As issues of food insecurity on the African continent continue to be discussed and ways to solve them proffered, the debate about genetically-modified crops, which were introduced 15 years ago, has become louder. Most notable of the prominent personalities who have supported this approach is business magnate and philanthropist Bill Gates. Equally supporting the motion is Kenyan Harvard professor and author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project, Calestous Juma. For Juma, the GM approach is exactly the answer to our food woes. But not all Africans agree. South African consultant Glenn Ashton says that these moves run counter to “scientific research funded by the World Bank and the United Nations, and with grassroots agronomic movements, on what is best for Africa.” An outline of the debate is provided below.
Science and technology
For academics like Juma, GM crops are an important way to meet rising food needs, especially in light of climate change and rising global population growth rates. “It doesn’t make sense to reduce the size of the toolbox when the challenges are expanding,” he argues. Put differently, modern science and technology must be leveraged and fully exploited to foster and fuel prosperity on the African continent, especially where food security is concerned.
Agreeing that science is important, Ashton argues that scientific evidence reveals the flaws in a GM approach. Alluding to the World Bank and UN-sponsored research which allowed 900 scientists to explore ways science and technology could be leveraged for agricultural development, he said that the results showed that GM crops were not the silver bullet to solving the problem of world hunger.
Agro-ecology as a viable alternative
Furthermore, argues Ashton, the results of the research show that in light of climate change, agro-ecological methods – not industrial farming methods – provide the “most viable means to enhance global food security.” In other words, instead of creating artificial methods of modifying crops, practical scientific research tailored to the local ecology and based on traditional seed varieties will provide more sustainable crops and a more diverse and increased yield over time.
Citing the 2009 Union of Concerned Scientists report, “Failure to Yield”, he insists that GM crops have fallen short on that front, especially over the long term, in spite of the large investments and many chemicals that have gone into their production. Even the environment benefits that are touted, he says, do not live up to the hype as “‘drought-resistant’ corn…is far less robust than natural maize varieties and farming methods requiring less water.”
An opposing view is presented by Juma who writes thus: “Over the 1996-2010 period, biotechnology crops have reduced 443 million kg of (active ingredient) pesticide use. This did not only reduce the spraying of chemicals that destroyed biological diversity, but they also cut down harmful exposure by farmers.”
In the interest of smallholder farmers
Concerns about who the real beneficiaries of GM methods are have also been raised. Monsanto, the largest multinational corporation in this field, has been derided for making money off the backs of grassroots/smallholder farmers and thus undermining genuine efforts to empower them. This perception of “African hunger as [simply] a business opportunity and the world’s poor as a fast growing consumer market,” laments Ashton, has driven corporate interests in agriculture and informed the decision to favour GM crops above ecological, social and local economic concerns.
Juma, addressing those points, says that the claims are unfounded as the evidence points to the contrary. Citing the latest report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) – Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2011 – he says that in actual fact, 90 percent of GM crops are grown by smallholder farmers and are providing ecological dividends to the soils. He particularly highlights the importance of drought-resistant, herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant crops which improve and increase the farmers’ turnover. He also notes that drought-resistant crops are key in efforts to prevent desertification, as they are able to permit re-vegetation and reforestation on a large scale. GM crops are also considered to have a positive impact on climate change as they are better able to trap carbon dioxide in the soil – instead of releasing the gases into the atmosphere – through a process called No Till Agriculture. For him, the results (GM crops’ benefits to the environment) will only become clearer with time.
Herbicide-tolerant crops also bring major benefits to female farmers, promises Juma. This is because the arduous task of weeding is carried out by smallholder farmers – who are typically women. Thus, as weeding time drops considerably, productivity will increase as labour will be exploited in other areas and will free up time for women to attend to personal and familial needs.
A possible counter-argument from Ashton and his fellow agro-ecology advocates would be to find other methods of tackling weeds and accomplishing basic farm activities – such as promoting mechanisation – which will also boost productivity and improve the social and economic conditions of women farmers.
Reconciling the discrepancy
It seems that evidence provided and claims made by both sides of this debate are diametrically opposed. How then does one reconcile this discrepancy?
First and foremost, it is at once evident that there is no magic bullet to solving the challenges of agriculture, especially on the African continent. Secondly, it will not suffice to provide damning evidence for or against one method or another. Instead the advantages, disadvantages, successes and shortcomings of both agro-ecological and biotechnology (which can also be agro-ecological) methods should be laid on the table. Depending on the context, the strengths of either or both should be played on and effectively harnessed to improve productivity and yield while also striking a balance in the cultivation of diverse varieties of crops.
That said, there needs to be a visible shift in African countries from the dominance of large corporations like Monsanto to the thriving of indigenous smallholder ventures – operated by farmers who have access to inputs and are better able to tap into this much-touted consumer market. It is not enough for 90 percent of GM crops to be grown by smallholder farmers; the global distributions of profits from this enterprise must also be in their favour.
Over the past decade, technology has presented a major boon for agriculture. To secure its place in the global economy, African agriculture must continue to exploit the full range of these technologies – mobile, biotech, agricultural engineering, etc., while leading the way in the race toward women’s economic and political empowerment, and gender equality.