Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Member Blog: David Zilberman

Why agricultural biotech hasn’t reached its potential

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | July 19, 2016

Some of the key questions we raised as we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the ICABR consortium were “why haven’t GMO crops been accepted and adopted as Green Revolution crops or medical rDNA?” “What are the constraints to the adoption of GMO?” “What are the differences among nations?” Several speakers addressed these questions and here is my interpretation of their answers.

Rob Paarlberg gave a brilliant talk on the political economy of agricultural biotechnology. He introduced several theories that were used to answer these questions, and each theory provides some insight. This is not surprising since agricultural biotechnology has many features and countries are diverse in their policies and politics.

I myself believe that rent-seeking behavior can explain much of the continental divide between Europe and the U.S. Rent seeking means that different sectors of society use their influence, driven by self-interest, to affect politics to their benefit.

Biotechnology companies will lobby for GMOs, while chemical companies that may lose from introduction of substitutes to their products are likely to be less supportive.

There is evidence that consumers benefited from GMOs through lower prices, poor farmers benefited through higher incomes, and that GMOs reduced GHGs and haven’t shown to have adverse environmental effects. However, environmental groups that are concerned about science-based, corporate-controlled technologies oppose GMOs – and are effective in raising doubt about the technology itself and consumers take on this concern.

Another theory that explains part of reality is that different economic blocs may have rival regulatory policies. As GMOs were introduced in the United States, it has a more liberal regulatory framework than the EU, which practically bans production of GM crops. Indeed regulations in the western hemisphere have been close to those of the U.S. while Africa, which closely aligns with European countries, follows their lead. The introduction of GMOs to developing countries has also been impeded by the ability of transnational networks to establish global governance arrangements, like the Cartagena Protocol that imposes strict biosafety regulations on introduction of GMOs. This has been abused by the opposition to GMOs by overstating precaution over apparent benefit making regulatory compliance economically infeasible to implement.

Consumers, who are also voters, have much influence on the fate of GMOs. Much of the debate about GMOs should be about the science – but according to Dominique Brossard, science communication became political, as media outlets become more polarized and people self-select sources that tend to support their prior beliefs.

Furthermore, scientific knowledge is only one input to the final attitude towards a product or idea. For instance, some people object to GMOs because of the perception that large corporations control it and benefit from it – and Monsanto in particular, despite taking risks in developing a technology that has benefited humanity, has a terrible image, some of which is self-inflicted.

Furthermore, the science behind GMOs is complex and scientists are not very involved in the outreach. More effective involvement of scientists in explaining what biotechnology is all about may result in more informed decisions. Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchek’s presentations suggest that biotechnology is part of a larger strategy to address climate change, and can contribute to making organic farming more productive and widespread.

Read the entire blog here:

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