Ending African hunger: GM or agro-ecology?

Liz Orton
3 June 2003

Like Gordon Conway, I am interested in addressing hunger in ways that are effective, affordable, safe and – I would add – protect biodiversity, respect basic rights and involve farmer participation. But from this point on we differ.

Biotechnology is expensive, genetically-modified (GM) crops often perform poorly, and their safety is not yet proven. The widespread use of GM crops will probably reduce biodiversity, and intellectual property rights on GM crops threaten ancient practices of saving and exchanging seeds. Some of these problems are due to corporate concentration of the GM crop market and are not inherent in the crops themselves; but there clearly are grounds for great caution before we encourage poor, vulnerable farmers to chance their livelihoods on GM crops.

Who can afford the research?

This can be illustrated with a few essential facts. The salient point about the science is that the transfer of genetic material from one organism to another differs from previous plant-breeding techniques in a number of respects. The most important is the fact that it enables genes from one species to be inserted into a completely unrelated species. For example, scientists have created a tomato that does not get damaged by frost by inserting an anti-freeze gene from the flounder fish.

The cost of research in this area is astronomic. Developing a GM crop from lab to market costs anything up to $300m, and normally takes about twelve years. In the nine years since GM crops were first grown commercially in the US, most of the spending on research and development has been controlled by private companies. Six corporations dominate the world’s agricultural biotech research and development, and Syngenta, Bayer, Aventis, Monsanto and Dupont lead the market for GM crops. In 1998 these six transnational companies invested $1 billion on research and development (R&D;) for GM crops. By 2000 these companies controlled 98% of the market for GM crops.

The governments of developing countries are also investing an estimated 5-10% of their agricultural budgets in GM. China is by far the largest investor, with Brazil, Mexico, India, South Africa and some south-east Asian companies having strong biotechnological capacity. But less-developed countries have neither the capacity nor the investment to carry out research. Nor are they in a position to be able to regulate the import or cultivation of GM crops. In Africa, only three national laboratories are engaged in GM research outside South Africa.

Will GM crops really boost productivity?

Gordon Conway’s argument rests heavily on the assumption that GM technology will boost productivity. This claim has also been aggressively promoted by the GM companies through well-funded publicity campaigns: GM crops increase yields and use fewer chemicals, thus helping improve the livelihoods of the poor through increased and cheaper food production.

In fact, the agronomic evidence for this is mixed – GM crops do not always outperform their non-GM sister varieties. In the US and Canada, though there have been some reported increases in yields of GM cotton, most GM crops have not increased yields. This is particularly true of the soya crop.

In the case of insecticide, although there have been some reductions on GM cotton and maize, elsewhere there have been increases. With herbicide use, the evidence suggests that it has gone up rather than down, quite dramatically in some cases, as farmers use chemicals more frequently, and sometimes in greater amounts as well. In Argentina, for instance, herbicide use on GM soya has doubled. Performance could decline still further due to problems of insect and weed resistance.

More worrying still, Conway’s support for biotechnology is part of a techno-fix mentality in which single technologies are expected to solve highly complex agricultural problems. Even if GM crops could increase yields, this is unlikely to have any significant impact on food security. This is because hunger is not caused by a shortage of food.

The root causes of hunger, rather, are political and economic. People are either too poor to buy the food that is available or they cannot get access to it. Genetic solutions will fail to address, and could worsen, the range of social and economic problems faced by small farmers such as lack of access to land, credit, water, extension services, local markets.

Does GM technology meet the needs of poor farmers?

The needs of poor farmers around the world are almost completely neglected by the biotechnology industry, as they do not constitute a commercial market. The crops they grow – such as teff, millet, yam, and cassava – fulfil a vital role in food security. They are valued culturally, adapted to harsh environments, nutritious and genetically diverse.

Biotech companies invest research and development (R&D;) money into a few crops of high commercial value. These tend to be grown as monocrops and to be internationally traded. Where R&D; is channelled into crops grown in developing countries, the focus is on those with commercial potential. R&D; in Africa focuses on export crops such as cut flowers, fruit and vegetables, cotton and tobacco.

In the rare instances where GM research does focus on crops grown by poor farmers – as in the research partnership between Monsanto and a Kenyan research institute on the sweet potato in Kenya – it has not succeeded in addressing farmer priorities.

Poor farmers constantly select and breed seeds to ensure they respond to growing conditions. Seed sources are diverse and seed-swapping is common. Up to 1.4 billion people in developing countries depend on farm-saved seed as their primary source of seeds; in Africa, around 90% of people rely on this system.

GM seeds protected by patents and intellectual property threaten to erode these ancient practices. Contracts oblige farmers to pay a royalty or technology fee, to agree not to save or replant seeds from the harvest, to use only proprietary chemicals on them and to allow the corporation access to their property to verify compliance. This means that farmers face a choice between repurchasing seeds every year, or paying royalty fees on seed saved from one harvest to the next.

Decisions about which crop varieties to grow are taken out of the hands of farmers, inhibiting the farm-to-farm exchanges which are the basis for all crop development. Not only could farmers lose access to local varieties as they become displaced by GM seeds, but the GM crops could openly pollinate with local varieties.

Crop diversity is fundamental to the food security of poor farmers. Most produce a range of food, fodder, fuel, medicine and building material from their crops. They often cultivate large numbers of plant species in the same field; these are selected over time for a range of characteristics including taste, yield, storage, resistance to environmental stress, resistance to pests and diseases, and maturity time.

For example farmers in the Andes cultivate thirty different varieties of potatoes in one field. This helps to spread the risk of crop failure and ensures the sustainability of established agricultural systems. Yet largely because of industrial agriculture, crop diversity is declining. GM, which belongs to an agricultural model that promotes single-gene and single-crop solutions to food production, threatens further to reduce diversity.

Who should decide?

Finally, Gordon Conway asks a very important question – who should decide whether biotechnology helps development? In the case of Africa, I am glad that he thinks the African people should. Yet there is already cause for concern.

So far, farmers have been sidelined in debates and decisions about GM technology. The African formal seed market is dominated by just three transnational biotechnology companies. GM crops have been grown illegally in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Swaziland. Zambia was accused of crimes against humanity for refusing GM food aid from the US. South Africa embraced GM with almost no public consultation and no environmental impact studies. This sounds like the market, rather than African people, making the decisions.

A global moratorium on further commercialisation would provide time to involve poor farmers and communities in debates and decisions about GM crops and their implications for food security. At the same time, political leaders need to listen to popular concerns about the growing corporate monopoly of seed markets and the proliferation of intellectual property over seed and plant resources.

In conclusion, I would frame the essential question differently from Gordon Conway by asking: “what is the best way to tackle hunger?” This would lead us down a different path – away from the high-tech, high-risk, high-cost world of GM towards sustainable, farmer-friendly technologies.

A growing agro-ecology movement is showing how dramatic improvements in crop productivity (even on marginal land) can result from low-input technologies drawing heavily on local farmer skills and knowledge. Such approaches offer much more to celebrate than GM by working with rather than against genetic diversity and farmers’ interests. What’s more they are safe, affordable and effective – all the things Gordon Conway is looking for in his search for solutions to world hunger.

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