Recently, technological solutions to public health issues took on the form of a seed, bringing small farmers to a new crossroads between traditional forms of agriculture and industrial biotech agriculture. There is an extensive and sordid history of the impact that GM crops inflict upon nations, including the US, Argentina and India. Three predominant concerns arise with the integration of GM seeds into African agriculture, all feeding into larger public health priorities. The first concern identifies GM seed integration and corresponding impacts as problematic to individuals and environments. The second highlights GM crops' ineffectiveness at helping farmers or improving food security in the developing world. Lastly, the triumvirate of private industry, international corporations and governments generate squalid attempts to promote political agendas through GM seed introduction into previously untapped markets and communities.
The latter two concerns are particularly crucial to developing nations due to lack of political transparency and accurate assessments of new biotech solutions. As a continent afflicted with severe drought and pest resilience, Africa provides an environment that continues to be exploited by international corporations claiming "massive potential for crop yields." Amidst the hype, there is a growing opposition to the implementation of GM seeds and the corporations willing to donate them. While many private companies and foundations finance initiatives and research to address the global health issue of food security and hunger, using GM crops to meet these ends will ultimately create a system of dependence on foreign corporations and further deepen social, economic and environmental disparities in African farming communities.
Concern 1: Problematic individual and environmental impacts from GMOs
There is increasing evidence from the UN and WHO that a strong causation exists between the adoption of GM seeds and environmental degradation, including deforestation. Most research shows a decrease in biodiversity with the introduction of GMOs. This means using GM seeds may actually make agricultural conditions worse than they are presently, not to mention the added threat to the health of humans, insects, and animals.
Current international trade policies have heavily regulated importing GM products into the EU as a political response to social outcry of lack of evidence on safety. The safety of GM seeds on the public health and environment is still highly unknown due to a severe lack of unbiased research being conducted external to the reports issued by GM company laboratories. In 2002, the nations of Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique actually refused requested food aid that contained GMOs for fear of health and safety. Farmers in rural India have noted instances of animals dying from grazing on GM crops and new reports are investigating the relationship between increased allergy prevalence and GM foods as well as transference of antibiotic resistance to consumers. Most citizens in developing nations fail to consider these potential health effects because of the perception that government regulation would address such issues.
Concern 2: High economic costs associated with using industrial agricultural methods and the ineffectiveness of GM seeds at addressing food security and hunger.
Effectiveness of GM seeds to increase crop yield has been repeatedly refuted, along with the economic feasibility of their use. In 2010 GM seed giant Monsanto discovered their seed Bollgard 1 was no longer effective at eradicating the pest 'bollworm' that threatens the crops of cotton farmers in India. The bollworm pest developed a resistance to the technology that only a year earlier was deemed a significant technological success by the Union Science Minister. Monsanto responded by creating a new seed, Bollgard 2, and recommending the increased use of pesticides at a higher price to the consumer. This situation proved two points: that GM seed modifications are unreliable and can cause further issues in the long term; and that the cyclical trend of pest resistance necessitates the ongoing development of new, costlier seeds which can trap farmers in the GM web. It's easy to see how this cycle leaves farmers deeply in debt after spending so much money on the seeds and necessary additives.
The cost to mitigate and sustain GM seeds has historically led numerous farmers into deeper poverty, as they require expensive fertilizers and pesticides. Furthermore companies that produce GM seeds prohibit seed saving, a process that small farmers have relied upon for centuries to generate income and ensure livelihoods. Recent advancements have also allowed Monsanto to now genetically modify seeds to self destruct after one season, preventing farmers from saving seeds from their crop to plant next year and instead requiring them to return to Monsanto for new seeds every year. The hardest hit economically by GM use are the farmers most willing to support the corporations that advertise the benefits of their use. This occurs when farmers enter into deals with GM seed corporations without knowledge, understanding and awareness of the plethora of social, economic and environmental costs. While companies like Monsanto and DuPont may be willing to donate their seeds to small African farmers initially, once the farmers have utilized the seed, they are locked into purchasing them from these companies. This ethically questionable trend puts money only in the pocketbooks of corporations as uneducated farmers make uninformed decisions.
