developed countries in Africa, Central America, and South Asia.
In the poorest of these countries, many smallholder farmers still use saved seed from their own past harvests to plant, facing barriers to access to and affordability of higher quality improved seed due a combination of factors described in past blog posts. Larger farm operations in those countries (i.e. greater than 10 acres or so), who account for about 30 percent of cropland area in Sub-Saharan Africa do utilize improved seed such as hybrids more frequently, but in most countries do not use GMO’s because they are not legally allowed.
As a result, in Sub-Saharan Africa, only three countries--South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Sudan--had farmers growing biotech crops for the market as of 2015, although eight other African governments were still in the process of conducting field trials on various biotech crops such as BT cotton and maize. Research is also underway to develop GM versions of other crops that are economically important to developing countries, such as bananas, which are a staple food in several East African countries such as Uganda and Rwanda as well as in Central America, and brindjal/eggplant in Bangladesh. The work on GMO bananas is particularly important, because efforts to find a conventional response to the fungal disease Black Sigatoka have been unsuccessful, except for resorting to massive and expensive applications of fungicides.
Drought-tolerant maize (corn) varieties have been developed through use of conventional breeding practices for 13 African countries as part of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project. This work has been sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of its Feed the Future initiative, the CGIAR’s International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), private companies, and various non-profits such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. Such seeds are being provided royalty-free and were planted on more than 5 million acres by primarily smallholder African farmers in 2014. A GMO version of drought-resistant strain of maize, called Droughtgard, is being planted in South Africa in 2016. This will be a welcome development there, since their farmers have suffered badly from the recent El Nino-induced drought, with production for the 2015/16 crop year falling nearly 50 percent as a result. Although originally developed for Africa, this trait is now available for American farmers as well, and GM corn including this trait was planted on 2 million acres in 2015, mostly in Plains states such as Nebraska and Kansas.
Despite these important breakthroughs, farmers in most of the developing world still do not even have access to this technology, for a variety of reasons. One major obstacle is suspicion of its safety, an attitude many of these countries’ governments seemed to have absorbed from anti-GMO activist groups which started in Western Europe in the 1990’s but these views have since spread to other parts of the world. In other cases, governments have refrained from approving its availability for fear that it could lead to their agricultural exports being shut out of European markets. Finally, many governments simply lack staff with the technical expertise to establish a GMO approval system with appropriate safeguards.
USAID has been funding an effort since the early 1990’s, the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project (ABSP), to foster better understanding among scientists, regulators, extension workers, farmers and the general public in developing countries about agricultural biotechnology. This project was sited at Michigan State University in its early years, and was shifted to Cornell University in 2003. In countries where the environment is more receptive, the ABSP also provides help in commercializing and developing a regulatory framework for GM crops. The ABSP often works in collaboration with the Program for Bio-Safety Systems operated by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which also seeks to address biosafety in developing countries through an integrated program of research, capacity development, and outreach.