Will GM crops really help developing countries? Lim Li Ching looks at some telling examples in Kenya, Indonesia and India.
"Monsanto's showcase project in Africa fails", runs the headline in the magazine, New Scientist, pronouncing the project to develop genetically modified (GM) sweet potatoes a flop .
The GM sweet potatoes, modified to be resistant to the feathery mottle virus, had undergone three years of field trials. However, the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) had to report that the GM sweet potatoes were as vulnerable to the virus as ordinary varieties, and sometimes their yield was lower.
"There is no demonstrated advantage arising from genetic transformation using the initial gene construct," KARI researchers Drs. Francis Nang'ayo and Ben Odhiambo were quoted as saying . The national newspaper, Daily Nation, wrote: "The transgenic material did not quite withstand virus challenge in the field". Furthermore, "all lines tested were susceptible to viral attacks." And, control (non-GM) crops yielded more tuber compared to the GM sweet potato.
The poor performance of the GM sweet potato may come as a surprise, as it had been much touted as an example of how GM crops could help African agriculture. The GM sweet potato project was launched in Kenya in 2001 by the US special envoy, Andrew Young, who had flown into the country for the occasion. "With biotechnology, we are going to make a green revolution in Africa," he had said .
Kenyan biotechnologist Florence Wambugu had been involved in the early stages of the GM sweet potato project, and has been travelling the world promoting it. Media reports have been giving the impression that the GM sweet potato was already in commercial use and bringing real benefits. A typical report said: "While the West debates the ethics of genetically modified food, Florence Wambugu is using it to feed her country" . It went on to claim that the GM sweet potato yields "are double that of the regular plant" and that the potatoes were bigger and richer in colour, with more nutritional value.
A recent report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics cited the project as evidence of the potential benefits of GM crops to developing countries, saying of the GM sweet potato, "it is expected that yields will increase by approximately 18-25%" and that, where sold, "the increased income will be between 28-39%" . And, "the use of GM virus-resistant sweet potatoes could prevent dramatic and frequent reductions in yield of one of the major food crops of many poor people in Africa". This report is what the UK government turns to when questioned about impacts of GM crops on developing countries.
But the yield claims are difficult to verify, as there have been little field data. In fact, early descriptions of the GM sweet potato project had overstated the potential gains from GM by under-reporting the average yield in conventional production. Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex has said , "Accounts of the transgenic sweet potato have used low figures on average yields in Kenya to paint a picture of stagnation. An early article stated 6 tons per hectare - without mentioning the data source - which was then reproduced in subsequent analyses. However, FAO statistics indicate 9.7 tons, and official statistics report 10.4."
Thus, if as Wambugu has been claiming, the GM sweet potato produces 10 tonnes per hectare, then rather than increasing yields, it is performing no better than the conventional crop , as the recent reports on the field trials confirm.
The technology was imported from Monsanto, where Wambugu had carried out the initial genetic engineering research. Over a period of nine years, Monsanto isolated a viral coat protein responsible for virus resistance, and donated it to KARI, royalty free, to use in its sweet potato improvement programme.
However, the researchers had erred in concentrating on resistance to an American strain of the virus . In any case, the GM sweet potato introduced in Kenya did not address the crop's major problem " weevils " and the virus in question was only one small factor among many that constrain production . Furthermore, there are virus-resistant local varieties that farmers already use. In short, the GM sweet potato does little to address Kenyan farmers' needs.
Despite the reported failures of the GM sweet potato, Monsanto said it plans to develop further varieties. KARI has apparently reverted to working with gene constructs based on a Kenyan strain of the virus . And Wambugu now says that, far from being a failure, the trials were merely meant to develop a specific genetic transformation system, and that more research is being conducted on a second generation product .
Over the last ten years, Monsanto, the World Bank and the US government have poured an estimated $6 million into the project, which has yet to fulfil its promises. In contrast, conventional breeding in Uganda has produced a variety of virus-resistant sweet potato in less time, at a small fraction of the cost, and reported yield gains of 100% .
In December 2003, the Indonesian Minister of Agriculture announced that Monsanto had pulled out of South Sulawesi . In fact, Bt cottonseeds were no longer supplied to farmers as of February that year. Monsanto said that its cotton business there was no longer economically viable. After two years of planting, Indonesia, the first Southeast Asian country to commercially approve Bt cotton, was pulling the plug on that GM crop, and switching to a locally-developed non-GM cotton variety.
Monsanto's entry into the region in 2001, through its Indonesian subsidiary PT Monagro Kimia, rode on a concerted campaign of promotion of Bt cotton among farmers. The company had claimed that Bt cotton was environmentally friendly, used less pesticide, and would ensure an abundant harvest and increase farmers' welfare.
The reality was very different. In the first year of planting, during which the government aimed to assess the crop's performance before deciding on whether to allow further commercialisation, there were reported failures of Bt cotton - the crop succumbed to drought  and hundreds of hectares were attacked by pests . The drought had led to a pest population explosion on Bt cotton, but not on other cotton varieties. As a result, instead of reducing pesticide use, farmers had to use a different mix and larger amounts of pesticides to control the pests . Furthermore, the Bt cotton - engineered to be resistant to a pest that is not a major problem in Sulawesi - was susceptible to other more serious pests.
