Enviro-romanticism is hurting Africa


The Globe and Mail (Canada)
By Margaret Wente
July 17, 2009


My friends would be horrified to learn their convictions are keeping children hungry

Many of my friends and neighbours are converts to the organics movement. They believe that food grown the natural way is better for us and for the planet. They worry that genetically modified crops grown with commercial pesticides and fertilizers may actually be harming the health of their children. They believe family farms are better than large commercial farms. They detest the rapacious agri-multinationals, which stand accused of maximizing profits by gaining a stranglehold on the market, pushing unhealthy foods on the consumer, and forcing farmers to buy their modified seeds.

They are good and conscientious people. They would be indignant – horrified – to be told that their convictions are hurting the hungry children of Africa.

Yet that is precisely the case. The food productivity revolution that lifted millions out of poverty has skipped Africa. As Asia, India and China grow more prosperous and better fed, Africa has slipped backward. In Africa today, farmers are producing 20 per cent less food than they were 35 years ago. A third of the population is malnourished. Sixty per cent of the population consists of smallholder farmers, mostly women, who typically earn a dollar a day or less. Largely because of primitive farming practices, Africa is the only place in the world where poverty and malnutrition are on the rise.

There are many reasons for Africa’s desperate plight. The misguided environmental enthusiasms of the West is one of them. Powerful environmental lobbies have persuaded African governments to ban genetically engineered crops that would improve drought resistance and ward off common pests that can destroy an entire harvest. They have discouraged the international donor community from supporting science-based agricultural modernization projects. They have even campaigned against conventionally developed modern seeds and nitrogen fertilizers, even though these are the very same technologies Western farmers embraced to become more productive and escape poverty. Western interest groups have foisted their own anti-scientific fantasies on to the poorest continent on Earth, with disastrous results.

Before you dismiss this indictment as Big Agribusiness agitprop, I should tell you that two Nobel Peace Prize winners agree with every word. Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who has a deep commitment to African issues, write that new crop biotechnologies do not pose any risks to human health or the environment. They blame the relentless campaign against the development of African agriculture on the “worrisome ignorance” of rich people in the West. “This is a rich-world argument that is hurting the poor,” they say. “Responsible biotechnology is not our enemy. Hunger and starvation are.”

Increasing global food productivity is an urgent task, because last year’s food crisis was just a taste of the challenges to come. The world’s population is heading toward around 9.5-billion and people in the developing world are demanding better, meatier diets. That adds up to a massive increase in global food demand. The good news is that science offers many of the solutions. We could increase the global food supply by 80 per cent just by bringing the rest of the world up to the standards of modern agriculture. Monsanto and other leading biotech companies are developing strains of drought-tolerant corn – corn that sips instead of sucks. For drought-plagued Africa, this would be a tremendous breakthrough. Monsanto wants to develop seeds that would double the yields of corn, soybeans and cotton, and that would require less water, land and energy to grow. South Africa – the only nation in Africa that hasn’t banned biotech crops – is developing potatoes that would repel tuber moths, and a new strain of maize that’s resistant to a devastating virus.

Yet, the environmental romantics have got it exactly backward. Instead of embracing progress, they’ve portrayed the food crisis as a failure of scientific commercial agriculture. As Paul Collier, the well-known Africa development expert, writes in Foreign Affairs: “In its place they advocate the return to organic small-scale farming – counting on abandoned technologies to feed a prospective world population of nine billion.”

The irony is that most farmers in Africa already are organic. Harvard’s Robert Paarlberg, an expert on the politics of global food supply, describes their plight in his powerful book, Starved For Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa . Eighty per cent of the labour on these farms is done by women and their children, who would be better off in school. They have no power machinery, no irrigation, no chemical fertilizer, no herbicides. Their animals are scrawny and diseased. Yields are miserably low, and a single drought can wipe them out. To serve a maize meal to her family, a woman must work gruellingly hard. Nor has “organic” farming provided any protection to the rural environment, which has been seriously degraded by deforestation, soil erosion and habitat loss caused by the relentless expansion of low-yield farming.

Yet, many NGOs working in Africa have tenaciously fought the modernization of traditional farming practices. They believe traditional farming in Africa incorporates indigenous knowledge that shouldn’t be replaced by science-based knowledge introduced from the outside. As Prof. Paarlberg writes, “They encourage African farmers to stay away from fertilizers and be certified organic instead. And they warn African governments to stay away from genetic engineering. They want to freeze African farms where they are. It’s a fantasy of what agriculture ought to be like.”

Wealthy countries are imposing the richest of tastes on the poorest of people, Prof. Paarlberg argues. Their cultural elites equate agricultural science with huge commercial farms, mistreatment of animals, enrichment of evil agribusiness corporations and unhealthy food. “These criticisms are fair in Europe and North America, but they are devastating to Africa and other impoverished nations,” he writes. “The rich are, in effect, telling Africa’s farmers they should just as well remain poor.”

The anti-biotech forces won a huge victory when the European Union banned genetically modified foods in 1996. Then they went to work on Africa. But the war wasn’t just on GM crops. Groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements have waged long campaigns against nitrogen fertilizer in Africa, despite its poor soil. They called the Green Revolution – which lifted most of Asia out of poverty – a tragedy. Anti-biotech groups told African leaders that donated maize from the United States was poison, because it contained genetically modified kernels.

Meantime, in the West, even moderate groups depicted biotechnology as bad. More extreme groups warned that pollen from doctored crops could contaminate conventional plantings or create superweeds. Prince Charles called GM foods “the biggest disaster, environmentally, of all time.” And agribusinesses like Monsanto have replaced tobacco companies as the world’s No.1 corporate supervillain. (Google “Monsanto” and “evil” and you’ll get several hundred thousand hits.)

Western consumers are perfectly free to reject GM foods if they want to. They have so much food they don’t need science to make more. Poor people don’t have that luxury. What they need desperately is more agricultural science, not less.

Paul Collier, author of the widely praised book The Bottom Billion , is even more scathing. With the near-total urbanization of affluent Western consumers, he writes, “rural simplicity has acquired a strange allure. … The first giant that must be slain is the middle- and upper-class love affair with peasant agriculture.” Far from being the answer to global poverty, organic self-sufficiency is a luxury lifestyle. “It is appropriate for burnt-out investment bankers, not for hungry families,” he writes.

I hope some of the organic ideologists think about what these people have to say. African children will eventually be better off if they do.


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