Does Africa Really Need Biotechnology for Agricultural Development?

By Saliem Fakir · 6 Oct 2009

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Picture: Nullscore
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Book Review

Book: Starved for Science - How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa

Author: Robert Paarlberg

Publisher: Harvard University Press

First Published: 2008

ISBN-10: 0674029739

David Edgerton, in his book, The Shock of the Old: Technology and global history since 1900 (2008), made a poignant observation: that often when used-based histories of technology are written, it is inevitable that in the name of progress, the new is always more advanced than the old and that “often histories are written as if no alternative could or did not exist.”

It is always singular technologies that change the world. The same trope with different versions and language is being trotted out for genetically modified (GM) crops. “We must have them otherwise we won’t break out of our poverty trap.” 

This is Robert Paarlberg’s sin: the absolute confidence, the over-enthusiasm that alternatives or older agricultural sciences must give way to the power of the new.

Paarlberg traps himself in a strange and circular logic – he is guilty of the very thing he accuses other European and North American NGOs and consumer lobby groups of.

He says others shouldn’t speak on behalf of Africans but he nominates himself as a spokesperson for the technology-fix saviours.

The truth is that those who have the science and expertise -- and they are definitely outsiders, are in power. Hence, Africa’s relation to both pro-GM and anti-GM lobbies is asymmetric and vulnerable to pressure.

Weak institutional capacity to manage the influx of outsider pressure, lack of strong economies and a weak cadre of well-capacitated bureaucrats will always magnify these vulnerabilities and asymmetry.

Let’s face it: this asymmetry and vulnerability is exploited by both groups making Africa the collateral damage of ideological wars being fought elsewhere.

Paarlberg parodies the same old trope that there is good science and bad science and good science must triumph.

In this case, good science - GM crops - has been demonised by selfish Europeans who don’t have to worry about food security, as they produce enough.

In his view, these Europeans are denying Africans their right of progress and wellbeing by restricting access to GM-based crops.

He says they are also hypocritical because they are very happy to use GM-based medicines, but not food because they don’t see any tangible benefits.

He goes further, castigating the international agencies like UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), the World Bank and others for buckling to European pressure when they should be promoting the great virtues of GM-based crops.

Africa is one large continent with a diversity of ecologies, climates, soils, people, cultures, languages and political traditions. To ignore these comes at the peril of single-minded proponents of technology-fix solutions.

One of these that Paarlberg punts is a genetically engineered drought resistant crop. He is very sure they will bring a happy end to Africa’s woes.

Paarlberg fails to demonstrate why GM-based crops alone are the solution to Africa’s food security problems while he glibly rubbishes alternatives.

If anything, small-scale farming, reliance on traditional methods and use of local varieties is the only source of independence and autonomy outside the rabid attempts of outsiders to change African farming practices.

These practices may not be successful compared to the levels of yields and income in Europe and North America, but at least Africans should be holding onto something we can claim as our own. Perhaps this should be the starting point for a more intensified insertion of science.

More importantly, African farmers don’t have insurance, they cannot carry high debt and there are few support structures in place from government.

But Paarlberg thinks GM crops will leapfrog Africans into the future like cell phones are doing. There may be something to it, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Agriculture is far more complicated than putting cell phone masts up and selling people airtime.

Paarlberg admits as much that a purely science-based intensification of productivity is insufficient - the problem of agriculture is wider: there are factors of infrastructure, land reform, access to markets, favourable trade policy and financing that are key to its success.

Paarlberg sees the complexity to his single answer, but then he doesn’t see it because he wants to be persistent with his claim that agricultural production will receive a boost if the new biotechnologies are applied on a wider scale in Africa.

South Africa is always presented as the loadstar and exemplary country following sound reason. Paarlberg, though, glosses over the complexity of South Africa’s agricultural political economy.

There is a stark division between white commercial farmers and small-scale and large emerging black farmers. In fact, large-scale commercial farming, which is well established in South Africa, is more amenable to the adoption of GM-based crops.

South Africa has the largest hectares of GM crops under plough in Africa: 50% of the country’s maize, 70% of its soya, and 90% of its cotton is GM. In 2007, the amount of land that was planted with GM crops was 30%. This still keeps growing.

Yes, a resounding success for the GM industry. But the conditions of agriculture are different from the rest of Africa -- a one size-fits-all approach may not work.

Paarlberg parodies the myth like local South African pro-GM bodies that African farmers must be left freely to choose from what the market offers.

Well, that is hardly true.

It doesn’t explain why big GM corporations spend inordinate amounts of money buying the loyalty of public officials, influential scientists, advertising sponsorships as well as molly-coddling other well known figures behind their pro-GM campaigns. They are buying off the market and spending hard to keep the pro-GMO stance alive. It seems their strategy is simple: hammer the bastards until they give in -- hardly free choice here.

Paarlberg falsely thinks there is an ‘open-air market’. He dedicates pages and pages to the anti-GM lobby, but says little about the massive commercial interests vested in the success of GM.

The fight for GM crops is not about food, but the future of the biotech industry. If the industry is defeated, it stands to lose investor interest and shareholder value.

The heart of the African agricultural and food problem relates to the larger problem of the political economy. Agriculture is not isolated from it. The one works in tandem with the other. Just read Amartya Sen and the debate on food security. To say GM crops have no political economy is more than delusional.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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5 Oct

Maize Failure

Wasn't there a massive failure in the GM Maize crop last year or the year before?

I have still to see this drought resistant crop: it's always herbicide and pesticide resistant, and guess who sells the herbice and pesticide?

And, of course, companies like Monsanto don't want you to be able to keep seed stock: they want to force you to buy from them every time.

I am a proponent of genetic modification and I'm repulsed by the GM industry's bid to control the world's food supply.

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