Betting on the seeds of change

Jules Pretty weighs up the arguments for GMO solutions to Africa's continuing agricultural crisis

May 1, 2008

Despite recent technological and economic progress, there remains a scar on the face of this planet. Today and yesterday and tomorrow, and for many thousands of days in both past and future, hundreds of millions of people on this earth are hungry. Not just a tad peckish, but lacking meals over days. It is difficult to be accurate, but the UN believes there are some 850 million people malnourished today. There has been great progress in conquering hunger in many places, but Africa seems not to be one of them. Since the emergence of the green revolution in the 1960s, now mistrusted for its negative environmental and social side-effects, food production per person has fallen in Africa, whereas it has risen everywhere else in the world.

This then is the scene for this short but illuminating book on the state of science and agriculture in Africa. No one can agree on the reasons for the problems: is it poor infrastructure, political corruption, lack of technologies, malaria or harsh climates? Neither is there agreement on potential solutions.

Here, Robert Paarlberg takes a new angle. Public and political concern in industrialised countries over the use of agricultural biotechnology, or genetic modification, is effectively telling African farmers and their families that it would be best if they remained poor. This is an argument worth exploring. If industrialised countries and their consumers are not taking to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or even banning them, then exporting them to poor countries sounds like exporting harm to the poor. There are many such precedents, from drug testing to the exporting of toxic wastes. Rich countries are also happy to subsidise their own farmers, but block imports from poor farmers - a good way of preventing access to our markets.

Yet plant science has developed some new solutions to hitherto insoluble problems, many of which centre on modern biotechnology, but those with choices are preventing those without choices from escaping poverty. However, we in the North have already hugely benefited from agricultural technologies - domestic wheat yields in the UK have, after all, tripled since the 1950s. Is it right that others should be prevented from using today's technologies?

As Paarlberg points out, we also seem content to accept the use of biotechnology and GM for medical uses (for which we can all imagine needing them one day), but not for food (for which we have many choices). Contradictions are rife.

But here is a problem. Paarlberg honestly notes that "in polite company the best social strategy for me has usually been not to talk about these ideas at all". He says: "Many of my colleagues and students would recoil if they knew I wanted ... an increased use of genetically engineered crops." This seems to me rather sad, and it starts from Paarlberg's assumption that all GMOs are the same. This is a mistake made by many advocates of biotechnology and almost all opponents. GMOs are not one thing; they cannot be resolved to a single category. Some are potentially harmful to environments or related wild plants, or pose potential health risks. Others can be judged entirely safe. Some offer benefits of herbicide tolerance or insect resistance. Some are safe in certain environments, but not in others. New developments are beginning to identify key genes involved in responses to drought and heat.

Simple generalisations about GMOs are also used for opponents of GM, and Paarlberg seems to believe that the case for GM is made stronger by seeking to dismiss all claims about organics or other forms of agricultural sustainability. This is unfortunate but perhaps unsurprising. Many advocates of organics are implacably against GMOs. But this does not mean that advocates of some GMOs need to be against organics. There is room for both.

This book, therefore, has much of merit. Africa needs investments, and it certainly needs support to build up agricultural and other sciences. It also needs aid to help infrastructure and market developments. It needs stronger economies so that consumers with money can exert demand for foods. But what it does not need is anyone advocating that they have single solutions to all problems across a wide continent of great ecological and cultural diversity. African farmers variously need integrated pest management, new seeds and breeds, fertilisers, small-scale irrigation, agroforestry, aquaculture, pasture management, organic farming and GMOs. But not all in the same place, and not all at the same time.

Carefully designed and locally adapted solutions, with the involvement of local farmers and scientists, have already brought great progress in many parts of Africa. Recognition of such a pluralistic approach might allow Paarlberg to speak in public about this challenge with more confidence.

Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa

By Robert Paarlberg

Harvard University Press 256pp, £16.95

ISBN 9780674029736

Published 29 March 2008

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