Appropriate technology: industrial fertiliser or cow poo?

Hard to believe, but such is the faith in chemical fertilisers that it came as a complete revelation to farmers in Tanzania’s Dodoma region that you can fertilise your fields with animal manure.

Agro-pastoralist farmer Gilbert Masiga explained: “The project has changed me. In the past I was not using farmyard manure in my farm but now it is a great resource. GilbertCombined with Good Agriculture Practices I am now getting enough food for my family and surplus for sale. I advise other livestock keepers to preserve livestock feed for use during the dry season and use farmyard manure to increase crop yield.”

But you can see why the G8 New Alliance of powerful governments and corporations is pushing the industrial agriculture approach into Africa. There’s just no corporate profit or export revenues to be made from African farmers collecting farmyard manure and spreading it on their fields, or planting nitrogen-fixing beans between rows of maize. It obviously makes more economic sense to pump non-renewable fossil fuel from beneath the ocean floor, convert it to chemical fertilizer, ship it halfway round the world, generating corporate profits and greenhouse gas emissions at every step, and then sell it for more than a dollar a kg to farmers earning less than a dollar a day.


PhilanthroCapitalism – Enemy at the Gates?

Probably a bad idea having a pop at the world’s second richest man, or the world’s largest independent aid agency, but somebody had to post a rebuttal to the outrageous comments in the East African newspaper interview with the great man.

I suppose it’s only to be expected that the man who became the world’s second richest through technology development and the pursuit of global market domination should back techno fixes and big business interests – hell he even hired a Monsanto vice president to head up the Gates Foundation’s GMO African agriculture programme, and then bought half a million Monsanto shares. But being so rich presumably means that you can make unsubstantiated and misleading assertions with impunity. Take for instance this double whammy: One key benefit of GMOs in Africa is that they reduce the need for pesticides, which is why a lot of the anti-GMO work is funded by the pesticide industry.”

First – GMOs have actually increased the use of pesticides, notably the use of ‘RoundUp’ glyphosate herbicide (pesticides include herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and bactericides). According to Reuters U.S. farmers are using more hazardous pesticides to fight weeds and insects due largely to heavy adoption of genetically modified crop technologies that are sparking a rise of “superweeds” and hard-to-kill insects, according to a newly released study. Genetically engineered crops have led to an increase in overall pesticide use, by 404 million pounds from the time they were introduced in 1996 through 2011, according to the report by Charles Benbrook, a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University. Of that total, herbicide use increased over the 16-year period by 527 million pounds while insecticide use decreased by 123 million pounds.

Secondly – who are these anti-GMO pesticide industry people? The pesticide industry largely owns the GM seed industry. The ‘Big Six” pharmaceutical and chemical companies have acquired, and created joint ventures with hundreds of seed companies over the past 15 years. Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company and world leader in GMO seeds is also the worlds fourth largest pesticide company, and now controls more than one-quarter (27%) of the commercial seed market. Three companies control more than half (53%) of the global commercial market for seed. As a proud member of a coalition of more than 200 African civil society organizations resisting the spread of GM industry seed control across Africa, its outrageous to suggest that any would take money from the pesticide industry.


The kingdoms of Experience
In the precious wind they rot
While paupers change possessions
Each one wishing for what the other has got
And the princess and the prince
Discuss what’s real and what is not
It doesn’t matter inside the Gates Foundation.

(with apologies to Bob Dylan)

Abolishing starvation needs GM crops… like a fish needs a bicycle!

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.

Decades of Women

Strengthening Gender Equity in Agriculture

– a case study of gender and organic cocoa in Kyela

The informal slogan of the international Decade of Women (1976-1985) became “Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, receive 10 percent of the world’s income and own 1 percent of the means of production.” Twenty-five years on, as the African Union launches the African Women’s Decade (2010-2020), it would seem that here in Tanzania little has changed.

About two hours drive south of Mbeya, on the shores of Lake Nyasa, Kyela is famous for its high quality rice and organic cocoa. Around three quarters of Kyela’s 120,000 farmers grow cocoa, first introduced by Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah as a legacy of his friendship with Mwalimu Julius Nyerere.

Tanzania Organic Agriculture Movement was asked to prepare a case study of the impact of certification on gender relations in Kyela by Development Partner HIVOS as part of the international Gender and Global Standards Initiative. This aims to ensure that men and women receive a fair share of benefits related to their contributions in production, harvest and processing.

Women work more than men but are paid less
We found that in Kyela women typically work 3 hours per day longer than men. As well as working on the farm they also have to clean, cook, and look after the children. But it is the men who sell the cocoa beans and have the final say on how the money is spent. Luckily, since the cocoa has gained organic certification, farmers’ incomes have increased significantly (from around TSh300/kg to TSh2,800/kg) which has benefitted both men and women across the whole community. Many families now have brick houses with iron roofs, and better access to education and healthcare. Some even have satellite TV and access to solar electricity.

