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Undying Promise: Agricultural Biotechnology’s Pro-poor Narrative, Ten Years On

Many people and organisations have sought to promote genetically modified (GM, transgenic) crops as a ‘pro-poor’ technology. However, developing-country farmers’ experiences with GM crops have been mixed. Some farmers have certainly benefited, but others have not. Predictably, the performance and impacts of transgenic crops depend critically on a range of technical, socio-economic and institutional factors. By themselves, genetically modified seeds are not enough to guarantee a good harvest or to create a sustainable and productive farm livelihood.

In spite of this emerging picture of complex and differentiated impacts, the simplistic narrative of GM crops as a uniformly ‘pro-poor’ technology has proved to be extraordinarily resilient. Why has it persisted? Part of the reason is that a substantial number of econometric studies have claimed to demonstrate that GM crops are a technological and economic success in the developing world. But methodological and presentational flaws in those studies have created a distorted picture of both the performance and the impacts of GM crops in smallholder farming contexts. This has seriously distorted public debate and impeded the development of sound, evidence-based policy.

This paper examines the hidden assumptions that have shaped both the pro-poor claims on behalf of GM crops and the methods that have been used to evaluate them. Those assumptions have involved the radical simplification of the complex agronomic and livelihood contexts into which GM crops have been inserted. They have thus undermined the usefulness and relevance of the information which has been presented to both farmers and policy makers.

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