Southern African Regional Poverty Network (SARPN) SARPN thematic photo
Regional themes > Food security Last update: 2020-11-27  

GM crops – going against the grain

Author Liz Orton
Consultant Sarah Sexton, The Corner House
Editor Alex Wijeratna (

May 2003

SARPN acknowledges Action Aid as the copyright holder of this report. Website:
[Complete document - 268Kb ~ 1 min (46 pages)]     [ Share with a friend  ]

Executive summary

Nearly 800 million people go hungry every day because they cannot grow or buy enough food. One in seven children born in the countries where hunger is most common die before they are five years old.

Many governments, companies and institutions are promoting genetically modified (GM) crops as a response. It’s claimed GM technologies will increase food production, reduce environmental degradation, provide more nutritious foods and promote sustainable agriculture. But can GM crops really alleviate world hunger?

ActionAid believes that food security can only be achieved by addressing poverty, matching technologies to local needs, promoting basic rights, protecting biodiversity, and supporting informed choice and participation for poor people. This report - which is based on evidence from Asia, Africa and Latin America - concludes that GM crops are unlikely to contribute to any of these objectives. The expansion of GM is more likely to benefit rich corporations than poor people.

Key statistics
  • GM crops covered 58 million hectares worldwide in 2002 – an area two and a half times the size of the UK
  • Only 1 per cent of GM research is aimed at crops used by poor farmers in poor countries
  • It can cost up to $300 million to develop a GM crop and the process can take up to 12 years
  • A small range of GM crops that might address poorer farmers’ needs are being researched but they stand only a one in 250 chance of making it into farmers’ fields
  • The four corporations that control most of the GM seed market had a combined turnover from agrochemicals and seeds of $21.6 billion in 2001
  • 91% of all GM crops grown worldwide in 2001 were from Monsanto seeds.
Can GM crops help eradicate poverty?

It is not the interests of poor farmers but the profits of the agrochemical industry that have been the driving force behind the emergence of GM agriculture. Four multinational corporations – Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience and DuPont – now control most of the GM seed market. Some 91% of all GM crops grown worldwide in 2001 were from Monsanto seeds. By linking their chemicals to seeds via GM technologies, these corporations have been able to extend markets for their herbicides and pesticides.

GM crops are unlikely to help eradicate poverty because yields seem to be no more than non-GM crops and sometimes need more chemicals. Yields from GM soybeans are no higher than those from high-yield conventional varieties. In one study, Monsanto’s GM soya had 6% lower yields than non-GM soya and 11% less than high-yielding non-GM soya.

Insecticide use on GM cotton has fallen in some locations, but these gains may be shortlived as insects develop resistance to the insecticide that the cotton expresses. In time, farmers may need to invest in more, not fewer, chemicals. This also applies to chemical use on herbicide resistant GM crops, which has gone up rather than down as farmers use chemicals more frequently and/or in greater amounts. Herbicide use per hectare in Argentina has more than doubled on GM fields compared to conventional varieties.

GM crops are ineffective in tackling the underlying political and economic causes of food insecurity: poverty and inequality. The new GM technologies do not address the essential constraints facing poor farmers including lack of access to: land, water, energy, affordable credit, agricultural training, local markets, decent roads, grain stores and infrastructure. In fact, GM could be disastrous for small-scale farmers as the costs are much higher and they risk falling into debt.

Do GM crops meet the needs of poor farmers?

GM varieties do not meet the needs of poor farmers who rely on affordable, readily available supplies of seeds for a range of crops to meet diverse environmental, consumption and production needs. Poor communities need investment in low-cost, low-input farmer-friendly technologies, building on farmers’ knowledge. GM seeds, by contrast, are targeted at large-scale commercial farmers growing cash crops in monocultures. GM crops could undermine food security by wasting the scarce resources of poorer farmers and developing countries.

Most research and development in GM agriculture is conducted by the private sector. Less than 1% of all GM research is directed at poor farmers.

GM research in Africa, for instance, focuses on export crops such as cut flowers, fruit, vegetables, cotton and tobacco, which are grown in large-scale commercial plantations in Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe. In Kenya, only one out of 136 intellectual property applications for plants were for a food crop; more than half were for roses.

Do GM crops threaten basic rights?

Farmers in developing countries have evolved complex, cheap and effective systems to save, exchange and use seeds from one harvest to the next. Patented GM seeds threaten to erode these rights and practices, to displace or contaminate seed supplies, and to increase farmers’ dependence on private monopolised agricultural resources.

