Developing countries pondering whether or how much to use genetically modified agricultural crops must balance many different concerns, ranging from battling domestic starvation and malnutrition and ensuring health and safety, to preserving the environment, fulfilling multilateral trade obligations and protecting and enhancing trade opportunities, a recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) study says.
The study, entitled International Trade in GMOs and GM Products: National and Multilateral Legal Frameworks (document UNCTAD/ITCD/TAB/30), reports that genetically modified crops pose especially difficult choices for the world’s poorer nations.
Worldwide agricultural area given over to genetically modified crops has grown 47-fold since 1996, but the use of such crops by developing nations has been limited. The United States accounted for 59% of the 81 million hectares employed for GM agriculture in 2004. Only 16 other countries grew genetically modified crops, led by Argentina (20% of total area), Canada and Brazil (six percent each), China (five percent), Paraguay (two percent), and India and South Africa (one percent each).
Agro-biotechnology, or farming based on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), may allow higher yields, improve profits for farmers, ease domestic food shortages and facilitate the production of new quality products. But at the same time, it involves technology that might be inadequate for the needs of developing countries and that could disrupt traditional agricultural practices, limit access to seeds, pose unpredictable environmental and health problems, have a negative impact on biodiversity and raise ethical or religious concerns.
An additional worry is that international trade flows may be jeopardized, the report states. While economically advanced nations set policy on GMOs based largely on domestic concerns and attitudes, developing countries often depend heavily on agricultural exports and may feel constrained to bend domestic priorities in order to meet the demands and expectations of their main trading partners.
To preserve their export opportunities—especially with European markets, where consumers have expressed sKepticism about bioengineered products—some developing nations are inclined to preserve their
“GM-free” status, UNCTAD observes.
This implies not only that they do not export GMOs but that they neither use them for domestic consumption nor import them. In this way, they can avoid a possibly negative reaction among consumers, especially in Europe, to exports that can be even remotely linked to genetic modification.
Firms in some importing countries thus appear to be replacing genetically modifiable products with products that have no such risk, and shifting more of their trading business to countries known to be “GM-free”.
Mainly because of possible trade losses, a number of African countries—including Angola, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Sudan, Zambia and
Zimbabwe—have imposed import bans on genetically-modified products, although in some cases these bans allow exceptions for food aid, provided that the cereals concerned have already been milled.
The report also points to legal complications: While countries are free to decide how to deal domestically with the issue of genetically modified crops, domestic regulations have to comply with the rules of the World Trade Organization. At the same time, agro-biotechnology is a field where multilateral rules have been agreed upon in a separate legal instrument, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. The interaction between this specific instrument and the WTO rules adds challenges to an already complex scenario.
This report is the twenty-ninth in UNCTAD’s Study Series on Policy Issues in International Trade and Commodities.