One male cocoa farmer told us “Money was so little I was not bothering to show the money to my wife nor inform her on how I spend it; the little which I was receiving I used it for drinking pombe. But nowadays we are deciding together and we discuss on how to spend our income as a family.”

The problems start when men fail to share the money or involve women in decision-making. One woman confided, “Women harvest the unripe cocoa and sell it raw and unfermented to the middlemen (mjemuka) in order to get money for the upkeep of the family. They sell it to the middlemen at low prices because selling to the registered companies she can be noticed by her husband.”

Family disputes over cocoa income can spark gender-based violence. We heard that sometimes if a wife tries to ask her husband about the money he received from selling the cocoa, she could be threatened or beaten if she persists.

But when women are fully involved, not just in production but also in training, and decision making, then quality and productivity increases, maximising incomes and benefit to the whole family. Certification has added some extra workload but women say the additional family benefits far outweigh the extra effort.

Women own very little land and property
Certification has had no impact on gender equity in land ownership. Women rarely own land as ownership passes from father to son. However, as a result of increased incomes, you can see many Kyela women now riding bicycles, and chatting on mobile phones.

Certification can help women
We found that different types of certification have very different impacts on gender relations. While we saw very little impact as a result of ‘organic’ certification on its own, we noticed considerable impact as a result of additional ‘fair trade’ certification. As a fairly-traded cocoa manager candidly told us, “We are forced to do so by the standard.” His company is making considerable efforts to address gender inequality, employing more women, and insisting that women farmers get training as well as men. The experience has taught him lessons, as he explained, “Women don’t think they can do things but they are good workers, careful. Other employers may think they are unreliable.”

The call to action

It makes good economic sense to ensure women are fully included. Meticulous, responsible, and quick to learn, women farmers are strongly motivated to work for the benefit of their families. Harness that motivation and you capture major improvements to productivity, quality, and income.

A female farmer suggested “Awareness has to be created for people to realize that both of them, men and women, contribute to producing cocoa and thus equal ownership of cocoa and an equal say on spending money earned is essential.”

Launching the African Women’s Decade, Songea born United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said, “Empowering women is a moral imperative, a question of fundamental rights. It is also sound policy. Investing in women and girls is one of the greatest investments we can make. We must ensure that rural women can access the legal, financial and technological tools they need to progress from subsistence agriculture to productive agriculture. Let us accept in our minds, and in our laws, that women are rightful and equal partners – to be protected, to be respected, and to be heard.”

(The Gender and Global Standards Initiative is undertaken by four organizations in the Netherlands: Hivos, Oxfam Novib, Solidaridad and the Royal Tropical Institute.)

Kolo Rock Art

Had a day off (Eid) from baseline survey work in Kondoa, so went to see these 6,000 year old rock paintings, after a trek up a rocky hillside to reach the three sites, originally catalogued by the Leakeys back in the 50s. You can tell which ones are male by the dreadlocks. And it would appear that 6,000 years ago zebra, giraffe, elephant, and eland looked much the same as they do now.


The round thing is the sun apparently

Eland and maybe a trap.

Guys with dreads


Abdi with giraffe, animal skin, and oddly positioned men

Some sort of antelope – eland maybe.

The GMO thing


Previously officially GM free, Tanzania has now opened the door to GM biotechnology. Research on GM cassava and field trials of GM maize have already started, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Biosafety regulations and guidelines have been approved and legislation is being fast-tracked to pave the way for testing and commercialisation.

US Political Science Professor Robert Paarlberg, author of ‘Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa, is supporting the GM drive. Paarlberg, described by Internet sources as an advisor to the CEO of Monsanto and a GM industry lobbyist, extols the virtues of GMOs, citing improved productivity of Bt cotton in India. According to Paarlberg, Africa is denied access to biotechnology that could boost production, reduce hunger and improve incomes of small farmers. He claims that no new risks have been documented so far, and insists that liability laws in Tanzania should be tailored to ensure clear cause-effect in cases of litigation, thereby avoiding “vague” accusations against GM companies.

He argues that GM crops must play the central role in solving Africa’s hunger and poverty and that, through inadequate investment, external lobbying and stringent regulations, Africa’s farmers are being deprived of the technology and prevented from achieving agricultural success.

Ian Scoones, co-director of the ESRC STEPS Centre and Dominic Glover of the Technology and Agrarian Development Group at Wageningen University agree that Africa needs investment in agricultural research and technology development but do not share Paarlberg’s insistence that GM is the answer. “Starved for Science summarily dismisses a slew of other scientifically-validated approaches to agriculture, including low-external input approaches, integrated pest and soil fertility management and even other types of biotechnology. This is entirely unjustified. Much solid scientific research demonstrates that such approaches have performed well in African contexts – sometimes better than higher-tech, higher-cost technologies.”

