The need to prioritize farmer perspective: An Interview with Dr. Matthew Schnurr

by Becca Harrison

April 2, 2015

Dr. Matthew Schnurr

For many in Uganda, banana bacterial wilt disease is having devastating effects on their staple carbohydrate, the Matooke banana. Genetic engineering offers a promising option for mitigating its effects. While Matthew Schnurr, PhD, an environmental geographer at Dalhousie University, remains skeptical of the benefits of first generation biotechnologies to smallholder farmers in Africa, he argues that modifications to crops focused on traits that really do matter to farmers on the ground like the disease-resistant Matooke deserve further investigation.

I recently reached out to Dr. Schnurr, as I was interested in learning more about his nuanced, critical view, and where it fits in the broader GMO debate.

BH: How did your background and research interests lead you to the Matooke banana?

MS: As I was completing my undergraduate degree in biology I found myself gravitating towards an interest in examining the social and political debates around agricultural biotechnology. I shifted to environmental studies, where classes allowed me to explore the socio-economic dynamics that shape these debates. I decided I wanted to be a social scientist in my graduate work. I focused my PhD research on the case study of South Africa, as it was the only country growing GM crops in Africa. Later I shifted to Uganda, which now boasts one of the largest experimental programs dedicated to biotechnology on the continent. I first visited in 2008, and have been back every year since. I just kept following my interests, and ended up here.

BH: What are your research objectives?

MS: We re trying to ask whether new initiatives that focus on using GM as a tool to alleviate poverty and hunger in Africa can help poor smallholder farmers in Uganda. This focus is on new crops, carbohydrate staples, and new traits for increasing nutritional content, disease and pest resistance. The public-private partnerships underpinning this work are designed to use GM as a tool to help alleviate poverty and hunger. Our approach is to talk to farmers, the end-users of the technology, and assess the potential implications of these new investments on-the-ground.

A lot of research has attempted to engage farmers in these conversations, but not all research is created equal. What I think is really missing is a focus on data-driven debates. I believe that my role as a researcher is to amplify the voices of these farmers. They are the experts. They ve been farming these systems quite successfully for most of their lives. My role is to bring to the fore farmer perspectives within these debates.

BH: You conclude your recent National Academies of Sciences webinar by saying you d like to see an emphasis on demand-driven technologies, rather than experimentally driven technologies. Can you elaborate?

MS: Demand-driven technologies, participatory plant breeding, inclusive experimental programs no one is arguing against these principles. But the devil is in the detail. Most research and funding organizations are committed to the rhetoric of demand-driven development, they talk about convening meetings with farmers, they suggest experimental programs that reflect farmer concerns but existing programs are not investing enough time or money in conducting these activities. Not because they don t want to, but because there s not enough money allocated to critical elements of programming.

Most experimental funding starts with the donors questions and reflects their priorities and political affiliations. Comparatively little money is given to research that asks farmers what they need in order to be successful. If you want to improve agriculture in Africa, maybe starting with technology itself is not the best way to go. We need a broader conversation about agricultural development that includes investment in infrastructure, market access, and credit.

BH: What do you imagine this looking like?

MS: Right now, the conversation in Africa is almost exclusively contained in the realm of experts. Development donors, government officials, plant breeders, and other experts assume that farmers are semi- or illiterate, can t understand the complexities of genetic modification, and therefore they alone should do the science and go to the farmers once the technology is available. But empirical research exists showing that it is possible to bring farmers into these conversations in effective ways. No, you re not going to bring a focus group together and immediately enact change, but you could bring farmers to the lab; you could invest in radio programs; extension officers; site visits; farmer-to-farmer visits. There are lots of mechanisms for involving farmers, but comparatively little time, money, or energy is devoted to this.

BH: From what you know, which GE crop do you think has the most potential for positive impact in Africa? Least?

MS: I think GM technology has a potential that deserves to be explored. The difficulty is that everyone agrees GM is not a silver bullet; everyone agrees that investment needs to complement other sectors. But while everyone agrees with this in principle, in practice all the money and publicity are going to GM. I m all for investigating the potential of GM as a technology, but the only way technology is going to make an impact in Africa is with these corollary investments in other facets of production.

In general, I m skeptical of the potential for first generation GM crops (such as GM cotton or maize) to make a huge difference for smallholder farmers in Africa. Now, new generations of GM technology that focus on crops largely ignored by prior innovation and investment have much more potential. Tuber crops like cassava and banana, which are not open pollinated and are extremely difficult to breed, can be improved with GM. For example, in the Ugandan context, banana bacterial wilt is devastating the country right now. The country is struggling to develop anything to mitigate the effects. Should GM be tried alongside alternate breeding methods? I think so. I think it deserves a shot. The modifications I m bullish on are in those crops that can t be easily improved via conventional means, which focus on traits that really do matter to farmers on the ground.

BH: How has your argument been received by industry? By other scientists? What can we do to make this type of nuanced argument more accessible?

MS: Over the past couple of years, there have been more opportunities to engage with natural scientists than ever before. For the most part, natural scientists are cognizant of how important the socio-economic dimensions of this debate are, and how they straddle multiple disciplines. Science in the laboratory is important, but if you don t have a technology that makes sense given encounters on the ground, it won t be successful.

There are ways we as social scientists can undertake our research to better enhance our prospects of resonating within these debates. One choice I ve made in my latest research, for example, is to use quantitative methods alongside my traditionally qualitative work. These hard data resonates much more with natural scientists and policymakers. The methods we choose, the language we use, and the venues we publish in are all really important in ensuring that socio-economic factors are taken into account when discussing the potential for GM to improve yields and livelihoods in Africa.