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Why agricultural biotech hasn’t reached its potential

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | July 19, 2016

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Some of the key questions we raised as we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the ICABR consortium were “why haven’t GMO crops been accepted and adopted as Green Revolution crops or medical rDNA?” “What are the constraints to the adoption of GMO?” “What are the differences among nations?” Several speakers addressed these questions and here is my interpretation of their answers.

Rob Paarlberg gave a brilliant talk on the political economy of agricultural biotechnology. He introduced several theories that were used to answer these questions, and each theory provides some insight. This is not surprising since agricultural biotechnology has many features and countries are diverse in their policies and politics.

I myself believe that rent-seeking behavior can explain much of the continental divide between Europe and the U.S. Rent seeking means that different sectors of society use their influence, driven by self-interest, to affect politics to their benefit.

Biotechnology companies will lobby for GMOs, while chemical companies that may lose from introduction of substitutes to their products are likely to be less supportive.

There is evidence that consumers benefited from GMOs through lower prices, poor farmers benefited through higher incomes, and that GMOs reduced GHGs and haven’t shown to have adverse environmental effects. However, environmental groups that are concerned about science-based, corporate-controlled technologies oppose GMOs – and are effective in raising doubt about the technology itself and consumers take on this concern.

Another theory that explains part of reality is that different economic blocs may have rival regulatory policies. As GMOs were introduced in the United States, it has a more liberal regulatory framework than the EU, which practically bans production of GM crops. Indeed regulations in the western hemisphere have been close to those of the U.S. while Africa, which closely aligns with European countries, follows their lead. The introduction of GMOs to developing countries has also been impeded by the ability of transnational networks to establish global governance arrangements, like the Cartagena Protocol that imposes strict biosafety regulations on introduction of GMOs. This has been abused by the opposition to GMOs by overstating precaution over apparent benefit making regulatory compliance economically infeasible to implement.

Consumers, who are also voters, have much influence on the fate of GMOs. Much of the debate about GMOs should be about the science – but according to Dominique Brossard, science communication became political, as media outlets become more polarized and people self-select sources that tend to support their prior beliefs.

Furthermore, scientific knowledge is only one input to the final attitude towards a product or idea. For instance, some people object to GMOs because of the perception that large corporations control it and benefit from it – and Monsanto in particular, despite taking risks in developing a technology that has benefited humanity, has a terrible image, some of which is self-inflicted.

Furthermore, the science behind GMOs is complex and scientists are not very involved in the outreach. More effective involvement of scientists in explaining what biotechnology is all about may result in more informed decisions. . Pam Ronald said that biotechnology is part of a larger strategy to address climate change, and Raoul Adamchak suggested it could contribute to making organic farming more productive and widespread, but is currently blocked by regulations. The message I took away was that when we face new challenges, we need to integrate all the technologies and practices that do good.

The message I took away was that when we face new challenges, we need to integrate all the technologies and practices that do good.

Several presenters introduced results on consumers’ attitudes to GM foods. They suggest that for a large segment of the population, both the knowledge of GM foods and negative attitudes towards it are superficial. Willingness to pay studies suggest that more than 50 percent of consumers would buy GM foods if the price were discounted. I concluded that if GM products were on the shelves, they would sell. Therefore, the opposition to GM uses tactics to keep such products off the shelf.

The talk by Dan Ariely, a leading behavioral economist, who has some fantastic Ted Talks, who talked about dishonesty, had much insight about the situation of agricultural biotechnology. According the Ariely, people engage in dishonest behavior if it serves a bigger cause. That may explain why many people will deny the benefits of GMOs because they believe that it is part of undesirable monoculture practices and goes hand-in-hand with corporate agriculture.

He also suggested that people are more likely to engage in dishonest activities if they believe that the environment tolerates it and others engage in it. So some of the negative actions against GMO research are due to the objections to perceived bad corporate behavior, not the science behind it. Finally he suggested that past behavior will dictate future outcomes – so if people engaged in a past activity, even if it was wrong, will continue down the slippery slope of taking actions that reinforce this past activity. This explains to me the objections of organizations like Greenpeace to any use of GMOs, even when controlled by the public sector serving poor populations, or being urged in a letter from over 100 Nobel laureates to end their opposition to GMOs.

IMG_3036GM embodies the new knowledge of molecular biology in agriculture, but as knowledge increases, new technologies are introduced (most recently, gene editing). It is clear to me that we underutilize GM varieties today. Currently, GM fibers, medicine, animal feed and processed foods are consumed widely, but GM is rarely used in crops consumed directly by humans. The Americas produce GM corn, soybean, canola, and cotton, China and India produce mostly GM cotton, and Europe and Africa hardly produce any.

The greatest potential of GM lies in addressing problems of the poor and developing tools to adapt to climate change quickly and effectively. But this is unlikely in the current political and regulatory reality. Will we make the same mistake with the newest technologies in the pipeline? Of course, we must address the risks of this technology, like any technology, but we cannot throw away their promise.

So what about the future of biotechnology in agriculture? Several speakers at Ravello agreed that the current equilibrium may change if, for example, China starts using GM foods for direct human consumption, which might prompt Europe to reconsider its stance. While use of GM may continue to be restricted, the new technologies may be widely utilized and overcome some of the losses of not using the potential of transgenic biotechnology. Yet, GM technology is young, and its acceptance may increase as new applications address major concerns (e.g. crop diseases that threaten availability of major crops). Furthermore communication that emphasizes that the knowledge behind it belongs to humanity and is useful for small farmers in diverse forms of agriculture, may gradually lead more and more people to support it. But the best chance of GM to succeed is to allow it to reach the shelf more easily. A lot of other product categories were vilified, but once people had experience with them, became part of our daily life.

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