In a recent study on the impact of biotech in West Africa, researchers found "little evidence of practical application of biotechnology and benefit to farmers and the wider community."1 Additionally, a recent Worldwatch Report noted the lack of correlation between GM seed food production and rural development; in fact the opposite occurred, with more farmers moving to the city as their lands are taken over by large industrial farmers. Collaborative studies done in Africa also found that GM seeds magnified the gap between socio-economic classes. With a 90% share of food production in Africa attributed to small farmers, about 20% more than the global average, the introduction of GM seeds threaten to push smallholders out of business in favor of large scale, high-input agriculture.
What does all this mean for Africa's future? It means that GM seeds will place Africa in a poorly situated position to address imperative food issues and promote sustainable economic growth. What is most unfortunate is that Africa already has the tools to combat their food security issues through traditional agro-ecological farming practices. Insufficient evidence exists to show that GM crops produce higher yields and better pest protection than traditional farming practices. A United Nations Rapporteur on food rights concluded that natural farming methods actually fared substantially better than chemical fertilizers in terms of yield and protection against pests. Agro-ecological methods encourage natural seed breeding, including organic, and utilize an integrated soil-plant-animal cropping system. Many critics of GM seeds argue for a more grassroots approach, acknowledging the importance that lay expertise provides in African farming and allowing certain communities to preserve local seeds that have been enhanced through natural, localized selection processes to be pest resistant and drought resistant. This is supported by a 2011 UN press release that noted "scant attention has been paid to agro-ecological methods that have been shown to improve food production and farmers' incomes, while at the same time protecting the soil, water, and climate."2 This transition to eco-agriculture has been noted in India and Malawi, with notable positive outcomes for approximately 100,000 small farmers in Malawi. Both these nations are instigating a national shift to agro-ecological practices that have since produced significantly higher crop yields without the risk of environmental effects. What's more, 25-50%3 of the yearly harvest is wasted in Africa due to infrastructure constraints such as lack of storage, transportation to get the crop to market, and a lack of post-harvest technologies; this is a hefty sum to ignore in nations stereotyped as having no food. The promotion of GM seeds in developing nations is not the most effective manner to address hunger and food security.
Concern 3: Attempts to promote political agendas through GM seed introduction into previously untapped markets and communities
If the traditional agricultural systems are capable of producing better results, why are organizations funding GM seeds? Some speculate it is a joint effort to usher private corporations into developing nations to manipulate the global agenda. This is accomplished through large international corporations taking advantage of weak national biosafety regulations and laws that are designed to protect citizens but instead protect biotech companies' investments by enforcing laws regarding patent protection of GM seeds. Africa is full of poor farming communities that are more than willing to accept free GM seeds that corporations such as Monsanto, in connection with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, provide to NGOs and governments for distribution. These seemingly mutually beneficial relationships allow corporations to use public health platforms to infiltrate new markets and take hold of the local industry. Groups such as the African Center for Biosafety assert that the relations between large corporations and private philanthropic foundations like the Gates Foundation, which donated $1.7 billion to kick-start the second "Green Revolution," harbor too much power and foster hidden agendas, as represented by the Gates Foundation purchase of $27.6 million in shares of Monsanto stock over three months in 2010. In South Africa, the Department of Agriculture is purported to use "attractive offers to provide farming equipment, water piping and seeds"4 as a means to promote GMO's to small farmers, often uneducated and illiterate with no understanding of patents and property rights. The current legal system in Africa is fragmented with different levels of patent law and IP rights between nations. It comes as no surprise that multi-national GMO corporations are promoting common legislation for African biosafety assessment and GM seed utilization, making it easier for companies to commercialize their biotech products.
