Why was there political acceptance of Green Revolution technologies but genetic engineering (GE) of crops has run into trouble? In a paper—The Political Economy of Biotechnology —Ron Herring of Cornell University and Robert Paarlberg of Harvard Kennedy School look beyond the material interests of advocates and opponents of these technologies at political structures, social behaviour and public notions of acceptable risk.
When the Green Revolution happened, the fear of mass starvation loomed large. Population growth was supposed to outpace food supply. National governments, donor agencies and civil society groups were keen on boosting food supply.
Between 1966 and 1998, the authors report an 82% increase in crop area planted with modern varieties in Asia, including China. The Manila-based International Rice Research Institute released 70 improved varieties. In all, about 8,000 high-yielding varieties of 11 crops were made available to farmers.
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That the varieties were developed by not-for-profit public research institutions ennobled the enterprise. But the authors overstate the push of altruism. Ideology played no small role. Western democracies feared communism would crawl on empty bellies.
The results were so gratifying that Normal Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
But why has the public not warmed up to GE crop plants despite the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the OECD and science academies of India, the UK, the US, France, Germany and Canada supporting it? It is not as if the technology itself is shunned. The public has no trouble with drugs like insulin produced with recombinant DNA technology in spite of risks thrown up during clinical trials. It is willing to trust the regulatory authorities despite tragedies like thalidomide, a drug for morning sickness, causing birth defects in thousands of babies.
The risks are voluntarily contracted when people use recombinant DNA drugs, the authors say. The medicines are individually prescribed and produced in confined conditions. GE crop plants on the other hand are released in the open and exposure to them is involuntary.
The threat of mass hunger—and of communism—had receded by the time the first GE crop was planted in 1996. In consequence, the World Bank and Western countries scaled down agricultural aid to poor countries.
GE crops also do not touch consumers directly. The most popular—maize, soybean and cotton—go into animal feed or industrial use. GE traits like insect resistance and herbicide tolerance reduce cost of production. Farmers, seed companies and innovators enjoy the gains; there is very little trickle down to consumers because cultivation costs are a sliver of the prices they pay.
Why do the US and the European Union differ in their attitude to GE crops? The authors say the strength of agricultural lobbies makes a difference. Maize and soybean—the first crops with GE traits—are widely grown in the US, so there is a vocal group of supporters. Europe’s incumbent agri-chemicals industry feels threatened by GE traits that reduce pesticide use. The authors also find that regulators in the US are not overly cautious. American society is litigious; class action suits can deter bad behaviour. In Europe, regulators are expected to be stricter with screening for public health; they overcompensate by being precautionary.
Unlike the US, Europe’s electoral system favours multi-party coalitions. This allows groups like the Greens to sit in Parliament, be in the government and take control of ministries charged with approval of GE crops.
Transnational environmental groups like Greenpeace have also been effective in stigmatising GE crops as GMOs (genetically-modified organisms). Though the EU has initially approved them, these groups organised street demonstrations in Europe when the first shipments of herbicide-tolerant soybean arrived from the US in March 1996. They were helped by the loss of face the British government coincidentally suffered that month, when its assurance about the safety of meat from cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy or mad cow disease turned out to be false. From requiring GM stuff to be labelled, to imposing an informal moratorium on cultivation of GE crops, to comprehensive regulation in 2004 requiring continuous record keeping for traceability of transgenic material in the market, EU regulations got progressively stricter. Food companies in Europe reformulated their products to exclude GE material rather than comply with onerous regulations.
The US-EU divide has international ramifications. Eight of the top 12 countries growing GE crops are in the American sphere of influence: US, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and the Philippines. Europe extends its caution through trade. Countries like Israel, for instance, do not grow GE crops. They wish to remain GMO-free so that their exports to Europe are not affected.
Environmentalists and private enterprise-hating leftists have been able to paint GE technology as a conduit for corporate control of national agricultural systems. Unlike the Green Revolution, MNCs are at the forefront of agricultural biotechnology. The traits they patent are conflated with the patenting of seeds.
For these reasons, GE food crops are rare. The authors cite examples: GE wheat seeds were first field tested in the US in 1994, but in 2004 Monsanto decided not to market them because activists persuaded consumers they might not be safe. Biotech rice also met the same fate. GE potatoes were grown on 25,000 acres in the US and widely consumed between 1999 and 2001 but cultivation was voluntarily suspended after a smear campaign. GM tomato was commercially cultivated in the US between 1998 and 2002. It was stopped under consumer pressure. The only GE foods currently grown in the US are Hawaiian papaya, summer squash and sweet corn on a small scale.
Outside the US, South Africa has allowed cultivation on GE white maize. Bangladesh has permitted Bt brinjal since 2015. Philippines has allowed GE yellow maize. In India, GE mustard is struggling for approval, even though Bt cotton is being grown in the country since 2002.
Opponents have constructed uncertainty as risk in the case of GE crops, the authors say. Though there is no evidence of harm so far, future risk cannot be completely ruled out. Proving the absence of risk is impossible for science.
Area under GE crops has grown a hundred-fold since 1996, according to ISAAA, an advocacy, but the potential of the technology has not been fully realised despite farmers readily embracing it in the countries where it has been approved. For instance, 90% of all cotton grown in India is Bt hybrid.
Until consumers in rich countries change their minds about GMOs, farmers in most developing countries will be unable to use new varieties of GE food crops, or even existing varieties, the authors say. “Not for the first time in history, the tastes of the rich will drive welfare outcomes for the poor”
The author is editor of www.smartindianagricuture.in, a website devoted to promoting modern practices in agriculture, including use of genetically-engineered seeds.
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