Global lessons for agricultural sustainability from GM crops

Hand holding maize seeds / Photo: Speak-It films

Governing Agricultural Sustainability: Global lessons from GM crops is the latest title in the STEPS Centre’s Pathways to Sustainability book series. Editor Phil Macnaghten introduces its reframing of the GM debate explored in the book.

By Phil Macnaghten, Professor of Technology and International Development, Wageningen University

‘Can GM crops help to feed the world?’ It is a timely question. With rising world populations, persistent hunger and chronic, a growing demand for food globally, the need to protect land for biodiversity and ecosystem services and the mounting threats associated with climate change, it is unsurprising that advances in the biosciences (and in the development of GM crops in particular) are proposed to play a critical role in meeting the challenges of global food security.

Yet, although the rise of GM crops has been dramatic, their uptake has not been the smooth nor universal transition predicted by its advocates. Controversy has been marked even in those countries where approvals have been impressively rapid. All too commonly the regulation of GM crops has been challenged as inadequate, even biased – and in some settings such as India and Mexico, planting of certain crops have been judicially suspended. A new book in the STEPS Centre’s Pathways to Sustainability series, Governing Agricultural Sustainability: Global lessons from GM crops, edited by Phil Macnaghten and Susana Carro-Ripalda,  aims to understand these dynamics, examining the impacts of GM crops in diverse contexts and their potentials to contribute to sustainable agricultural futures.The book explores the strategic question for the GMFuturos project, led by Durham University and with international partners in Mexico, Brazil and India, of why GM crops have not been universally accepted as a public good, since if we do not address this, we will fail to understand the conditions under which GM crops may contribute to global food security in an inclusive manner.

Current approaches to the regulation and governance of GM crops have been dominated by risk-based assessment methodologies, the assumption being that the key criterion mediating the release of GMOs into the environment should be an independent case-by-case risk assessment of their impacts on human health and the environment. One consequence is that the public debate surrounding GM crops has been boiled down to one of safety: whether they are safe to eat, and whether they safe to the environment? In relation to these questions we remain agnostic. Our argument is otherwise. Our argument is that if we are to govern GM crops in a socially and scientifically robust fashion, we need to engage with the issue within the terms of the debate as it is considered by an inclusive array of actors.

At the core of the project was fieldwork undertaken in three of the global ‘rising powers’, namely in Mexico (on GM maize), Brazil (on GM soya) and India (on GM cotton), and involving ethnographic, interview and focus group research with farmers, scientists and publics[1]. The choice of three ‘rising power’ global South case studies is deliberate. The majority of scholarship on GM crops has been focused on global North settings with to date relatively minor engagement with the dynamics of the issue in the global South. Yet, it will be in countries such as Brazil, Mexico and India where agricultural innovation is most needed, where the bulk of food provision is expected to come from and where debates over GM agricultural technologies are likely to be most intense.

In Mexico, we found that the public debate on GM maize had been deeply controversial and culturally resonant, that protests against GM maize had been widespread, and that they had signified the defence of Mexican culture and identity in the face of unwanted forms of imposed globalization. We saw that decisions by regulatory bodies had been compromised and lacking in transparency, and that there has been little sustained effort by institutional actors, including the Mexican state, to engage the public. In our ethnographic field research, we found that farmers retain strong and enduring relations around maize agriculture and that the prospect of GM maize is seen as an intrusion on traditional practices. In our ethnographic research with scientists, we found a clear distinction within the laboratory, between senior and older researchers who were more avowedly in favour of the application of GM agricultural technologies, and younger and more junior researchers who were more cautious and nuanced. While, in our research with urban publics, we identified a general negative reaction to GM crops and foods, reflecting deep-seated patterns of mistrust in the Mexican government, and their apparent collusion with large corporations.

In Brazil, we found that even though the coverage of GM crops had risen rapidly since 2005 (mostly GM soya and maize), the issue was far from settled, with little evidence of public acceptability or inclusive governance. In our ethnographic field research, we found evidence of a conflict between farmers and technical experts from the seed companies, each blaming each other for the growing problem of weed resistance to glyphosate. In our ethnographic research with scientists, we found clear and unqualified optimism amongst scientists on the role of GM crop technologies to provide significant future agricultural improvement, emphasising economic benefits, the apparent unparalleled ability of GM crop technologies to provide ‘improvements’ and the necessity for agricultural GM research to have a strong national base. In our research with urban lay publics in Florianopolis, we found little knowledge or awareness about GM crops and foods and genuine surprise about the extent of its adoption. Notwithstanding a general trust in science, participants adopted largely negative opinions to GM foods in the discussions, not least because the technology was seen as benefiting the producer (not the consumer) and because they had not been consulted or clearly informed.

