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Economy Jun 6, 2013

Twist in food security debate: Study shows how GM crops improve nutrition

By Seema Singh

Any news, debate, or opinion on genetically modified crops is polarizing today; people are either vehemently for it or fanatically opposed to it. It's very difficult to keep the science and technology side of it separate from the business interests of Big Ag (just like Big Pharma). But let's keep the polarity aside for a while and look at this new research finding which sheds a new light on this debate.

In a study that surveyed over 500 randomly selected small-farm Indian households over seven years, researchers found that as the rate of Indian farmers adopting GM cotton grew, undernourishment in their families dropped. By using the econometric model which controlled for all socioeconomic and farm related characteristics of the households, researchers showed that the total calorie intake increased significantly. This 5 percent increase in mean calorie consumption translates into 15-20 percent reduction in food insecurity if all the non-Bt adopters take to this technology.

The research is published in today's issue of PLoS One, the open access journal.

 In a study that surveyed over 500 randomly selected small-farm Indian households over a period of seven years, researchers found that as the rate of Indian farmers adopting GM cotton grew, undernourishment in their families dropped.

In a study that surveyed over 500 randomly selected small-farm Indian households over a period of seven years, researchers found that as the rate of Indian farmers adopting GM cotton grew, undernourishment in their families dropped.

India has the largest number of small-scale farmers that use GM crops, i.e Bt cotton. The public debate about the role of GM crops is particularly intense, but so far there has been no evidence about food security and nutrition effects at the micro level. "It is this research and knowledge gap that we address with our study," says Matin Qaim, lead author of the study from Georg-August-University of Goettingen in Germany.

For a long time, benefits of biotechnology have been evoked in food security debates, with the critics often arguing that food security is not about additional food production but reducing the distortions that exist in the food market that limit livelihood and access to food and nutrition.

Most of the research so far has focused more on the land and labour productivity and farmer profitability leaving aside the larger impact on the society, says Prof N Chandrasekhara Rao of the Institute of Economic Growth at Delhi University. This study, he says, addresses this research gap using sophisticated models and rare data which was collected between 2003 and 2009.

The authors surveyed 1,431 households in four rounds, of which 1,085 households were adopters of Bt cotton and 346 were non-adopters. These households were in the four states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu, which in 2012 accounted for 62 percent of total Bt cotton area in India. Central and Southern India is also where most of the smallholder cotton production happens.

What about the rest of India? Can this finding be applicable to northern India?

In northern India, cotton farms are larger and farmers are somewhat richer on average. Of course, our data are not representative of the developing world in general, says Qaim. This is a study for India, which shows that the adoption of a GM cash crop can improve household nutrition through the income pathway under certain conditions. The numerical results should not be extrapolated one-to-one to other countries, he cautions. But as there are no other studies on food security effects of GM crops, the general results may still be of interest also beyond India, he argues.

Nearly 15 million households in India, China, Pakistan and a few other developing countries grow Bt cotton. It's not just cotton where developing countries have made a mark. The overall agricultural productivity of developing countries in on the rise; today it accounts for two-thirds of global agricultural output, up from 42 percent in 1961. So any such study in one country may be useful for another.

That said, the small sample size limits the scope of the study. Qaim admits this: "A larger sample size is always nice to have to analyze further details. Additional data on child anthropometrics (height and weight) would be interesting to get deeper insights into nutrition and health aspects. But we carry out several tests in our paper that show that the general findings are very robust."

I also wonder if the results from cash crop can be extrapolated to food crops, none of which is approved for use in India. Still, since this is the first long-term observation of the effects of GM crop on the nutritional intake of the farming community, it certainly widens the scope of the current discourse in the country, which is split down the middle between pro- and anti-GM crops. The study could not have come in a better time in the country as the policy makers are occupied with addressing the issue of food security through legislation, says Rao.

Earlier this year the agriculture ministry filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying "if India does not walk the path of (genetically modified) GM food, then it will starve." The opponents, as usual, argued against it, saying it will "sow food insecurity".

Qaim says the activist claims that GM crops would harm smallholder farm families are not based on any empirical evidence. Farmers in India are sometimes affected by crop failures due to droughts, floods, and other stresses, but there is no indication whatsoever that this is related to GM technology. On the other hand, there is mounting evidence of clear GM crop benefits, including improved nutrition, as our study shows, he says.

The mounting data also shows that this is no longer a black and white debate. "We should not expect miracles from these crops, but also stop attributing any undesired developments to the use of GM technology," argues Qaim.

by Seema Singh

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