In May 2002, in the midst of a severe food shortage in sub-Saharan Africa, the government of Zimbabwe turned away 10,000 tons of corn from the World Food Program (WFP). The WFP then diverted the food to other countries, including Zambia, where 2.5 million people were in need. The Zambian government locked away the corn, banned its distribution, and stopped another shipment on its way to the country. “Simply because my people are hungry,” President Levy Mwanawasa later said, “is no justification to give them poison.”
The corn came from farms in the United States, where most corn produced—and consumed—comes from seeds that have been engineered to resist some pests, and thus qualifies as genetically modified. Throughout the 90s, genetically modified foods were seen as holding promise for the farmers of Africa, so long as multinationals would invest in developing superior African crops rather than extend the technology only to the rich. When Zambia and Zimbabwe turned away food aid, simmering controversy over the crops themselves brimmed over and seeped into almost every African state. Cast as toxic to humans, destructive to the environment, and part of a corporate plot to immiserate the poor, cutting edge farming technology is most feared where it is most needed. As Robert Paarlberg notes in his new book, Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa (Harvard University Press), in 2004 the Sudanese government “took time out from its genocidal suppression of a rebellion in Darfur to issue a memorandum requiring that all food aid brought into the country should be certified as free of any GM ingredients.”
Starved for Science includes forwards by both Jimmy Carter and Norman Borlaug, the architect of Asia’s Green Revolution and the man credited with saving more human lives than anyone else in history. Paarlberg, a Professor of Political Science at Wellesley and a specialist in agricultural policy, wants the West to help small African farmers obtain promising technologies just as it helped Asia discover biological breakthroughs in the 60s and 70s. Instead, he says, a coalition of European governments and African elites are promoting a Western vision of rustic, low-productivity labor.
reason: Was there a particular experience with African farmers that led you to write this book?
Robert Paarlberg: Partly it was the strong impression made on me by my own visits to rural Africa, working with African organizations, working with USAID, working with International Food Policy Research Institute. I started visiting small farms in Africa 15 years ago. I’d seen a lot of poor farmers in Asia and Latin America but absolutely nothing like this. There was simply no uptake of any modern productivity-enhancing technologies at all in some cases. And I wondered why I hadn’t been aware of this. And then, when I saw more and more narrative in the NGO community and the donor community that was frankly hostile to science, I thought “I have to put this down and write a book for younger people in the donor community who may not remember the importance of technology uptake in Asian agriculture 40 years ago.”
reason: You suggest that your understanding of modern ideas about food production arises from interactions with your students. What is it that they want?
Paarlberg: My students know just what kind of food system they want: a food system that isn’t based on industrial scale monoculture. They want instead small farms built around nature imitating polycultures. They don’t want chemical use; they certainly don’t want genetic engineering. They want slow food instead of fast food. They’ve got this image of what would be better than what we have now. And what they probably don’t realize is that Africa is an extreme version of that fantasy. If we were producing our own food that way, 60 percent of us would still be farming and would be earning a dollar a day, and a third of us would be malnourished. I’m trying to find some way to honor the rejection that my students have for some aspects of modern farming, but I don’t want them to fantasize about the exact opposite.
reason: Can you give an example of a genetically modified seed or organism, something in use today?
Paarlberg: Bt crops have been engineered to contain a gene from a naturally occurring soil bacterium that expresses a certain protein that cannot be digested by caterpillars. Mammals can digest the protein with absolutely no problem, but caterpillars cannot. When the caterpillars eat the plant, they die.
What’s wonderful about this is that it’s so precisely targeted at the insects eating the plant. The other insects in the field aren’t affected. Using conventional corn instead of Bt corn, you have to spray the whole field and you end up killing a lot of non-targeted species. With this variety, you don’t have to spray.
reason: That sounds less scary than “Genetically Modified Organism.”
Paarlberg: The book makes the argument that the overregulation of this technology in Europe and the anxieties felt about it in the United States are not so much a reflection of risks, because there aren’t any documented risks from any GM crops on the market. I explain that reaction through the absence of direct benefit. The technology is directly beneficial to only a tiny number of citizens in rich countries—soybean farmers, corn farmers, a few seed companies, patent holders. Consumers don’t get a direct benefit at all, so it doesn’t cost them anything to drive it off the market with regulations. The problem comes when the regulatory systems created in rich countries are then exported to regions like Africa, where two thirds of the people are farmers, and where they would be the direct beneficiaries.
reason: How pervasive are genetically modified foods in the U.S.?
Paarlberg: Roughly 90 percent of the cotton and soybeans produced in the US are genetically modified. Fifty or 70 percent of the corn is genetically modified. If you look at the products on a retail store shelf, probably 70 percent of them contain some ingredients from genetically modified crops. Mostly corn or soybeans.
reason: Are there documented safety risks that merit caution?