academic and author Robert Paarlberg says activists in rich countries are
inadvertently denying improved agricultural techniques to millions of poor
farmers in Africa. He draws the conclusion in his book, Starved for Science. Only one country on the
continent, South Africa, has legalized the planting of genetically modified
(GM) food crops. NGOs in the developed world argue that the GM food poses
health risks, but Paarlberg says there’s no “scientific evidence” of this. As a
result of what he brands a “misinformed” anti-GM movement, he says crops that
could eventually allow Africa to feed itself are being kept out of the
continent. The second part of a VOA series on informative books focusing on
Africa places the spotlight on the academic’s provocative text.
In Starved for Science, Paarlberg argues that while
people in the “overfed” developed nations of Europe and North America have the
“luxurious” choice of whether or not to plant and eat genetically engineered
food, the crops of smallholder African farmers are destroyed by drought and
disease, insect infestations and poor farming techniques, with the result that
much of Africa continues to be gripped by malnutrition.
Paarlberg is a professor of political science at Wellesley
College, a visiting professor at Harvard University and an expert on
genetically modified crops. He’s convinced much suffering will be eased, and
even prevented, if Africans are given access to improved technologies and
permitted to plant drought and insect resistant GM seeds.
Paarlberg says African governments have been forced to ban
GM seeds by “excessive” legislation that controls GM foodstuffs in Europe.
Because of that legislation, Africans’ produce must be certified GM-free, or
they’re barred from exporting to the big markets in Europe.
Experts estimate that nearly two-thirds of Africans are
employed in agriculture, with most languishing in extreme poverty and with
little access to modern farming strategies and equipment.
Paarlberg says while agricultural science has been
credited with boosting food production in Asia, Africa has yet to experience
corresponding good fortune, and he sets out to explain why in Starved for
His argument is summarized by reviewer Jenny Wiggins, writing in
Britain’s Financial Times: “… in this timely book, (the author) makes a
strong argument: Europeans, who have so much food they do not need the help of
science to make more, are pushing their prejudices on Africa, which still
relies on foreign aid to feed its people. He calls on global policymakers to
renew investment in agricultural science and to stop imposing visions of
‘organic food purity’ on a continent that has never had a green revolution.”
to Paarlberg, several “grim realities” characterize farming in Africa today.
smallholder farmers in Africa don’t use improved seeds, they don’t apply
chemical fertilizers, they don’t have access to any electrical power; they
don’t have access to modern veterinary medicine for their animals. No matter
how hard they work under these circumstances…they’re poor, because of the
constraining environment in which they use their labor and agriculture.”
highlights in his book how most African governments have constantly failed to
make even “minimal” investments in farming and agricultural research that would
improve and save the lives of many on the continent.
some model countries in Africa usually fail regarding this…. If you look at
Uganda you’ll find that since 1991, in no year has the government spent more
than three per cent of its budget on agriculture. And in many years, it has
spent less than two per cent.”
Underinvestment in agriculture in Africa ‘donor-driven’
book, however, doesn’t blame the collapse of agriculture in Africa solely on
Africans. He says the catastrophe is “significantly donor-driven.”
dependent governments in Africa have neglected agriculture in large part
because the donor community has been neglecting agriculture badly for at least
the last 20 years or so,” he concludes.
explains that donors in 1988 gave four billion dollars in aid to Africa’s
agricultural sector…. Yet by 2001, “as Africa’s circumstances continued to
worsen,” external aid to African agriculture had fallen down to one billion
dollars – “a 75 per cent drop since the 1980s.”
states that rich countries have essentially stopped donating to African
agriculture, leading domestic governments to stop funding agricultural
research…with the result that many in Africa don’t realize the potential
benefits of genetically modified crops, specifically with regard to increased
yields of staple food such as maize.
quips that the United States Agency for International Development’s
agricultural unit in Africa – once the most powerful of organizations working
for the continent’s agricultural development - has “disappeared.”
a similar story at the World Bank, where the agricultural share of lending
since 1978 has fallen from 30 per cent, down to just eight per cent. In fact,
in 2005, (then-president of the World Bank) Paul Wolfowitz, in an off-hand comment
to a business forum, said: ‘Oh, my institution’s mostly gotten out of the
business of agriculture.’”
for Science devotes
a lot of space to explaining why, since the 1980s, donors have been cutting
back so much in supporting agricultural development in general and agricultural
science in particular in Africa.
isn’t because donors have lost interest in Africa. To the contrary, donors are
focused on Africa more than ever before, and giving generously to Africa – but
not to agriculture in Africa,” Paarlberg notes.
says that instead of investing in teaching Africans to practice better
agriculture, donors have been “lavishly” boosting their spending on food aid to
2005, the U.S. all by itself spent $1.5 billion on food aid to Africa – which
is ten times as much as it was spending on agricultural improvements in Africa.
This is a neat reversal of the old ‘teach-a-man to fish’ adage. We’d rather
give them fish – more and more and more every year, apparently.”
also isn’t convinced that donors are skeptical about the effects of quality scientific
research in Africa, saying international studies showing that investment in
such research on the continent has resulted in good returns, abound.
says, “In my book I reject a lot of these phony explanations for the withdrawal
of donor support for agriculture in Africa, and I point instead towards quite a
Lobbyists unwittingly prevent agricultural improvement in Africa
author says over the past 30 years, “cultural elites” in both Europe and North
America have come to “actively dislike” agricultural science – despite that
they themselves have used it to make their farmers more productive and
prosperous and thereby to feed themselves adequately.
