Why poor peasant farmers shouldn’t be allowed to grow GM crops

OK I admit it, my title is pure clickbait. Who the hell am I to say what poor peasant farmers should or shouldn’t be allowed to grow? It’s just that the GM debate largely seems to involve well fed westerners getting angry with each other, ostensibly on behalf of poor farmers, whose own voices are rarely heard. So I decided I’d kind of make that explicit in my title. I thought it would be obvious that the title was a wind up, but when I mentioned it on Steve Savage’s ‘Applied Mythology’ site, Steve came back at me with the suggestion that this was ‘green imperialism’. Hmmm, well, I’ll be returning to the question of imperialism later. To be fair, Steve isn’t one of the shrillest GM proponents around. For a flavour of the common tone, here’s some choice words from Patrick Moore, who I discussed in my previous post, aimed at GM Watch: “You are murdering bastards, and deserve to rot in hell for your anti-human sins”1. Or how about this from Small Farm Future’s go-to eco-panglossian, Graham Strouts, addressing our CEO Chris Smaje’s opposition to golden rice: “this is literally as repugnant as going to Bangladesh, smashing up charitably donated children’s wheelchairs and demanding they be completely banned unless the charity also aligns itself with your political manifesto.”

Please, enough. What makes me angry is self-dramatising wealthy westerners professing their anger at each other in the name of the poor. But maybe that’s getting a bit too meta. In any case, I’d like to suggest a truce. Why don’t we GM sceptics acknowledge that not all of the technology’s proponents are uncaring corporate stooges, and in return maybe those proponents could acknowledge that our scepticism is grounded in an understanding of the issues more considered than the notion that poor peasant farmers are happy in their simple poverty.

I can’t say I’m too hopeful about getting this truce off the ground. Technological issues are invariably social and political issues: the heat in the debate stems ultimately, I think, from the radically different political understandings of poverty and its redress entertained by the two parties. But for my part let me concede the possibility that certain GM crops may prove in time to be of some use in ameliorating the consequences of poverty, heretical though that statement might seem to some of my peers in the anti-GM movement, and indeed might have seemed to my younger self. But let me also say that I am not convinced by arguments that current GM crops offer much help to poor people. As Dominic Glover has aptly written, “the simplistic narrative of GM crops as a straightforwardly successful pro-poor technology has persisted in spite of the highly equivocal evidence emerging from the field”2. Below I give in brief 8 reasons why it seems to me this pro-poor narrative is indeed simplistic. If GM proponents want to carry the day by the quality of their arguments rather than the violence of their invective, I’d like to see them honestly address such points, while leaving the insults at home.

1. The Overproduction of Cash Crops: as Peter Robbins shows in his excellent book Stolen Fruit: The Tropical Commodities Disaster3 there is a problem with global over-capacity in the production of many cash crops grown for global markets by poor smallholders. He, and other authorities besides4, argue that it’s necessary to redeploy a good deal of peasant production into growing for local needs in order to avoid the vicious circle of productivity gains and falling prices (exacerbated by middleman market capture). And yet most of the debate around potential smallholder GM cash crops (coffee etc) seems locked in the productivist paradigm that believes higher productivity will yield higher incomes for poor farmers. I don’t suppose the problem of overproduction should be taken to mean that it’s never useful to develop better yielding or pest resistant varieties, but doing this alone without attention to the economic structures within which the production of those crops occurs won’t help. The way global commodity markets work for poor farmers is basically to set them against each other by pressurising them to produce more. So perhaps instead of concluding that better yields from GM crops are pro-poor, one should say that they’re likely to be temporarily pro some poor farmers at the expense of other ones.

