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.


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.’ http://allafrica.com/download/resource/main/main/idatcs/00010161:79c889d407e1685067f8869a403d79e7.pdf

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? http://www.gmwatch.org/latest-listing/1-news-items/12442-gates-foundation-ties-with-monsanto-under-fire http://www.wellesley.edu/PublicAffairs/Profile/mr/rpaarlberg.html

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.” http://www.truthabouttrade.org/content/view/13106/54/

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!