Why do GMOs for developing countries always disappoint?

New analysis shows why hyped-up forecasts of a GMO’s potential don’t match the reality in the field – and suggests that new GM crops for Africa will also fail. Report: Claire Robinson

Those who have followed GMWatch for some years will be all too familiar with the boom-and-bust cycle of GM crops targeted at smallholder farmers in developing countries. These crops are rolled out with hyped-up promises of high yield, pest resistance, and improved farmers incomes. Several years later, amid the farmers’ lived experience of disappointing performance, the GM crop is abandoned and the pro-GMO lobby moves on to a new candidate crop.

Why the gap between the hype and the actuality? The layperson’s answer might be that the GMO lobby tells lies – and those lies eventually fall apart under the onslaught of real-life conditions. But behind the lies are certain methodologies that underpin the data presented in the pro-GMO articles that pack the scientific literature. They give the false claims the veneer of the scientific approach and persuade scientists, policymakers and the public to get behind the GMO juggernaut.

In a recently published peer-reviewed analysis, development experts Matthew A. Schnurr of Dalhousie University in Canada and Brian Dowd-Uribe of the University of San Francisco explain these methodologies and the false assumptions underlying them. The authors present what they see as a more rigorous and reliable way of predicting the fate of GM crops in developing countries – farming systems research (FSR).

FSR is an approach to agricultural development research that treats actual farming systems as the analytical starting point for testing and developing appropriate technologies for smallholder farmers. It considers the local agroecological and political systems in which they operate.

This may seem the obvious way to analyse a GM crop’s potential, but it isn’t the way it’s been done or is being done by GMO promoters. Instead they use what Schnurr and Dowd-Uribe call an “ex ante” approach, based on forecasts rather than actual results – and those forecasts are often belied by the grim reality as it manifests in the field. An analytical approach based on actual results rather than forecasts, in contrast, is called “ex post” analysis. Clearly ex post analysis can’t be done on a crop that hasn’t yet been commercialized, but an FSR analysis can be done and, the authors advise, should be done prior to any commitment to a GMO approach.

GMWatch observes that all too often, policy on GM crops is determined by ex ante analysis, as we see in the European Commission and UK government’s intention to rush new gene-edited crops to market based on the unverifiable promises of the industry and its lobbyists in research institutes.

The authors use an FSR approach alongside a growing body of ex post assessments of GM crop adoptions to predict the fate of three new GM crops at various stages of experimentation: Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) in Kenya, disease-resistant cooking banana (matooke) in Uganda, and Bt cowpea in Burkina Faso. The authors begin by asking the question: given what is known about a particular GM crop variety, how might it perform in target farming systems? They explain that their approach offers “a more robust and accurate assessment of future patterns of technological change” than the ex ante predictions currently used to justify adoption of GM crops.

The case studies were built on long-term field work in the local farming systems in which these crops will be released, as well as field research on the crops targeted for genetic engineering. The authors conducted interviews with farmers, crop development directors and personnel, research scientists, agricultural extension agents, seed developers and distributors, regulators, and activists.

Perhaps not surprisingly for those who have followed the progress the agricultural biotech venture in Africa, Schnurr and Dowd-Uribe conclude on the new GM crops that “the lofty projected benefits of these crops are unlikely to be realized by many, if not most, smallholder farmers due to incongruences with the farming systems they are designed to benefit”.

A summary of their analysis of the three GM crops follows.

Water Efficient Maize for Africa

Despite ongoing delays in the release of WEMA’s GM maize, preliminary assessments by project partners suggest that the crop is achieving its goal of combined drought tolerance and insect resistance. Initial predictions suggest yield increases of 20–40%. Confined field trials supported this claim, measuring yield gains up to 29% – though these data were drawn from a tiny sample size of only seven GM plants.

However, Schnurr and Dowd-Uribe’s analysis finds problems with these claims. They point out that smallholder farmers in some parts of Africa live on small plots of land and have limited access to credit and agricultural inputs. WEMA has incorporated the Bt gene to confer insect resistance, but most farmers can’t or won’t comply with refuge requirements (planting areas of non-Bt crops) to prevent insect resistance.

Another issue relates to the “biotechnology bundle” that will accompany WEMA seeds – a hodgepodge of required inputs relating to credit, fertilizer, and labor that is required for these GM seeds to maximize the drought-tolerance and insect resistance traits. As an official from WEMA partner, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) explained, “We will promote a package. You will not have benefit of that product without having that package. The package includes fertilizer, proper weeding, proper planting, timely planting, how many seeds you put per hole, what is the plant population you expect [...] the seed performs as best as possible with all these in place, then you get your optimal production”.

As Schnurr and Dowd-Uribe point out, this strategy is “inaccessible to most smallholder maize farmers”. In addition, while WEMA seeds will be provided to farmers royalty-free, it’s still not clear what credit will be available to farmers to pay for these additional inputs, “meaning that the whole enterprise may collapse”.

Disease-resistant cooking banana (matooke) in Uganda

In 2016, the head of the disease-resistant cooking banana research programme announced that they had developed GM bananas showing 100% resistance to Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW).

But Schnurr and Dowd-Uribe write, “Questions persist about the ability of a BBW-resistant variety to meet farmer needs. One concern relates to the parent variety into which the GM trait will be inserted.” A variety called M9 has been selected, but farmers are skeptical, as it is “more delicate” and requires more labour and inputs than their preferred varieties. Also, it doesn’t have the right consistency to mash – the usual cooking preparation method – and has a white colour, which will be unpopular with consumers.

