We live in a time of extraordinary opportunity. Progress in plant sciences is opening up the promise of a new agricultural revolution, and there is no place on Earth better placed to take advantage of this than Africa.
With its vast resources of land, soil, water and sun, Africa is wonderfully situated to match or exceed the success of Brazil — a nation that agricultural development helped catapult into the front ranks of world trade. This revolution will only occur, however, if African countries embrace farming systems that include modern biotechnology.
Biotech continues to be the most rapidly adopted agricultural technology in history. Genetically modified (GM) plants and seeds are transforming agriculture: increasing yields, boosting farmer incomes and reducing the need for toxic pesticides.
Last year 18 million farmers, of which 90 per cent were smallholders and resource poor, planted a record 181 million hectares of biotech crops in 28 countries.
South Africa is the leader on this continent, with 2.7 million biotech hectares planted. But other nations are catching up. In Burkina Faso, 70 per cent of all cotton in the country is now insect-resistant Bt cotton, a genetically modified organism (GMO). Farmers who plant Bt cotton have seen a 20 per cent increase in yield, at least Sh8,000 ($87) per hectare increase in profits, while they have used 66 per cent less pesticide.
This time of great opportunity, however, is also one of great mischief, with environmentalists and bureaucrats in the rich world waging an ideological and anti-science propaganda war against agricultural biotechnology.
These people call themselves “progressive,” but their agenda could hardly be more backward-looking. They call themselves humanitarians and environmentalists. But their policies would condemn billions to hunger, poverty and underdevelopment.
There are many impediments standing between the vision of agricultural progress and Africa, of course, but none is more pernicious than these anti-progress groups.
They are supported by massive funding from the European Union, as well as numerous misguided church and humanitarian agencies. They have undue influence in the media, government and international institutions.
They have put forward many myths, the most glaring of which is insistence that biotech crops are somehow unsafe to eat. It’s a claim they continue to make in the face of hundreds of studies testifying to GMO safety and the universal opinion of every independent scientific institution globally that GMOs are as safe as any other food.
Americans have been consuming GMOs for over 15 years, without a single documented adverse health effect.
Another myth put forward is the implication that farmers, especially smallholders in the developing world, are somehow stupid or easily fooled by biotech companies into paying more for GMO seeds when they would be far better off without them.
This myth is not only offensive to farmers, but is also dead wrong. Since their introduction almost two decades ago, biotech crops have, on average, increased crop yield overall by 22 per cent, increased farmer profits by 68 per cent, and reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 per cent.
Anti-GMO groups, with a combined war chest estimated to exceed Sh46 billion ($500 million), not only conduct sophisticated scaremongering, they use another tactic all around the world — violently attacking and destroying agricultural research they oppose.
Anti-biotech groups in 2013 destroyed a field trial of Golden Rice, that could save millions of lives of children affected by vitamin A deficiency.
The question that must be asked is: when did so many of our “humanitarian” organisations become so disdainful about the lives of the desperately poor, whom they are supposed to be helping?
The greatest offender is the European Union, which in a twisted version of neo-colonialism has imposed its affluent organic affectations and anti-scientific policies on Africa. When I was Secretary of State with the UK government I saw it first hand.
We stand today at the beginning of a second agricultural revolution — a period of extraordinary breakthroughs that could lift millions out of poverty. We need every possible tool available to meet this challenge. We simply cannot afford to take the most promising plant technologies off the table and keep them locked away while children go hungry.
Despite the propaganda of the anti-GMO groups, we must all push forward and ensure that science overcomes scaremongering. I commend African nations for showing Europe the way.
The Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP, is former British Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs