London — Across the world, countries are turning their backs on GM crops; perhaps the coalition in the UK could learn something from them
Britain wants GM food to be grown commercially. After years of encouraging developing countries in Africa and elsewhere to grow them, but unable to allow its own farmers to do so, the environment secretary Owen Paterson has told a major conference that GM can secure countries' food supplies, is good for the public and can help limit climate change.
This is part of a massive PR drive by government, industry and free marketeers to shake off GM's "Frankenfood" image in Britain. But it will resonate deeply in sub-Saharan Africa, where the US and UK governments, industry bodies and seed companies have all been lobbying strongly for GM crops to be grown widely.
Britain is spending around £100m on support for GM crops, supposedly for the world's poor people, while organisations including the Gates Foundation, USAid, and the Cgiar Network of agricultural research stations are backed by other rich countries to develop the technology.
But despite billions of dollars spent on research by rich countries on feeding hungry people, most developing countries remain suspicious of the claims, or convinced that the benefits will go mainly to the corporations that control the seeds and chemicals needed to grow the crops.
What is remarkable is not that GM crops have, after 20 years and so much money spent, now reached 19 out of more than 150 developing countries, but that most nations have managed to keep out a rapacious industry, and that only a handful of GM food commodity crops like oilseed rape, soya and maize are still grown, mainly for animals and biofuels.
GM cotton is widely grown in India and China, but GM foods are pretty well limited to the US and Latin America. Here's a rundown of the scant progress made in around 20 years by companies to introduce GM food to developing countries:
- South Africa, which grows some GM maize and soyabean, is one of only three African countries, along with Burkina Faso and Egypt, planting commercialised GM crops (pdf). In Egypt, 70 tonnes of maize seeds were imported in 2008, but a second shipment was barred entry last year. Burkina Faso grows mostly GM cotton and not food.
- The GM industry in Kenya, one of the biotech industry's prime targets in Africa, suffered a major setback last month after the government banned the import and sale of all GM food.
- In neighbouring Tanzania, the government has said it is "not ready" for the crops.
- The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), talks of "overwhelming trust and confidence" in GM crops and says it expects Mali, Togo, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi to start growing GM in the next few years. But ISAAA is an industry-backed body accused of hyping the take-up of the crops. The reality is that progress in introducing GM food crops to Africa has slowed almost to a halt, with no country altogether happy with the prospect of their introduction.
- India has placed a moratorium on planting its first GM food crop, and there are signs that farmers are increasingly unhappy with Bt cotton, which is widely grown but meeting resistance. A leaked agriculture ministry advisory letter to cotton-growing states admitted last year: "Cotton farmers are in a deep crisis since shifting to Bt cotton. The spate of farmer suicides in 2011-12 has been particularly severe among Bt cotton farmers."
- After the US, Latin America has been the most enthusiastic. Brazil grows 29m hectares (71.6m acres) of GM soy and maize, and Argentina slightly less, but Mexico has delayed the introduction of GM maize until this year, Peru has approved a 10-year moratorium on the import and cultivation of GM seeds, and Bolivia has committed to giving up growing all GM crops by 2015.
In Central America Costa Rica is expected to reject an application from a Monsanto subsidiary to grow GM corn.
- China is deeply cautious when it comes to growing GM food crops and has been shocked by reports of children being allegedly used for a GM food trial.
GM advocates in Europe and the US accuse developing countries of being swayed by Greenpeace or other western environmental groups, but that is to malign their own scientists and farm experts who have done their own assessments of GM foods and advised caution.
In countries such as Britain, where few people have any link with the land, it is perhaps understandable to be scientifically gung-ho about GM.
But in many developing countries, where life depends on seeds and where 90% of families may grow their own food, GM is not a rarified debate about science or health, but about survival, culture and how nature itself is best protected.
GM food has so far not delivered on its early promises of higher yields and reduced pesticide use. Instead, like nuclear power, it has been racked by controversy, corruption, and debates about regulation, patents and ownership.
The British government and its GM advocates appeal to people with assertions that the technology will make food cheaper and more plentiful, and think the public needs only to be educated into seeing the crops differently. With GM, it becomes increasingly clear they could learn a lot from developing countries' caution.