Is Africa fit to play the Biotechnology game?

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A casual move around villages in Southern Tanzania, can enable one to see the misery of farmers complaining about seeds that can only be grown once and harvested seeds cannot be replanted. One Agricultural extension worker revealed to me that "these are genetically modified seeds (GMOs) under field trial and that they are characterized to be so - but they can offer one great harvest!" The "new" biotechnology has evoked high hopes, high stakes and fears for the ultimate human control over nature amidst food insecurity, poverty, and climate change. Behind claims for hypothetical risks and benefits, there lie the value conflicts over how nature may be conceptualized, controlled and even reconstructed for specific human purposes. For bioscience in general, conflicts in this area arise from tension between recognized socio-economic values and the unstated values embedded in scientific development and technical possibilities. Agricultural biotechnology has provoked much debate on how to anticipate unintended effects on soil quality, nutritional values, natural resources and the general environment. At issue is not simply "acceptable risk", but how to conceptualize risk and the risk generating system.

Farmers in the developing world are often difficult to convince of the value of change that may come with biotechnology and how to face it, for they have lived a subsistence life with their land for so many years and their ancestors have passed down their accumulated "wisdom" to them using their natural environment as a source of food, wealth and medicine - they believe they know the ways of obtaining the largest possible crops and animal yields and rich harvests. In addition, since so many lie on the margin of poverty, the risk of failure of an experiment must be expected to bulk large in their calculations. They may consider continuing to obtain a small but certain and sustainable return, rather than adopting new techniques that have apparently led to larger crop yields on the nearby land belonging to someone else.

One interesting example resulted from the introduction of an improved wheat seed in Kyela district of Southern Tanzania. Within one village the new seed was sown by ten farmers, but they abandoned it after three seasons although they admitted that its yields were considerably higher. Such an action appears incomprehensible, but an observer who lived in the village found out that the decision was a result of rational calculation. The improved seed was genetically modified and the harvested seeds could not be replanted, instead one had to buy another package of seeds for every season- which farmers said to be the exact opposite of what they are used to. Yet the grains of the wheat were found to be too large to be grained locally with their traditional household equipment. The dough appeared to the villagers to be harder to bake, while the straw was not suitable for fodder and would not even burn- this deprived farmers of certain additional uses of the older wheat straw. And finally, the bread from the alien wheat was reported to be less tasty when compared to their traditional organic wheat.

At the recent G8 Summit of rich countries, President Barack Obama of US unveiled a $3 billion, 10 years programme to reduce hunger in Africa. At the meeting, President Obama announced the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition arguing that the advanced farming techniques developed by corporations such as Monsanto, Cargill and Dumont can be an effective response to the "Moral imperative" of ending hunger in Africa. As part of the Alliance, agricultural corporations from several countries will collaborate with government officials in selected African Nations, along with civil society groups and local farmers to increase crop yields. Monsanto is committing $50 million to the plan. The US-based corporation, which specializes in Biotechnology research and applications, says it will focus its investment partly on Kilimo Kwanza (Agriculture first) project in Tanzania. Monsanto seeks to introduce new maize hybrids suitable for Tanzania and available royalty free to seed companies in addition to making financing more easily available to farmers in Southern Tanzania. Meanwhile, Obama's Africa food plan prompts alerts on GMOs that those opposed to farming initiatives involving genetically modified organisms say that the food security scheme is mainly to help US Agribusiness to bring biotechnology to African countries. The goal of Agribusinesses corporations is not to fight hunger; their objective is to make money. The fundamental argument is that the aim of reducing hunger in Africa by promoting corporate investment in Agriculture is not well-intentioned and misguided.

A similar project is under way in Kenya. Pioneer, a unit of Du Pont, at the beginning of this year, announced an African Project similar to Monsanto's that is aimed at developing maize varieties that produce more grain on less nitrogen fertilizer. Boosting African food production also could take some political heat off US farmers and biofuel producers, accused of boosting global food prices by diverting corn/maize and soya beans into ethanol and biodiesel. Increased maize/food prices fall especially hard on the 300 million Africans for whom maize is a staple food. In Kenya, the seeds are to be distributed free of the royalties that are typically included in the price of a bag of seed. Because of these royalties, biotech seeds now sold in South Africa cost about 30 to 40 percent more than conventional varieties. Similar field trials are planned in Uganda, Mozambique and Burundi. The Uganda parliament is currently debating the Biotechnology and Bio-Safety Bill to enable and regulate the application of GMOs. The face of biotechnology acknowledges that agriculture is bound to go for more (high) value added products rather than high productivity products. We are optimistic that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture can be complementary if we start from the (right agronomic) problem in the view of African farmers, not from a set of techniques that we must apply.

