What are the political drivers for GMOs in developing countries?

Each genetically modified rice plant in the greenhouses at CropDesign has a barcode and transponder, allowing it to be accurately identified at any time. Photo by: BASF / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — In developing nations across the globe, governments are grappling with questions of what role, if any, genetically modified organisms should play in helping address a range of agriculture, nutrition, and climate challenges.


Concerns have been raised over the environmental and health impacts of GMOs, as well as their impact on traditional farming methods and issues around seed patents, and farmers having to be dependent on corporations.

Governments of developing countries are responding to those concerns in a variety of ways with some banning GMOs outright, some embracing them, and others attempting to find balance between the concerns and needs of all sides.

Developing countries are slowly increasing approved legislation and opening the door to research and commercialization of GMO crops. As these countries seek to expand their export markets, improve domestic living conditions, and address food insecurity in the wake of conflict and climate change, some are seeing a solution in genetically engineered crops.

This is likely to expand an already intense debate on biotechnology, as GMOs come to the fore of food and agriculture policy in the developing world.

Large corporations such as BayerBASFDow AgroSciencesDuPontMonsanto, and Syngenta sell agricultural products to farmers, including GMO varieties of seed for crops including cotton, maize, and rice.

And where there is new or emerging legislation to approve the use of GMOs, there is one or more of these corporations seeking approval for their seed. The key argument put forward by corporations is that improved yield and reduced production costs can help both smallholder farmers and export markets. In developing countries looking to grow their economies, such arguments are increasingly drawing backers.

GMOs have also gained support as a means of addressing growing food insecurity.

African nations in particular have become central to the debate as many parts of the continent are susceptible to drought or civil conflict that can lead to famine or near-famine conditions. But until recently only four African nations — Burkina Faso, Egypt, Sudan, and South Africa — permitted GMOs to be used in commercial agricultural production. South Africa is the only one to allow GMO food, while the remaining three permit GMO cotton.

The GMO debate is also prominent in regions facing environmental challenges. This includes the Asia Pacific, where arable land is rapidly changing because of increasing natural disasters and rising sea levels. Countries like Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines span the range of attitudes toward genetically engineered crops. And regions such as Latin America, which accounts for approximately 45 percent of biotech crops globally in 2016 according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, are already preparing for the effects climate change will have on their ability to grow food in the future.

Across the globe, developing nations cover the spectrum, from open embrace of GMO to outright hostility.

The considerations made by each government are highly tailored to local needs, economies, and public perception. What is clear from surveying the range of attitudes is that there is no one-size-fits all approach when it comes to the role of GMOs in developing countries.

In Asia, Philippines leads the charge

Within the Asia-Pacific region, the Philippines is considered a pioneer for the adoption of GMO technology in developing countries. The first GMO crops to be planted in Asia were planted in the Philippines in 2002 and by 2016 the country was ranked 13th globally by ISAAA for total area of biotech crops planted — 812,00 ha.

Genetically modified maize is the dominant crop in the country, with 65 percent of maize farmers choosing the GMO variety, and public-private sector collaborations are expected to lead to the commercialization of golden rice, and GMO varieties of cotton, eggplant, and papaya.

The Philippines is often used as an example of how adoption of GMOs can improve the income of farmers within a developing country.

“The benefits of biotech corn to Filipino farmers’ livelihood, income, and health, and to the

environment have been well studied and documented,” ISAAA reported in 2015. “Overall, the four studies that examined net farm income, as well as other indicators, consistently confirmed the positive impact of biotech corn on small and resource-poor farmers and corn producers generally in the Philippines.”

Research from the University of the Philippines showed farmers made more money due to a higher yield, and spent less on insecticides.

The adoption and progress of GMOs has been driven by economic value rather than responding to a localized agricultural problem, such as pest or disease, but it has not been without controversy.

In December 2015, a Supreme Court decision stopped field trials of genetically modified eggplant and voided existing biotechnology regulations. The decision was based on constitutional rights to health and a balanced ecology and a lack of scientific consensus on the health and environmental impacts of genetically modified eggplant.

