The genetically modified organism (GMO) debate remains engulfed in a maelstrom of controversies. Sadly, what is largely a first world debate continues to increasingly hurt poor farmers in the developing world.
While sharing knowledge about developments in modern biotechnology and biosafety around the globe, I have had an opportunity to interact with all cadres of society. In my engagements, what still baffles me is the amount of fear perpetuated about genetic modification in agriculture. This is despite biotech crops having been in the market and in our food chain for more than two decades now. By 2016 for example, 185.1 million hectares of biotech crops, equivalent to more than total arable land of China or the USA, were grown. Opinions remain sharply divided on actual benefits of biotech crops even as experts and farmer testimonials affirm the facts.
So recently, I posed and asked myself, who exactly is afraid of GMOs and why? The top four reasons I came across were: Fear of multinationals’ control of our food supply, farmer exploitation, trade-related concerns, and long-term-effects. An examination of those behind the fear revealed some interesting realities.
Control by multinationals is a juicy scare-story by groups mainly from the west where all forms of technology abound, and consumers are spoilt for choice. I once ordered a glass of water in Europe and was amused by the questions I had to answer before quenching my thirst – “still”, “fizzy”, “flavoured”, “honest”, “hot”, “ice-cold” etc. My take home from that experience was that innovations open a range of choices but never a replacement, for I still quenched my thirst how I prefer it. In Africa, public sector interest in GMO research has increased in the last decade with exciting results from projects addressing specific priority challenges in agriculture. Advanced genetically modified research on important food security crops such as banana, cassava, cowpea, to name a few, by African scientists, offer good examples. So, since the fear is not about the technology per se, why can’t those afraid of multinationals redirect the millions of dollars spent scar-mongering to supplement public-sector research?
Are farmers afraid of GMOs and will they be exploited? More than 18 million farmers are growing biotech crops around the world. Their harvests have been protected from some of the most destructive pests while savings have increased over time. Labour has reduced substantially making farming smarter and attractive to the youth. Yet, huge resources are being spent annually “educating farmers” about the “dangers” of GMOs. Some groups argue farmers will be rendered dependent on seed companies and unable to replant their seeds. This notion presupposes farmers have no mind of their own or are incapable of making rational choices about their farm enterprises. Thus, when a country like Burkina Faso in West Africa experienced a challenge with the Bt cotton varieties farmers grew successfully (and profitably over eight years), many “international experts” landed in the country to document the “technology failure”. Paradoxically, the problem in Burkina Faso has nothing to do with the technology but with the breeding program. Indeed, Burkinabe farmers have been calling on their Government and cotton companies to fix the issue so they can return back to profitable Bt cotton farming. Preliminary results indicate a 70 percent increase in insecticide application since halting of Bt cotton in 2016. This is bad for farmers’ health and the environment. Again, to those beating the loudest drums of condemnation, could you consider partnering with Burkina Faso’s breeding program to fix the lint concern since it has nothing to do with the technology?
On trade, the commonly perpetuated fear is loss of EU market since the perception out there is that Europeans do not like GMOs. From a historical perspective, this is important for Africa. Threats to block exports if a country adopts the technology have been reported even where the crops in question have no biological relationship. No cross-breeding whatsoever would occur between cotton and French beans or flowers for instance, yet fresh produce exporters are subjected to declarations of a GMO-free growing environment! What are the facts? Europe has approved more than 80 GM events and imports more than 30 million tons of GM soya bean annually, making Europe one of the largest regional importers of GMOs in the world. Most of the imports are sourced from USA, Brazil and Argentina where GMO adoption is over 90%. According to Robert Paarlberg, ten years ago (2008), at least 87 recombinant (genetically engineered) drugs had been approved in Europe. Who then is driving this fear of GMOs in the pretext of trade loss?
Lastly, the fear of unexpected long-term effects is neither here nor there. After all, how much do we understand of the long term effects of all innovations we have used since civilisation, or the “natural” products in our shelves, rarely subjected to any safety checks? Since analysis so far has ascertained these fears are not about GMOs per se, should we still continue hanging on there and delaying technology access to those who need it most? With the end in mind, we should all be good stewards and whichever worldview we subscribe to, let us embrace technology and the spirit of choice, lest history judge us harshly as the enemies of innovation.
As a tribute to late Prof. Calestous Juma, I would like to encourage all of us to read his book: Innovation and Its Enemies just to understand how fear was used to demonize most of what appears so normal today – your cup of coffee. Calestous exposes how in the 15th century, Middle Eastern and European societies resisted the beverage and even shut down Coffee houses. The ban on the beverage was imposed and lifted severally in various countries with flimsy excuses. Some rulers were skeptical of coffee because it was brewed and consumed in public places where people could indulge in vices like gambling and tobacco use, or perhaps exchange unorthodox ideas that were a threat to their power. Certainly, public safety was always the easy scapegoat. Is history repeating itself for the gene technology?
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