2. The Logic of Agricultural Improvement: some people do benefit financially from productivity gains, however. It’s a pretty robust result of agricultural economics that these people are the richer, more heavily capitalised farmers or businesses that are better able to take advantage of economies of scale (though more on that questionable concept another time) and manipulate their market access – with examples ranging from 18th century England5 to 21st century India2,6. There are those who argue that in ‘a fairly typical scenario’ lower margins are offset by higher productivity for poor small-scale farmers – but in fact it depends, empirically and case by case, on a whole series of factors including price elasticity of demand, the relative tradeoff between margins and productivity and so on. And if there is a ‘typical scenario’, it’s that richer, not poorer, farmers reap the greatest benefit. Generally speaking, it’s these richer farmers who are able to access pricier GM seed and the various other inputs (including knowledge) that can make them effective2,6. The get out clause here, which has been the get out clause for the ideology of agricultural ‘improvement’ through the ages, is that these are the best, most efficient farmers (and it’s interesting how Dominic Glover identifies that same implicit moral judgment in studies of Bt cotton). Not terribly pro-poor on the face of it, except with the additional argument that the poorer, less ‘efficient’ farmers do better if they get out of farming, allow the richer farmers to scale up and produce cheap crops for them, and get themselves better paid jobs in the city. Thus, the benefit of urbanisation has become an important plank in the arguments of the eco-panglossian neo-improvers – just as the old time improvers justified enclosure on the grounds that it was better off for everybody if independent smallholders were removed from the land. The trouble is, Stewart Brand and his camp followers don’t prove that this is true simply by asserting it, however loudly and often. Getting poor farmers off the land and into cities is not necessarily pro-poor7, and the dichotomy of ‘village’ stasis versus city dynamism is just bad sociology. Moreover, if you follow Giovanni Arrighi’s line of argument, urban economic development can in fact be achieved by the success of peasant farming and is not some exogenous force delivering prosperity from without8, but maybe that’s a discussion for another time.

3. Learning the lessons of the green revolution: as I’ve argued elsewhere, the legacy of the original (non-GM) green revolution of the 1960s is remarkably contested. It doesn’t say an awful lot for the analytical precision of social science that scholars can’t even agree whether it saved or impaired millions of lives. But even sensible commentators who are broadly positive about its legacy agree that mistakes were made and many of the advances have been reversed9: the green revolution, once again, benefitted the richer farmers, benefitted particular areas more than others, was uneven in adoption in relation to issues such as farmer wealth, access to credit, irrigation and so on, and led to long-term yield declines as a result of secondary pests, variable farmer behaviour and other agronomic phenomena10. And yet it seems we’ve learned little from that experience: the same issues with secondary pests, farmer behaviour, irrigation, regional and socioeconomic differences, broader social context and so on afflict the implementation of GM crops like Bt cotton2, and likewise tend to be swept under the carpet by their proponents.

4. Corporate dreams and peasant realities: I wrote in my previous post about the serious error involved in supposing that peasant farmers have hitherto been untouched by capitalism, and that industrial farming and its biotechnological toolbox are simply waiting in the wings for them, ready with a helping hand. As has been demonstrated so many times before, only ‘farmer first’ agricultural development has much chance of achieving traction for poor farmers long-term, and even that is a challenge11 – neither the corporate sector nor its charitable offshoots in the form of organisations like the Gates Foundation are set up to deliver it. As Ian Scoones has argued,

“economic returns are highly variable, dependent on a range of factors. GM crops only perform well in good varieties, and it is these that have the largest effect. The start-up costs and technology fees sometimes put the GM seeds out of reach of poorer farmers, and those who are the major adopters tend to be relatively richer and with more land and other assets. And finally – and perhaps most critically – it is the institutional and policy environment that makes all the difference. Without support, credit and sustained backing, the new technologies very often fail”12

He goes on to say:

“proprietary technologies are critical to the agribusiness model. Some claim that patenting (or other forms of proprietary control) is essential for innovation and continued business viability. But such a model is rarely pro-poor. Only through publicly-based, open-source arrangements will poor farmers’ needs get a look in. Thus, it is not sensible to expect too much ‘pro-poor technology’ to emerge from the corporate sector, even if some spin-offs may be on offer through intellectual property-sharing agreements or licensing arrangements. The basic products, because of the mode of their design and delivery, are unlikely to offer much of a solution.”12

Having good, publicly-funded agronomic institutions devoted to the public benefits of agriculture would go a long way to helping good implementation of agricultural development programmes for staple crops – but these are much scarcer on the ground than they were, most certainly not as a result of anti-GM activism. Still, this is where GM crops may have a role to play in the future, albeit that the hype over such crops as golden rice and virus resistant sweet potato has far exceeded results on the ground to date.

