Let farmers grow genetically modified crops

Tuesday April 5 2011

By GILBERT arap BOR

The season of Lent is upon us – the time of year when Christians around the world prepare for Easter through prayer, charity, and self-denial.

It also happens that farmers in the ‘‘bread-basket of Kenya’’, where I live and farm, will also be planting the staple maize crop during the same period.

As a practising Catholic, I’m committed to growing as much food as possible. I see it as an economic necessity for my family as well as a moral obligation that I must uphold as a steward of the earth.

That’s why I’d like to enjoy access to genetically modified seeds – a benefit that I don’t have right now, though farmers in many other countries do.

A couple of years ago, a branch of the Vatican called the Pontifical Academy of Sciences gave its blessing to GM crops. At a conference in Rome, it celebrated GM food for its “great potential to improve the lives of the poor”.

This is certainly my impression, based on my conversations with farmers who use biotechnology. All of them say it has improved their lot.

They talk about how GM crops have allowed them to kiss perpetual hunger goodbye. They can afford to educate their children and purchase small luxuries that seemed out of reach just a few years ago.

So I was distressed to read the recent comments of a highly-placed African clergyman at the Vatican: “I ask myself, why force an African farmer to buy seeds produced in other lands and with other means? The doubt arises that behind this is the play of maintaining economic dependence at all cost.”

He is entitled to his opinion and I respect that. Yet, I have my own opinion, drawn from my experience as one of the small-scale African farmers who produce as much as 80 per cent of the food consumed on our continent.

We need access to GM seeds so that we can reduce hunger and famine on our impoverished continent, and reduce dependence on foreign food donations.

I would certainly like to see the development of GM seeds on African soil by African researchers, an effort that the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute has tried to spearhead.

The success of this project would remove much of the fear that African farmers will be forced to rely on foreign companies for their livelihood.

The benefits of GM crops are considerable. They would allow me to use less pesticide. This not only reduces a potential health-risk for me and my family, it also lowers my business costs – a saving that I can pass on to consumers at a time of skyrocketing food prices.

Moreover, these crops would improve my ability to survive drought. They would lessen the amount of greenhouse gases I produce as I farm.

If we truly care about environmental sustainability, then we have to grow more food on existing farmland. GM crops are an important ally.

There is one thing we must never do: Allow the urgent need for agricultural innovation to suffer at the hands of political agendas.

The development of GM seeds is much like scientific progress in other areas, such as the effort to defeat HIV/Aids. It’s a moral mission well-suited to the beliefs of Catholics.

Mr Bor, a small-scale farmer, is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.