As I travel around Africa and talk to its farmers, I’ve witnessed the dangers of food insecurity up close—and I think I’ve discovered a way to discuss the promise of safe technology and empower the continent’s people to feed themselves.
For a generation, they’ve heard almost nothing but fabricated lies about the science of GMO technology and crop protection. It’s time for them to hear the truth.
I know what it’s like to grow food in a tough environment. Born and raised on a farm in Western Australia—one of the world’s driest agricultural places—I saw these difficulties firsthand. I went on to become a research scientist and later a communicator who focused on no-till agriculture. And at the age of 47, I became a farmer again, growing wheat, canola, chickpeas, and other crops.
After attending the Global Farmer Roundtable in 2018, I visited Africa and became keenly aware of its challenges. I wanted to do something about it. I sold my farm, started Arise African Agriculture, and relocated. I’m currently based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I talk with farmers, agronomists and scientists about modern methods of food production common throughout the world.
In the wealthy West, people often praise organic farming as a pure and pristine way to grow food without chemicals. They’re free to believe what they want and to eat as they please—but African smallholder farmers don’t enjoy the same choices. They’re often organic farmers for the simple reason that they lack access to technology and have been fed fear about some technologies. As a result, they suffer dearly and struggle to produce enough food that they need for their children.
Take a look at the corn cobs in this video, which I recorded near the city of Lubumbashi in the southeastern part of the DRC. They’re damaged by fall armyworm and then they get infected by fungus and bacteria. These pests slash the corn’s potential as a safe source of food. They threaten human and animal health, because they produce a highly toxic chemical called fumonisin that is not safe to eat, especially for pregnant women.
An obvious solution to this problem is the growing of Bt corn, a 25-year-old successful and safe GMO trait that kills the armyworm and stops disease from occurring. Farmers throughout most of the world take this tool for granted. Combined with no-till approaches to weed control, it can produce abundant crops across Africa—a hungry continent.
The problem is that many Africans have heard that GMOs and crop-protection tools are not safe—a bit of indoctrination served up by non-governmental groups that for ideological reasons don’t want African farmers to take up modern agriculture. They also obviously care not for the truth and for child starvation that their ideology continues to inflict on Africa.
They need to hear the truth, but the lie is so ingrained that it sometimes requires a less direct approach. There is a need to build a firm and knowledge-based foundation.
To share the value of GMOs in farming for them, I’ve learned that the best approach is to talk about basic chemistry, molecules and genes to explain what they are and what they are not. I often find the crowd surprised and pleased when I can break down a complex idea that goes against what they’ve been led to believe and put it in logical bits of knowledge they know to be true.
First, I take a step back and ask: “What is a chemical?” I define the word and go on to explain that even water is a chemical. It sustains life—but it also can bring death, if consumed in huge quantities that lead to osmosis toxicity. The problem isn’t the chemical but the size of the dose. I then say petrol is also an important chemical—but we do not drink it and we do not put water in the car.
After establishing these concepts, I can begin to make connections between chemicals and agriculture, including the fact that crop-protection products rely on chemicals. We shouldn’t fear them, but rather we should use them appropriately, which includes protecting farms from weeds and pests.
Along the way, I’m working to establish my credibility as an honest broker of agricultural science. I’m careful to point out that I’ve never sold chemicals nor genetics for a living. I also tell them sincerely that I am a Christian who is sincerely interested in sharing my knowledge for their betterment. Finally, I encourage questions and discussion.
Nothing is foolproof and my methods don’t always perfectly hit the mark. Such is the skepticism that the enemies of science have built up in Africa.
Yet I also believe that it is possible to open hearts and minds to new ideas about food production—and how Africans can eliminate their food insecurity through safe technology.
As the good book says, “know the truth and the truth will set you free”.
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