The recent article, GM scaremongering in Africa is disarming the fight against poverty, published in the Guardian’s PovertyMatters Blog on 21 July 2014, is a thinly veiled attack on those of us in Africa and elsewhere who are deeply skeptical of the supposed benefits that genetically modified (GM) crops will bring to the continent. Based on a report by London-based think-tank Chatham House, it represents paternalism of the worst kind, advancing the interests of the biotechnology industry behind a barely constructed façade of philanthropy.
The report itself, compiled from an ‘expert roundtable’ and interviews with donors, policy-makers, scientists, farmers and NGOs (none of whom are identified), makes several erroneous and contradictory arguments concerning the lack of uptake or impact of GM crops in Africa. Firstly, with breathtaking arrogance, it dismisses the massive groundswell of opposition to GM crops emerging across the globe (including here in Africa) as a European-led phenomenon. It further credits lack of uptake to a concerted campaign of ‘misinformation’ by opponents of GM crops and onerous biosafety regulation, resulting in negative political judgments and a ‘treadmill of continuous field trials’.
To take each in turn, perhaps the report’s authors were simply unaware of global opposition to GM crops, or missed the recent Malawian civil society response to Monsanto’s application to commercialise Bt cotton on the country? Or dismissed the recent mass community protestors in Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda as merely puppets of European NGOs? That Mexico, the centre of origin of maize, has banned the cultivation of GM maize within its borders was similarly overlooked, as was Peru’s 10-year moratorium on GM crops, enacted in 2012. In 2013 India’s Supreme Court declared an indefinite moratorium on all GM food crops, citing major gaps in the country’s regulatory system, while protests led by farmer groups in the Philippines have curtailed field trials of GM Brinjal (aubergine).
Even in the United States public opposition to GM crops has been growing for some time. Over 500,000 people have written to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calling for the rejection of Dow Chemical’s application for several GM crops tolerant to 2,4-D based herbicides. Unperturbed by the prospect of legal action from the biotechnology industry, several States are pressing ahead with laws for the labeling of GM food.
To argue that onerous laws and political expediency has created a situation of ‘continual field trials’, as the Chatham House report does, misunderstands or misrepresents several key issues at play. For example, the report cites ‘stringent’ liability laws across the continent as major hindrance to the research process.
Moreover, the vast majority of GM crops grown worldwide are either tolerant to the application of herbicides, produce their own pesticides (Bt crops) or are a combination of the two. There is good reason that the ‘pipeline’ of new GM crops and traits, such as drought tolerant or nutritionally enhanced African ‘orphan’ crops, has not materialized; they are all profoundly more complex process than what has so far been commercialized. The fabled ‘Golden Rice’ (engineered with extra vitamin A) has been in development since the early 1990s. While this has been going on, the government of the Philippines (one the target countries) has been remarkably successful in lowering vitamin A deficiency using cheap, low-tech solutions.
And here we get to the crux of the matter as citizens of Africa and the global south. The obsession in promoting GM crops in Africa, exemplified in this instance by the new Chatham House report, diverts attention and resources away from a plurality of genuine and localized solutions and flies in the face of the recommendations of independent science.
The landmark IAASTD report of 2008 (resulting from the input of over 400 global scientific and agricultural experts) was highly dismissive of the potential of GM crops to benefit the world’s poorest and most marginalized communities, and called for a shift towards agro-ecological practices. These sentiments have since been echoed by numerous individuals and organisations, from the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food to the United Nation’s Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report of 2013, titled ‘wake up before it is too late’.
Research by the ETC group has shown that small-holder farmers produce 75% of the world’s food, but only use about 25% of the world’s agricultural resources. The industrial agriculture chain only produces about 25% of the world’s food but uses 75% of the planet’s agricultural resources. Imagine the gains that could be made if even a fraction of the resources propping up the industrial food system were channeled into alternative systems.
Africans reject GMOs because the technology has not delivered on any of its promises and poses significant long-term threats to our environment and peoples. Though the issue of risk is given little attention in the report, lest we forget that in late 2013 nearly 300 scientists and legal experts from around the world signed a statement affirming that there is “no scientific consensus on GMO safety”. That GM’s proponents can claim to the contrary merely reflects the undue influence the biotechnology industry has on the scientific process.
Further, are the philanthropists who are supporting GM development and pressuring Africa to open up also heavy investors in the biotech sector? For example, the relationship between Monsanto and the Gates Foundation is well documented. Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta are all heavily involved in the G8 New Alliance on Food Security and Nutrition, the sharp end of the Green Revolution push in Africa. No matter how much these forces maneuver to seem altruistic rather than predatory, the smoking gun always seems to be visible. The combined forces of Big Agribusiness and Big Philanthropy have been so effective at pressuring our governments that some of them see biosafety laws as mere instruments to opening up our nations to the biotech industry and their local surrogates.
The bottom line is that this is a fight for food sovereignty – for the rights of people to grow food that suits their environment, protects their biodiversity and serves their ability to eat foods that are wholesome and culturally acceptable. Policies must support systems of agriculture and food production that does not distort or damage local economies.
We must not blindly or willfully promote policies that build neocolonial structures that lock in poverty by upturning tested local agricultural knowledge, promoting land grabs through large-scale industrial farming and create dependency on artificial seeds and chemicals. True food security can only be assured by food sovereignty.
By Nnimmo Bassey (Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation), Million Belay (Coordinator, African Food Sovereignty Alliance) and Mariam Mayet (Director, Africa Centre for Biosafety