Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Is blocking GMO from Africa really adding to global sustainability?

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

I have found myself drawn into a discussion in one of my Linked-In networks about the value (or lack thereof) of genetic engineering (or genetic modified organisms, GMO) with regard to Africa and sustainability in general. Below this post is a story that prompted the discussion - and details an effort by a number of environmental groups to put pressure on the Gates Foundation to drop their support of genetically engineering for Africa.

I thought it would be valuable to share some of the charges against GMOs and my responses on this forum as well as a means of both addressing the topic, but also - illustrating the kind of thinking that is going on in "sustainability circles" about this technology. So below is the back and forth between me and a few well-intentioned, but I contend, wrong-headed folks. I have not included names - since the point is what they said, not who they are.

Person 1 commenting on the article (below):
This is great news, as the era of reliance on manufactured and mined fertilizers is going the way of the buggy whip. Genetically engineered crops are merely a way of increasing yeilds--for Monsanto. Make no mistake about it.

My response:
This is TERRIBLE news. African agriculture is ALREADY slow, organic and local and the result has been starvation and poverty for decades. If Monsanto is all about making money, why on EARTH are they GIVING AWAY the seeds to a continent that will likely not be able to afford their technology for decades to come?

Get real! As Stewart Brand, noted environmentalist has pointed out in his recent book Whole Earth Discipline, "I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we've been wrong about. We've starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool."

Person 2:
I find this confusing. I've read reports that seem reasonably well constructed that demonstrate that we can use--globally, not just in the U.S.--organic methods without GE crops to feed the human population quite comfortably if we employ appropriate techniques for each local and introduce reproducible and sustainable approaches for the given culture and site. Why the backlash against this idea?

I've also seen great success stories of small communities in China that abandoned their GE crops and Monsanto fertilizers/pesticides, because the costs were bankrupting the community. They moved back to more traditional methods of inter-planting different crops and/or different species and were able to significantly increase their yields, reduce pest and disease problems, dramatically lower costs, and--bonus--reduce their carbon footprint.

I don't think all GE solutions are bad, but we need to be very careful with them and test them rigorously (which is often not as well done as it could or should be). And, before we go running to a GE solution--which might then lock a community into a specific vendor relationship and fertilizer/pesticide process--we should look at the process in place and see if it actually makes sense for the culture and locale . . . (continues on a bit)

Person 3:
Poor communities can not afford to be tied to GMO and the necessary fertilizers and pesticides they depend on. GMO crops perform poorly in long term yield results and tie farmers to seed purchasing. The truth is poor communities can not afford GMO - it's not sustainable.

My response:
Do you really believe that what is happening in Africa today (without GMOs) is sustainable? With some 60% of the population involved in subsistence-level farming and poverty rates soaring? I'm not saying GMO is the only answer, but clearly, keeping this technology out of the continent -- as it has been, largely because of Euro-centric and environmentalist imposed viewpoints has not solved their problems!

Explain to me how a product that creates greater yield, uses less pesticide, has greater drought resistance and can be made to create greater nutritional value is such a bad thing for a continent that is starving and set to add billions more people??

I urge you to read Stewart Brand's chapter on genetic engineering where he interviews numerous biologists who make the point that genetic engineering is not very different from the old fashioned breeding programs humans have been engaged in for centuries.

Person 3's response:
Sara - how will these poor farmers pay for GE seeds year after year?

Subsistence-level farmers have no money to purchase seeds and traditionally depend on seed saving for next years crops. Making them dependent on external sources for seeds is no way forward. Money would be much better spent on giving them training in permaculture.

The old parable - “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime” - rings true here.

Person 4:
Sara, I have been looking for examples where GMO had a positive impact in the long run for local communities, and couldn't find a single one. They not only make farmers dependant, they also ruin the soil and distroy bio-diversity. Places where GMO's are massively used (US, Argentian, Brasil...) have become "deserts" where only the selected crops are growing and nothing else. Is this a good solution? Can this be healthy? Most local farmers are against it, but most of them have been either "bought over" by big farming companies or forced to leave. There are so many reports about, it. Look at the number of indian small farmers who suicided. I think that putting "patents" on seeds is already a wrong approach of long term view.
Permaculture on the contrary offers a solution in respect with human, nature and bio diversity. and it is perfectly applicalbe naywhere on earth.

My responses:
If you can't find a single example of how GMO has had a positive impact, you must be looking in a very limited pool of research. If GMOs are so destructive, farmers would stop buying them. I work directly with a number of farmers that use GMO seeds and have reported significant increase in yield, reduction in fertilizer use, greater ability to withstand drought and on and on with the positive impacts. These are folks that have been farming for generations, have done their research and have seen direct benefits on their farms.

