Commentary: Africa and GMO crops

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Knowledge about genetically modified organisms or genetically engineered crops is extremely small by African farmers, but their acceptance of GMOs is critical to feeding the population of Africa and the world headed to 2050.

The unsophisticated, small landholder farmers of Africa are in the crossfire of the controversy about GMOs. Believing the science of GMOs and the safety of such GE crops is something that these farmers are being asked to accept with faith. Anti-GMO activists can easily shake that faith with unfounded, twisted logic, pseudo-science and outright lies. Shaken faith has easily occurred with leadership of individual African nations voting to keep biotech crops out of their countries.

The anti-GMO activists claim African farmers, consumers and politicians are not being fully educated about the negatives of planting GE seeds or eating GE crops. The activists claim their version of information is the only true information; there is no gray area.

The pro-GMO organizations appear dominated by scientists, rather than the “good friends” of African people like the anti-GMO crowd seems to portray themselves to brainwash and influence the people.

An article in The Guardian online news, which leans toward the activist point of view, got it right recently with one key paragraph. “They [Africans] are also misinformed on the issue, which has divided the world and created divisions in governments, caused misunderstandings among policymakers and led to academic rivalries among researchers and scientists. Limited by a shallow background on science and technology, farmers in the continent remain confused and undecided on which way to go.”

As further explanation, The Guardian noted, “For many years, intensive discussions over health concerns of genetically engineered crops have been rampant.”

The pro-GE side of the arguments is represented by Mark Lynas, who was quoted as saying, “As Africans remain at a crossroads on whether to accept or not to accept biotechnology in farming, the rest of the world has been making big advances in the area. The world is making remarkable strides that will see Africa remain hungry and an importer of food despite the abundant availability of fertile land.”

On a personal level, in the October issue of AgProfessional Magazine yet to be in the hands of readers, I wrote an article looking at the potential for outside investment in African agriculture. Even though there is constant talk about the potential that Sub-Saharan Africa holds for investment in agriculture, there is no rush of money. The political instability and economic risk factors are one reason investment is proceeding slowly.

What I didn’t investigate is how limiting biotech crop production in countries is hindering investment. Without much higher yield and superior quality crop production by growing biotech crops, one big incentive for investment is removed.

Let’s hope the economics at the small landholder level win out. If farmers are allowed to see what they earn growing conventional crops compared to a much higher income from growing biotech crops with new technology practices, then the anti-GE crops group will lose.       

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September, 30, 2013 at 08:34 AM

Pest and weed resistance to GMO techonology is quickly making these products irrelevant. With opposition to GMO crops growing in Europe and America, Africa is the last ditch effort by Bio-tech to reap profits from a country largely unaware of the consequences of GMO and industrial agriculture.

Canada  |  October, 03, 2013 at 09:20 AM

JB, your comment is a great example of the closed mindedness of many non gm activists. Sensational and not fact based. Thanks for your contribution....

October, 03, 2013 at 09:57 AM

I'm with JB - GM crops require a huge investment and that has to be recovered through huge sales. Biotech corporations are driven by profit, not concern about the environment or the quality of life of smallholder farmers, in the US or in Africa. Improved management practices and and a wide variety of food, feed and market crops bred for the soils and environments where they're grown will be of greater help to smallholder farmers in Africa than GM corn.

Michigan  |  October, 03, 2013 at 08:37 PM

Do not evaluate the subsistence sub-Saharan smallholder farmer with an affluent U.S. measuring stick. Improved crops that can help these farmers raise their standard of living require improved adapted genetics as well as improved farming techniques. When multinational companies such as Monsanto donate their GM seed royalty-free to these farmers, huge sales, corporate profits, and huge investments are taken out of the equation. I have walked with smallholder farmers. I do not think GM corn is the total solution to end their poverty. But I do believe there is a role for GM crops. The need is too great to dismiss any beneficial input for the philosophical arguments of well-fed activists who have never missed a meal in their life.

Never Ending Food    
Malawi, Africa  |  October, 09, 2013 at 04:21 AM

Africa’s agriculture at one time maintained many traditionally sustainable ‘technologies’ such as seasonal and year-round access to yields, polycultural planting systems, indigenous knowledge of seed saving techniques, beneficial soil fertility and water conservation practices, and diversified nutritious diets. The chemical-based monocropping of a handful of introduced crops has changed all of this. As a result, much of Africa now attempts to harvest one or two annual crops in a short 3-4 month growing season, soil fertility has become compromised requiring ever-greater applications of chemical fertilizers, lack of proper water management systems have led to an increase in droughts and floods, and a lack of dietary diversity has led to chronic malnutrition and food insecurity. Now, as genetic engineering is being promoted as the latest ‘solution’ for Africa this article has the audacity to imply that local farmers are ‘unsophisticated’? What should concern Africa even more than the use of genetic engineering is the continued ignoring of the continent’s numerous varieties of open-pollinated, seasonal, perennial, and highly-nutritious traditional crops. Problems of pests, diseases, weeds, malnutrition, soil infertility, floods, and droughts are all symptoms arising from imbalances within the ecosystem. GM holds extremely limited potential for addressing any of these problems in a sustainable manner. By contrast, there is incredible potential to be found within the diversified integration of the earth’s natural resources into systems of agriculture which mimic the resilience of natural patterning. Why opt for potentially detrimental measures when safe and natural solutions already exist?

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