Leaders seek a way forward in Africa’s GM wars

No one – not scientists, not environmentalists, not policy makers – wants an ecological catastrophe. No one wants to see people hungry, either.

My friends sometimes get mad at me when this subject comes up. Calestous Juma of Harvard passed on a link to a thoughtful editorial in the November 26 issue of Nature, which is one of the premier science journals, respected around the world. The subject is people going hungry, especially in Africa, and the desire for or opposition to using agricultural technology – including genetically modified foods and organisms – to help solve the crisis.

In the editorial, Nature’s editors speak of environmentalists, policy-makers, scientists and industry reps, who have been meeting both formally and informally for some time to find common ground and a way forward. That’s the good news: people of good will are meeting. Specifically, the African Union’s High-Level Panel on Modern Biotechnology – which brought environmental leaders like Tewolde Egziabher, head of Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority, together with scientists like Calestous Juma of Harvard (he is an ardent and active promoter of technology for Africa) and industry leaders like Cheick Modibo Diarra, chairman of Microsoft in Africa. According to Nature: “The group eventually came to a consensus that Africa’s nations cannot afford to do without new technologies in agriculture – but that all new technologies would need appropriate safeguards to protect human health and the environment.”

Sounds reasonable. The Nature editorial also said: “Despite the virulent opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops in some quarters, many believe that progress in areas such as drought-tolerant or nutritionally fortified plants could make a big difference in many of the poorest countries.”

The fact is that hunger and its potential cures are a tough and heartbreaking subject. On the one side of the GM wars – not only in Africa but around the planet – food scientists and biotech companies such as Monsanto believe that genetically modified foods might help reduce food costs, increase yields, bring some barren lands into cultivation and help feed billions as global warming affects agriculture in this century. Our century, after all, will be a century of rapid natural changes – with the climate changing, with helpful species such as bees suffering mysterious ailments and with alien or invasive species moving in. On the other side of the GM wars, however, are well-intentioned environmentalists, who believe just as strongly that GM foods will destroy the natural world and human health.

I have questions. What is hunger exactly? When does hunger become starvation? How many of Earth’s 6.7 billion inhabitants are hungry? How many are starving? Are the world’s citizens hungrier now – starving more – than a century ago or a few decades ago? Which part of the globe has the hungriest people? Is there hunger in the U.S., and what does that mean?

It’s not straightforward to find information about world hunger or GM foods on the Internet. There’s a lot of cyber-shouting going on.

Is there scientific evidence against GM technologies for agriculture? As a science editor who spends her days seeking out science online, I wonder where is that evidence? Are people’s fears are founded in real science, or not? If GM foods are harmful, where are the food scientists – the true experts – speaking out against GM technology?

No one – not scientists, not environmentalists, not policy makers – wants an ecological catastrophe. No one wants to see people hungry, either. People of good will are meeting, and isn’t that what’s needed? Shouldn’t we all just take a breath, listen to the other side a minute, and search for appropriate safeguards to the new technologies that might feed hungry people? Certainly the various sides are needed to balance each other, in what’s become a very very complicated world – a world with billions who will need to eat this evening, and tomorrow – and with scientists telling us that humans and nature are coupled in a profound way.

By the way, a brief Google search also revealed that Sir David King, the former UK government’s chief scientist, in September blamed hunger in Africa in part on western middle class rejection of GM foods. He said: “The problem is that the western world’s move toward organic farming – a lifestyle choice for a community with surplus food – and against agricultural technology in general and GM in particular, has been adopted across the whole of Africa … with devastating consequences.”

Tell me what you think.

The photo above is called There Is No Africa. From Turkairo‘s photostream.

Deborah Byrd