We look like we could be the starring actors in an odd-couple movie: a white guy from Denmark and a black man from South Africa.
Yet as fellow farmers, we have a lot in common. We both work the land. We both worry about the weather. We both try to grow the best crops possible in a way that is environmentally and economically sustainable.
We also face different sorts of challenges—and Europeans like me have a lot to learn from Africans like Motlatsi Musi.
If that sounds surprising, it’s because the legacies of history and economics suggest the reverse, thanks to European colonization and commercial strength. When it comes to agricultural technology, however, Motlatsi has a story that all of us should know.
I first heard about his experience in 2017, at the Global Farmer Network’s annual roundtable meeting in Des Moines, Iowa. Farmers from around the world were invited to gather and discuss our mutual challenges and opportunities.
Motlatsi and I became fast friends and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. I especially enjoyed watching him in Food Evolution, a recent documentary about the science behind agriculture, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Motlatsi plays a small but significant—and inspiring—role in the film. He describes how GM crops helped him succeed as a farmer, allowing him to grow more food on less land and even to send his son to college. He also offers a heartfelt message to people in the developed world: “Please be informed. Whenever you say ‘no’ to GM technology, you are suppressing Africa.”
What he means is that European opposition to gene technology has hurt his continent, encouraging governments to ban the technologies that have the ability to help farmers no matter what their circumstances. A handful of African nations, including South Africa, have resisted Europe’s hostility—but too many African farmers still live under the shadow of European influence.
We need to hear more from Motlatsi. And so when I found out that he would travel this fall to Rome to represent the Global Farmer Network for a meeting of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, I invited him to Denmark to see my farm, where I grow a variety of crops, including wheat, barley, rye, oilseed rape, and grass seed on several hundred hectares.
More importantly, I wanted him to meet other Danish farmers.
We Europeans like to think of ourselves as enlightened, and when it comes to farming, we have many reasons for gratitude: We live in stable and secure societies, we benefit from a good infrastructure, and access to all the machinery, parts, tools and inputs we need, when we need them.
Yet we also live in a toxic political environment that has rejected sound science and all but outlawed safe agriculture products, such as GM technology.
Many of my countrymen have the misimpression that GMOs are just one thing: a single type of corn that’s treated by a dominant crop-protection product on farms of massive scale.
In reality, agricultural biotechnology is a tool of diverse potential, available in a wide range of commodities and helping both big-time farmers in advanced economies as well as smallholders in developing nations. It can fight weeds and pests as well as drought and disease. In the near future, it will do even more eg. Improving nutrition and lowering allergy genre.
I’m delighted that Motlatsi can take advantage of this modern approach—and I’m both embarrassed and frustrated that Danish farmers cannot, due to political opposition. Farmers in the EU will end up serving others like custodians in a rural museum.
Unfortunately, many European activist organizations haven’t focused on just their native countries. They’ve exported their ignorance and hatred of GMOs to Africa, pressuring governments there to oppose technologies that can boost food production on a continent that lags far behind the rest of the world—a place where malnutrition and famine are routine threats.
Motlatsi shows us why they’re wrong as well as why we ought to encourage African nations to take advantage of GM crops and allow their farmers to enjoy access to this essential tool.
The more we hear Motlatsi’s story—as well as stories like it from Burkina Faso, India, the Philippines, and elsewhere—the more we’ll spread the truth about technology.
At the heart of it all, though, is a lesson in the power of communication and the value of sharing stories.