Science & Technology

Demon Seed

How fear of life-saving technology swept through Africa


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?

Paarlberg: There aren't any. It's like the first ten years of aviation without a plane crash.

reason: What about environmental risks? Don't GM crops affect surrounding plantlife?

Paarlberg: The only impacts they have different from conventional crops are beneficial to the environment. They allow you to control weeds and insects with fewer sprayings of toxic chemicals. And they don't require as many trips through the field with your diesel tractor, so you burn less fossil fuel. And there is more carbon sequestered because you're not tilling the soil the way you otherwise would.

There are environmental impacts; there is gene flow. The pollen from a genetically modified maize plant will flow into a neighboring field and will fertilize the crops in that neighboring field. Some of the seeds, as a consequence, will contain the transgene, but that's no different from pollen from a conventional maize plant flowing into the next field. It's only if you decide arbitrarily to define gene flow from genetically modified crops as "contamination" and flow from all other crops as natural. Only then does it start to become describable as an adverse effect.

The worst environmental damage ever done by American agricultural was the dustbowl of the 1930s, when we plowed up the southern plains to grow wheat, and all the topsoil blew away. The way we increased production back then was to expand crop area, which was environmentally disastrous. It was a calamity. That was the way we tried to increase production before we had high yielding crops, before we had high yielding wheat varieties, before we had hybrid maize, before we learned to increase the productivity of the land already under cultivation.

reason: Can you give us a sense of what an average African farmer in, say, Zambia, is currently working with?

Paarlberg: It would be a woman and her children primarily, and they would plant not a hybrid maize, but a traditional openly pollinated variety, and they would time the preparation of the soil and planting as best they could for when they thought the rains would come. But the rains might not come in time, or they might be too heavy and wash the seeds out of the ground. It's a risky endeavor. They can't afford fertilizer, and it's too risky to use fertilizer because in a drought the maize would shrivel up and the fertilizer would be wasted. They don't have any irrigation. As a consequence, even in a good year their yields per hectare will be only about one third as high as in Asian countries, 1/10 as high as in the United States.

reason: Just as it used to be in Asia.

Paarlberg: Everywhere!

reason: Right, everywhere. But Asia has moved on in recent memory. The Green Revolution introduced new biological breakthroughs to Asian agriculture to the point where no one today thinks of South Korea as a rural backwater. Why was Africa not a part of this?

Paarlberg: One reason is that Africa is not easily irrigated. The big irrigated crops like rice aren't to be found in Africa and the big investments in the Green Revolution went into improving Asian crops like rice. The crops Africans grow weren't the crops that were being improved during the green revolution.

But I don't blame it all on the Asia-focus of the original green revolution; we have had plenty of time to invest in scientific research for Africa's crops, and to make investments in rural public goods like roads or power to make it affordable for African farmers to purchase fertilizer. But African governments have not done that job. In my book I show that typically African governments will spend less than 5 percent of their budget on agriculture even though that's where two thirds of their citizens work. And if you don't have larger public sector investments than that, there is just not going to be any uptake in the countryside. But then I go around and show that you can't blame African governments, entirely, because prosperous donor countries are no longer supporting agriculture in Africa.

reason: No African government other than South Africa's has made it legal to plant GMOs. You call this "out of character" for the same governments.

Paarlberg: They have not yet enacted the law, set up the biosafety committee, and granted approval, which is the laborious process that [the United Nations Environmental Program] and the European governments have coached them into adopting.

It's interesting. In no other area are governments in Africa particularly concerned about hypothetical environmental risks. They know better than to invoke the precautionary principle when it comes to unsafe food in open air markets. They know that they need to first get rid of actual food shortages and raise income; then and only then can they afford to impose the same extremely high standards of food safety on open air markets that are imposed on supermarkets in Europe. Yet curiously when it comes to GMOs they adopt the highly precautionary European standard, which makes it impossible to put these products on the market at all. I take that as evidence that this is not an authentic African response, it's a response imported from Europe.

reason: So the romanticization of bucolic farm landscapes unmarred by scientific advance has an American and European pedigree.

Paarlberg: It's not what we do at home—only two percent of agricultural products in the US are organically grown. And many of those that are organically grown are grown on industrial scale organic farms in California that don't bear any resemblance to small bucolic farms. But it's the image we promote in our new cultural narrative. It's something that affects the way we give foreign assistance.

reason: Many of the anti-agricultural science gurus you mention in your book have a spiritual dimension. Can you talk a bit about Sylvester Graham?

Paarlberg: Sylvester Graham, the father of the modern graham cracker, was opposed to the modern flour milling industry. He didn't like the industrialization of bread production, and he wanted women to go back to grinding flour. He was a religious man, a minister, and he had all of the narrow minded prejudices we might associate with a New England clergyman from the 19th century. He thought that women should stay in the home, he believed people should be vegetarians because that would keep their sexual appetite back. We sometimes forget what goes along with the food purist zealotry. It's often zealotry about more than just a certain kind of food to eat.