5. Long-term trends: The main technically successful GM crops adopted by poor farmers globally are Bt ones. But how long will they remain successful? The well supported agricultures of wealthy western countries are not arguably doing an especially great job with refugia to limit pest resistance. What are the chances among poor small-scale farmers trying to squeeze a bit of extra income out of their plots today? The evidence on GM crops, farmer behaviour and pesticide use is equivocal at best2,13, and so too is the evidence on pesticide/herbicide effects – as for example in Séralini’s work. Incidentally, I’ve got a little article out on the Statistics Views website about the Séralini affair, amongst other things. I do find it a bit strange the way GM proponents so often vaunt ‘science’ as the basis for their views, while treating research and researchers they dislike to ad hominem dismissals which fall far short of scientific standards – as in this Pharisaic and gloriously non-scientific appeal to the science justifying biotech.

6. Conventional breeding successes: quite often, benefits attributed to GM technology turn out to be benefits associated with the particular variety into which the GM event is inserted2. Quite often, conventional breeding, operating at the whole plant and ecological level, is more successful than the gene by gene tinkering of GM breeding – for example, in the case of drought tolerant crops, often touted as a big GM gain, but not yet realised14. Indeed, there are good biological reasons to think that this will be a tough nut to crack and (forgive me for mixing my perennial crop metaphors) now that the lowest hanging fruit has been picked, further GM gains may get trickier12,13.

7. The keys and the lamppost: In relation to objections of the sort I’ve raised above, a common response from GM proponents is something along the lines of “well, no one’s saying it’s a panacea, but we need every possible tool in the box to fight the scourge of poverty”. Maybe so; as I said above, I wouldn’t personally rule out the potential contribution of any GM technology. But it’s surely worth paying attention to which levers will be most effective in the context of the systemic factors reproducing poverty, and I for one suspect that plant breeding of any kind comes fairly low on the list. I found Benjamin Edge’s argument on Steve Savage’s blog quite instructive in this respect: essentially that the seed industry can’t tackle poverty, it can only breed new seeds, so it might as well do that. It’s a bit like the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost, because it’s too dark to see anywhere else. Collectively we can, if we wish, devote resources to combating poverty in the most effective ways possible, and it seems to me unlikely that those ways will turn out to involve much plant breeding, particularly breeding proprietary GM crops in the corporate sector.

8. What about YOU! Another of Benjamin Edge’s arguments, which is also much favoured by other GM proponents: all these sceptics moaning about GM crops – if they think there are better ways of combating poverty, why aren’t they actually doing something about it? I don’t think this argument is really serious enough to merit a response, but if it is then it’s one GM proponents need to tackle too, because not even the most hardcore GM enthusiast seems prepared to argue that their favoured crops alone will banish poverty. But I think it’s symptomatic of a political failure in the pro-GM case, which individualises poverty and the response to it, and erases its institutional causes. Why invest in developing higher yielding crops when the gains to the poor will be traded away by the extant discriminatory economic structures? When it comes to the ‘imperialism’ Steve Savage mentioned, I see more of it in the pro GM case – in particular in its insistence on a singular, top-down development path, in its avoidance of the systemic economic forces reproducing poverty, and in its neo-improver disparagement of peasant farming and of anyone who speaks up for it.


1. https://twitter.com/EcoSenseNow/status/438092798592442370

2. D. Glover, 2009. Undying Promise: Agricultural Biotechnology’s Pro-poor Narrative, Ten Years on, STEPS Working Paper 15, Brighton: STEPS Centre.

3. Zed Books, 2003.

4. Eg. I. Perfecto et al, 2009. Nature’s Matrix, Earthscan; http://www.edwardrcarr.com/opentheechochamber/

5. M. Overton, 1996. Agricultural Revolution In England, Cambridge Univ P.

6. Mal, P., Reza Anik, A., Bauer, S., & Schmitz, P.M. (2012). Bt cotton adoption: A double-hurdle approach for North Indian farmers. AgBioForum15(3), 294-302.

7. https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=531; Banerjee, A. & E. Duflo, 2012. Poor Economics, Penguin; or maybe J. Neeson, 1996. Commoners, Cambridge Univ P.

8. G. Arrighi, 2007. Adam Smith in Beijing, Verso.

9. G. Conway 2012. One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed The World, Cornel Univ P.

10. See Patel, R. (2013). ‘The long Green Revolution’, Journal of Peasant Studies40, 1: 1-63; Perkins, J. (1997). Geopolitics and the Green Revolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

11. P. Richards (1985). Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, Hutchinson.

12. http://steps-centre.org/2011/project-related/gm-crops-10-years-on/

13. F. Denison, 2012. Darwinian Agriculture, Cornell Univ P.

14. http://www.nature.com/news/cross-bred-crops-get-fit-faster-1.15940?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20140918


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