Alper H. Yağcı
Faculty, International Relations, Özyeğin University
Visiting Researcher, GLODEM, Koc University
Genetically Modified Organisms, Market Dynamics, and Public Health: Exploring the Linkages and Designing Mechanisms of Impact
Note: A different version of this essay has first appeared on the Mittelungen bulletin of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center.
For various reasons the public seems to like to debate the genetically modified organisms (GMOs). However, baffled by complexity, most people fall back on one of the two simplistic storylines for or against the new technology in order to form opinions: that it is either a silver bullet capable of solving the world’s food production problems, or that it is a rare kind of evil that embodies various perils to humanity; sanitary, environmental and socio-economic. In fact, genetic engineering of crops is a platform technology that comes in various applications—different traits for different plants for different purposes, and it is difficult to pass a blanket verdict on all its impacts. Furthermore, the impact of technology is shaped by market institutions and public policies regulating them. It is those institutions and policies that define the conditions of property ownership and access, and determine who reaps most of the economic benefits from the cultivation of improved crops. Below I explain how institutions and policies that aim to tackle market-related challenges can also have public health consequences. Recognizing the connection may help if we intend to improve the regulatory policies in those countries where genetically modified (GM) crops are being cultivated. In Türkiye, cultivation of GM crops remains completely prohibited as per the 2010 Biosafety Law. However, there is some demand from the agrifood industry for its legalization, and therefore issues explored below should be relevant for the GMO debates in Türkiye, too.
Contrary to a widespread belief, GM crop seeds do not put biological barriers against the replanting of harvested seed by farmers. This is, however, precisely the reason why biotechnology companies marketing the seeds try to establish legal barriers, in the form of intellectual property protection instruments such as patents, that prevent farmers from replanting seeds without paying royalty fees to the patent-holding companies. Furthermore, patents relating to GM crop seeds are highly concentrated: a UN report found that of all those approved for commercial cultivation between 1992 and 2005 worldwide, more than half of the patents were owned by the US-based Monsanto alone. Hence intellectual property protection over GM seeds is an issue that brings farmers and biotechnology companies like Monsanto into conflict, even if those two interest groups occasionally ally against the GMO-skeptic public to advocate for the wider acceptance of this technology. Biotechnology companies want that farmers pay for the seeds, farmers don’t, or they argue that the fees demanded are exorbitant, and if standard economic theory of monopoly has any merit they might be right.
There are several public health-related consequences of these market dynamics. First, unchallenged by competition, established biotechnology companies prioritize research towards those genetic traits that are of particular commercial interest to them, instead of the ones that would have the most social impact. Currently most of the world’s GM crop seeds are not those with genes that increase their nutritional value or make them suitable to climate change, but those that are tolerant of a particular chemical herbicide (glyphosate) that was patented by Monsanto—the same company that developed the seeds. With glyphosate-tolerant seeds, farmers can abundantly use glyphosate to eliminate weeds without losing crops, which makes farm management easier and results in a boost for the sale of this chemical in the meanwhile. Upon lobbying by the biotechnology industry, the official approval of GM crop cultivation often comes with a change in rules relating to the glyphosate residue allowed in food—in Brazil the level was increased 50 times in a single decision, which is by definition an increase in risk even if the new level is still below levels scientifically regarded as unsafe. In Argentina, incidents of lethal cancer seem to have skyrocketed in periurban areas that are exposed to glyphosate spraying from nearby farms. Scientific evidence suggests that more than anything about the consumption of GM food per se, the liberal spraying of glyphosate is likely to present veritable public health problems. The issue illustrates well the complexity of the GMO debate: Glyphosate is used on all kinds of crops, but there is a market structure-induced affinity between it and GM crops, pointing to the need for public regulation of those precise mechanisms that increase the public’s exposure to this chemical, and for that purpose bans on GM crops will not do. Alas, such nuances are lost to hotheaded civil society activism around GMOs, which typically aims to capture public opinion with blanket for- or against- positions.
A second health-related consequence of the tightly concentrated market structure and associated intellectual property claims is the informal market practices that emerge to avoid them. In developing countries especially, farmers seek to access the agronomically superior GM seeds without proper contracts with the patent-holding transnational companies, and governments have been encouraging or tolerating these efforts. Fly-by-night local companies “cross” officially approved GM crop seeds with other varieties to develop new, illegal varieties of GM crops. The resulting seeds are cheaper but they release unregulated risks to the environment, making biosafety regulations meaningless. To address this problem, again, a ban on GM crops would be irrelevant; and market regulation policies should be considered instead. In India, for example, the introduction of mandatory ceilings for the price biotechnology companies can officially charge for GM seeds have resulted in a decrease in the farmers’ use of illegal varieties.
While the confounding of biosafety risks by problems of market structure may provide some with all the more reason to oppose the technology of genetically engineering crops; another conclusion is plausible. If monopolistic/oligopolistic control over genetic engineering has been hindering its potential to generate socially desirable outcomes, greater investment in research and development for this technology by public and private partners could tackle problems of market structure. To put it somewhat bluntly, even if biotechnology companies like Monsanto are reviled by critiques; more biotechnology companies, and not fewer, may be the solution. Currently, resource-consuming tests required for the approval of new genetically modified crop varieties function as a market entry barrier that protects the monopolistic-oligopolistic vanguard. Since big companies can staff scientists and lawyers around the world to monitor biosafety regulations in all the important markets and enjoy economies of scale, their products can survive these tests and still remain profitable for them. Small companies cannot do the same—the unpredictability of regulatory survival deters many from even trying. This does not mean that biosafety tests should be made less demanding, but governments in developing countries may take a bolder approach to subsidizing domestic biotechnology R&D capacity in compensation.
In terms of global governance the recognition of such complexity of the policy terrain does not lend itself easily to a to-do list, but it may make us better informed about what not to do. Efforts at establishing high-profile international biosafety regimes, as the GMO-skeptic countries tried to push with the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, and the pro-GMO countries tried to realize through WTO settlements, may not be the most productive way of dealing with the policy challenges. In fact, the observations above suggest that some of the most needed interventions lay in domestic policy and in the realms of intellectual property and commercial practices rather than biosafety law. This is especially true for developing countries with large populations of vulnerable farmers. The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), in place since 1995, and the Substantial Patent Law Treaty, whose drafts are in circulation, are relevant not only to pharmaceuticals but also to GMOs. Public health activists may want to engage with the negotiation of such treaties with this in mind.
Sadashivappa, Prakash and Matin Qaim. Bt Cotton in India: Development of Benefits and the Role of Government Seed Price Interventions. AgBioForum, 12.2 (2009): 172-183.
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Secretariat. Tracking The Trend Towards Market Concentration: The Case Of The Agricultural Input Industry. April, 2006.
Yagci, Alper H. Managing The Agricultural Biotechnology Revolution: Responses To Transgenic Seeds In Developing Countries. PhD dissertation submitted at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2016.