Press release

‘Unjustified delays in approving biotech crops take thousands of lives’

Published on
July 27, 2017

Uncertainty and confusion on genetic engineering of main food crops in Africa have delayed the acceptance and application of these crops by smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. Model calculations by a team of researchers from the universities of Wageningen, Munich, Cape Town and Berkeley reveal that the costs of a one year delay in approving the pod-borer resistant cow-pea in Nigeria will cost the country 33 – 46 million dollar; and more disastrously, will take theoretically 100 to 3000 lives, the team reports this week in Plos ONE.

Scientists, policy makers, and other stakeholders have raised concerns that the approval process for new crops causes delays that are often scientifically unjustified. These delays are not only causing costs via foregone economic benefits, but also lives via foregone calorie supplies for malnourished children. In the Plos ONE study the research team calculates these effects for the genetically engineered crops: cooking banana (matoke), cow pea, and corn (maize) for five countries in Africa. They found that in Kenya, the benefits from reduced malnutrition can be larger than the total economic surplus. The benefits can be up to about 1150 million dollar for banana in Uganda, and about 795 million dollar for corn in Kenya.

Saving lives

Kenya, Uganda and many other African countries had the chance to follow South Africa’s example of adopting genetically engineered (GE) crops – also called GM or biotech crops. The researchers report, if Kenya had adopted GE corn in 2006 — according to an earlier project this was possible — between 440 and 4000 lives could theoretically have been saved. Similarly, Uganda had the possibility in 2007 to introduce the black sigatoka resistant banana, thereby potentially saving between 500 and 5500 lives over the past decade. The introduction of Bt cowpea is expected to be in 2017 in Benin, Niger, and Nigeria. The African Agricultural Technology Foundation, an African NGO developing the technology, has already indirectly expressed concerns about reaching this goal by explicitly mentioning the phrase: ‘Depending on approvals’. A one-year delay in approval would especially harm Nigeria, as malnourishment is widespread there.

The results reported might have underestimated the cost of delay, especially in evaluating the benefit of adopting insect resistant cowpea, as they only consider the energy content of this crop. Further, environmental and health benefits from reduced pesticide use for pest and disease control are not explicitly included.

The calculation model the authors used includes economic benefits for producers and consumers as well as the benefits of reduced malnutrition among subsistence farm-households often not explicitly considered in previous studies. The authors also consider the uncertainty policy makers face caused by contradicting statements from lobby groups. They calculate the implicit costs attached. In general, uncertainty about future costs weighs higher than uncertainty about future benefits. One unit of costs needs about 1.5 units of benefits for compensation under uncertainty and explains why policy makers are more responsive to statements about the costs than the benefits of genetically engineered crops. “This explains why those opposing genetically engineered crops have it easier to convince policymakers”, explains Justus Wesseler, prof. of Agricultural Economics and Rural Policy at Wageningen University, lead author of the study.

Reducing migration

“Time is money, and lives!, Justus Wesseler concludes. “Reducing the approval time of genetically modified crops results in generating economic gains, potentially contributing to reducing malnutrition and saving lives, and can be an inexpensive strategy for reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goal of eradicating malnutrition by 2030, Justus Wesseler says. “But this might also be important for Europe as it reduces migration”.