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The fight to feed Africa

By Robert Paarlberg - posted Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Why are so many Africans desperately poor? The answer lies in the kind of work they do - more than 60 percent plant agricultural crops and graze animals - and in the fact that their farming lacks the productivity provided by modern science.
But the other, more tragic, answer is that Western charities are helping to keep them that way.

Most small farmers in Africa do not plant any scientifically improved seeds, do not use chemical fertilizers, do not have access to veterinary medicine, do not have any electrical power and do not have any irrigation. Lacking any of these improvements, their labor in farming (80 percent of which comes from women and children) earns them only about $1 a day. One-third are malnourished.

On a per capita basis, Africa's farms today are producing 19 percent less than they did in 1970. These condition persist throughout nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa - even in countries that produce food crops more than cash crops; even in countries enjoying internal peace; even in countries with elected governments and low inflation even in countries with low rates of HIV; even in countries with adequate access to international markets; even in countries receiving generous foreign aid.


Yet African nations do little to modernize. Although a majority of all African citizens still depend on agriculture for income, governments in Africa typically devote less than 5 percent of their national budget to the agricultural sector, and many spend less than this. Since 1991 in Uganda, where two-thirds of all citizens are farmers, agriculture has not received more than 3 percent of the budget in any year, and in some years the share has been below 2 percent.

It is Western donors who romanticize traditional farms and demonize genetically-modified crops that encourage this behavior.
African governments are heavily dependent on foreign aid, and since the early 1980s the donor community has cut its assistance for agriculture modernization dramatically. The US Agency for International Development has cut the agricultural share of its aid programs from 25 percent of the total in 1980 down to just 1 percent today. US bilateral assistance to agricultural science in Africa has actually fallen by 75 percent since the 1980s. World Bank lending for agriculture has dropped from 30 percent of all Bank lending in 1978 down to just 8 percent of lending today. It was largely because the international donors abandoned the goal of agricultural modernization that African governments did the same.
Prosperous countries in Europe and North America have cut back on bringing modern agricultural science to Africa for curiously myopic reasons. Having noticed that their own farmers at home are highly productive and don't need more agricultural science, they conclude that farmers in Africa should not need any more, either.

Beyond this, some influential elites in prosperous countries are actively hostile to agricultural science. Having used modern science to become productive, prosperous and well fed themselves, they have begun to fantasize about returning to an earlier model of farming - one based on farms that are all small, local, highly diversified and dependent exclusively on the use of pre-modern organic fertilizers (such as composted animal manure) without any inorganic nitrogen. They also want "heirloom" crop varieties rather than scientifically improved crops, and, of course, no genetically-engineered seeds.
What groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace fail to realize is that the impoverished farming seen throughout Africa today is little more than an extreme version of their pre-modern fantasy. Prosperous countries don't actually adopt this kind of farming at home (less than 1 percent of U.S. cropland is currently being farmed organically, and in Europe only 4 percent), but that doesn't stop organic farming activists from trying to sell the vision to governments and farmers in Africa. Organic farming activists actually see Africa's low use of chemical fertilizers (one reason for low crop yields, which are one-third the Asian average) as an advantage, since they can be more easily certified as organic.
Non-productive and poor, but certified organic.

Now European activists in particular are telling African governments they should stay away from approving any genetically-engineered crops, known as GMOs. These crops were first introduced in the mid 1990s and are being grown successfully (and so far without any documented mishap) in 23 countries around the world, including a number of developing countries such as China, India, Philippines, Argentina and Brazil.

They are popular with farmers because they help reduce the costs of weed and insect control, and Europe's own scientific authorities have found no new risk to human health or the environment from any of the dozens of different GMO crops approved by regulators so far (a finding endorsed by the Royal Society in London, the British Medical Association, the French Academy of Sciences, the French Academy of Medicine, the German Academies of Science and Humanities, and the Research Directorate of the European Union).

Yet when European activists speak to Africans about GMOs, they conceal these benign official assessments and traffic instead in fear.


In 2002, an official delegation from Zambia visited the UK to get advice on whether or not to accept GMO corn from the United States as food aid during a drought emergency. This was the same corn Americans had been eating since 1996, but the Zambians were told by Greenpeace that if GMOs were let into their country, organic produce sales to Europe would collapse; an organization named Genetic Food Alert warned of the "unknown and unassessed implications" of eating GM foods; and a group named Farming and Livestock Concern warned the Zambians that GM corn could form a retrovirus similar to HIV. These erroneous assertions frightened the Zambians into banning GMOs completely.

As Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa explained at the time, "Simply because my people are hungry, that is no justification to give them poison."

A group of mostly European NGOs, this time led by Friends of the Earth, then continued the disinformation campaign against GMOs at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. They coached their African partners into signing an open letter warning that GMOs might cause allergies, chronic toxic effects and cancers. At this same meeting in 2002, two Dutch organizations, HIVOS and NOVIB, joined with partner groups from Belgium, Germany and the UK to pay for a so-called "small farmers march" on Johannesburg that ended with a predictable pronouncement that Africans "say NO to genetically modified foods."

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First published in The New York Post on 6 April, 2008

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About the Author

Robert Paarlberg is a professor of political science at Wellesley College and author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa (Harvard University Press)

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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