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Genetically Modified Crops, World Trade and Food Security

Oxfam International | November 1, 1999

This paper was written by the Policy Department of Oxfam(Great Britain). The principal author was Koos Neefjes

There is a world food crisis. Currently 790 million people are undernourished and around one third of the world’s children go to bed hungry. But their lack of food security is primarily caused by low incomes and unequal access to land, water, credit, and markets. There is no crisis of world food production on the horizon, despite environmental problems and a growing world population. Hunger will only be eliminated if governments and international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation implement substantial policy changes in favour of resource redistribution, poverty reduction, and food security. Technological fixes alone, such as genetically modified (GM) crops, cannot solve this problem, despite the claims which have been made for them. The impact of GM crops for people in poverty, particularly in developing countries, could be negative. GM crops and related technologies are likely to consolidate control over agriculture by large producers and agro-industrial companies, to the detriment of smaller farmers. Leaving aside risk factors, GM crops could be of some benefit to poor farmers in the longer term if applications are directed to their needs and if intellectual property rules do not channel all the gains to companies. These conditions do not apply at present and require government action. There may be gains to low-income consumers flowing from reduced crop prices, if there are not effective monopolies in the supply chain. On the health and environmental side, we believe there is not yet sufficient scientific evidence to allow the commercial production of GM crops and that the ‘precautionary principle’ should be adopted. Regulation and monitoring in developing countries must be considerably enhanced if consumers and the environment are to be properly protected. World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules are relevant to GM crops since they limit countries’ rights 1) to restrict production and trade of GM products, or to introduce mandatory labelling of foods, and 2) to design their own intellectual property legislation. Negotiation and enforcement of other international agreements is needed, especially in order to safeguard farmers’ seed saving rights, public health, and environmental resources. These agreements include the Convention on Biodiversity and the Biosafety Protocol, which a number of key countries, including the USA, have not ratified.

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