GMO: African voices must be heard

Tuesday June 28 2016

A confined field trial of GMO banana plants at the National Agricultural Research Organisation in Kawanda, Uganda.  PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

A field trial of GMO banana plants at the National Agricultural Research Organisation in Kawanda, Uganda. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

Who should decide which crops African farmers can grow? Should that decision be made by African farmers themselves or by politicians in faraway Europe?

More than 50 years since Africa’s independence from European colonial rule, the European Parliament has answered the question. On June 7, a large majority of European lawmakers backed a resolution urging “the G8 member states not to support GMO (genetically modified) crops in Africa”.

The resolution was part of a broader assault on the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa (NAFSN), which aims to lift 50 million sub-Saharan Africans out of poverty by 2022 by promoting agricultural modernisation and investment.

The European Parliament opposes this initiative because Green Party politicians have convinced parliamentarians that African farmers are incapable of accessing new technologies such as GMO seeds without being exploited by big multinational companies.

Leading Green politicians call NAFSN’s agenda, which is backed by 10 African governments, “misguided development”. On June 8, a day after the European Parliament vote, the Greens issued a triumphant press release, headed: “No GMOs in the EU, no GMOs in Africa”. These well-fed European environmentalists seem to think that African farmers should be prevented from adopting “fancy” technological advancements, and instead continue with traditional, back-breaking labour with low productivity and precarious livelihoods. There is a word for this attitude that the poor should stay scratching a living from the land: it is called “neo-colonialism”.

IMPOSE EUROPEAN VISION

Unfortunately, this drive to impose European visions of development on Africa has caught African leaders napping. There were no delegations of African politicians clamouring to make their voices heard in advance of the European Parliament vote. African farmer organisations were also silent.

The African continent stood largely mute as Europe once again took a crucial decision on its behalf. To their credit, a few African lawmakers did speak out.

“This is very mischievous and it looks like it is intended to make Africa remain in subsistence farming,” said Kenyan MP John Serut. A letter by the East African Youth Parliament’s Kenya member, Vincent Luka, called the European effort a “classical demonstration of neo-colonialism where European states still want to control African states by creating dependency laws”.

Several MPs in different African countries also wrote privately to their European counterparts, but their views appear to have been ignored. Also overlooked was an open letter from farmers in Nigeria, which said: “As Africans and Nigerians, we appreciate the efforts of the EU to make a decision on our food system but then, we can do this for ourselves. We need the opportunity to make our own choices; also we need to have variety of options to choose from.”

The Nigerian farmers pointed out that GMO technology offered promise in the production of cowpeas, an important protein crop for millions of West Africans. Insect pests reduce cowpea yields by 60 per cent and can currently only be controlled by pesticide spraying.

SMALL HOLDER FARMERS

There are many other indigenous GMO crops being developed in sub-Saharan Africa specifically designed to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. These include disease-resistant banana for Ugandan farmers and virus-resistant cassava in several East African countries. Are European politicians now telling African scientists to stop developing these crops and close down their laboratories?

GMOs are not a silver bullet that will solve all of Africa’s agricultural challenges. There are many other issues to be tackled as well. However, as a European myself, I am distressed that African voices have been so inaudible in the debate.

Instead, the argument has become dominated by European NGOs — all of whom oppose GMOs for ideological reasons — and who campaign against agricultural modernisation and improved seeds. The NGOs ignore the overwhelming international scientific consensus that GMOs are as safe as any other foods.

Here in Europe we need to hear authentic African voices, particularly small farmers, who would be the beneficiaries of better crops and improved nutrition. Let their voices be heard in the GMO debate. The choice is Africa’s and no one else’s.

 
Mr Lynas, a UK-based writer on environmental issues, is a visiting fellow with the Cornell Alliance for Science. [email protected]