If a farmer's GM seed cross-pollinates into a neighboring farm's non-GM crop, the neighbor's farm would then fall under patent violation and could therefore no longer store seeds for the following year. The entwined system of agriculture and patent law has resulted in numerous multi-million dollar lawsuits against poor farmers and countless farms being forced to form cooperatives with neighboring farms to offset the costs of GM seeds. The decrease in the number of workers and creation of a centralized food production system has detrimental effects on national sovereignty, food security, and individual rights to choose agricultural methods. These legal actions create a system of foreign exploitation of natural resources and a monopoly on global food production. International Property Rights (IPR) protect the laws that heavily favor the corporations, but some nations are refusing to adopt these IPRs and acknowledge the patent rights of GMO corporations on crops. Some nations have demonstrated the inequitable nature of this process and are pursuing legal action against these corporations. For instance, Argentina chose a national plan to subsidize Monsanto's product Roundup Ready Soya but lacked the patent laws to enforce royalty payments to Monsanto while simultaneously prohibiting seed saving. This resulted in enormous GMO cross-pollination between fields, with patented strains found in over 95% of the market for soya, all of which would have to pay royalties and purchase seed yearly. The ramifications were massive unemployment and emergence of large monopolistic farms that engulfed the smaller bankrupted farms. In retaliation for not receiving their royalties, Monsanto has since blocked shipments of soybeans from Argentina to other countries.
Western efforts to aid developing nations have at times been shown to cause more harm than good. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation maintains a narrow scope of solutions to broad public health issues, resulting in implanting westernized plans to aid developing nations without having localized knowledge of the situation. This "outsiders" approach contributes to the problem rather than the solution. Biotech expert Philip Bereano has noted, "Big donors are undermining huge numbers of local initiatives to increase food security and protect biodiversity when they exclude small-scale projects in favor of industrial ones that actually have consequences counter to such goals."5 The Gates Foundation is known for their technologically sophisticated solutions, which are appealing to decision makers and donors looking to invest dollars in fast outcomes that look great on paper and provide clearly defined results, such as vaccines. Unfortunately, the reality is that the unsubstantiated impact projections and bar charts that sold the promise of biotech to investors often dissipate quickly once solutions are implemented and shown to fail to meet expectations. Agricultural technologies cannot provide complete solutions to hunger and food sovereignty. Social, political and economic factors must first be addressed in order to ensure food access and appropriate development.
A more proactive regulatory approach toward biotech solutions could help to buffer developing nations against the harmful impacts of the implementation of new biotechnologies. The failures of policy and decision makers to generate a buffer are illustrated globally where the utilization of GM seeds required higher crop prices at the market to offset the investment costs of expensive seeds and fertilizers. This generates difficulties with selling crops and contributes to issues of food waste. In fact, a significant challenge for farmers with GM produce is the lack of partnership with EU nations for the sale of GM products, leaving farmers with a surplus of crops without a market. These conditions are not orientated toward the goal of achieving food sovereignty and addressing hunger issues in Africa. Instead, they are the product of top-down interventions that accumulate profit for their shareholders. The International Institute for Environment and Development, a leading proponent of revised food sovereignty policies, has outlined principles to define food sovereignty as empowering citizens to define their own agricultural management system unrestricted by intellectual property rights and GM patents.
Civil rights author Maya Angelou has a saying: "I did the best that I knew how to do. When I knew better, I did better." Non-profits and foundations working to address global health issues are presented with the arduous task of creating infrastructure for healthy and sustainable development to enhance food security in nations where very little economic or political structure exists to address these needs. While many mistakes have been made due to the masquerading of GM seeds as the best solution to food security and hunger, now is the time to know better.
Natalie DeGraaf is an intern at the Council for Responsible Genetics. She is pursuing a Masters in Global Public Health at NYU, a cross between Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and Steinhardt School.
1. Black, R., Fava, F., Mattei, N., Robert, V., Seal, S., & Verdier, V. (2011). Case studies on the use of biotechnologies and on biosafety provisions in five African countries. Journal of biotechnology. doi:10.1016/j.jbiotec.2011.06.036
3. Levitt, T. (2011). Worldwatch report attacks criminalising of seed saving and promotes agroecology - The Ecologist. Ecologist. Retrieved November 4, 2011, from http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_round_up/727000/worldwatch_report_attacks_criminalising_of_seed_saving_and_promotes_agroecology.html
4. Matt Styslinger. (n.d.). Debating the Ethics of Biotechnology: An Interview with Philip Bereano . World Watch Institute. Retrieved November 9, 2011, from http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6522