We don’t need GE crops but Africa does

Another book review from the archives of my previous blog Zone5.
Paalberg’s book is as relevant as ever- although there has been some movement on GE crops since I wrote the review, by and large they are still slow to take off in most of the continent. The only thing I would change is in the post’s title- we in the developed world also need GE to help improve  the efficiency and environmental resilience of farming practices.
Starved for Science stands as a damning indictment of the environmental movement’s ideological campaign against genetic engineering, which has made the task of solving hunger and poverty in rural Africa much more difficult by keeping it from those who need it the most.

We don’t need GE crops but Africa Does

First posted on 10 September 2010 on Zone5.org


Starved for science: How Biotechnology is being kept out of Africa

Robert Paalberg
Harvard University Press 2009 Pbck 235pp

Harvard Professor Robert Paalberg has written a book that makes essential reading for anyone interested in global food politics and why Africa still fails to feed many of its people.
Africa remains the only region on earth with increasing poverty and hunger. The number of Africans living on less than a dollar a day increased 50% since the early 90s; Between 1991 and 2002 the number of malnourished people in Africa increased from 169 to 206 million, with nearly a third of sub-Saharan Africa malnourished, compared with just 17% in the developing world as a whole.

Paalberg accounts for this as a result of policies that since the 1970s have resulted in a massive decline in investment in agricultural science in Africa. While in Asia and South America, farmers benefited from the new science of the green Revolution, and have been able to both feed their growing population- confounding the predictions of neo-Malthusians- and bring many out of poverty as well. India started planting new Green Revolution short-straw varieties in 1964; by 1970 production had doubled, averting fears of famine.

Why did Africa get left behind? Paalberg argues that while in Asia and South America had strong enough institutions and science to continue with their own scientific developments with little further outside assistance, Africa was became influenced by a change in the political and cultural climate in Europe from the 1980s onwards. In particular, this has seriously slowed the uptake of Genetic Engineering in Africa, which Paalberg argues is a result in part of the ideological position of many NGOs working in Africa.

In order to examine what lies behind this ideological position, Paalberg gives a detailed account of the rise of the Organic movement in the west, and a strong consumer movement demanding more natural food:
“This reification of what is “natural” is in part a cultural reaction to the hegemonic expansion of modern science. Advances in modern science tend to diminish both unspoiled nature and unquestioned faith, prompting those with a strong romantic or spiritual side to register their objections by seeking foods that incorporate less modern science. “
This view had already emerged in the US as early as 1892 when a clergyman called Sylvester Graham invented the “Graham Cracker” as a reaction against additives used to whiten bread. Paalberg points out Graham was a “patriarch and a prude; he thought women should go back to milling their own flour and believed in vegetarianism as a means to control sexual passions.”

In Europe, Rudolph Steiner founded the vitalist school of philosophy called Anthroposophy.
“‘Vitalism’” explains Paalberg “was the once-dominant view that living things had a chemical composition different from non-living things”- a view known to be untrue by science since 1780, yet one that still underpins much of the organic movement even today. Steiner’s “Biodynamic” techniques- a mixture of sympathetic magic, astrology and animal sacrifice- seem to have been growing in popularity in recent years.
Sir Albert Howard’s 1940 publication “An Agricultural Testament” was also influential in this reaction against science in farming: “Artificial manures lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial food, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women.”

Lady Eve Balfour was next in 1943 with her book “The Living Soil” which inspired the formation of the Soil Association in 1946, “still the institutional guardian of organic farming traditions in Great Britain.” The SA’s leading patron is HRH Prince Charles, “the most prominent exemplar of this blue-blood attachment in England to pre-industrial, chemical-free farming”.
In the US, J.I Rodale coined the term “Organic farming” and founded the “Organic Farming and Gardening” magazine in 1942. Rodale was also a big fan of alternative health care and supplements.
Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” perhaps did more than any other book to warn of the dangers of chemical pollution from farming. The environmental movement had come of age and began to have a real influence over public policy.

The movement grew rapidly with the rise of an alternative youth culture in the 1960s and 70s, getting a major boost in the US in 1990 with the creation of a single national standard for organic produce.
However, even today in the US the organic sector makes up only 2% of total food purchases and using only 0.4% of cropland. The claims of the organic movement of safer, more nutritious food, and of being more beneficial to nature, are not in general supported by scientific evidence. Paalberg argues that the per capita amount of land need to feed people has declined by more than 50% in the US since 1920; a switch now to organics would require far more land, threatening much of the remaining forest and wild areas.

Carsonain environmentalists cannot refute this logic, but they resist accepting it because it requires them to endorse a larger rather than a smaller role for modern science.

More science had already reduced some of the harm from chemical farming highlighted by Carson; bringing in more science to farming now is still the best way to address the environmental impacts by making farming more efficient. The Organic movement has proved to be still wedded to its ideological roots.
The prevalence of the “nature knows best” ideology has been possible because the west has already seen so much improvement in agricultural productivity, as a result of science and technology, that it is well-fed and unwilling to take on yet more in this sector, switching its concerns to reducing the impact on the environment of farming.

Paalberg accepts that this stance makes sense in the west with its excesses of CAFOs, and a subsidy system that encourages over-application of Nitrogen fertiliser, and problems of obesity rather than starvation.
In addition, the modern world seemed to feel an acute sense of loss of community and connection with the natural world and began to harbor romantic notions of returning to an agrarian past.
What might be understandable if misguided at home has become disastrous in Africa, where essentially farmers are poor- and therefore sometimes hungry- because of too little science, rather than too much. African farmers mostly own their own land (unlike in South America) and so would be well placed to benefit from improvements in crop technology for example, but a combination of powerful western NGOs and corrupt African governments discouraged investment in this area.