While the decision was overturned just six months later, it forced the government to implement new GMO regulations that provided more consideration to socioeconomic issues and environmental impacts — and brought the community into the discussions on GMOs.

The new rules tightened environmental scrutiny before biosafety permits are issued and all applications for field testing and cultivation are reviewed by Biosafety Committees. Further regulatory refinements are expected, with the aim of maintaining growth of crops and trade while incorporating concerns and considerations of the voting public.

Brazil: A GMO leader in Latin America

In Latin America, Brazil is leading the development and expansion of GMOs. In 2016, ISAAA ranked Brazil second behind the United States in the area for biotech crop growth — a total of 49.1 million hectares. And Brazil experienced the fastest rate of expansion — 4.9 percent — from the previous year.

The introduction, and rapid expansion, in growth of GMOs followed soon after the 2003 election of a new government under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva who introduced an ambitious Zero Hunger program. It comprised of more than 20 initiatives in four areas of intervention: Food access, strengthening of smallholder farmers, income generation, and social control with the aim of eradicating hunger in the country. Its objective was to eradicate hunger and poverty in Brazil at a time when half of the nation’s households did not have secure access to food or proper nutrition.

Improving the living conditions of people in Brazil, Lula said, was an important part of the zero hunger strategy and creating sustainable development. The government soon introduced a range of programs enabling agricultural development, including regulation and approval of GMOs.

In April 2003, the president signed an executive order requiring packed food and feed containing more than 1 percent of GMOs to be labelled, informing consumers about its biotech content. This was followed the same year with Brazil’s ratification of the United Nations Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and by 2005 they had introduced legislation establishing the regulatory framework to produce and market GMO crops within the country. In the intervening years, the government has shown a keenness to partner with large corporations.

Today, Bayer, BASF, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta all have seeds approved for growth in the country. In November 2017, it was reported by the Global Agricultural Information Network that there were 68 GMO seeds approved for commercial cultivation in Brazil including corn, cotton, soybean, and eucalyptus.

“The adoption rate of biotechnology in the 2017/18 crop season is expected to reach an average of 94 percent for total corn, soybean, and cotton planted area,” GAIN said. “China is the main importer of Brazilian biotech soybeans and cotton, followed by the European Union. Corn exports are mainly bound for Iran as well as Vietnam and other Asian countries. Brazil is also considered the largest exporter of conventional soybeans.”

According to a recent study on the economic impact of GM crops, GMOs have delivered financial benefit to farmers in Brazil. GMO varieties of soybean have reduced production costs with an average farm income benefit of $34 per hectare. GMO maize has reduced production costs and improved yield with an average farm income benefit of $58 per hectare. And cotton has reduced production costs and improved yield with an average farm income benefit of $91 per hectare.

But this has not stopped alternative methods of sustainable agriculture from developing in the country. Estimates of agricultural area for organic farming in Brazil suggest 750,000 hectares are certified organic, down from a peak of 932,120 hectares in 2010. Fairtrade Brasil operates to promote organic farming, including coffee initiatives, and a current government campaign supported by the Ministry of Agriculture is promoting greater awareness of organic produce within the country.

Campaigns against GMO occur in Brazil. Health concerns and environmental impacts — especially environmental impacts on the Amazon — are the key local arguments against GMOs. But public opposition has not prevented the government’s continued expansion of GMO use, including recent approval of GM seeds for sugarcane.

Between resistance and acceptance: Thailand

The government of Thailand is an example of a government open to the idea of GMOs but concerned with the implications of public backlash.

The National Center for Genetic Engineering and Technology was established in 1983 to lead in research for a range of technology, including genetic engineering in plant and animals. And since 2007, GMO seed has been permitted to be grown for testing and scientific research in government-owned fields and under the control of the government authorities.

Yet there is no commercialization of GMO seed in the country.