Meanwhile, the World Agriculture Report (IAASTD) 2009, developed by 400 scientists and endorsed by 61 governments including Tanzania, 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 of the final IAASTD report 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. More and better food can be produced without destroying rural livelihoods or our natural resources. Local, socially and environmentally responsible methods are the solution. The IAASTD concluded that such techniques as genetic engineering are no solution for soaring food prices, hunger and poverty.

“Genetic engineering is considered by some to have important ramifications for productivity but some of its uses and impacts are hotly contested. Contamination of farmer-saved seed and threats to biodiversity in centers of origin are key concerns with respect to biotechnology and genetic engineering in particular. The environmental risks and evidence of negative health impacts mean that SSA’s ability to make informed decisions regarding biotechnology research, development, delivery and application is critical. In part, the current limited capacity of individual countries to address risk assessment and management of transgenics is being addressed through regional capacity building and harmonization of guidelines, policies, legislation and creating an understanding of biosafety issues” (IAASTD Sub Saharan Africa Summary for Decision Makers).

Genetic engineering and the use of GMOs are clearly not compatible with the principles and practices of sustainable agriculture, and evidence shows it to be of little benefit to poor farmers because: the productivity gains are poor compared to conventional methods; it increases the use of toxic chemical pesticides; it’s expensive, requiring costly inputs; it reduces biodiversity, increases the dependency of farmers upon agribusiness, and may pose unknown health risks, while diverting resources (people/time/money) away from the real and clearly expressed needs of small farmers.

GM’s impact on small farmers in India hit the headlines in the UK’s Daily Mail: “Shankara, like millions of other Indian farmers, had been promised previously unheard of harvests and income if he switched from farming with traditional seeds to planting GM seeds instead. Beguiled by the promise of future riches, he borrowed money in order to buy the GM seeds. But when the harvests failed, he was left with spiralling debts – and no income. So Shankara became one of an estimated 125,000 farmers to take their own life as a result of the ruthless drive to use India as a testing ground for genetically modified crops.”

Research at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) reports that ‘the maximum gains from genetic modification are small, much lower than with either conventional breeding or agroecology-based techniques. The heavy publicity may be due to the politicized international debates about genetically engineered crops. In particular, biotechnology firms have been eager to use philanthropic African projects for public relations purposes. Such public legitimacy may be needed by companies in their attempts to reduce trade restrictions, biosafety controls, and monopoly regulations.’

Global corporate dominance is rarely achieved by placing ethics above profits. As the world leader in GM biotechnology sales, few will be surprised at Monsanto’s aggressive GM stance, but what are we supposed to make of the ‘philanthropic’ Gates Foundation buying 500,000 shares in Monsanto, having head hunted two of its top lieutenants to join the Foundation, then agreed a $6.7m grant to develop GM biotechnology in East Africa, and commissioned GM advocate Paarlberg to carry out major studies in eastern and southern Africa – on the politics of accepting biofortified food crops in developing countries?

It’s no longer just about biotechnology development; it’s now also about oiling the African political machinery, as the Gates Foundation’s $5.4m grant to the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center reveals. According to Truth about Trade, a pro GM lobby group: “The funding will help the center secure the approval of African governments to allow field testing of genetically modified banana, rice, sorghum and cassava plants that have been fortified with vitamins, minerals and proteins.”

It is perhaps predictable that these particular US based donors and biotech corporations are selling a top-down technical fix for African poverty. But surely by now it must be clear that poverty is multiple, with interconnected issues of health, education, income, governance, conflict, land-use, climate change, access to water, credit, markets, roads, electricity, and services. And that Tanzania’s small farmers need several of these issues to be resolved before they and their families can escape from food insecurity. It should be clear that the GM industry may have made life easier and more profitable for some large scale animal feed producers in industrialized countries, but has yet to understand let alone effectively address the needs of smallholder farmers in developing countries.

And that high tech seeds requiring expensive chemical inputs are not going to be much use to the millions (80% of Tanzania’s 42m population is dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods) of extremely poor risk-averse small farmers, male and female, who are currently trying to feed and support their families by working two or three acres of rain-fed land with a hand hoe. Yes, they need improved seeds and technology, but it’s got to build on their farming system, not replace it. They will welcome high yielding and resistant varieties, but only if they can afford to buy and grow them, and only if they are tasty enough to eat and to sell.

Meanwhile Tanzania’s estimated 100,000 certified organic farmers will be waking up to two new challenges: protecting their crops from GM contamination… then proving it!