Technology in Developing Economies

Another Technology: Genetically Modified Crops

Soybeans infested with weeds (Photo: Colorado State University) Genetically engineering soybeans (Photo: Colorado State University)

Although we have focused primarily on the diffusion and impact of information technology, it is important to realize that advances in other fields have made significant contributions in developing economies. For example, the introduction of genetically modified crops has been associated with positive economic returns in countries where they have been approved for commercial production, namely Argentina, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. Transgenic crops, such as insect-resistant (IR) cotton and herbicide-tolerant (HT) soybeans, have the potential to bring large economic benefits to developing nations, mostly by increasing crop production yields and profits. However, their success depends on many factors, such as their availability, how willing consumers are to purchase them, and the extent to which they are regulated by the government or licensed by private corporations.

Developing economies continue to face the fundamental problem of producing sufficient levels of food. Professor Luis Herrera-Estrella of Cinvestav-Mexico predicts that the world's population will reach 10 billion by the year 2050, and approximately 90% of this total will live in the developing world. Therefore, the current level of food production will need to be increased by a similar factor to meet the world's demand, especially given that insect pests destroy over half of all world food production. Not surprisingly, one of the solutions being explored is genetically modified crops, which offer increased crop yields and reduced pesticide expenses, as shown for IR cotton in the table below. Biotechnological advances achieved in one plant species can be applied to a diversity of crops making it adaptable to the various climes of the world. For instance, engineering delayed ripening is useful not only for traditional crops such as tomatoes, but can also be applied to tropical fruits, which often spoil due to lack of storage and efficient transport to the consumer.

Performance advantage of insect-resistant cotton over conventional cotton expressed as a percentage

Argentina China India Mexico South Africa
Yield 33 19 34 11 65
Revenue 34 23 33 9 65
Pesticide Costs -47 -67 -41 -77 -58
Seed Costs 530 95 17 165 89
Profit 31 340 69 12 299

Also crucial to the dissemination of agricultural biotechnology in developing economies is the issue of intellectual property rights. In Argentina, for example, Monsanto Corporation holds the patent for IR cotton, and thus, is able to charge considerably more for their transgenic seeds. Consequently, the economic advantage afforded by IR cotton is small and its diffusion has been particularly limited in Argentina. It is not altogether surprising that Argentine farmers instead prefer to cultivate HT soybeans, which are not protected by corporate patents but still confer the advantage of increased crop yield.

There are certainly limitations to transgenic crops, as evidenced by the case of IR cotton in Mexico. The commercialized strain of genetically modified IR cotton utilizes a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which confers resistance against a narrow range of pests. As a result, IR cotton is effective only in areas that these pests inhabit, such as Comarca Lagunera. Other agricultural regions must continue to rely on chemical pesticides until novel pest-resistant crops, tailored to their ecosystems, are developed.

by Joe Cackler, Emily Gu, and Mike Rodgers
for CS 201: Computers, Ethics, and Social Responsibility
at Stanford University
on March 17, 2008