Opinion: What People In The U.S. Are Saying About GMOs In Africa

Opinion: What People In The U.S. Are Saying About GMOs In Africa

From WashingtonPost. Story by Tamar Haspel.

Say the words “green revolution,” and people take sides.

For opponents, the phrase conjures visions of monocrop fields fertilized with chemicals and sprayed with more chemicals.

For proponents, it evokes the tremendous efficiencies that have helped us feed our burgeoning population. For DeVries, a plant scientist by training, “it’s a period where agricultural productivity shifts upward.” AGRA isn’t trying to deliver American-style agriculture to Africa but to bring the basics to a place that has largely not seen their benefit. “By using a little bit of fertilizer with an improved seed, like a hybrid, farmers can double and triple their yields,” he said.

Joe DeVries is American, but he has spent three decades in Africa, helping farmers improve yields, fight pests and control disease. That means making sure improved seed, appropriate fertilizer, access to agricultural and financial infrastructure are available wherever people farm.

He’s making that happens as director of the Program for Africa’s Seed Systems at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a nonprofit organization devoted to improving African agriculture. (AGRA is funded by Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

As polarizing ideas go, though, the green revolution’s got nothing on genetically modified crops, and in Africa, as in the U.S., that topic is dominating the debate about food. And there, as here, GMOs are a proxy for the excesses and dangers of an industrialized food system.

In the U.S., that means we’re having all the wrong debates.

We’re arguing about whether genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops have increased or decreased pesticide use, rather than trying to figure out how systems such as integrated pest management can help farmers grow food with fewer chemicals. We’re arguing over how evil Monsanto is, rather than asking how government can effectively regulate a system in which corporate, agricultural, consumer and environmental goals are often at odds. We’re wasting time, money and ever so much energy.

Take that proxy — arguing about GMOs instead of industrialized agriculture — to the developing world, and the stakes are much higher. Lives and livelihoods are on the line, and overwrought arguments about genetic modification will cost both.

And overwrought the debate about GMOs in Africa certainly is. While agricultural nonprofits like Grain and Practical Action oppose them in relatively sober terms, others, like ActionAid, use full-on scare tactics.

The idea that GMOs are actively dangerous has taken hold to such an extent that one Ugandan scientist told me she heard a colleague — also a scientist — explain to farmers that genetically modified corn would make men sterile. There’s also the idea, promoted by activists such as Vandana Shiva, that the agriculture indigenous to the developing world — with small farmers growing traditional crops — is a tradition to be protected. Chemical fertilizers and seeds that can’t be saved are the enemy of that tradition.

Anne Wangalachi, the communications officer at AGRA, seems unswayed by ideas of tradition or dignity. “The people who push for this narrative are well-fed,” she said. “There’s nothing dignified about going hungry.”

Read more at WashingtonPost.