In Zambia today there are expatriate Jesuits from the United States who have come to believe genetic engineering is against God's teaching, though this is not a belief that is embraced by the Vatican. They believe that all living things, including plants, have a right not to have their genetic makeup modified. Of course we have been modifying the genetic makeup of plants ever since we domesticated them 10,000 years ago, but these particular fathers are focused only on genetic engineering.

reason: Isn't it paternalistic to blame Europeans for the decisions of African governments? Is this something African elites are at least as complicit in?

Paarlberg: It's a codependency. The African elites depend upon Europe for financial assistance, they depend upon European export markets, they depend on NGOs for technical assistance, it's just easier for them to follow the European lead than to go against that lead. And to some extent the European governments depend upon having dependents in Africa that will, despite the difficult experience of colonization, continue to imitate and validate and honor European culture and taste.

reason: What exactly have European NGOs done to discourage productivity in farming? You quote Doug Parr, a chemist at Greenpeace, arguing that the de facto organic status of farms in Africa is an opportunity to lock in organic farming, since African farmers have yet to advance beyond that.

Paarlberg: Some of it is well intentioned. The organic farming movement believes this is an appropriate corrective to the chemical intensive farming that they see in Europe. In Europe, where prosperous consumers are willing to pay a premium for organic products, it sometimes makes sense to use a more costly production process. So they think, "Well it's the wave of the future here in Europe, so it should be the future in Africa as well."

So they tell Africans who don't use enough fertilizer that instead of using more they should go to zero and certify themselves as organic. That's probably the most damaging influence — discouraging Africans from using enough fertilizer to restore the nutrients they mine out of their soil. They classify African farmers as either certified organic, or de facto organic. Indeed, many are de facto organic. And their goal is not to increase the productivity of the organic farmers, but to certify them as organic.

I just find that to be lacking in moral clarity.

reason: But there are functioning organic farms. If I decide to buy only organic food from Africa, what will I be buying?

Paarlberg: It wouldn't be grown by small fair-trade-type poor farmers. It would be grown through a vertically integrated, probably European, company that would bring in the machinery, bring in the seeds, bring in the fertilizers, set up a production system that would more nearly resemble a colonial-era plantation than a small independent African farm.

reason: We've seen similar resistance to GMOs in India and Brazil, both of which now have legalized the use of genetically modified crops. What happened?

Paarlberg: Farmers were planting them illicitly before the final approval—that's one reason they were forced into the approval. The technology worked so well that farmers were planting them on their own and you couldn't criminalize all Brazilian soybean growers so you had to approve them. Similarly in India, Bt cotton spread on its own and performed so well that the government was eventually shamed into approving it.

reason: You aren't just calling for people to get out of the way. You want increased aid for agricultural research. But why would any of this require aid? If it's going to prove profitable, shouldn't the incentive for private investment be there?

Paarlberg: The farmers who need the technology in Africa don't have enough purchasing power to be of interest to private companies. Or they're growing crops that aren't a part of a commercial seed market that would interest private seed companies. The only way to reach them, really, is to consider the crops that they grow, for example tropical white maize or cassava. It's a little bit like the orphan disease problem. It's really something that has to be done as a public good by the public sector.

That's how the green revolution proceeded in India in the 1960s. It was a wonderful success, and it wasn't really driven by the private sector. It was driven by philanthropic foundations and public investment. Also you need not just seed improvement, but more rural farm-to-market roads, electrification, and things that really governments and only governments are incentivized and capable of doing.

There was a time, before scare stories about technology spread, when the concern was a much more legitimate one: that we've handed this technology over to private companies to develop, and they won't have any incentive to get it to Africa. And to some extent that's still a legitimate concern. There was never any fear that Brazilian farmers or Canadian farmers wouldn't be able to get the technology, because they're big commercial growers. The concern was originally that Africans would want the technology but wouldn't be able to get it because they didn't have the purchasing power or the investment climate that could attract private companies.

reason: The book is 200 pages of frustration. Are there any glimmers of hope ahead?

Paarlberg: Just last week in Nairobi the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and African Agricultural Technology Foundation announced that they would be going forward with the drought-tolerant maize project that I describe in chapter 5 of my book. I'm very pleased that the Gates Foundation has seen the opportunity that this new technology provides. It would be too bad if drought tolerant corn were being grown in Iowa in 2010 and not available to the farmer who really needed it in Africa.

Drought in Africa pushes small farmers back into poverty whenever it strikes. They have to sell off all their household possessions to buy the food their families need until the next season. It blocks the escape from poverty that they might otherwise achieve. Anything that puts a safety net under crop yields is going to protect small African farmers from that periodic decapitalization and let them start accumulating assets for a change.

Kerry Howley
is a senior editor at reason.