This African project may be a publicity stunt. African farmers' problems are too complex to be solved by high-tech seeds - with poverty, poor storage facilities, pests and diseases, land conflicts, drought, inadequate markets - Monsanto's super seeds are unlikely to help. Yes, Biotech seeds could boost yields during shorter dry spells, or a period of moderate drought, by as much as 25 percent. To this end, Pioneer has full operations in South Africa - South Africa is the only sub-Saharan African country that now allows genetically modified seeds.

It is a true story that African families struggle to grow sufficient maize which is a thirsty, fertilizer - hungry crop. What will happen as the climate changes and the population grows? Kenya alone is expected to need nearly three times as much maize to feed its population in 2050 as it does today. American agribusiness interests are always arguing that Africans must drop their opposition to genetically modified crops if the continent is going to feed its growing population. One cannot, for example, promote biotechnology as a morally necessary solution for global poverty, food insecurity and environmental crises without causing short-circuit. The argument by Monsanto presupposes that mere food means fewer poor and that biotechnology research is directed towards the production of food for the poor. Technology, however, is unable to solve problems whose "nature" is political and ecological; food is both a production and distribution problem, a question of power and politics in Africa. In the market economy, purchasing power is not distributed according to need. Neither in this system is biotechnology development directed towards the production of food for the poor. Research is usually conducted privately by larger industrial enterprises and multinational corporations. The proportion of biotechnological research and development which is directed towards increasing nutritional value in grain, soya bean, rice, maize etc is negligibly small.
For more proponents, biotechnology will help agriculture to feed the world and to minimize pollution. They argue that it will not be a miracle to solve world's hunger problems but biotechnology can score highly in a bit to do so, for instance, making maize / soya bean growing possible in a desert! From such analysis, biotechnology is giving nature a nudge towards greater efficiency, as if the laboratory were simply enhancing natural qualities. In some instances, biopesticides can act as a green bow-and-arrow, symbolizing the natural kind of clean, surgical strike i.e. fighting for a better naturally with more efficacious safety nets to protect agriculture from untamed nature. With this rhetorical greening, the biotechnology industry celebrates GMOs as a programmed nature; its environment-friendly products will overcome the limits of chemical-intensive agriculture, keep farming secure from environmental threats, and fulfill nature's cornucopian potential. Through this humanitarian and environmental image, the biotechnology industry seeks ethical legitimacy for its efforts to even obtain government subsidies and to minimize regulatory constraints in particular to treat GMOs as otherwise normal products.

Some skeptics have anticipated that GMOs are running out of control, might cause unintended haven in form of ecological imbalance and can take agriculture down in misguided route. For some environmentalists, GMOs are virtually self-reproducing pollutants, in several senses. Culturally speaking, GMOs are genes out of place, an ominous "reconstruction of nature" Environmentally speaking, GMOs may run out of control, threatening an inherently fragile ecological and biodiversity balance. Agronomically speaking, they may weaken crops in ways which would require yet more corrective high-tech intervention. Therefore, there is a need for capacity building and knowledge enhancement to empower African farmers to embrace bio-technology and be able to cope with its implications on Agriculture and food security.

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Majwala meaud
2018-01-04 16:34:57

Thank you Deborah, It looks like you are getting the case right, some of us who are advocating for climate-smart farming and sustainable organic agriculture do not hate technology but we can start with low-external input technology as we work the community to innovate new environmental friendly methods for soil fertility enhancement and improve productivity with minimal challenges on mother nature.

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2018-01-04 16:04:50

So well written, and as balanced as can be. I’m reading more on this topic day by day and trying to find unbiased studies on GMO’s, which is a challenge in itself. You mention the many other issues that are contributing to food shortages beyond crop yields, like distribution and land disputes being affected by the political arenas, which must be managed, now for the situation to improve and sustain success. But, it seems there’s few international interventions, or local success in controlling and replacing negating political factions. Power is hard to relinquish. And then there’s climate change reducing usable land and thwarting good yields. This, may be uncontrollable but coupling climate change knowledge programs with ancient wisdom may give farmers a leg up during bad climate periods. Perhaps farmers will need to change cycles or even change from traditional crops which are no longer sustainable in their areas, to provide greater crop yields that do grow, but are not enhanced. Mother Nature is far more strategic and flexible than modern technology alone. Innovations should come from her teachings and then using modern but natural methods to create new ways. My thoughts... Thank You to the author for increasing the understanding on this topic and to the publisher, for presenting it. ­čÖĆ­čĆ╝

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