In approaching the food crisis facing Africa today, there is much support for a “green revolution” that involves the use of new technologies and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to substantially increase crop yields. This approach is advocated by both biotechnology industries in the United States and well-known philanthropists like Bill Gates, but has drawn criticism from some civil society groups and environmentalists.
As a follow up to Africa Action's new issue page on food sovereignty and the food crisis, this post examines this debate as well as the role of organic agriculture in feeding Africa.
The U.S. and many other nations use GMOs, such as genetically altered wheat, without question. Europe, on the other hand, has strongly opposed the use of such crops, and many African nations (such as Zambia) have taken a similar stance. However, African proponents of GMOs, like Dr. Mpoko Bokanga, a Kenyan food scientist, argue this: "Europe is at a different situation in terms of food production, they have surplus. In Africa, we have deficit, therefore the need may be greater in Africa than in Europe. We need to use any tool we can find to increase production." GMOs would help in regions that are particularly vulnerable to environmental factors. Drought resistant wheat would be great for areas faced with this problem. GM crops can even lead to much higher yields than traditional farming techniques. The blog GMO Africa highlights the benefits of genetically modified foods for Africa further.
But what are the negative effects of GMOs? Zambia refused GM wheat imports from the United States, arguing that these crops can make individuals resistant to antibiotics, may lead to a decline in immunity to disease, and lead to the emergence of new food toxins or allergies. As part of a broader push towards industrialized monoculture farming, GMOs risk greatly reducing local biodiversity. Part of Zambia's concern was also grounded in an understandable resistance to traditionally one-sided North-South relations - they didn’t want to serve as a dumping grounds for GMOs developed by U.S.-based corporation unable to sell their wares elsewhere, or as guinea pigs for GMO testing.
Yet hunger and both the production and distribution of food remain an urgent challenge for the continent. One potential solution is not imported GM technology, but homegrown African solutions. For example, a Ugandan scientist is currently developing a type of banana crop that is not susceptible to fungal illnesses. Perhaps it is as a Monsanto (a leading developer of GM technology) employee put it: “Farmers need solutions suitable for local predicaments. This means choosing from a range of options - organic, conventional and GM.”
For thousands of years, Africans have been farmers. It would thus be appropriate that they would know which crops grow the best, irrigation techniques that work best, and other practices that would result in high yields. Ethiopian agronomist Tewolde Berhan makes this argument in favor of an organic approach to farming on the continent. "When well managed, and as fertility builds over years, organic agriculture isn't inferior in yield. Now, farmers don't want chemical fertilisers. They say, 'Why should we pay for something we can get for free?'"
Organic farming is not just an expensive phenomenon that keeps stores like Whole Foods in the U.S. afloat. It’s the idea of using all natural fertilizers, seed and crop varieties native to an area and having a minimal impact on the environment; not a new concept when it comes to African farming. In Uganda, farmers found that using organic fertilizers not only decreased their impact on the environment, it also increased their crop yields. The chemical fertilizers they were using before would leach the soil of nutrients, resulting in infertile soil. After using organic fertilizer imported from India, farmers increased their yields by over 50 percent. In February of this year, farmers, policy makers, and development organizations came together in an international symposium called “Organic Agriculture in Africa: Opportunities and Challenges for the future." In one of the presentations, the group contended that organic agriculture can help African nations reach the Millennium Development Goals by offering diversified crops to aid in the creation of new jobs for female empowerment, decreasing human impacts on the environment, and improving nutrition for children and those with Malaria and HIV/AIDS. Organic farming does not go without its criticisms, however. Those opposed argue that organic farming does not produce enough and the price to farm (including expensive fertilizers and equipment) far outweigh the benefits. Nonetheless, those supporting organic techniques state that it has the potential to put farming back in the hands of Africans, whereas GMOs make farmers dependent on foreign imports.
There is a third stream of thought that transcends both of these approaches. It is the concept of food sovereignty. Essentially food sovereignty is the idea that local people, producers, consumers and distributors are at the center of decisions and policies about their food systems. It gives each nation/region the ability to feed itself on its own efforts and to ensure that every citizen has access to food. Food sovereignty is an exciting, albeit controversial topic that goes against free trade, neoliberal economic theory and current international financial institution policy prescriptions for developing nations. Nevertheless, if countries exercise food sovereignty, they would be less susceptible to international food crises and price shifts. Read more about this topic on Africa Action’s Food Sovereignty and the Food Crisis issue page.
So which approach is best for Africa as it faces food crises today? Only time will tell. It is important, nevertheless, to keep a wary eye on new solutions that make African nations heavily dependent on the West for technology or imports. Meanwhile, maybe it is the time to invest in African-grown solutions that rely on traditional knowledge and innovative ideas.