GMOs have lessened pesticide poisoning and improved yields in Africa, says report

A report by a top caucus of experts in the United Kingdom shows that many countries have benefited from improved economies and healthier populations by farming genetically modified (GM) crops.

Most significantly, the low pesticide use associated with GM farming is linked to fewer incidences of pesticide poisoning among farmworkers—particularly for small-scale farmers, observes the Report on Genetic Technologies released in September by the UK’s Regulatory Horizons Council.  

In India, for instance, the report cites a 50-70% reduction in pesticide applications on insect-resistant cotton, which has led to significant health benefits for farmers.

“It has been estimated that this GM crop helps to avoid several million cases of pesticide poisoning per year,” the report noted. “There have also been significant economic and health benefits for small farmers growing cotton in South Africa.”

Pesticide poisoning is a pestilent challenge dogging agricultural production in many parts of Africa, where industry regulations and safety training for applicators are lax. Despite glaring evidence of potential harm to human beings and the environment, preponderant commercial and political interests often encumber mitigation efforts. Shocking reports of pesticide poisoning keep emerging from the continent. 

And as noted in one study on smallholder pesticide use in Sub-Saharan Africa, pesticides are a common cause of acute poisoning in the region, with many cases going unreported. GM farming has been fronted as one safe way of practicing agriculture with less dependence on pesticide use. 

The adoption of insect-resistant Bt cotton, for instance, can substantially reduce the risk and the incidence of pesticide poisonings, as shown by a pioneering study conducted in China. Using data from a survey of farmers in northern China, the report provided evidence of a direct link between the adoption of GM crops and improvements in human health. Similar results have been documented for Bt maize.

The adoption of Bt cotton in Burkina Faso significantly lowered pesticide use. Farmers went from spraying their conventional cotton fields 15 times per season to control bollworm to spraying only twice with Bt cotton, which saw the crop’s popularity soar. By 2014, more than 70% of all cultivated cotton in Burkina Faso was GM. The GM crop has been discontinued, however, causing Burkinabe farmers who grow conventional cotton to return to high pesticide use.

The Regulatory Horizons Council report outlines two broad classifications of genetic technologies: First-generation genetic technologies, which are the basis of today’s widely used GM crops, and the more recent second-generation technologies that include genome editing, synthetic biology, and engineering biology.

The report provides an edifying treatise on first-generation GM crops, showing their potential benefits for agriculture, the environment, and society. It further scrutinizes the emerging opportunities, regulations, and products associated with second-generation technologies. 

GM crops were first introduced in the 1990s and have seen the fastest uptake by farmers of any other modern agricultural technology, from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 179.7 in 2015. They now account for crops cultivated on over 10% of the world’s arable land. Among the benefits have been better economic outcomes for producers, a reduction in pest infestation in crops, increased insect biodiversity on farms resulting from the adoption of insect-resistant crops, savings in CO2 emissions, and soil improvement and productivity gains resulting in potential land-saving outcomes.  

The report also elucidates the emergent opportunities in agricultural biotechnology for the post-Brexit UK, vouching for rapid adoption of regulations that will be amenable to genetic technologies. Despite the proven potential of agricultural biotechnologies to meet societal needs that include provision of healthier diets, climate change mitigation, and contributing to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, scientists, companies, and policymakers in the UK and the EU concede that the European regulatory system for genetic technologies inhibits useful innovation, thus disadvantaging farmers.

“Since the UK is no longer a member of the EU, the Government has an opportunity to take a leading role in demonstrating how current regulatory systems can be adapted, or new regulatory systems developed, to enable innovative, safe and beneficial products of genetic technologies to reach their intended markets, at home and abroad,” states the report.

The EU adopted a process-based approach in regulating first-generation GM products, which lumped the process of genetic modification itself alongside all its products, regardless of their properties, within a common regulatory regime. This approach contrasts with the United States’ product-based approach, which focuses on the specific product resulting from the modification and its benefits and risks. The EU regulatory framework, along with the very precautionary and politicized approach to its implementation, has resulted in minimal cultivation of GM crops in the EU, though GM crops are widely imported for livestock feed.