M9’s recommended growing practices include more fertilizer, wider spacing, regular de-suckering, de-leafing and removal of male buds. Farmers may often lack the funds and labor to meet these requirements.

Another issue relates to cost. While there will be no technology fee associated with the license to grow GM banana, the initial propagation will take place via tissue culture (TC), which will require farmers to purchase initial plantlets from nurseries. Smallholder farmers in Uganda typically buy banana-growing materials in the form of suckers from neighbours, which can cost as little as 500 shillings (around USD15 cents). TC plantlets from nurseries cost six to eight times as much. As a result, the penetration of tissue culture amongst smallholder farmers remains minimal.

Bt cowpea in Burkina Faso

Ex ante evaluations of Bt cowpea suggest high net returns for both producers and consumers. But according to Schnurr and Dowd-Uribe, “Questions remain… around whether Bt cowpea will achieve these gains and, if so, what kind of farmer is most likely to receive these benefits.” The Bt toxins in the crop target the legume pod borer (LPB) pest, but this pest is most prevalent in the southwest of Burkina Faso, where little cowpea is grown. LPB is not a year-round resident in the north and east, where cowpea production is more widespread, and attacks by this pest vary across growing seasons. Therefore, the authors conclude, “Bt cowpea is most adapted for farmers in areas where cowpea currently isn’t the major crop, and in years when LPB pest intensity is high. Projected yield gains will not be as high in areas and years where pest densities are lower.”

Moreover, other pests such as aphids and thrips are potentially more damaging to cowpea yields than the LPB, and most farmers use insecticides to control them. Since the life cycle of the LPB overlaps with that of these pests, and farmers will spray insecticides, it is unclear whether any reduction in chemical pesticide spraying will occur with Bt cowpea.

Though LPB is one of many pests that farmers must control, the authors note, “It is not their primary worry. Rather, farmers prioritized soil degradation, access to inputs, equipment, improved seeds and markets, climatic issues, and Striga damage” – casting doubt on whether Bt cowpea “would have been prioritized had farmers and farming systems been more central in the development of this GM staple crop”.

Why are ex ante evaluations of GM crops so unreliable?

According to Schnurr and Dowd-Uribe, ex ante evaluations of GM crops generally rely upon a combination of performance measures from experimental stations and early on-farm trials.

But data gathered from these contexts have serious shortcomings. Experimental stations tend to reflect ideal growing conditions where crops receive optimal amounts of inputs at the most advantageous moments in the growing cycle. The authors note, “These attentive and well-resourced environments differ dramatically from the highly variable socio-environmental conditions in which smallholder farmers operate, leading to field trial data that tend to overvalue actual benefits realized by farmers.” Nevertheless, they add, ex-ante evaluations of the newer generation of GM crops continue to rely on experimental field trial data to predict outcomes on real farms.

Early farm trials involving carefully selected farmers who grow soon-to-be- commercialized varieties on their own plots can also lead to an over-estimation of benefits due to different forms of bias. These include selection bias (early adopters of GM crops are an unrepresentative group of high-performing farmers), cultivation bias (the special care or preferred locations afforded to GM crops do not reflect average growing conditions), and time-term bias (the tendency to measure short-term outcomes and assume that these will persist over the long-term). Schnurr and Dowd-Uribe comment, “Taken together, these biases make it difficult to attribute any productivity gains achieved by early adopters to the GM crop itself.”

Adding to the problem of poor data quality are the often false assumptions embedded in the models used to forecast farmer outcomes. These take many forms: “The most persistent is that farmers are rational actors who make key agricultural decisions based on measurable differences in yield”; that farmers will follow recommended growing practices and plant refuges to slow pest resistance in GM Bt crops; and that farmers can afford and will properly apply inputs needed to maximize yields, such as chemical fertilizer.

The hype-fail cycle

In their paper, the authors remind us of two examples of hyped-then-failed first generation GM crops. The first is Bt insecticidal cotton, which was initially embraced by smallholder farmers the Makhatini Flats in South Africa. But within a few years, as GMWatch reported, pest problems and disappointing yields prompted most of the farmers to give up growing the crop. The authors of the new paper note that the crop’s initial success hinged on a fragile support system, including easy credit for GMO-growing farmers and a restrictive buying arrangement that penalized non-GMO growers. Once these enabling conditions disappeared, so too did smallholder farmer enthusiasm for Bt cotton.

The second example is Bt cotton in Burkina Faso, which was rolled out amid predicted average yield increases of 30%. But actual yield gains were less than half that figure, with the GM cotton producing inferior lint quality, affecting markets and profits. The country abandoned Bt cotton entirely in 2016 due to severe economic losses associated with Bt cotton’s inferior lint quality.

Longtime GMWatch readers may recall similar patterns with attempts to produce a GM virus-resistant sweet potato and cassava for Africa.

Future of GM looks similar to its unimpressive past

Schnurr and Dowd-Uribe conclude: “The future of improved [GM] crop varieties looks very similar to its past: an assemblage of new technological possibilities developed by well-funded donors with little input or consultation on the part of those farmers who are the technology’s intended beneficiaries.”

It’s a lesson not just for governments in the global South. Both the European Commission and the Westminster government would do well to heed it too in the face of the GMO lobby’s latest round of ex ante hype over experimental gene-edited crops.

The new study:
Anticipating farmer outcomes of three genetically modified staple crops in sub-Saharan Africa: Insights from farming systems research
Matthew A. Schnurr, Brian Dowd-Uribe
Journal of Rural Studies. Available online 8 August 2021.

Read this article on the GMWatch site and access linked sources: