A new study by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, UNCTAD, highlights the dilemma for developing countries posed by genetically modified organisms. The study urges developing countries to balance the potential benefits and risks from genetically modified crops so as not to endanger the food supply for their populations.
The UNCTAD study reports genetically modified crops pose especially difficult choices for the world's poorer nations. On the one hand, it says farming based on genetically modified organisms may produce bigger and better crops, improve profits for farmers, ease domestic food shortages and facilitate the production of new quality products.
But, the study says developing countries have to weigh these benefits against the potential risks. It says the new technology could disrupt traditional agricultural practices, limit access to seeds, and pose unpredictable environmental and health problems.
An additional worry is that international trade flows may be jeopardized. UNCTAD economist and author of the study, Simonetta Zarrilli Traeger, says developing countries often depend heavily on agricultural exports and may bend their domestic priorities to meet the demands of their main trading partners.
"For instance, for African countries which export very few agricultural products to the EU, a major consideration is to preserve the export opportunities to the EU market,” she said. “So, if they feel that by getting involved in bio-technology they can miss trading opportunities in the EU market, they will regulate their bio-safety and agriculture domestically to respond to the expectations."
The study says a number of African countries have imposed import bans on genetically modified products mainly because of possible trade losses. These countries include Angola, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Sudan, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Ms. Traeger notes that some of these countries even have refused food aid containing genetically modified materials because they feel they will miss out on export opportunities by importing modified foods.
She says developing countries are caught between an ongoing dispute between the European Union and the United States, which have completely different views regarding the safety of genetically modified foods. She says both trading blocks are trying to impose their views on the poorer countries.
"The United States, for instance, is insisting that genetically modified crops will contribute to solving the huge problem of starvation, especially in the developing countries,” she explained. “While the EU has the approach that starvation and malnutrition are the result not of limited food availability, but are the result of poor transport, of concentration of food production, access.
Ms. Traeger says developing countries are responsible for providing a reasonable amount of food and agricultural products for local populations. Therefore, she says their desire to preserve export markets in the rich countries has to be balanced with their need to have enough food for their own people.