In recent issues of Agriculture and Human Values the issue of genetically modified crops has come to the fore. It is heartening to see discussion on the role of GMOs in agriculture and food security in a forum that has been traditionally dominated by anti-GMO, anti non organic agriculture sentiments ( A camp to which I firmly belonged because of my allegiance to small scale farmers and, I admit to it, the general feeling in my gut that GMOs are unsafe for me). The arguments against GMOs are well known. Without completely rehashing these, one set of arguments stem from research showing the link of GMO use and associated loss of power and autonomy for small scale farmers in relation to rights to save seed and control harvests, and potentially negative impacts on local genetic diversity and the environment. Other arguments of course rely on the assumed (and perhaps somewhat deserved) must-make-profits- at-all costs nature of biotech companies at the expense of farmers and the over-claiming of potential benefits of GMOs. For advocates, GMOs increase yields, reduce the use of pesticides and improve drought and tolerance to the impacts related to climatic change (Interestingly, health has actually been the basis of several African governments to ban GMOs rather than more valid concerns about small scale farmers). In sub-Saharan Africa, debates on GMOs have been particularly virulent and divided with advocates constructing opponents as backward zealous simpletons at best and mass starvationists at worst. Opponents have sort to portray advocates as GMO company cronies with a hidden agenda.
But the arguments by both pro and anti GMO advocates are actually not supported by sufficient research in the African context. Yes, scientists have often cited increased yields or drought tolerance as key attributes for accepting GMOs. And in this regard, they are one up on anti GMO advocates. But farmers rarely actually make agricultural decisions by isolating one particular factor. Yields or drought tolerance would only be one of the considerations in a milieu of social, economic and taste considerations. Studies which only site yields, for instance, do not tell us much about what happens or impacts in real contexts.
Which brings me back to the recent literature in Ag and Human Values. While not related to research in the African context, they nonetheless offer us an interesting array of methodologies to go about in collecting the data needed to really find out the potential impacts of GMOs on African farmers. With regard to research which claims to represent the voice of small scale farmers, Stone and Flachs show how, within GMO studies, this research obscures, rather than explains, agricultural decision making. Studies which address the loss of autonomy in decision making in relation to GMOs and small farmers have to endeavor to understand the social context within which agricultural decisions are made, and must address opinions about technologies and practices related to GMOs with regard to long term impacts. Although the overall tone for their article is anti GMO, Schnurr and Mujabi-Mujuzi encourage researchers to reevaluate the idea that it is not possible to communicate the complexities of biotechnologies to farmers. I agree with Schnurr and Mujuzi on this point and extend it to African consumers. If the public and farmers don’t understand bio- tech, it is due to the failure of scientists not of the public. Don Lotter’s ( a former organic only ag supporter) article on food security in Africa sums it up for me. He notes that there is a need to find out how to use both agrochemicals and organic methods -and I would add GMOs – together. This is particularly true given the multiple challenges to African agriculture and particularly the added challenges presented by climate change.
As a former hardcore organic agriculture supporter I and others like me are now on the fence about GMOs, agriculture, food security and small scale producer autonomy in the African context and its a good thing.
Lotter Don. 2014. Facing food insecurity in Africa: Why, after 30 years of work in organic agriculture, I am promoting the use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides in small-scale staple crop production. Agriculture and Human Values: DOI 10.1007/s10460-014-9547-x
Schnurr Matthew A and Sarah Mujabi-Mujuzi. 2014. “No one asks for a meal they’ve never eaten.” Or, do African farmers want genetically modified crops?” Agriculture and Human Values 31 (4):643-648
Stone, Glenn and Andrew Flachs. 2014. “The problem with the farmer’s voice AFAFA.” Agriculture and Human Values: DOI 10.1007/s10460-014-9535-1