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“With Bt cotton, and even with Bt maize, we have seen yield increases of 30 to 40 per cent in developing countries.”

Prof. Matin Qaim is head of the working group on food security and rural development at the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences at the University of Göttingen. He is a member of the board of trustees of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and a member of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board.

Can genetically modified crops help in the fight against global hunger?

Interview with Matin Qaim

GMO Safety: According to the FAO, global food production needs to increase by 70 per cent by 2050 to feed an estimated 9 billion people. How can this target be achieved?

Matin Qaim: The necessary growth in production cannot continue at the cost of natural resources – especially land, water and biodiversity. In other words, we must find ways and means of producing more using fewer resources. This requires the use of modern science and technology, particularly in the field of breeding research. Chemical technologies have largely been exhausted, but genetic improvements still offer huge potential. These must be exploited using conventional and biotechnological breeding methods, which require greater investment in agricultural research.

GMO Safety : Can you achieve higher yields with genetically modified crops than with conventionally bred plants? Can these sorts of plants make a significant contribution to increasing the production of staple foods in developing countries?

Matin Qaim: Yes, I don’t think there is any doubt about that. Genetic engineering has not yet succeeded in increasing the yield potential of plants, but the first step must surely be to exploit the yield potential of existing crops. And we are still a long way from achieving that in most parts of the world, since in some cases more than 50 per cent of yields are lost to pests, disease, drought and other stress factors. Genetic engineering has already achieved remarkable success in providing resistance to these stress factors. Insect-resistant Bt crops, for example, reduce insect damage to the extent that with Bt cotton, and even with Bt maize, we have seen yield increases of 30 to 40 per cent in developing countries. We would expect to see similar effects for other types of crop and other resistance traits.

GMO Safety: In your own research you are looking into the economic impact of the cultivation of genetically modified crops on small-scale farmers in developing countries. You have concentrated mainly on the cultivation of Bt cotton in India. What are your most significant findings?

Matin Qaim: It is essential that a technology like Bt cotton is actually used by small-scale farmers and that it enables this sector to achieve significantly higher yields than conventional cotton. In India over a seven-year period we have seen average yield increases of around 35 per cent and a reduction in pesticide use of around 40 per cent. The profit that remains with the farmers has increased on average by around 135 US dollars per hectare, which is a lot of money for these small-scale farming families. These figures, which I have compiled myself in collaboration with colleagues, are representative for India. We have just submitted an extensive new study, in which we go beyond these field studies and analyse the broader impact that this technology has on the local economy. We have noticed an enormous boost in income. The household income of farming families increases by almost 80 per cent when they grow Bt cotton as opposed to conventional cotton and, interestingly, this applies not only to the cotton farmers but also to landless workers or employees in other sectors such as transport and trade. The majority – around 60 per cent – of these rises in income occurs in households with a daily income of less than two US dollars; those that are defined as poor by the World Bank. This also contributes indirectly to the fight against hunger, because a higher income means better access to food.

GMO Safety: What do you say to the frequently voiced accusation that genetically modified crops were developed only for industrialised countries and that small-scale farmers in developing countries would get into debt paying for this expensive technology?

Matin Qaim: This of course has less to do with the technology itself than with who develops it and with what motivation. Until now – and this is fairly deplorable – almost without exception it has been large private companies that have been responsible for developing and placing on the market technologies which are now widely used by small-scale farmers in developing countries, despite the fact that they were certainly not developed primarily for this market. These technologies may be of benefit to them, but there’s a whole range of areas that are not covered by private companies. In this respect I would really like to see more public-sector research aimed at the needs of small-scale farmers in developing countries.

Patents obviously increase seed prices, which makes access to them difficult. But the fact is that, as yet, patents that apply in the USA or Europe do not, for the most part, apply in developing countries. Small-scale farmers in developing countries have debt problems, but genetically modified seed is not the cause of this. However, I would like to see more public funding for the development and placing on the market of GM crops, in addition to the activities of private companies.

GMO Safety: Are genetically modified crops already being developed through public research? Fears are frequently expressed that in the future the entire seed production industry will be controlled by large corporations that will not develop what developing countries actually need.

Matin Qaim: There is a large amount of public-sector research, but it faces a variety of problems. Firstly, it is of course dependent on taxpayers’ money and in the European context in particular, politicians have had difficulty promoting GM research in the public sector because public opinion is opposed to it. Another equally important problem is the fact that the public sector has brought almost nothing to market maturity. This is due to the regulations, which are now extremely complex and involved. The regulatory costs are far higher than the actual research costs, and these are costs which only large multinational concerns have so far been able to cover. This means that it is always more difficult for public-sector research, but smaller companies with less buying power will also always find it more difficult. Increased levels of regulation in this case contribute to a concentration, a monopolisation which needs to be addressed.

I am convinced that even large companies can develop technologies which can benefit developing countries, such as Bt cotton, for example, but that is not enough. A company like Monsanto is not interested in millet, sorghum or cassava, all important staple foods in developing countries; neither is it interested in traits such as increased levels of vitamin A or higher iron concentrations in these plants. There are some areas which we cannot expect private companies to develop and it is these very areas that must be supported and covered by public-sector research.

GMO Safety : Even if the regulatory costs were lower, high-tech fields like these are always more expensive in the developmental stages. There is repeated criticism that a great deal of money is spent here which could be spent elsewhere in development aid and that it would be better to pursue cheaper alternatives. In Africa, for example, a very successful biological method, the ‘push-pull’ method, has been developed to combat the maize stalk borer – which can also be controlled using Bt technology. Have any studies looked at the economic effectiveness of these alternative approaches?

Matin Qaim: Genetic engineering or other high-tech approaches should not be seen as a replacement for other means of providing development aid. This cost comparison that you refer to – high-tech approaches are expensive, other methods are cheap – is in my view much too short-sighted. We must take a much broader view of the costs. The development of a genetically modified variety requires a relatively high initial investment, but it must also be born in mind that this technology is easy for farmers to use and subsequent costs are very low, at least if they are able to propagate the seeds themselves.

Economic studies have looked at biological pest control methods, but these studies generally examine how farmers in one very small pilot region, supported by an intensive advisory programme, can successfully implement such methods. And they conclude that it is beneficial for the farmers. But the cost of the advisory services and the increased amount of work that the farming families are required to undertake are not taken into account. This is very unrealistic. However successful biological pest control methods may be in a few local areas based on small-scale research projects, I know of no example from developing countries of successful ‘upscaling’, in other words where the method has moved from pilot study to widespread use. This is not the case with genetic engineering.

It is not my intention to suggest that genetic engineering is better than biological pest control. They complement one another perfectly because genetic engineering can help reduce chemical pesticide use. I think a combination of the two is desirable. We are, since the entire discussion is ideological, still a long way from that, but I would be the last to suggest that biological pest control has no role to play. However, experience shows that new seed technologies spread very much quicker and further because, from the farmers’ point of view, they appear straightforward and because the support and training costs are so much lower. Therefore, when viewed as a whole, modern seed technologies are by no means more expensive than low-tech alternatives.

GMO Safety: Thank you for talking to us.