A response to the Mark Lynas article in The (London) Times 5 July 2011.
African farmers have a long history of being told by foreign experts how to solve their problems. Whatever happened to asking farmers what they really need?
The colonials brought ‘the gospel of the plough’ recreating Africa in the image of their green and pleasant lands as they grabbed the rich well watered soils, and displaced the indigenous farmers onto the marginal dryland. Now the USAID / Gates Foundation backed American export drive is pushing GMOs onto African farmers, few of whom have ever heard of a GMO let alone understood the ramifications of entering into a ‘technology stewardship agreement’ with Monsanto. That’ll be the same Monsanto that brought the world DDT, Agent Orange, Aspartame, PCBs and Bovine Growth Hormone BST. Google health risks and Monsanto if you’re feeling brave, and while you’re there check if the increased yields claimed by Mark Lynas are supported by the evidence, and how much ‘more benign’, as he puts it, their Roundup herbicide actually is. And see if you can find a good word said about GM by a small cotton farmer in Makhathini, South Africa – the site of the last disastrous ‘GM in Africa’ experiment.
And we’re not in Kansas anymore. University of Dar es Salaam has identified 230 different agro-ecological zones in Tanzania, and not too many of them look like the Midwest. If Mark Lynas is so keen to bring the US system of agriculture to Africa, perhaps he could start by allocating Tanzania’s farmers the average US farm subsidy of upwards of $10,000 a year. Except that would cost $50 billion, or roughly 100 times Tanzania’s agriculture budget. By the way can anyone explain why the USA is paying their farmers billions to massively overproduce GM maize to feed cattle, and then dumping the surplus on unsuspecting refugees the world over?
So what about solutions? According to Mark ‘the solution must be a radical change to agriculture on the continent.’ The World Agriculture Report (IAASTD), the UN and the African Union share this sentiment, but definitely not the idea that the shift should be towards GM.
Developed over four years by over 400 scientists and endorsed by 61 governments, the IAASTD report is a call for governments and international agencies to redirect and increase their funding towards a revolution in agriculture that is firmly agro-ecological. The core message is the urgent need to move away from destructive and chemical-dependent industrial agriculture and to adopt environmental modern farming methods that champion biodiversity and benefit local communities. The report also concluded that such techniques as genetic engineering are no solution for soaring food prices, hunger and poverty.
Meanwhile the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food is urging governments to resist the introduction of genetically-modified varieties as a threat to crop diversity, which he called ”a crucial asset in the face of future threats and unpredictable changes brought about by climate change” and necessary in fighting hunger. And the African Union advice is: African policymakers should radically shift their attention and resources in the direction of sustainable agriculture, including organic agriculture.
Who are you going to believe – them or the industry lobbyists?
For the record, biotechnology is alive and well in Africa. The industry has tried to co-opt the term ‘biotechnology’ to mean GM, and thereby sell the myth that if you don’t like GM you’re a flat-earther. Conventional biotechnology, like tissue culture and marker assisted crop breeding, has ensured there are plenty of safe, non-GM, high-yielding, drought resistant, insect resistant seeds and adaptive techniques on the shelves of the plethora of government agricultural research centres across Africa. The problem is that due to decades of low public sector investment, very little of this actually gets out to the farmer.
It is entirely predictable that the agribusiness corporations are touting a top-down technical fix for African food insecurity and poverty. But if you bother to ask the African farmer what she really needs, she might well say: access to land, credit, markets, training, tried-and-tested technology, farm machinery, roads, energy, and services. Rather than be seduced by the promise of a high-tech miracle, maybe we should refocus on what the farmer actually wants?
The word on the street is that despite all the expensive GM hype and bluster, big business is getting turned off by GM biotechnology creating more problems than it solves, and are asking themselves if this really is a long term earner. This ‘recession busting’ attempt to penetrate African markets could be the last gasp. We’re just hoping they don’t contaminate the 4.8 million Tanzanian small farms before they quit.