GM crops and EU laws: G8 leaders urged to improve choice for African farmers

Press release

In a letter to the Prime Minister this week, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has urged G8 leaders to consider the effect of EU regulations on the use of genetically modified (GM) crops in developing countries.

The G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, in July will focus on the poorest continent of the world, Africa, where poverty has persisted and crop yields have remained low. Agriculture has a crucial role to play in developing countries, as a source of employment, income and food for the poorest people. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics published the report, The use of genetically modified crops in developing countries: a follow-up Discussion Paper, in December 2003. The Discussion Paper concluded that, in specific cases, GM crops could make a useful contribution in tackling particular agricultural problems in developing countries.

The Discussion Paper also found that the freedom of choice of farmers in developing countries is being severely challenged by the agricultural policy of the European Union (EU). Developing countries might be reluctant to approve GM crop varieties because of fears of jeopardising their current and future export markets. The Discussion Paper recommended that:

‘…the European Commission (EC), the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and appropriate non-governmental organisations which monitor the agricultural policies of developing countries examine the consequences of EU regulatory policies for the use of GM crops in developing countries. We recommend that the European Commission establish a procedure to report on the impact of its regulations accordingly.’

“As far as we are aware, this recommendation has not yet been implemented by the relevant organisations,” said Professor Sandy Thomas, Director of the Nuffield Council. “We have therefore urged the Prime Minister to highlight the effect of European regulations on the use of GM crops in developing countries, and the need to examine and report on any impacts, at the July summit of the G8.”

The Discussion Paper provides a number of examples of potential uses of GM crops in Africa. Researchers are developing GM bananas that are resistant to the Black Sigatoka fungus, which could significantly increase yields and reduce the large amount of fungicide currently used. Similarly, GM sweet potato strains are being developed that are resistant to the feathery mottle virus. More than 30 other genetically modified crops including maize, wheat, barley, millet, potatoes, and cowpea are under development in African countries such as Egypt, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Notes to editors

  • Download the Council’s letter to the Prime Minister (PDF 4 pages)
  • In 1999, the Council published a Report, Genetically modified food: ethical and social issues. This Report recommended that there was a moral imperative for making GM crops readily and economically available to people in developing countries who want them. The Council conducts regular follow-up of all its publications, and has recently returned to the topic. The Discussion Paper, The use of GM crops in developing countries, reassesses the recommendations of the 1999 Report, in light of developments in science and policy over the past four years. A draft version of the Paper was published in June 2003 for comment. The final version of the Paper, taking account of the many comments received, was published in December 2003.
  • The Discussion Paper makes recommendations about the use and governance of GM crops in developing countries, issues of liability, intellectual property rights, and control of and access to GM technologies. There is also detailed discussion about the case of food aid, the impact of GM crops on biodiversity and micronutrient-enriched GM crops.

Examples of GM crops in Africa included in The use of genetically modified crops in developing countries: a follow-up Discussion Paper (2003):

GM bananas
Approximately half a billion people in Asia and Africa depend directly on farming of bananas. In Uganda, the crop is cultivated on one third of the arable land, and per capita consumption is 50 times higher than in the UK. Research is currently being undertaken to genetically modify bananas to resist the Black Sigatoka fungus. Untreated, this fungus can reduce banana yields by as much as 70%. Currently, farmers spend one quarter of the production costs on fungicides, and farm workers may risk their health by applying the spray, up to 40 times per year. A GM banana, resistant to the fungus, could eliminate these problems, reducing the amount of fungicide required and, at the same time, increasing yields.

GM sweet potato
In Kenya, as in many other African developing countries, sweet potato is an important subsistence crop grown typically by small-scale farmers. About 40% of the harvest is usually kept for household consumption. Sweet potatoes can adapt to a wide range of environmental conditions and grow in both fertile and marginal areas. It is the second most important subsistence crop after maize. However, yields are low. The usual African yield of six tons per hectare is less than half of the global average. Viruses and weevils frequently reduce yields by as much as 80%. Effective controls for these pathogens are not available. Since 1991 the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), in cooperation with Monsanto and universities in the US, has developed GM sweet potato strains that are resistant to the feathery mottle virus. Royalty-free licensing agreements have been signed that allow KARI and research institutes in other African countries to use the technology in the future. The crops are currently being tested in field trials and it is expected that yields will increase by approximately 18-25%. Where farmers sell part of their harvest, it has been predicted that the increased income will be between 28-39%. However, some commentators caution against overly optimistic prognoses for the success of the GM sweet potato. They point out that there are three main viruses, and that resistance to the feathery mottle virus would not ensure protection against the other types.

Other crops
More than 30 other genetically modified crops including maize, wheat, barley, millet, potatoes, and cowpea are under development in African countries such as Egypt, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

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