preparing food inside African house Alida Vanni/iStock/Thinkstock

Costs mounting for delayed approval of GE crops in Africa

Model predicts unjustified delays in approving biotech crops in Africa may claim thousands of lives.

Uncertainty and confusion on genetic engineering of Africa's main food crops 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 (Netherlands), Munich (Germany), Cape Town (South Africa) and Berkeley (California) reveal that the costs of a one-year delay in approving the pod borer-resistant cowpea in Nigeria will cost the country $33-46 million and, more disastrously, will theoretically take 100-3,000 lives, the team reported 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 costly not only via the foregone economic benefits, but they are also taking lives via foregone calorie supplies for malnourished children, the researchers said.

In the Plos ONE study, the research team calculated these effects for the genetically engineered crops cooking banana (matoke), cowpea 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 $1.150 billion for bananas in Uganda and about $795 million for corn in Kenya.

Kenya, Uganda and many other African countries had the chance to follow South Africa’s example of adopting genetically engineered (GE) crops, also called biotech crops. The researchers reported that if Kenya had adopted GE corn in 2006 — which, according to an earlier project, was possible — between 440 and 4,000 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 5,500 lives over the past decade.

The introduction of Bt cowpea is expected in 2017 in Benin, Niger and Nigeria. The African Agricultural Technology Foundation, an African non-governmental organization 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, the research team said. Further, environmental and health benefits from reduced pesticide use for pest and disease control are not explicitly included.

The calculation model the researchers 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 team also considered the uncertainty policy-makers face caused by contradicting statements from lobby groups and calculated 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 GE crops.

“This explains why those opposing genetically engineered crops have it easier to convince policy-makers,” explained Justus Wesseler, professor of agricultural economics and rural policy at Wageningen University and lead author of the study.

“Time is money — and lives," Wesseler concluded. “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 U.N. Sustainable Development Goal of eradicating malnutrition by 2030, but this might also be important for Europe as it reduces migration."

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