Feeding Africa

Julius Njoroge Kinuthia and his biotech bananas

The biotech debate has been rumbling along nicely in Africa recently. A couple of days ago William Ruto, Kenya’s agriculture minister, said he planned to allow the planting of genetically modified crops as the best way to improve yields. Then this morning the UK’s former chief scientist, Professor Sir David King, warns that environmental activists are preventing Africa from feeding itself by turning the continent against biotech.

“I’m going to suggest, and I believe this very strongly, that a big part has been played in the impoverishment of that continent by the focus on nontechnological agricultural techniques, on techniques of farming that pertain to the history of that continent rather than techniques that pertain to modern technological capability. Why has that continent not joined Asia in the big green revolutions that have taken place over the past few decades? The suffering within that continent, I believe, is largely driven by attitudes developed in the West which are somewhat anti-science, anti-technology – attitudes that lead towards organic farming, for example, attitudes that lead against the use of genetic technology for crops that could deal with increased salinity in the water, that can deal with flooding for rice crops, that can deal with drought resistance.”

Africa has long been looking for its own version of the Green Revolution. Professor Sir David is not the first to suggest that modern biotech has a role to play in reducing Africa’s hungry. And I spent the weekend visiting one project that could well turn out to become a model for the continent…

A yellow revolution is sweeping through the poverty-riddled farmsteads of the Central Kenyan highlands. Neat rows of coffee bushes that once dominated the landscape are being replaced by 21st-century biotech farming techniques – tissue-culture bananas.

The farmers I met in Central Province couldn’t have been happier with their new bananas, citing improved productivity and profits. But they had been sceptical at first and needed convincing that they weren’t having GMOs foisted upon them.
But the impression I came away with was that the technology was only part of the solution. As well as raising banana plants that had been cultivated in the lab, Africa Harvest and Technoserve, the two organisations behind the project, had ensured that farmers were using the most effective farming methods available – growing their trees in manure and mulch-filled trenches – and that they had a product that could be marketed.
All the farmers I met could list a dozen different wonder crops that had been touted as the latest way of feeding Kenya and making big profits. Each time they ended up with piles of avocados, maize, pineappples that they couldn’t shift.
This time they are organised into loose co-operatives that cut out the middlemen – the bane of African agriculture.

Moses Kinyanjui Kangethehas has already ripped up his coffee plantation to make way for the new crop. “Coffee will go just like other things have disappeared,” he said. “Bananas are here to stay.”

Biotech has its place in modern agriculture. But it is not the only answer. As an undergraduate in the Department of Genetics at the university where Professor Sir David earned his bread and butter, I remember learning how much of India’s Green Revolution was a mirage. It relied on huge inputs of fertiliser and pesticides, turned agriculture into a series of monocultured crops where disease could prosper and simply stored up problems for the years to come.
Biotech – including GMOs – carries risks, both environmental and social (increasing reliance of farmers on agribusiness for example). But the question has to be whether that risk is worth taking. Unfortunately the debate is dominated by voices that have adopted a different ethical framework, and taken an absolutist position. For them, no GMOs should be used ever, under any circumstances.
This was once my position too. But now it seems absurd to rule out technologies that could offer an escape from hunger and poverty for millions of people. Unfortunately too often it seems that the debate is driven by ideologies formed in the west where the modern notion of the left is assumed to equate with being green. What happened to notions that economic development and technological progress could empower ordinary working people? Such views seem unfashionable now, dumped in the mid-late Twentieth Century. But maybe that’s where the debate within Africa today.
Anyway, that’s an aside. I’m still sceptical that GMOs and modern technology will feed Africa. Kenya for example is hungry because of decades of corruption, lack of proper leadership and a refusal to invest in crucial infrastructure. Those problems need to be tackled first. Without that, technological fixes can go only so far. But it is desperately selfish for affluent Westerners who view poverty through the filter of the Sunday colour supplements to rule out the use of cutting edge science in the battle to end world hunger.
Keeping Africa stuck in the stone age is bullshit. But if you’re into organic farming I guess that’s the point.