Delivering GM crops to poor farmers

A new IFPRI policy brief makes recommendations to biosafety regulators
March 14, 2010

Despite their potential to help reduce food insecurity and poverty in the developing world, a new generation of genetically modified (GM) crops—including varieties of cassava, sorghum, millet, and other subsistence crops designed to tolerate drought and resist bacteria and viruses—have been slow to reach developing countries’ small-scale farmers, who are precisely those who could potentially benefit the most from these novel products.

Small-scale, resource-poor farmers currently face increased competition from crop production for biofuels and other uses, as well as challenges from changes in people’s diets. They are also expected to take into account environmental and sustainable practices. Furthermore, the projected increase in weather variability brought on by climate change will inevitably add to the production stresses endured by smallholder farmers in developing countries.

A recent study conducted by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Application showed that 16 developing countries grow a significant share of the world’s GM crop area. However, many innovative GM crops developed or under development by public-sector research organizations in and for developing countries have yet to be delivered to farmers.

Before these new technologies reach farmers in developing countries, they need to meet biosafety standards set by local regulatory authorities. The job of these biosafety authorities is to assess and communicate the potential risk of each new crop, and approve the commercialization of those deemed to be safe. Regulatory bodies additionally need to propose mitigation practices that enable the management of risk after crops are approved and delivered to farmers. As experiences with the approval of specific crops in developing and developed countries show, the process of assessing and approving GM crops isn’t always a smooth, efficient, or timely process. There are nonetheless valuable lessons to learn from cases around the world.

A new IFPRI policy brief helps governments craft efficient and protective regulatory processes that can lead to a timely and efficient regulatory process that produces decisions to commercialize GM crops. The brief outlines seven specific policy recommendations that biosafety regulatory bodies in the developing world could implement to ensure that smallholder farmers will benefit from safe, effective, and relevant GM crops that meet their needs.