New research casts doubt on GM crops as solution for global food crisis

Published on 20 April 2023

Researchers are calling for countries to re-think their investment in genetically modified (GM) crop technology, as a new study suggests that the benefits of GM crops have been widely over-stated, while the benefits of alternative crop technologies are being ignored.

The study on soya production in Argentina– the second largest global producer of GM crops – finds that the benefits of GM might not be as significant as currently claimed. The findings published in the Research Policy journal suggest that existing evaluations are incorrectly attributing Argentina’s soya productivity boom during the 1990s and 2000s – when both GM and other important breeding innovations occurred – solely to GM technologies. They are failing to take into account the evidence of the benefits of the alternative crop breeding methods employed along the same time period.

Researchers warn that the current focus on GM crop technology risks public investment and government policies being ‘locked in’ to GM and misdirected away from alternative non-GM crop breeding technologies. It has important implications for future agriculture policy globally and particular for many countries still yet to decide their GM investment policies.

Many have argued that the answer to producing enough food for the growing global population, without causing further environmental damage, is the use of genetically modified (GM) crops. However, beyond issues of performance, other forms of non-GM crop breeding have several other distinct advantages over GM. They can support more diverse forms of agriculture. They allow more collaborative approaches to breeding and barriers to entry for smaller firms and public institutions are far lower.

Anabel Marin, Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, who led the study, said:

“A narrative has been created that GM technology has driven the soya boom, and therefore institutional support and R&D funding in Argentina has been directed towards GM technologies. This has likely locked in future in research and development approaches towards GM – even though these may be suboptimal – leaving alternative advanced breeding methods overlooked and disadvantaged.

“The question of the true benefits – or not – of GM crops is a critical issue as several countries look to improve food security for growing populations. Our evidence suggests that countries yet to decide on their policy towards GM should look more closely at the evidence of alternative crop breeding methods and avoid locking in GM-backed policies on the basis of incomplete evidence.”

Previous analyses have ignored the performance gains from plant breeding or misattributed them to genetic engineering. The study, using a disaggregated assessment, showed that seed innovations based on non-GM breeding techniques provide just as plausible an explanation for the expansion and performance gains of soy production. It is an example of how a pro GM narrative has been adopted, and often unquestioned, leading to a lock-in of policies and investment into what may be a sub-optimal technology.


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