New research examines whether biotechnology is relevant to poor farmers

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Washington, DC – International humanitarian organization Oxfam America hosted a panel today discussing the continuing controversy over the potential impact of genetically modified (GM) crops in developing countries.

Despite its importance to two-thirds of the world’s population (and 80 percent of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa), agricultural development has experienced a systematic decline in funding over the past 40 years. However, the current state of global crisis has breathed new life into arguments to support agricultural development.

“Feeding the world with scarce resources in an environment increasingly affected by climate change is one of our most important global challenges. It must be addressed in a way that meets a second challenge – helping millions lift themselves out of poverty in the process of agricultural development,” said Kimberly Pfeifer, Head of Research at Oxfam America.

Today’s panel discussion focused on the findings of the recently released  book, Biotechnology and Agricultural Development: Transgenic Cotton, Rural Institutions and Resource-Poor Farmers, edited by Robert Tripp, one of the panelists. The research, commissioned by Oxfam America, assesses the socioeconomic impacts of genetically modified, insect-resistant cotton – or transgenic cotton – by examining its use by smallholder farmers in four developing countries with years of experiences with GM technology: India, South Africa, China, and Colombia.

“Concerns from climate change to food and energy prices only serve to intensify the debate about the future of genetically modified crops, as well as the role of agricultural technology in poverty reduction. This book examines the experience of GM cotton in developing countries and draws lessons about the relevance of agricultural biotechnology for resource-poor farmers,” said Tripp.

The research shows that institutional investments in agriculture are more important and relevant for poor farmers than investment in biotechnology and challenges the claim that biotechnology can be the solution to agricultural development by examining the precarious institutional basis on which these hopes rest in most countries.

“Resource-poor farmers must make decisions about what to plant in order to make a sustainable livelihood to feed their families, send their children to school, afford healthcare, and maintain their access to land. Adequate access to information is key to these decision-making processes,” said Pfeifer.

Oxfam has worked with West African cotton farmers to highlight the injustices in the international trading system and to shift the balance of power in the cotton value chain toward cotton producers.

“We could not ignore the pressure that existed to establish biosafety regulations to pave the way for the commercial adoption of transgenic cotton. Providing advice in this area seemed a daunting task given the very limited availability of rigorous assessments of the impacts of adopting this new technology,” said Pfeifer.

The case studies provide accounts of resource-poor farmers’ experiences with transgenic cotton along with the national governments’ efforts to facilitate its adoption, examining what resource-poor farmers need in order to take advantage of and benefit from the adoption of this technology.

The studies revealed a need to devote more attention to the development of local institutions that support public and private capacity for technology generation, technology delivery through markets, extension, and regulations, and farmer capacity to demand services, participate in markets, and understand the technology they are using.

“An innovation such as a transgenic crop is not simply a technical solution, it is an intervention with social, economic, and political consequences. We risk the livelihoods of resource-poor farmers if we neglect the critical foundation of sound local institutions that put farmers at the center of such technological choices,” said Pfeifer.

Today’s panel discussion featured: Robert Tripp Ph.D., Lead Researcher and Editor of the book; Richard Oswald, President, Missouri Farmers Union; Larry Beach, Ph.D., Senior Biotechnology Advisor, USAID; Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director, The Oakland Institute; Mario Alejandro Rodriguez A., General Manager, C.I. Algodones de Colombia; Kimberly Pfeifer, Ph.D., Head of Research, Oxfam America.

For more information about the book, please visit: www.routledgeeconomics.com/books/Biotechnology-and-Agricultural-Development-isbn9780415543842.

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