Will GM crops really help developing countries? Lim Li Ching looks at some telling examples
in Kenya, Indonesia and India.
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GM sweet potato project turns sour
"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
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
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'
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% .
"Bt cotton planting has given us more harm than good"
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
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'
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 .
"Bt cotton unfit for cultivation and should be banned"
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?