Genetically engineered agricultural crops are widely grown for animal feed (yellow corn, soybean meal) and for industrial purposes (such as cotton for fabric, or yellow corn for ethanol), but almost nobody grows GMO food staple crops. The only GMO food staple crop planted anywhere is white maize, and only in one country – the Republic of South Africa. It has been two decades now since GMO crops were first planted commercially, and it is not yet legal anywhere in the world to plant GMO wheat or GMO rice. The United States once planted GMO potatoes and tomatoes for food, but not any more. The only GMO fruit planted anywhere is papaya, and only in the United States and China. The only GMO food vegetables commercially planted anywhere are summer squash and sweet corn in the United States, sweet corn in the Philippines, and eggplant in Bangladesh (only since last year). There are no GMO food animals or fish approved for use anywhere. GMO ingredients can be found in packaged foods, but usually in small quantities and only in a processed form as vegetable oils, corn starch, or sweeteners from corn and sugarbeet.
This virtual absence of GMO food crops in the marketplace tells us something about the real balance of power in today’s world food system. Contrary to the view promoted by anti-GMO activists, the biotechnology companies that have developed GMO varieties of food crops (like wheat, rice, and potato) are obviously not cramming them down our throat, or forcing us to eat them un-labeled. Nobody eats them at all, because the anti-GMO campaigners have kept them off the market. When it comes to these GMO food crops, the biotechnology companies have lost nearly every battle.
This global outcome – with GMO food crops blocked while GMO animal feed and industrial crops continue to go forward – tells us something about global inequity. GMO animal feed and industrial crops have been allowed to go forward because farmers and consumers in rich countries have a strong commercial interest in added productivity for these crops. Corn, soybean, and cotton farmers in the United States have not been prevented from capturing the productivity gains GMOs provide. Livestock, biofuel, and garment industries in Europe as well as in North America also profit, from lower feed, feedstock, and raw materials costs. Consumers of fuel, clothing, meat, milk, and eggs in these countries enjoy lower costs. The absence of a GMO productivity dividend for food crops is a relatively small matter in these rich countries, where most consumers are actually over-fed.
It is in poor countries that today’s de facto global ban on GMO food crop production does real harm. Poor farmers in developing countries typically plant food staple crops like wheat, rice, white maize, and potato. They usually do not plant crops for animal feed or for industrial use. These developing world farmers are in desperate need of the productivity gains GMO food crop varieties could provide (for example, reduced chemical or labor costs of crop protection against insects, weeds, or disease), and for poor consumers in the developing world, who may spend as much as half their total income purchasing the food they need to feed their families, the benefit would be significant as well.
Today’s de facto global ban on GMO food crops therefore looks suspiciously like an outcome designed by the rich and for the rich, with little regard for the interests of the poor. Without providing farmers access to these innovations, the divide between the rich and the poor countries will continue.
Dr. Robert Paarlberg is both a Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and Adjunct Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. The author of “Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa” (Harvard University Press, March 2008), and Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, September 2013), Paarlberg’s primary research interests are in international agriculture and environmental policy.