In 2015, a proposed Biosafety Act legislation would have allowed for wider GMO use. The act was designed to provide a legal framework regulating the use of agricultural biotechnology including research, field trials, and commercialization. Revised over a period of 11 years, it was approved by the cabinet but later rejected by the prime minister who said he did not believe the country needed GMOs.

The pressure from nationwide protests concerned with the influence of multinationals and claims of a lack of environmental and food security protection was an important factor in this decision, but it has not ended the proposed legislation entirely. According to a 2017 country report by GAIN, in early 2016 a committee was formed to revive the Biosafety Act legislation with an unknown timeline for its reintroduction to parliament for debate.

In Thailand, some believe that Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont Pioneer have played an influential role in lobbying the government to legislate for wider use of GMOs.

Prapat Panyachatsaksa, chairman of the National Farmers Council, told media in 2015 that GMO seed could lead to the multinational corporations having a hold over farmers.

“We would have to become their slaves by purchasing their seeds,” he said. “This will result in less self-dependence, eventually resulting in an agricultural collapse.”

The crops the legislation hoped to introduce were for maize, cassava, palm, and sugar cane. But these do not necessarily resolve domestic food security issues. Cassava, for example, has been described by Thailand’s Department of Agriculture as a “cash crop” rather than a staple food. And this means there continues to be strong resistance locally amid perceptions of international influence on domestic agriculture policy decisions.

But GMO is an avenue in which the government of Thailand is continuing to press forward — with food security a key element in their argument. As part of the Thailand 4.0 agenda, a plan for economic and social advancement for the country, investment in biotechnology is an important element for future directions linked to agriculture and food for the future.

Resisting GMOs: Cambodia

While there are countries actively leading in developing new legislation, regulations, and private sector partnerships to facilitate the development and use of GMOs within their borders, some governments are resisting GM incursion into their national agriculture programs.

The government of Cambodia, in particular, has been pushing back on GMOs for more than a decade. In 2005, former Commerce Sec­retary of State Sok Siphana told media the country was encouraging organics in opposition to GMOs “to compete with neighboring countries that now already are involved in genetically modified organisms.”

“If we export organic products to the EU, we will re­ceive higher prices than by ex­porting chemical-produced foods to other countries,” Siphana said.

DuPont entered the Cambodian market in 2008 and began working with the Cambodian Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to register hybrid seed. By 2017, they were still only selling non-GM hybrid varieties into the local market.

“We cannot import GM seeds as we must comply with the government’s regulations,” Tuot Saravuth, director of DuPont Cambodia, told media. “We only have hybrid seeds, which give high productivity for feed mills.”

In 2017, there was a continued push for Cambodia to be an organic supplying nation, with the government investing $20 million to support organic crops — noting that the “production of commonly edible plants in Cambodia still cannot meet the country’s increasing demands” in their announcement of the funding.

But this push for organics is occurring amid concern that genetically engineered varieties of corn and cotton are already being grown within its borders.

“GE corn and cotton are being grown in areas bordering Thailand and Vietnam,” GAIN reported in 2016. “Government officials acknowledge that local farmers are easily lured by the difference in yield between local corn and high yield varieties in Thailand and Vietnam. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most Cambodian farmers know little about GE crops. However, the benefits of high yield are driving Cambodian farmers who live along the Vietnam and Thailand borders in buying GE corn seeds from both countries.”

Cambodia has introduced a regulatory framework relating to the control and management of GMOs as part of their responsibility as signatories of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety — including a National Biosafety Framework, Law on Biosafety, and Sub-Decree on Mechanism and Procedures for Implementing the Law on Biosafety to provide safety for the environment and human health. And GAIN says this shows the Royal Government of Cambodia’s demonstrated willingness to expand applications of biotechnology. Their aim would be to improve productivity, seed quality, and resistance to environmental threats and pests.

“If we allow GMOs to exist in our market it would have an impact on our exports as some countries do not trust them.”

