Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Genetically Modified Crops and Africa’s Agricultural Potential

by Isobel Coleman
April 12, 2012

Different types of plants grow in a greenhouse at a research center in Canberra, Australia, which studies the creation of climate-ready crops, May 2011 (Courtesy Reuters). Different types of plants grow in a greenhouse at a research center in Canberra, Australia, which studies the creation of climate-ready crops, May 2011 (Courtesy Reuters).

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.

Post a Comment 10 Comments

  • Posted by pdjmoo

    “Herbicide-tolerant crops also bring major benefits to female farmers”. With all due respect to Prof Calestous, he is 100% on the wrong side of history. I believe it is important for you to report both sides of this contentious GMO issue that is raging world wide.

    YOUR FOOD, YOUR HEALTH: All About GMOs, Pesticides, Chemicals, CAFOs http://bit.ly/zI1qHF

  • Posted by Fran Murrell

    The evidence shows that GM crops benefit agribusiness and not small farmers. Watch “Poison on the pampas” about how GM soy is devastating farmers and communities in South America. Google “Failure to yield” by UCS which shows GM soy and corn do not yield more than conventional crops. Google “GM crops: the first 13 years” by Charles Benbrook which uses data from the USDA to show the increase in pesticides caused by GM crops.

    The source for the “90% of GM crops” being grown by small farmers is the ISAAA. Lobby watch describes them as “ISAAA – International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications

    The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) is funded by Northern developers of GMOs, with the aim of helping developing countries in the South take up GM technology.

    Funders include Bayer CropScience, Monsanto, Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred and the BBSRC . ”

    The serious research into how to feed the world and support farmers was done by the UN. Google their report “Agriculture at a Crossroads” + IAASTD. The world does not need GM it needs agro-ecological agriculture and research that helps farmers, not corporations and agribusiness.

    This article also does not show how “A Green Revolution for Africa” – AGRA is using Gates and Rockefeller money to force the unwilling opening up of Africa to GM. Google “GM watch” and read the reports coming out of Africa or go to the African Centre for Biosafety and read reports of how GM corn (maize) is impoverishing farmers and citizens of South Africa.

  • Posted by Susan

    This article makes no mention of issues reported by others in Africa on the high cost of seeds and the requirement to continue purchasing seeds as well as the problems related to pesticides use with these seeds.

    Please provide the other side of the GMO track record in Africa and Dr. Juma’s response to those issues.

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    So-called technological innovation, with all its bells and whistles, can create economic disaster by eliminating jobs, pushing up the real cost of crop yields, and creating a condition of national indebtedness.

  • Posted by Pam Jacob

    I am surprised and disappointed that the Council on Foreign Relations would publish such a one-sided article on a very contentious global subject. With all due respect, Professor Juma is on the wrong side of history. He perpetually refuses to look at the other side of genetically engineered crops and surrounds himself with the major multinational billion dollar players in the field of gmo, seeds, chemicals and pesticides http://www.whybiotech.com/about/members.asp

    I fully support the professor to open his mind to the other side of gmos and the global resistance to this dangerous aspect of agriculture which destroys biodiversity, beneficial insects (bees) and pollinators, poisons our soils and waterways; and is gaining traction as to adverse affects on the health of both the biosystem, species that come in contact with the huge amounts of pesticides and chemicals required to maintain gmos and the growing body of evidence on human ill-health. In support I offer the following: All About GMOs, Pesticides, Chemicals, CAFOs http://bit.ly/zI1qHF

    Just because someone is an academic does not an expert make, particularly when one moves in a “closed circuit” of political maneuvering vested interest heavyweights who call the shots with governments and mega foundations such as the Gates Foundation and AGRA. Ultimately this is an issue of health of the planet that all species depend upon for survival and NOT about “More, Bigger, Faster”.

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    Several readers have thoughtfully questioned Prof. Calestous Juma’s positive views of genetically modified crops in my post last week. Indeed, GM crops remain subject to a broad range of objections. These include potential harm to human health, the reduction of biodiversity in favor of large-scale monoculture, the breeding of herbicide-resistant “superweeds,” the inadvertent mixing of GM with non-GM foods, disproportionate benefits for agri-business instead of farmers, and more. These questions underscore very real debates in both the development sphere, where the issues center on food security and the prosperity of rural communities, and the developed world, where many are concerned about food safety and consumer choice. I will continue to explore issues related to agriculture and development on the blog, and I will present different sides of the debate over GM crops in particular. In the meantime, I appreciate readers joining the conversation by sharing their views and links to relevant work.