Up to 1.4 billion people, including up to 90% of farmers in Africa, many of them women, depend on saved seed. Yet the proliferation of intellectual property regimes that come with GM seeds threaten centuries-old practices of saving and exchanging seeds.

GM seeds must usually be bought each season. Before they can obtain and use the seeds, farmers have to sign a contract with the company obliging them to pay a royalty or technology fee, to agree not to save or replant seeds from the harvest, to use only company chemicals on them and to allow the corporation access to their property to verify compliance.

Having to buy external supplies of seeds and pesticides leaves farmers more economically and agriculturally dependent on corporations. The technology fee makes such seeds prohibitive for the poorest farmers who lack access to credit. The contracts are complex and easily misunderstood by farmers, especially those who are illiterate.

The biotech industry continues to develop a set of GM crop technologies – Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs), which have been dubbed ‘Terminator technologies’ - that produce sterile seeds: if saved and planted from one year to the next, they would have no yields at all.

Do GM crops threaten biodiversity?

GM crops threaten to reduce the agricultural and crop diversity that are the basis of poor farmer livelihoods and developing country food sovereignty. Three-quarters of the original varieties of agricultural crops have been lost from farmers’ fields since 1900 as industrial and export-led agriculture has encouraged the widespread monoculture cultivation of a few crop varieties for a more uniform global market. GM crops threaten to erode biodiversity still further.

In addition, GM crops pose known threats to other plants and insects. They can crosspollinate with non-GM plants, endangering diverse original varieties, particularly in developing countries. They are likely to require bigger and more frequent doses as weeds and insects develop resistance to chemicals. They may threaten beneficial insects and thus disrupt natural pest management systems.

GM crops engineered to produce pharmaceutical drugs could easily end up in local food supplies. Biosafety regulations could address some of these problems and threats to biodiversity, but many countries do not have them, or the capacity to develop them. In Zambia, just one person, who has no previous experience of developing national policy or prior knowledge of the issues, is responsible for drafting national biosafety policy.

Nor is regulation enough where national capacity to evaluate and monitor risks is weak. In Brazil, a ban on the commercial cultivation of GM crops did not stop GM soya seeds being smuggled in from Argentina and planted across huge areas. In Pakistan, ActionAid has investigated the impact of illegally planted GM cotton. Hundreds of farmers who bought the so-called ‘miracle’ seed on the black market in the hope it would increase their harvests lost around 70 per cent of their crops.

Do GM crops enhance informed choice and participation for poor people?

Developing country governments are under huge pressure to accept GM crops, put scarce public resources into GM research and open their doors to biotech corporations before their people have been properly informed, consulted and agreed to accept, or reject, GM. Poorer farmers and communities are being sidelined in debates and decisions about GM technology.

In South Africa, for example, GM crops have been planted without prior public consultation or involvement in decision making and without environmental studies on their impact.

Even if GM research takes place in the public sector it may not address the needs of poor farmers because most genes and processes are now patented by corporations. In partnerships between public research organisations and corporations, control and decision making tends to remain firmly in the hands of corporations who acknowledge that their goal is to create new markets and improve their public image.

If poorer people were more involved in setting agricultural research agendas, they would probably opt not for GM crops, but for other agricultural solutions.


The widespread adoption of GM crops seems likely to exacerbate the underlying causes of food insecurity, leading to more hungry people, not fewer. To have a lasting impact on poverty, ActionAid believes policy makers must address the real constraints facing poor communities - lack of access to land, credit, resources and markets – instead of focusing on risky technologies that have no track record in addressing hunger.

  • Donors and governments should address the wider causes of food insecurity – land, credit, agricultural training and infrastructure – before putting resources into GM crops.
  • They should introduce a moratorium on the further commercialisation of GM crops until more research has been carried out into the socio-economic, environmental and biodiversity impacts of GM crops, particularly in developing countries.
  • Poorer farmers and communities should be enabled to participate more in national GM debates and policymaking.
  • Genetic resources for food and agriculture should be exempt from intellectual property requirements.
  • Farmers’ rights to save and exchange seeds should be recognised under the intellectual property rules of the World Trade Organisation and should be protected in developing country intellectual property rights legislation.
  • Governments should introduce competition rules to prevent private sector monopolies and effective institutions to enforce them.
  • The potential impact of GM crops on food security, poor farmers and biodiversity should guide the development and implementation of national biosafety frameworks.
  • Funding for public sector agricultural research should be increased and should specialise in support for sustainable, farmer-led agriculture.

Octoplus Information Solutions Top of page | Home | Contact SARPN | Disclaimer