— Hean Vanhan, under-secretary of state at Cambodia’s ministry of agriculture

But no GMO plant has been approved for production. The reason as explained by Hean Vanhan, under-secretary of state at the ministry of agriculture, is due to their controversy in the international market.

“If we allow GMOs to exist in our market it would have an impact on our exports as some countries do not trust them,” he explained to media. But he also said GMOs had not been banned outright as there was “no definitive proof that they are harmful.”

According to the Global Food security Index for 2017, developed by The Economist Intelligence UnitCambodia ranks 90th out of 113 countries analyzed for availability of food. Diet diversification is a one of the major challenges for the country’s food security moving forward, as is their ability to respond to shocks in the food market caused by disasters or increases in prices. Only 45 percent of national demand for vegetables could be met by local producers in 2016, according to reports; more than half the market is imported.

While the door is not closed to GMOs within Cambodia, the response to concerns of food security is — at the current time — focused on an organic solution.

Emerging GMO countries: Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda

Until recently, many African countries have resisted research and cultivation of GMOs. But the pace and rate of take up is increasing.

Since Ghana passed the Biosafety Act of 2011, the country has advanced its research into GMOs with 2018 expected to see the country’s first GMO seeds being released for commercial use — Bt cowpea. This variety resists the Maruca pests, which have wreaked havoc on cowpea crops. Groups such as Food Sovereignty Ghana have petitioned the government to pull the plug on GMO use, citing insufficient scientific evidence on its safety. Anti-GMO campaigners have also raised concern about the role of multinationals and other foreign influences in local food systems.

“Biotechnology is so important, and we can’t develop without it.”

— Professor Kwabena Frimpong Boateng, Ghana’s minister of environment, science, technology, and innovation

But in September last year, the minister of environment, science, technology, and innovation, Professor Kwabena Frimpong Boateng, publicly stated in an address to the National Biosafety Authority that biotechnology was important to the country’s development — and he urged experts in the field to help educate the public and clear up “the wrong perception” many among the public had.

“Biotechnology is so important, and we can’t develop without it,” he said.

For the government of Ghana, a push for greater investment in GMO focused on food security is at the forefront of their debate and will be led by the Ghanaian NBA — despite ongoing legal action against GMO use within the country.

Similarly to Ghana, food security is a key focus for the government of Nigeria in the adoption of GMOs — along with creating a sustainable environment and sustainable textile industry according to their lead implementing agency, the National Biotechnology Development Agency.

Agricultural expansion into the GMO territory followed new legislation and the establishment of NABDA in 2015. A GMO variety of cowpea that could allow Nigeria to tap into a billion-dollar market in India is one of their focus seeds, along with cotton, maize, soybeans, and sorghum.

In Nigeria, development donors and large corporations have joined forces to invest in GMO advancements for the country.

The GMO variety of cowpea was developed as a collaboration between the Network for Genetic Improvement of Cowpea for Africa, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the African Agricultural Technology Fund, and the Rockefeller Foundation. The GMO sorghum project is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, United States Agency for International Development, and DuPont Pioneer.

Monsanto is the key investor in GMO varieties of cotton and maize.

Kenya, too, is seeing corporate and public interests in GMO research intersect with a rapid increase, and commercialization of production is expected — and this despite banning all GMO foods and imports for health concerns in 2012.

“The Minister of Public Health and Sanitation has noted, with great concern, the ongoing debate on the safety of GMO food,” the Minister for Public Health Beth Mugo said in 2012 when announcing the ban. “Consequently, the government has decided that until an informed political position is made, all GMO food imports are completely banned.”

But by late 2017, GAIN reported that there were 13 GMO seeds approved by the Kenyan National Biosafety Authority and anticipated to be released commercially between 2018 and 2021 — including commercially viable baby’s breath flowers, cotton, and maize.

In September last year, the NBA additionally approved GMO bananas for field testing, explaining that a ban on imports did not prevent local cultivation and commercialization of GMOs.

