For Better or For Worse; a Genetically Modified Future

In September of this year, The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, sparked controversy by referring to African opposition to genetically modified crops as a ‘farce.’

Image courtesy of the Gates Foundation, © 2007. Some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, © 2007. Some rights reserved.

The organisation, which advocates for sustainable agricultural and economic development on the African continent, was founded in 2006 through a partnership between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Since then, the group has faced scrutiny for its advocacy on behalf of genetically modified crops as a tool in improving food security and agricultural development, especially since the revelation that the Gates Foundation purchased $23 million worth of shares from the ever-contentious Monsanto Corporation.

Arguing that aversion to biotechnology and genetically modified crops is predicated upon fear and misunderstanding rather than scientific evidence and rational scepticism, Agra purports that GM products are in fact safe for human consumption and do not pose a large risk to biodiversity as invasive species. Instead, GM crops can play an integral role in the future of sustainable African development and should be heralded for their great potential in feeding the world’s rapidly expanding population and fuelling economic growth.

This is not necessarily an easy process, however, as the introduction of GM crops in developing African states is largely dependent not only on public opinion towards the products, but on available technology, existing legal frameworks, scientific and research capacity, and existing political will. Exercising such political willpower can pose a significant challenge to state leaders, as decision makers find themselves caught between the ‘pro bio-tech’ United States and ‘anti bio-tech’ Europe in attempts to appeal to both market demographics. Following the 2008 food price crisis, however, issues of food security have been moving in from the periphery of public attention, and African leaders have displayed greater political will in making independent decisions regarding the introduction of biotechnology and GM crops.

Introducing this type of biotechnology is certainly only one factor in increasing food security and decreasing poverty alongside infrastructure improvements, credit availability, education, etc., but it can have important results.

According to the Burkina National Cotton Producers Union, Burkina Faso’s cotton output has increased by 57.5% in the last year due to the introduction of GM cotton, generating a significant increase in income for independent farmers, which has encouraged further socioeconomic developments.

Between 1998 and 2000, with the introduction of GM cotton in South Africa, returns on gross margins among smallholder producers increased from 11% to 77%, due to higher yields and lower pesticide costs, that in spite of the higher seed costs.

It is clear that biotechnology has a role to play in Africa. Abstractly, genetically modified crops can facilitate new opportunities for farmers, their communities, and international markets; however, panacean praise falls short as we begin to consider the market forces that come into play.

Enter the Monsanto Corporation. An innovator in the field of agricultural biotechnology, Monsanto has lead research and development in seed engineering, and has dominated international markets with these expensive but generally productive GM seeds.

Censured by some environmental activists who raise concerns regarding biodiversity and long-term health effects of consuming GM food products, Monsanto has long faced public opposition.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Monsanto pledged to donate 475 tons of GM seeds to aid in the recovery effort; an offer which was met with protests from local famers, who insisted on preserving the sovereignty of the Haitian organic farming tradition and protecting farmers from future costs. Insisting that Monsanto was only attempting to capitalise on the disaster and create a new market of farmers dependent on their expensive products, the farmers met to burn the first shipment of seeds.

In 2009, when droughts struck the Andra Pradesh region of India, farmers who had purchased Monsanto’s expensive GM Bt Cotton seeds found themselves with massive debts, creating an agriculture-based economic crisis in the region. Increased suicide rates among farmers in the region were attributed to the crisis, causing many to consider the culpability of Monsanto in selling at such high rates. The regional government requested a compensation package from Monsanto and a reduction in price levels; however, no settlement was reached, resulting in several legal filings against the corporation and its unsavoury business practices.

It is here that we are left banging our heads against the wall, desk, or closest sturdy surface, as we so often are in the study of international development. We have the scientific resources available to facilitate sustainable growth, but ambitions for gaining power and profit in the developing world give the sword two very sharp edges.

It is completely justifiable for Monsanto to charge more for their seeds than traditional distributers in order to cover the costs of research and production, but where is the line between reasonable profit and neo-colonial exploitation?

I am not suggesting that biotech industries should be nationalised, nor am I denigrating the importance of the capitalist spirit or entrepreneurship in the field of research and design. Instead, I am highlighting the importance of corporate social responsibility in fostering public-private partnerships to facilitate positive economic growth.

We are heading into a future of exponential population growth with changing climate patterns and uncertain natural resources. While the idea of consuming genetically modified food products may be unsavoury to some, it seems inevitable that biotechnology will play a larger role in world agriculture in order to achieve efficiency in these changing conditions. We need corporations like Monsanto, but we also need accessibility, fair markets, and corporate accountability if the type of success envisioned by Agra and biotech activists is ever to be achieved.