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02 - 09 April 2008 
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African Agriculture and the Emotive GMOs Issue

Regular tomato(left) & GMO tomato(right)
Agriculture, an area of human endeavour in which one might think debate about issues would be ruled by rationality and calmness, has been rent asunder by the controversy over genetically modified organisms. Not surprisingly, Africa, the remaining continent where food security cannot be widely taken for granted, is the new battleground for whether GMOs are “the answer” or not for a great leap forward in agricultural productivity. 

The strictly scientific issues regarding GMOs are complicated enough. But it is not just the appropriateness and effectiveness of this kind of science that is controversial, but many other related issues to do with how different groups of people see the world and the role of humankind in it. The impassioned debate over GM crops is often shrouded in issues such as whether they are safe for human consumption or not; whether they decrease or actually increase the amount of pesticides used; whether they do or do not deliver increased yields and so forth.

Yet for both pro and anti-GMOs activists, these arguments are only peripheral concerns to more fundamental philosophical differences. While Africa’s food needs make it the epicentre of what I refer to as an agro-ideological battle, it often seems as if on either side, the agenda is being driven by interest groups outside Africa. This is not to say that this therefore makes either pro or anti-GMOs efforts automatically a grand plot to “own” Africa, as both sides allege about each other. But it does mean that Africa needs to carefully look at the pro and anti-GMOs arguments from the perspective of its own interests, which may not necessarily coincide with those of proponents and opponents of the technology from elsewhere.

This is easier said than done, one reason being Africa’s economic weakness and donor-dependency. This makes it very difficult for African agricultural advocacy organisations to take any position nuanced for the African situation if that position significantly differs from whichever donor controls the purse strings of whatever organization is in question. The need for Africa to begin to free itself from these kinds of subtle shackles, no matter how well-meaning they may seem when the donor funds are flowing, is why I have argued for things like an African-conceived, oriented, funded and controlled agricultural think tank. In the process, I have unfortunately raised some hackles and been accused of being ‘Afro-isolationist’ because so many of Africa’s benefactors are accustomed to also “owning” the opinions of their beneficiaries.

I refuse to be boxed into thinking of myself as pro or anti-GMO. I generally am not inclined to locking myself into any camp or way of thinking based on ideology. I see the potential benefits of GM technology as much as I am aware of the many aspects to be worried about. I envy those people who have reached such a level of certitude of the various issues to do with GMOs that they are able to take a firm “pro” or “anti” stance. I am not there yet, but reserve the right to make a similar stand in future should the evidence convincingly tip me one way or the other, just as I insist on my right to keep an open mind about the relative merit and weight of the pros and cons. If there is any sort of unifying message in my articles about African agricultural policy issues, it has been that Africa should have learned from the experiences of the post-colonial half century to keep its options as open and wide as possible.

This is difficult with the GMOs issue, where the attitude of the warring sides is “you are either with us or you are with the enemy.” Pro and anti have such a huge, unbridgeable gulf between them that it is considered a cop out to not firmly take one or another side.

In recent weeks, there has been a big hullabaloo that a strain of hybrid maize seed sold by Pioneer Seeds’ South African branch to Kenya was “contaminated” with some GM seed. The very wording of the story left one in no doubt about what one  was supposed to think about what was presented as a deliberate, dastardly deed to poison the innocent, good people of Kenya with demonic maize seed. How could the capitalistic, profit-seeking Pioneer perpetrate such an evil act against the hard-working, un-suspecting farmers of Kenya? And how could the South African governments various controls be so weak that this hostile act against a friendly country could take place? Surely the evil plan to control Africa’s food chain has just taken a huge, worrying leap!

I want to apologise right here for being so politically incorrect, but I’m sorry, I am not yet ready to automatically read such nefarious, alarmist intentions into this incident. I wish I could have been given the important facts of its occurrence, but without also being told how I am supposed to interpret it.

Ah well, but does Africa have the technical and other capacity to decide what is good for it or not? Can the Africans be trusted to make up their own minds how they will interact with technology, or whether to do so at all? After all, if the Africans knew anything about these sophisticated things, they wouldn’t be so poor and hungry, would they?

What I am doing here is going beyond the immediate issue of GMOs to caricature the usually well-meaning but oftentimes paternalistic attitudes and interventions of some organizations who in their own way want to do what they perceive as being best for Africa. Western attitudes to a whole range of things, including GMOs, will be different from those of Africans on the basis of many factors. It would be very strange if this were not so given the very different historical, social, cultural and other realities. They not only influence the present in many ways, they even make what many Westerners and many Africans are striving for and think to be important different. If many Western donors had just understood this simple, obvious but not widely accepted reality over the decades, my guess is that billions of dollars of money spent on failed projects would have achieved great results.

“But Makunike, what are you talking about? What does any of your rambling have to do with GMOs in Africa?”

Pro GMO: Any prospect of improving the inherent potential of African seed should be explored as one of the many interventions to increase yields. Even when improved yields, pest protection or drought tolerance are not automatically guaranteed, the prospect of other desirable qualities being possible to tailor is a powerful tool that Africa cannot afford to reject in knee jerk fashion. The “precautionary principle” assumes a risk aversion which is not practiced in any other area of African life. Nothing is risk-free and it could be argued that the real present-day risk of starvation in Africa is far greater and should weigh more than a hypothetical future risk from GMOs. Yes, multinational seed companies hope to make money from the potential of a huge eventual African market for their products. But that self-interest of the seed companies, shared by any other company doing business in Africa or anywhere else, does not on its own “prove” that these companies have diabolical intentions on Africa anymore than all the others trying to make a buck off Africa, including some NGOs.

Anti GMO: For small scale African farmers who still operate on the peripheries of the cash economy, having to buy first generation seed every season is a real worry. Too many other factors would need to be in place before there is any sort of certainty that improved yields and incomes from hybrid or GMO seeds would offset the total reliance on bought seed. This is not as simple as a farmer choosing own-saved seed or hybrid/GMO seed depending on his or her income. One of the reasons that GMOs are rightly considered to be potentially insidious is that once they are predominant in the gene pool for a particular crop, there is no easy return to open-pollinated seeds. The argument that Africa’s farmers do not yet have many other conditions and protections which can make them give up their cover and protection of their own seed is valid.

Whatever the propaganda of either side, the evolving African reality to GMOs is one of different solutions pitched to different problems. This is complicated in an “all or nothing” conflict such as that between the two sides of this issue. Africa’s huge variety  means that it is not only not possible to advocate any one solution.    

For me the debate has become so emotional, ideological and acrimonious that I now take everything I hear from either side with a pinch of salt. I am now very careful to try to sift the facts that are buried in all the religion of the counter arguments. I cannot respect idea-combatants who only highlight findings that agree with their pre-conceived notions and automatically dismiss any that suggest their position might be wrong or even just incomplete. Yet this is the reality of a debate that masquerades as being about agricultural methods and food safety when it is often really about other wider concerns that ignore the urgency of Africa’s food problems, and that are oblivious or contemptuous of African sensibilities.     


By Chido Makunike
Makunike is an Agricultural Consultant based in Dakar, Senegal

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