In India, we found that GM cotton had become a provocative symbol of foreign control and imposition, where regulatory bodies have been routinely criticized for using inadequate procedures for the approval of GM crops. In our laboratory ethnography, we found that the scientists whose work we observed were opposed to the moratorium and constructed and perceived the position of anti-GM actors as ‘ignorant’ or aimed at ‘publicity’ seeking. Scientists’ critique of the moratorium was often framed in terms of post-colonial discourse, as they argued that India could not afford the risk of ‘falling behind’ in the development of biotechnology. In group research with lay publics, we found the majority of our research participants to develop negative views on GM crops and foods, with urban publics emphasising their mistrust on the government and the local authorities to provide a reliable regulatory system, and with rural participants arguing that using GM seeds were interfering with the preservation of indigenous seeds.

Across all three case studies, we found the technical regulatory bodies charged with approvals for the release of GMOs have not provided ‘authoritative governance’[2], that the predominant research cultures in national biotechnology laboratories had little capacity to respond to wider societal responsibilities and that lay people across the board tended to adopt negative views when introduced to the technology and its application. To summarise, we found that the key factors that explain the controversy over GM crops are social and institutional in nature, and transcend questions of technical risk. These are presented in Table 1 below.


Table 1 Factors shaping the controversy on GM crops: A comparison of Mexico, Brazil and India


 Country Perceived authority of the regulatory agencies Cultural resonance of the crop Intensity of protest movements GM as symbol of wider struggle Degree of public engagement
Mexico GM maize LowDecisions by regulatory bodies seen as lacking in authority and transparency and judged at times to be illegal HighMaize is an integral part of Mexican identity, history and culture HighThe anti-GM campaign has sustained its presence since 2002 HighGM maize is constituted as a symbol of the protest against neoliberalism and NAFTA LowThere has been little sustained effort by institutional actors to engage the public
Brazil GM soya Low/ MediumApprovals have been successfully authorised by CTNBio since 2005 leading to widespread planting. But decisions remain contested LowSoya has little cultural significance in Brazil High (until 2003) Low (from 2005)Following the passing of the Biosafety Law the protests peter out High (until 2003) GM crops are situated within an anti-globalisation discourse.Low (from 2005) LowThere has been little sustained effort by institutional actors to engage the public
India GM cotton LowRegulatory bodies seen as lacking in transparency and capacity. Perceived gaps in the regulatory system led to 2013 moratorium HighThe fragile thread of cotton is a national symbol of Indian self-sufficiency HighThe anti-GM campaign has sustained high profile protests HighBt cotton is a symbol of a struggle against multinationals and neoliberalism LowThere has been little sustained effort by institutional actors to engage the public


Responding to this ‘institutional void’ we proposed a novel way to govern GM crops informed by recent debates on responsible innovation[3]: that if we are to innovate responsibly and robustly, we need new institutional capacities to better anticipate the wider driving forces as well as impacts of emerging technologies, to open up an inclusive debate with stakeholders and wider publics, to develop more reflexive scientific cultures and to develop new governance architectures that are responsive to these processes. The responsible innovation framework has been pioneered in UK research and is being implemented by UK research councils[4] and more widely across Europe. It offers new potential to reconfigure the debate on the governance of GM foods and crops in the UK, in Europe and internationally, and hopefully to help move the debate away from its current polemic and impasse.


[1] Macnaghten, P. and Carro-Ripaldo, S. (eds.) 2015. Governing Agricultural Sustainability: Global Lessons from GM Crops. London: Routledge

[2] Hajer, M. 2009. Authoritative Governance: Policy-making in the Age of Mediatization. Oxford University Press, Oxford

[3] Stilgoe, J., Owen, R. and Macnaghten, P. 2013. Developing a framework of responsible innovation. Research Policy, 42: 1568–1580

[4] EPSRC [Engineering and Physical Science Research Council] 2013. Framework for Responsible Innovation. (Accessed 20 January 2015)

Buy the book

Governing Agricultural Sustainability: Global lessons from GM crops, Routledge, 2015
Order the book at a 20% discount online: use code DC361

This book is part of the STEPS Centre’s Pathways to Sustainability series

Find out more about the STEPS Centre’s GM research

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