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Suppressing Growth: How GMO Opposition Hurts Developing Nations

February 8, 2016

Anti-GMO activists have erected barriers to agricultural biotech innovation that could cost the poorest nations on earth up to $1.5 trillion through 2050.

Campaigns against genetically modified organisms (GMOs), originating primarily in Europe, have created significant obstacles to the development and adoption of genetically modified crops. While the policies and practices resulting from these campaigns impose considerable costs on the economies of origin, they disproportionately hurt those nations with the greatest need for more productive agriculture—particularly the developing nations of sub-Saharan Africa. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) estimates that the current restrictive climate for agricultural biotech innovations could cost low- and lower-middle-income nations up to $1.5 trillion in foregone economic benefits through 2050. In short, anti-GMO activists have erected significant barriers to the development of the poorest nations on earth.

Over the past three decades, a number of campaign groups have pressed successfully for restrictions or bans on the growth or import of crops and foods improved through biotechnology. Most recently, in October 2015, 19 European countries announced bans on growing GM crops, despite strong opposition from the scientific community.

These restrictions lower farmers’ productivity and raise food prices—not just in the countries where the campaigns originate, but in nations that avoid GMO crops so they can export to countries with policies banning or limiting GMOs. Experience and data show that crops improved through biotechnology provide significant benefits for farmers, and restrictions on biotech crops slow the growth of agricultural productivity. This is particularly acute in low-income nations where farmers have less ability to mechanize production and where biotech-improved seeds offer a low-priced way to boost yields and rural incomes. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, annual farm household income in 2012 was approximately $3,000.

Opponents of agricultural biotechnology initially argued that GMOs would benefit only industrialized nations, and would price farmers from developing nations out of the market. These largely left-of-center opponents could thus oppose innovation without inviting the charge that they were hurting the very people they claimed to be concerned about.

But the opponents were wrong: GM seeds are even more important for farmers in developing countries than in developed nations, because the former could often ill afford other innovations that boost productivity (e.g., modern tractors, etc.), but they can afford improved seeds. This is why farmers in developing nations plant more biotech-improved seeds than farmers in industrial nations, despite massive European and advocacy group efforts to discourage them. Two decades of concerted efforts led by European countries, multinational organizations like the United Nations UNEP/GEF Global Project for Development of National Biosafety Frameworks, and anti-GMO advocacy groups have denied the benefits of agricultural biotechnology and suppressed its diffusion. If not for this, the level of adoption in developing countries, particularly in Africa, which has closer trading ties with Europe, would no doubt be far higher, given the current adoption rate of GMO seeds wherever farmers do not fear export limitations. This report documents how anti-GMO rules and policies work to perpetuate underdevelopment and poverty in developing economies.

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