Anti-GMO stances ‘insult smallholder farmers’ in Africa and Asia

By joseph Opoku Gakpo

February 3, 2022

Science advocates in Africa and Asia reject claims that genetically modified (GM) crops have been hijacked by big companies from the West to promote “a neo-colonialist agenda.”

Citing studies and the fact that Asian and African scientists are developing GM crops for their own countrymen, the science advocates said the evidence shows GM crops are improving the lives of smallholder farmers in these regions.

It is unfair to claim Africans are only allowing themselves to be used by the West when it comes to GMOs, said Patricia Nanteza, the Alliance for Science Africa director.

“Farmers are smart,” she said. “Farmers are not stupid. The accusation that people in Asia and Africa are just open to anything from the West must stop. At a certain point, I feel it’s insulting. Also, it’s more insulting to farmers to assume that they don’t understand. Why has biotech come to the (African) continent? To deal with the challenges farmers are facing. That is why the scientists are using technology to deal with the problems farmers are facing.”

Nassib Mugwanya, a former agricultural extension agent in Uganda who is now a doctoral candidate in agriculture and extension education at North Carolina State University, agreed. “GM crops in Uganda are rooted in the contextual realities of the challenges facing agriculture and smallholder farmers,” he observed.  “And if anything, I think GM crops complement indigenous knowledge and agricultural solutions. They help smallholder farmers — especially women — spend less time in the fields as they grow more nutritious crops for the households and communities.”

In Bangladesh, for example, Bt eggplant or brinjal, was the first GM food crop approved for commercial use in South Asia. Since its adoption in 2013 “we have more than 65,000 smallholder farmers who have benefitted from the crop,” said Arif Hossain, CEO of Farming Future Bangladesh, during a recent AfS Live webinar session.

The farmers have enjoyed a six-fold increase in income, good market acceptance and a marked reduction in pesticide use through the cultivation of Bt brinjal, he noted.

“So, in this part of the world, in Asia in particular, biotech crops are actually used by smallholder farmers. We don’t see it being used by large scale corporations as we are seeing in the Western world. So, this tool is actually targeted at farmers and consumers, who are benefitting from it,” he added.

The AfS Live session discussed a recent opinion piece published in Scientific American magazine that claimed “GM crops are rooted in a colonial-capitalist model of agriculture based on theft of indigenous land and on exploiting farmers’ and food workers’ labor, women’s bodies, indigenous knowledge and the web of life itself.”

The authors claimed GM crops were being introduced in the Global South because “GM crops have already saturated markets in corn, canola and soy in North and South America. And agribusiness is eyeing markets in lower-income countries and looking at smallholder crops, such as eggplant, millet and cassava.”

However, it’s typically public sector scientists in Africa and South Asia who are using biotechnology to breed improved versions of smallholder and indigenous crops in a bid to improve food security and improve climate resiliency in regions most likely to be impacted by climate change.

Hossain noted that in this era of easily accessed information, it is incorrect to assume farmers cannot make their own decisions on the kind of technology to use on their farms.

“Countries are now much stronger to make their decisions. Farmers are now more educated. You literally can’t lie to the farmers today when they have lots of information available… People are now taking their own decisions now,” he said.

Farmers in Africa are embracing GMOs because the technology will help them deal with real challenges on the ground, Nanteza said. “We are dealing with banana bacterial wilt. We are dealing with low vitamin A levels in bananas in a crop that is widely eaten in Uganda. That is why we are using biofortification. So, in a nutshell, biotech is in Africa and Asia to deal with the challenges that our farmers are dealing with.”

Mugwanya agrees. “The challenges with changing climate, chronic pests and diseases, soils getting less fertile, are the justifications for using biotech in addition to other existing tools to improve crops and animals… Cassava is under threat from brown streak virus. Then there is the cassava mosaic disease,” he said.

“Right now, biotech offers one of the tools that is taking this viral challenge head on… And so, the application of biotech in places like Uganda is not just a luxury of scientists experimenting with new science, or corporations or government agencies trying to take advantage of the science. It is about real challenges that need to be tackled,” he added.

Nanteza said that GMOs are also helping the world meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on reducing hunger, improving health and ensuring quality education.

“If biotech is deployed in particular crops to either provide disease or insect resistance, as we see in cowpea in Nigeria, then we see farmers getting a higher yield and that means more food on peoples’ table. That is affordable food,” she observed.

“The research shows that 38 percent of Ugandan children are vitamin A deficient, 68 percent in Mozambique. Through biofortification, banana has been engineered to produce its own increased content of vitamin A,” she added.

Hossain said GM crops are also benefitting the environment. “The genetically modified Bt eggplant can reduce 57 percent of pesticide use and provide nearly $450 for smallholder farmers in additional payment and 47 percent reduction in the cost of applying pesticide,” he noted.

The Scientific American opinion piece also said, in reference to GMOs, that “rather than celebrate grossly inadequate and unscientific solutions, the global community must support agroecology within a governing framework of human rights, peasant rights, and food sovereignty.”

Mugwanya noted that agroecology and biotechnology can work hand in hand. “Biotechnology is a tool. Agroecology is a farming system approach. I will argue that in whatever form agroecology is being promoted, it doesn’t in anyway mean that a tool of biotech cannot be used to improve crops and animals,” he said.