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The Promise of GM Crops in Developing Nations

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The potential risks of GM crops may be debated for years to come, but many researchers are convinced that biotechnology in agriculture holds the potential to benefit the world’s neediest populations. One such researcher is David Zilberman, professor of agricultural and resource economics, who in 2003 found that cotton crops in India that were genetically engineered to resist insects produced higher yields and required significantly less pesticide compared with nonbioengineered crops.

The study showed particular promise for smallscale, low-income farmers in developing nations, according to Zilberman and lead author Matin Qaim (who conducted the research as a postdoctoral fellow at CNR). “Many critics have questioned whether genetically modified crops would be economically and environmentally beneficial to farmers in developing countries,” Zilberman said. “Our research indicates that transgenic crops should be a viable option.”

The researchers studied 157 farm sites in India, each with three adjacent plots. One plot was planted with cotton bioengineered with a gene from the insecticidal bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is resistant to bollworm pests that plague crops in India. The second plot was planted with the same hybrid of cotton but without the Bt gene, and the third with a cotton hybrid traditionally grown in the local area.

The researchers found that average yields for Bt cotton were a remarkable 80 percent greater than their non-Bt counterparts, and 87 percent greater than the local cotton hybrids. “With populations in developing countries growing exponentially, and available farmland stagnating, there is an urgent need to find ways to increase crop yields,” said Qaim.

While transgenic crops had previously been shown to reduce the use of certain pesticides, they had not substantially increased yields in countries such as the United States and China.

Why the difference in India? The answer seems to be that the region suffers from a significantly higher volume of crop-destroying pests, and that there has not been a widespread adoption of chemical pesticides in India to control crop damage. Transgenic crops would likely have greater potential to increase yields in such regions, said the authors.

Critics maintain that in addition to potential health and environmental risks, GM crops threaten to make developing-world farmers dependent on the biotech companies that hold intellectual property rights to the GM seeds. To that end, Zilberman is now deeply involved in the creation of the Public- Sector Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA), a consortium of universities and foundations that would facilitate access to intellectual property rights of genetically engineered crops for humanitarian purposes.

“The bottom line,” maintains Zilberman, “is that biotechnology has the potential to positively impact the lives of small, poor farmers in developing nations. It would be a shame if anti-GMO fears kept important technology away from those who stand to benefit the most from it.”

-Sarah Yang

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