Lest you think I have some financial stake in GMOs, I do not. I have no biotech clients, I have simply been immersed in ag policy and ag technology for several years and have had exposure to farmers who have chosen to use this technology because it pays off for them in the long run.

So, this idea that GMOs are this universally bad thing, but farmers are just too stupid to recognize what is in their (and their lands) best interest holds no water. I simply know too many high tech, well-educated, science-based farmers to believe that these people would pay money for technology that in the end, does not allow them to increase their overall profitability and their land's sustainability -- since at the end of the day, it is the land they must protect to continue their business.

A few quotations from Stewart Brand's book, Whole Earth Discipline on genetic engineering . . .

"From my biology background, I knew that genes have always been intensely fungible, especially in microbes. We weren't creating a new technology so much as joining an old one, using the very techniques that microbes have employed for 3.5 billion years."

"Asking around over the years, I've found that professional biologiests are universally unalarmed about genetic engineering. Most are adopting it in their own work because it is transforming every one of the biological disciplines."

Brand also provides a copy of the protest letter that green activist and scientist, Paul Ehrlich wrote to Friends of the Earth in 1977. These same concerns apply today . . . [below quotes are from Ehrlich's letter to FOE]

"One must always remember that any labratory creations would have to compete in nature with the highly specialized products of billions of years of evolution -- and one would expect the products of evolution to have a considerable advantage.

In addition, there is evidence that bacterial species have been swapping DNA among themselves for a very long time and perhaps even exchanging with eucaryotic (higher) organisms.

If recombinant DNA research is ended because it could be used for evil instead of good, then all of science will stand similarly indicted and basic research may have to cease. If it makes that decision, humanity will have to be prepared to forego the benefits of science, a cost that would be high indeed in an overpopulated world utterly dependent on sophisticated technology for any real hope of transitioning to a 'sustainable society'"

From Stewart Brand's book - quoting a 2007 article in Britain's Prospect magazine:

"The fact is that there is not a shred of any evidence of risk to human health from GM crops. Every academy of science, representing the views of the world's leading experts -- the Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Brazilian, French and American academies as well as the Royal Society, which has published four separate reports on the issue -- has confirmed this.

In 2001 the research directorate of the EU commission released a summary of 81 scientific studies financed by the EU itself -- not by private industry--conducted over a 15-year period, to determine whether GM products were unsafe or insufficiently tested: none found evidence of harm to humans or the environment."

Environmentalists are FOREVER accusing opponents of climate change of being anti-science - but when the science of genetic modification comes in, they choose to ignore it and still act as if they are doing so on behalf of the planet.

Yes, GM technology costs money that poor African farmers don't have right now. You could make that claim about most of the other problems facing their cultures too. What I know is that seed companies right now are donating seed working with the Gates foundation to see if this technology can assist in turning around the poverty and starvation of an entire continent. How is that a bad thing?

If African farmers were so much better off being advised on conventional "permaculture," why hasn't it worked? There have been many attempts no doubt. Nothing is holding back such outreach -- go ahead, do it!

Ultimately, farmers in Africa, just like farmers in America will make choices based on what brings them the most return on investment. If permaculture is such a superior alternative, it will have no problem competing against GMOs. That is, if its supporters are willing to submit to a real contest.

Just don't pretend that preventing biotechnology from taking hold in Africa is helping the Africans . . . or any of the rest of us for that matter.

Gates Foundation Urged to Back Away From Pushing GE Crops, Industrialized Agriculture for Africa

December 14, 2010

EINNEWS, December 14--- A coalition of 100 groups has written to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, urging the foundation to refocus its activities in Africa away from genetically engineered crops and industrial agriculture.

The groups signing the letter included environmentalists, academics and groups opposed to genetic engineering of food crops. They said they are concerned the foundation's grants are "heavily distorted in favor of supporting inappropriate high-tech agricultural activities, ignoring scientific studies that confirm the value of small-scale agro-ecological approaches."

Led by the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice (CAGJ), the coalition said the foundation and its private sector partners are pushing industrialized agriculture and genetically engineered crops at the expense of small farmers and the environment.

The Gates Foundation has made agricultural development one of its priorities in recent years, launching the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) with the Rockefeller Foundation in 2006. It spent about $316 million in 2009 on agricultural development.

The letter, signed by 100 organizations and individuals from 30 countries, was released to coincide with protests at the UN climate talks in Cancun.

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