Bt cotton did not produce the promised yields [8, 10], which Monsanto had boasted to be as high as 3 tons per hectare. Some farmers were even promised 4-7 tons per hectare. The average yield was only 1.1 ton per hectare, and 74% of the total area planted to Bt cotton produced less than one ton per hectare. Some farmers only harvested about 500 kg per hectare, others even less, about 70-120 kg per hectare. About 522 hectares experienced total harvest failure. Despite the problems, the government extended its approval for Bt cotton commercialisation by another year, with equally dismal results.
The poor yields trapped farmers in a debt cycle ; some 70% of the 4 438 farmers growing Bt cotton were unable to repay their credit after the first year of planting . Branita Sandhini, a subsidiary company of Monsanto's Indonesian subsidiary, had provided farmers with the transgenic seeds and fertilisers on credit schemes, and bought the harvests so that farmers could repay their debts to the company . But as the yields were poor, many farmers were caught out. Research conducted by various Indonesian institutions clearly showed that, in the year 2002, farmers planting Bt cotton had lower income compared to farmers planting non-GM cotton .
To make matters worse, the company unilaterally raised the price of the seeds. According to Konphalindo, the National Consortium for Forest and Nature in Indonesia, the initial agreement between the farmers and the company set the price of the seed at Rp 40 000/kg; but this increased to Rp 80 000/kg in the second planting season . Furthermore, the company initially bought the cotton from the farmers for Rp 2 600/kg, but this later decreased to Rp 2 200/kg.
Because the company could refuse to buy the farmers' cotton harvest, many had no choice but to agree to the higher seed prices, by signing a letter of agreement with the company. Santi, one of the farmers said, "The company didn't give the farmer any choice, they never intended to improve our well being, they just put us in a debt circle, took away our independence and made us their slave forever. They try to monopolize everything, the seeds, the fertilizer, the marketing channel and even our life" .
She and her fellow farmers burnt their cotton fields in protest and refused to sign the letter, although others had no choice but to agree to the unfair deal, and continue planting Bt cotton to try and escape the vicious debt cycle. Eventually, many farmers refused to pay the outstanding credit, resulting in the ousting of Monsanto from the region.
It is farmers - those whom GM crops supposedly benefit - who have had to bear the consequences of the poor harvest and unfulfilled promises of Bt cotton. In contrast, the company abandoned the region, without being held liable for the problems it caused .
The Indonesian experience is mirrored by that of many farmers in India, where three varieties of Bt cotton were commercially planted for the first time in 2002 in the central and southern parts of the country. Mahyco-Monsanto, a joint venture between an Indian seed company and Monsanto, promoted Bt cotton as environmentally safe and economically beneficial, claiming it would reduce pesticide use and cultivation costs, while resulting in increased yields.
But reports from state governments, academic researchers, NGOs and farmers' organisations indicate that, in many areas, Bt cotton performed poorly, and at times failed completely in the 2002/2003 growing season [13-16]. So much so that a panel set up by the Gujarat government under the Joint Director of Agriculture (Oilseeds) said that Bt cotton "is unfit for cultivation and should be banned in the State" .
There were reports of failure to germinate, damage in drought conditions in Madhya Pradesh , susceptibility to root-rot in Maharashtra (where over 30,000 hectares of Bt cotton were damaged)  and leaf curl virus , and increase in non-target pests. Bt cotton was reported to be attacked by pests it is supposed to resist; at the Anandwan College of Agriculture, bollworms ate more than 80% of yield .
In Andhra Pradesh, farmers experienced economic losses overall, due to the higher price of Bt cottonseed, little savings in pesticide use and lower total yields . Non-Bt plants were productive for two months longer than Bt cotton, allowing non-Bt farmers to reap an average harvest of 6.9 quintals per acre, compared to the 4.5 quintals per acre average harvest of farmers who planted Bt cotton, who suffered a net 35% decrease in the yield per acre. Pesticide use showed marginal differences, as while there was some reduction in the incidence of bollworm, there was an increase in sucking pests on Bt cotton. Bt farmers also had to pay considerably more for Bt seeds and for labour costs. Moreover, Bt cotton fetched a lower price in the market, due to its smaller boll size and staple length.
Overall, a non-Bt farmer obtained Rs 6 663 more per acre than the Bt farmer. The study further revealed that 71 % of Bt farmers experienced losses compared with only 18% of non-Bt farmers. And 50.7% of the Bt farmers surveyed categorically said that they would not plant Bt cotton again.
The Andhra Pradesh government confirmed the poor performance of Bt cotton in the state, saying that farmers weren't getting the yields promised and that the poor quality of the crop commanded a lower market price . It pledged to compensate farmers for their loss. A follow-up study found similar experiences for the 2003/2004 growing season . In spite of better weather conditions, Bt cotton's performance did not live up to its promises.
Despite these negative experiences, the Indian regulatory authority has approved another variety of Bt cotton for cultivation in central and southern India . The same company supplying this variety, Rassi Seeds, a sub-licencee of Monsanto, was also given permission to conduct large-scale field trials for Bt cotton varieties developed for cultivation in northern India. A further 12 varieties of Bt cotton hybrids have just been approved for large-scale field trials and seed production .
How many more broken promises will have to be borne by farmers?
Article first published 12/05/04
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