{Correction 16-09-10: Paalberg does not say most African farmers own their own land but emphasises that there is far more access to in Africa than in, say Latin America, with only 15 landless landless people in the countryside to every 100 smallholders: “This greater prevalence of land-secure smallholder farmers among the poor in rural Africa increases the chance they will benefit from a farm-technology upgrade. Yet not just any upgrade will do. A new farming technology will be pro-poor as well as pro-growth only if it raises the the total factor productivity of small as well as large farms.”}

This opposition to science is most strongly expressed when it comes to genetically engineered crops. This technology was first being developed at a time when public science funding in agriculture was declining, leaving private corporations like Monsanto to step in and lead the way. The organic movement has banned the use of GE crops; Europe has kept GE food crops out altogether so far. Paalberg sees the ideology behind this as going beyond the simple environmental and health concerns, extending to issues of carrying capacity and population:

Carsonian environmentalists were offended because gene transfer was so clearly an attempt to engineer and dominate nature rather than live within nature’s normal reproductive constraints.

Perversely, the environmental concerns of the rich world became transplanted into Africa, where people struggle to feed themseleves still.
“Farming in Africa is a world apart from farming in Europe or North America” writes Paalberg, and goes onto say:

In Africa…farmers today are not involved in specialized factory farming. They are planting heirloom varieties in polycultures rather than scientifically improved varieties in monoculture. They have a food system that is traditional, local, nonindustrial, and very slow. Using few purchased inputs, they are de facto organic. And as a consequence they remain poor and poorly fed.

Yields of maize in Malawi for example are less than one tenth of yields in the US.
Many NGOs working in Africa seem motivated to keep them this way. Doug Parr, chief scientist of Greenpeace places a great emphasis on safeguarding the “traditional knowledge” of the Africans. The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) is the most prominent amongst NGOs promoting organics in developing countries; their mission in Africa is not to increase productivity but to enlist farmers there into the organic movement. Since so few farmers use synthetic chemicals it will be easy to get them certified. “Poor and nonproductive” Paalberg notes ruefully , “but certified organic.”

Paalberg is scathing about some of the approaches by NGOs. The German organisation Networking for Ecofarming in Africa has partners in 13 African countries to warn them of the dangers of “Western agricvulture” supplanting indigenous knowledge, yet promotes biodynamic farming in its workshops.

German trainers at one NECOFA session in Kenya in 2005 took the time to introduce local participants the importance of light rhythms from the planets and to instruct them in developing manure preparations that included essential bits of stinging nettle, chamomile, and cow horn (NECOFA 2005). Such knowledge is neither farmer-derived nor indigenous to Africa. Nor is it even knowledge.

Pedalling pseudo-science to hungry people is akin to quack therapists promoting homeopathy for AIDS or malaria.
Paalberg details the political process used by NGOs, aided and abetted by the UN and supported by a complacent governments in the west and corrupt urban-based officials in Africa, to block the use of science to improve the farmers lot there.
How much of this is to support lifestyle choices of the rich in western countries? Paalberg sees it as neo-colonial in its effects: nearly all certified organic produce in Africa is specialty crops destined for the west, not food for the locals. “Organic farming advocates from IFOAM nonetheless like to assert that organic agriculture in developing countries is not a luxury but somehow a precondition for attaining food security.”

What could GE crops do for African farmers? The most obvious is drought-tolerance (DT). Monsanto has played a big role in developing DT corn in the US, but African will have to wait before they can try it. Only South Africa is an exception to the red tape and stiffing restrictions that all other African governments have place don GE technology, following the European model.
In any case, the big companies are not developing DT varieties suitable for Africa because they see little commercial gain there; African farmers are simply too poor. If GE gets into Africa, it will be through philanthropic organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has formed a partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation called Alliance for a Green Revolution In Africa (AGRA). Monsanto is working with AGRA however to donate some of its technology to develop DT crops there. There remain many political obstacles, and Africa which needs this new technology more than anyone, seems destined to be the last to get it.
Friends of the Earth have been opposed to DT crops in Africa since 1999, citing the danger of them growing in areas currently unavailable to other crops as one of its main objections to GE.

“How strange that agricultural crops with new growth potential would be seen as a threat by the NGO community” notes Paalberg, “but such was the new political reality.”

A new generation of GE crops may help shift attitudes in the Europe. So far, the technology has been used to benefit farmers, with little apparent benefit to the consumer; new crops may have tangible benefits to those who eat them, and as with GE in medicine- which has not met with the same opposition- may then come to be more accepted.

Paalberg makes a tightly argued case for the unnecessary prolonging of hunger in Africa being at least partly fueled by ideological and even religiously motivated western NGOs. While there is an understandable attraction to the simple life of living from the land in the west- something that I have shared- those of us who choose this life are wealthy enough to afford everything from tools and polytunnels to the best seeds we can get, and we do not have to worry about going hungry if the rains dont come.

GE and other scientific advances would farmers here, and the environment also, but we are wealthy enough -because of the benefits technology has brought us so far- to have the choice. To actively campaign to keep these benefits from the poor is not just anti-science, but anti-humanity.