“What Kenyans need to understand is that the ban does not in any way affect the release of GMOs into the market,” Dr. Willy Tonui, chief executive of the NBA, explained in an interview. “Remember the ban is only on imported food, and it was only to ensure that no genetically modified food comes into the country. At the time of the ban in 2012, it was a precautionary measure that Kenya took because back then, the National Biosafety Authority was not ready.”

“We didn’t have sufficient staff, we didn’t have all the proper documentation. But right now, we are fully capable to handle all GMO matters.”

The announcement came a mere six months after the Kenyan Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Willy Bett shut down open trials for GMOs until it could be proved GMO crops were not contaminating local varieties.

“Kenya is still one of the countries that still believe we should be a GMO free state,” he told media.

There are other countries, including Malawi, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, that are close to allowing commercialization of GMO plants and where the move has strong political backing.

In September last year, the Uganda’s President H.E. Yoweri Museveni spoke at an agricultural science conference about his openness to technology supporting food security — including GMOs.

“Africa has an opportunity that can help transform its agriculture to be a force of food security and economic growth,” he said. “There are several advances in science, technology, and innovation worldwide that offer Africa new tools needed to promote sustainable agriculture. Our efforts must begin by strengthening investments in breakthrough technologies, such as climate-resilient and disease-resistant crops and livestock using both conventional and genetically engineered approaches.”

Less than a month later, the Ugandan parliament passed the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2017, allowing for commercialization of GMOs — but in January, the bill was sent back by the president with concerns over the impacts to the environment and indigenous communities.

The country is considering a GM variety of banana, that would be resistant to bacterial wilt and contain Vitamin A, but critics remain concerned about safety and farmers being forced to buy new seed season after season. As Uganda considers adopting the commercialization legislation, it will have to weigh such criticism against  increasing national hunger and food insecurity.

The pressure of international markets

Climate change, domestic food security, and local economies all play a key role in governments’ weighing of GMO. But in a globalized economy, the role of developed countries — and their own choices regarding GMO — play no small part in developing nations’ decisions.

The potential impact of GMOs to grow or limit economic value in trade markets is an important consideration for some developing countries.

For African nations in particular, the European Union has an outsized impact on local economies. For Central African nations, the EU was the number one trade destination in 2016, accounting for more than a quarter of all exports. And for countries such as Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, African nations are high on the list of destination countries for official development assistance according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Since the EU has strict regulations for approvals and imports of GMOs, including labelling standards, the economic and political impacts of investing in GMO commercialization with an eye toward export could prove costly.

But in countries where the key economic partners are the U.S. and China — which have fewer regulatory restrictions on the import of GMOs — introducing such crops could potentially increase economic opportunities.

Due in part to Brexit and the current U.S. administration, inward looking policies and trade agreements will have different results for developing countries. Shifts in trade partners and reduced influence of others will see some developing nations become more concerned about the economics of GMOs while others remain less so.

Still, the views of external government need to work in conjunction with treaties and declarations countries have signed onto. One hundred and seventy-one nations signed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, requiring countries to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology since 2003. Signatory governments including Cambodia, Kenya, and Nigeria have had to implement policies and legislation creating a safe framework for the possible research and introduction of GMOs into their country. The year 2003 also saw 40 African countries, convened by the African Union, sign the Maputo Declaration. This committed them to investing at least 10 percent of their national budgets into agriculture development — including science and research.

And increasingly, science and research supporting the development of GMOs is becoming a realistic option for developing nations to deliver on these commitments.

The final word

In part five of our GMO Debate series, we look at the large corporations investing in GMO. You can find the rest of the series here.

The GMO Debate

What happens when we remove multinationals and corporate profit from the GMO debate?

In this five-part series, Devex looks at how perspectives of doing good through science versus corporate interests change the outcome of the polarized GMO issue.

► Part one: Are GMOs the key to global food security?

► Part two: Understanding the continued opposition to GMOs

► Part three: Who are the donors taking on GMOs?

About the author

  • %25257b6eb61a8f df39 4ae1 bb29 9056d33aa739%25257d

    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.

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