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Are genetically modified crops the answer to agricultural revolution in Nile basin and other African countries?

Nutmeg , a spice from the nutmeg tree. Africa is seen as the final frontier in the global debate over the potential for GM crops. Foto by Fredrick Mugira

Friday August 24th, 2018

Michelle Rotchford Galloway
STIAS Media Officer
August 24, 2018

There is a need to address the disconnect between donors and farmers, and engage in meaningful dialogue and research to understand the context and consequences of genetically modified (GM) crops on a case-by-case and setting-by-setting basis. “One size definitely does not fit all!” This is the opinion of STIAS fellow Matthew Schnurr of the International Development Studies department at Dalhousie University who is writing a book investigating GM crops and the future of African agriculture.

The book, which is in its final stages, is based on extensive research involving over 125 interviews and 300 farm visits in different countries.

“This project seeks to understand the ecological, social and political factors shaping Africa’s ‘Gene’ Revolution. It will analyse whether GM crops constitute an appropriate technology given existing agricultural systems, and evaluate the implications of these findings for scholars, policy makers and farmers,” said Schnurr.

“The aim is to bring to the fore the voices and priorities of the farmers – to gain their viewpoint on whether the gene revolution makes sense.”

“GM crops have had an uneven reception globally,” he added. “They were taken up quickly in some regions while in others, including many European countries, there remains some reticence.”

“Africa is seen as the final frontier in the global debate over the potential for GM crops to enhance agricultural productivity and alleviate poverty and hunger.”

Thus far there has also been uneven adoption in the sub-Saharan region with South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt being early adopters; emerging adopters like Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique; and, countries that have resisted adoption like Zambia (which even refused food aid because it was GM), Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

“Proponents argue that GM crops are technologically inevitable and represent the most promising means of improving yields and livelihoods across the continent while proponents voice concerns over intellectual property, adverse health and environmental impacts, and the increasing control of multi-national corporations over the continent’s food supply,” said Schnurr. “Both sides have worked hard to frame the terms of this polarised debate, but they oversimplify their arguments, the result being they often speak past one another, rarely engaging in meaningful dialogue.”

Addressing the yield gap
Schnurr pointed out that Africa missed the Green Revolution of the 1970s and the dominant portrayal of African agriculture as backward and unproductive has persisted.

“In parts of the continent the yield gap, which compares actual versus potential yield, is the largest in the world.”

Challenges include the smallholder model which predominates with 80% of farmers in the region being subsistence, land-size limitations, reliance on unpaid family labour and limited access to pesticides and fertilisers.

This led to the formation of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa which was established in 2006, brings together philanthropic, biotech and development donors and “has invested $430 million so far in redressing the yield gap”.

“AGRA is dedicated to creating a green revolution in Africa and is looking to cutting-edge genetic tools to achieve this,” continued Schnurr.

But he emphasised that this is not simple and outlined case studies to unpack some of the complexities. One involved the introduction of GM cotton, developed by Monsanto as ‘Bt cotton’, in the Makatini Flats in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. The crop was introduced in 1998, initially adopted by 90% of the area’s cotton farmers, and hailed as a huge success but this hasn’t been sustained.

“The success was mainly due to structural conditions,” said Schnurr. “Like the fact that the only cotton gin in the area only accepted Bt cotton; seed was sold in weights affordable to small-scale farmers; and, they were given access to loans. However, this didn’t last and over time the farmers found that their increased debt was not offset by increased yield.”

“Burkina Faso became the next showcase for this crop,” he continued. “Burkina Faso is one of the largest cotton producers in Africa with a high reputation for quality – second only to Egypt.

Bt cotton was integrated into a local cotton variety and by 2013, 300 000 farmers were growing it. However, by 2015 there were declines in quality – the introgression process had interfered with the positive traits of the Burkinabe host variety. By 2017/8 Bt cotton was phased out.”

Bananas which are commonly grown in most of Nile basin countries are second-generation GM crops. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

Schnurr also presented an example of a case study of so-called second-generation GM crops which are more focused on orphan crops and are usually funded via public-private partnerships.

A ‘super’ version of the Matooke banana is currently in field trials in Uganda. The Matooke banana is the most important carbohydrate staple in Uganda but is subject to many pests and diseases. The GM variant aims to be resistant to these plus is fortified with vitamin A.

Schnurr’s research conducted among just under 200 farmers has found that the adoption of the crop is affected by variables related to influence and affluence – “Bigger farms where the farmer is linked to agricultural associations and receives regular visits by extension officers are more likely to adopt this crop,” he said. “So, what about the more marginal farmers?”

“There is also a disconnect between donor versus farmer priorities,” he continued. “Farmers want larger bunches, disease and drought resistance while the donors are focused on the biofortification because it is funded through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health programme.”

“The host variety used is also not the one most farmers grow and although the farmers won’t pay for the IP they will pay more for the new varieties – which could present a barrier to entry.”

“What these case studies are showing is that first-generation GM crops like Bt cotton don’t necessarily fit within the African smallholder system – they are designed for another model and will continue to fail. Second-generation GM crops like the Matooke banana redress many of these shortcomings but need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.”

Schnurr believes three issues – context, scale and methods – need further consideration.
“You can’t introduce new technologies in isolation to context,” he said. “You need an enabling environment that supports the context.”

“GM crops have to be assessed on a crop-by-crop, trait-by-trait basis. We have to ask questions like: Does the crop or trait make sense in a particular place? Do the traits match the farmer’s need? Do the growing requirements work for smallholder farms? In other words, obtain better understanding of the factors that influence the farmer’s decision making.”

He also cautioned against moving quickly to new technologies without knowing all the scientific risks involved as well as the social consequences.

“The science is moving faster than the social scientific evaluation of its potential impacts. We need long-term studies.”

Schnurr also believes that focusing only on upscaling production is dangerous.
“Judging productivity only on yield gap prioritises yield over other traits and prioritises technology over social issues,” he said. “Increasing scale will change practices and while one doesn’t want to over romanticise subsistence farming there can be unintended consequences.”

One of these he mentioned is the possibility that upscaling means female and child family members may have to provide more labour thus potentially missing other opportunities like education.
“We need more studies on the gender aspects of African agriculture,” he said. “As well as how to create a viable future for farmers who want to mobilise out of farming.”

“Donors have a blind spot when it comes to downscaling – but it’s about adapting technology to local practices – actual not presumed. A top-down, value for money based approach advantages certain framings of GM crops over others.”

He believes that donors and other stakeholders need to commit to transferring technology, to co-developing technologies and to involving the farmers meaningfully in all phases of the project life-cycle.

“There is a need for less-ambitious timelines, longer-term grants, and a commitment to researching the social science alongside the science. An agro-ecological approach.”

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