Paarlberg posits, Europeans and Americans feel they don’t need any more
agricultural science – of which GM foods are the modern result – because
they’re afraid of what it might do to their farming sectors.
associate agricultural science with farms that are too large and too
specialized, farms that use too many chemicals, farms that mistreat animals,
farms that enrich only large agri-business companies and farms that give us
foods that are seldom palatable, or even healthy.”
acknowledges that these criticisms are “fair” in Europe and North America, and
so people there are now advocating a return to small, traditional farms that
grow organic produce and not GM crops and treat animals better by allowing them
to range freely.
the developed world, where there’s a surplus of food, he comments, consumers
and activists can afford to demand organic produce and to ignore the benefits
offered by GM crops. In contrast, Paarlberg argues, Africans can no longer
afford to ignore the potential of genetic engineering to produce much more food
for their continent, where thousands die of hunger every year.
He says governments in rich countries, under pressure from
anti-GM activists, are reducing domestic spending on agricultural research and
development, with a corresponding reduction in funding for the same in Africa.
Paarlberg’s book presents the view that some international
environmental NGOs, while they may be well meaning, are forcing their beliefs
on Africa and thereby trapping the continent in a cycle of food shortages.
For example, he says, international movements promoting
organic food go to Africa to campaign against the use of nitrogen fertilizer on
“Now African farms currently barely use any nitrogen
fertilizer at all, which is why soil nutrient deficits are such a problem in
Africa, why yields are not going up, why African farms lose one to three
billion dollars a year in crops that they could have produced if they’d been
able to fertilize.”
Paarlberg says the activists’ approach of convincing
Africans not to fertilize or to plant GM crops is “damaging to the prospects of
the poor in Africa,” who, instead of producing a lot of food for the masses,
end up growing a little organic food to satisfy the appetites of the elites of
the developed world.
He acknowledges also that foods derived from genetically
engineered seeds “don’t look any better or taste any better or store any longer
or prepare any better; they’re not any more nutritious and they’re not
noticeably cheaper.” But Starved for Science repeatedly emphasizes that
the chief benefit of GM technology for Africa is the production of more food.
Paarlberg maintains the opposition to GM food in the
developed world lies not in potential risks to people who eat it, but rather in
the fact that only a tiny minority of people there – such as seed companies,
farmers and patent holders in the biotech companies who develop the seeds –
“reap huge direct benefits” from food that isn’t any better than that from
New technologies ‘ideally tailored’ to Africa
But he says “serious problems” arise when European and
American perspectives against agricultural biotechnology are exported to Africa
“where circumstances are so different, where farmers aren’t four per cent of
the population but 70 per cent of the population, and where the direct benefits
of agricultural biotechnology wouldn’t go to just a sliver of people who are
already prosperous and well fed, but to a majority of the population, desperate
to have an improved technology capable of making their labor and farming more
Paarlberg hits out at anti-GM activists, saying they’ve
spread “utterly irresponsible scare stories” about GM organisms to Africans.
“They talk about how this technology might form an
anti-retrovirus similar to HIV/AIDS; they talk about cancer risks – never ever
telling Africans that every single scientific academy in Europe has in writing
said that a review of the literature reveals no documented evidence of any new
risks to human health or the environment from any of the (GM) products on the
market so far.”
He also explains that European governments are especially
eager to help African governments adopt “regulatory systems” that “stifle” the
planting and production of GM food.
“Following this as a consequence, not a single country in
Africa, other than one, the Republic of South Africa, has yet made it legal for
African farmers to plant any GM crops. So you ask: Why aren’t African farmers
planting GM (organisms)? Because outside of the Republic of South Africa, it’s
a criminal activity.”
Paarlberg says it’s of critical importance for Africa to
embrace agricultural science and GM technology as soon as possible, to allow it
access to new applications of crop biotechnology that are “ideally tailored to
the needs of smallholder farmers in Africa – crops engineered not to lose as
much yield under drought conditions.”
He adds, “Funding lags are now only the first hurdle for
getting drought tolerant maize to Africa. Next we have to hope that the research
is successful. But then – and this is where my worries start to grow – we have
to hope that when the new drought tolerant maize varieties are ready for use in
Africa, in eight or ten years from now, the current regulatory blockage has
been lifted. We have to hope that it will be legal for African farmers to
actually plant these new seeds.”
In the end, Paarlberg says, his book is best described as a “plea.”
“It’s a plea mostly to the donor community not to continue
imposing on Africa’s rural poor the new… hostility to agricultural science that
is becoming so prevalent in prosperous countries. This perspective is
completely inappropriate to the circumstances of smallholder farmers in Africa.
It represents an imposition of the richest of tastes on the poorest of people.”
The professor says GM food isn’t more or less nutritious
than any other food; it’s just easier for farmers to grow more of it. And he
says this is what Africa needs more than anything else.