  • Posted by Heather Sickels

    The other side of the issue is not at all addressed in this article, was it written under by or for a Monsanto rep in Africa? There are more cons than pros concerning GM crops.

  • Posted by Ahmed

    I grow up in an African village and saw the extent to which people go to weed their farms. I saw and experienced the effects of drought, malnutrition, famine and death of young and old. Villagers in Africa have no choices whereas westerners can choose betwen GM, organic and non-organic nutritious food. In Africa the choice is between life and death in some places. Of course herbicide tolerant, pet and drought resistant GM crops are the building blocks of the green revolution of African farmers. I am a scientist but also very passionate about GM crops after I saw how GM cotton transformed the lives of poor village farmers I know by name in one African countery. Of course GM food may not be suitable for European taste buds with many choices but in Africa it is the future and the savier of these malnorished children you see on your TV screens asking for donations.

  • Posted by Hannes Lerm

    Please forgive any spelling and grammar mistakes possibly present in the following text, as English is not my mother tong
    I am a student at Stellenbosch University South-Africa currently doing a study on the effects of food production using GM-methods on the African food crisis.
    After some research I came across a book (Eat your genes) stating that thru the WTO, birth-child of the GATT, the U.S. acting on behalf of Monsanto(who during the 90′s gained monopoly over the GM-seed industry thru implementation of species wide patents), intends to declare any bans on GM-foods originating from the U.S.A. as an illegal act.
    Now I am not a fan of conspiracy theories, but being (striving to be) a scientist I try to recognize trends in a system to make since of what actually is happening. Thus the question arises: is this another attempt of Monsanto at instigating a monopoly, since the Cartagena protocol forbids the trade in illegal LMO’s and as there are little regulatory systems in place, especially in the rest of Africa, to detect such presences. In effect it puts our belonging to the above stated (Cartagena protocol) in jeopardy, aswell as our import and export bonds with leading producers of GM-products, of whom the EU and China are both members.
    Lastly it is somewhat bothersome that an enviroment of limited to insufficient food supply puts pressure on Third-world countries to accept food donations of which some might be classified as illegal LMO’s. As the U.S. is considered to be the dominating party in the global grain market (consisting of wheat, maize, rice and soybeans products), I have to ask myself: To what extent could a global food crisis be classified as a crisis, rather than a planned event intended to further the reach of multinational companies based in the U.S. or having some influence in that region, as history shows these types of companies (such as Monsanto and Agracetus) aren’t afraid to take the gloves off when it comes to eliminating threats.

  • Posted by Susanne Dietrich

    Anyone still in the dark about GM crops is signing a death warrant on their genetic make up. As a medical technologist I have especially studied genetics and understand the biological message that has to be in harmony in order to avoid malfunction of our cells. It is amazing to see that my suspicions have now been proven to the latter with the latest French study. Some 18 % of currently arable farmland is not used for cultivation around the world. The remaining 16% under cultivation is not used effectively enough thus a shortage of production. The geo-engineering program and cloud seeding methods containing aluminum will result in further damage to our soil and crop yield. Many indigenous plants and trees in South Africa are dying from the fall out of this poison. GM crops are shortening the life span of humans and if pursued will harm our DNA with irreversible consequences. There should not be any debate on this issue any longer as recent testing of GM crops as well as the corresponding round-up are found to be extremely dangerous to any living being and have already done harm to fauna and flora. I am very sad that with all the available technologies available for testing the safety of such ventures has only now been proved. My body is my own and no one should have the right to subject us to guinea pig trials.
    Why not speak it out, there are too many people being born to especially the poorer population and this must stop and all should agree. We must preserve the planet and refrain from selfish irresponsible reproduction and make it unfashionable to have kids. The media is a very powerful tool, they even got it right to make people believe it is nice not to tie your shoelaces, wear jeans with holes and have hairstyles like Stan Laurel’s uncombed head, surely we can get this right, the problem is however on the issue about who is going to pay for our pensions.

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