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The gene revolution: GM crops and unequal development

Edited by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr
Published by Earthscan
Website: www.earthscan.co.uk
Email: earthinfo@earthscan.co.uk
2007, 277pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 409 9(Pb), £22.95

When Monsanto was given permission by the South African government to sell Bt cotton seed for the 1997-8 season, the company was keen to demonstrate that the technology could work for small-scale farmers as well as large producers. Demonstration plots established on the Makhatini Flats in northern KwaZulu Natal - one of two regions in South Africa where smallholders grew cotton - proved so successful that by 2004, 90 per cent of cotton production on the Flats was under Bt cotton.

Whilst studies revealed that Bt cotton farmers were benefiting from higher yields and fewer pesticide applications, in 2005 production slumped. The cause was institutional rather than technical failure. Farmers had received credit to buy Bt seeds from a ginning company - Vunisa - in partnership with the Land Bank of South Africa. Unfortunately, the setting up of a rival ginning company in 2002 gave farmers an opportunity to avoid making repayments by selling their cotton to the new gin. After suffering substantial losses, Vunisa withdrew its credit provision, and within two seasons, cotton production on the Flats collapsed.

The experience of the Makhatini Flats illustrates one of the central messages of this well researched book, that achieving scientific advances can be relatively easy, compared with establishing the social and economic conditions necessary for progress. The contributing authors undoubtedly see GM crops as having enormous potential for resource-poor farmers, in allowing more efficient development of crops with tolerance to conditions such as saline soils, drought and pests. But the challenge is how to ensure that the technology supports growth, equity and sustainability.

The authors detail five detailed case studies of the GM experience in Argentina, Brazil, India, China and South Africa, which provide insights into the institutional and policy developments that determined the rate and extent of GM crop proliferation. Developing capacity for biotechnology at a national level demands, for example, substantial investment of scientific, financial and administrative resources. Beyond establishing laboratories and innovation centres, countries need to have a regulated seed market and legislation on intellectual property rights and biosecurity, amongst others. This book reviews how the five countries have tackled these issues, and draws lessons for others in the developing world.

As such, this book is a hugely valuable contribution to the dialogue and debate surrounding the future of genetic technologies for developing countries. Editor, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, suspects The gene revolution will be criticised by hard-liners in both the pro and anti-GM camps. Her stated wish, however, is to build a middle ground, where issues of policy, institutional development and governance in relation to biotechnology can be discussed, and pathways for pro-development GM are explored.

Date published: May 2007

 

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