Today, I had the opportunity to speak with Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at Harvard. Juma was born and raised in Kenya, and he’s now head of the Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project. He is one of the most innovative thinkers on how to harness new technologies for economic development, especially in Africa. A prolific author, Juma’s latest book is The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, in which he discusses how Africa’s prosperity depends on the modernization of agriculture through the application of science and technology.
Much of our conversation focused on the potential of genetically modified (GM) crops, for which Juma is a champion. His view on this controversial subject is simple. He says that the future will place greater demands on agriculture due to population growth and climate change, and genetically modified crops are an important option for meeting future needs. As he says, “It doesn’t make sense to reduce the size of the toolbox when the challenges are expanding.” GM crops were highly controversial when introduced about 15 years ago. Critics said they would be bad for the environment, and would only benefit big agri-businesses. But today, “the evidence is stacked against those assumptions,” Juma says. In 2012, he adds, “there will be more GM crops grown in developing countries than in developed countries.”
Juma points out that 90 percent of GM crops are actually grown by “small resource-poor farmers,” and we are starting to see significant environmental benefits from their use. Thanks to herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant crops, farmers are using far fewer chemicals than before. These herbicide-tolerant plants also allow farmers to use “no-till agriculture,” which has positive implications for climate change. Traditional agricultural practices require farmers to till the ground to get rid of weeds, releasing the carbon dioxide stored in the soil. With no-till agriculture, the carbon dioxide stays trapped. This impact is just being documented. Moreover, the introduction of drought-tolerant crops has the potential to allow large-scale re-vegetation of once-arable land that is experiencing desertification. Drought-resistant seeds allow the reintroduction of bushes and trees, which over time can support livestock and agriculture. Juma sees environmental critics softening their stance on GM crops as the evidence of overwhelming benefits becomes clearer. Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace who later left the organization, recently suggested that Greenpeace’s opposition to GM rice is costing hundreds of thousands of lives through micronutrient deficiency.
Herbicide-tolerant crops also bring major benefits to female farmers. With herbicides that kill weeds but not crops, the labor required for weeding drops significantly, boosting productivity. In Africa, the typical farmer, who is a woman, spends 200 hours per hectare per year weeding. As Juma notes, this level of effort has to be constantly sustained. It cannot stop for any reason—a sick child, a death in the family, or the need to travel—because the weeds will overtake the crops. “Weeding literally breaks the back of Africa’s labor,” he says.
When I asked Juma what might hold Africa back from realizing these potential gains in the coming decades, he quickly notes that the biggest obstacle is a lack of effective institutions. But ultimately, Juma believes strongly in the potential of young Africans to overcome their many challenges.