A key GM question

June 2016
Photo: Creative Commons
Question: do GM crops benefit people?

This isn't a simple question. 

For one thing, 'GM crops' can mean all manner of different types and varieties of crop plant, into which a vast range of artificial bits of DNA has been inserted.

For another thing, 'benefit' can mean all manner of important societal parameters: good for finances, good for health, good for quality of life, or good for future security.

And moreover, 'people' can mean all manner of unique sectors of society: farmers, consumers, traders, corporations, share-holders, individuals, communities, the literate, the illiterate, the young, the old, the healthy, the unhealthy ...

This level of complexity hasn't helped generate any meaningful science nor discussion on GM.  Indeed, a team of Swedish scientists noted that "the fragmented knowledge on the social impacts of genetically modified (GM) crops is contributing to the polarised debate on the matter".

To identify the research gaps, the scientists carried out a literature review of 99 papers published since 2004 and summarised our current knowledge of the social impacts of GM crops.

They focused on impacts materialising at farm-level, and defined 'social impact' as "The consequences to human populations of any public or private actions that alter the ways in which people live, work, play, relate to one another, organise to meet their needs and generally cope as members of society.  The term also includes cultural impacts involving changes to the norms, values, and beliefs that guide and rationalise their cognition of themselves and their society."

It's clear from their findings that the most-grown GM crops (soya followed by maize), the most-grown GM trait (herbicide-tolerance), and the countries growing the biggest areas of GM crops (USA followed by Brazil) aren’t the most studied despite having potentially the biggest social impacts.

Over-generalisations seem to have diminished the value of many of the publications: a significant proportion simply pooled data based on different genetic modifications and crop types; some studies failed to discuss specific locations; the existing empirical data on yield and farm finances were re-used in many studies, thus exaggerating the amount of information actually available; data on well-being were similarly repeated, and "frequently discussed but rarely studied", so that they tended to be very general or merely express future hopes or concerns; a large body of literature discussed the framing of risk in relation to GM crops, but with little empirical farm-level data. 

Social disbenefits of GM crops appeared in a handful of papers: accelerated deskilling of farmers, for example in India; patents on seeds which have resulted in a profitable black-market of GM seeds, for example in Brazil; the short-term nature of GM-based pest control, for example in Argentina and India; production risks, for example herbicide-tolerant maize and Bt cotton in South Africa.

Most studies claiming to look at 'social impacts' at farm level are limited to the short-term economic outcomes.

Key findings of the review were that:
  1. Economic studies of GM crops present a misleadingly positive picture of social impacts as a whole.
  2. Today's governance of GM crops reinforces the corporate market dominance and reduces the possibility of benefit to small farmers.
  3. Social impacts on farmers in the major GM crop growing areas aren't known


The answer to the question asked at the beginning seems to run something like ...

Some GM crops may financially benefit some larger-scale farmers in the short-term, and definitely benefit the large corporations (thanks to government support), but no one's checked if there are real health, quality of life or future security benefits for anyone anywhere in the world.

Put another way, there's lots of hype, wishful thinking and opinion but very little science available to answer the question of benefit of GM crops to people.  No wonder the GM debate is polarised! Perhaps we should keep it that way for our own sake?


Klara Fischer, et al., 2015, Social Impacts of GM Crops in Agriculture: A Systematic Literature Review, Sustainability 7

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