American 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 Science.
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.”
According to Paarlberg, several “grim realities” characterize farming in Africa today.
“Typical 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.”
Paarlberg 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.
“Even 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’
Paarlberg’s book, however, doesn’t blame the collapse of agriculture in Africa solely on Africans. He says the catastrophe is “significantly donor-driven.”
“Aid 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.
Paarlberg 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.”
He 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.
Paarlberg 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.”
“It’s 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.’”
Starved 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.
“It 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.
He says that instead of investing in teaching Africans to practice better agriculture, donors have been “lavishly” boosting their spending on food aid to the continent.
“In 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.”
He 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.
Paarlberg 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 different explanation.”
Lobbyists unwittingly prevent agricultural improvement in Africa
The 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.
Now, 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.
“They 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.”
Paarlberg 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.
In 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 farms.
“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 naturally-grown crops.
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 productive.”
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.