Monday, March 24, 2008

Biotech salvation

"Africa's traditional rural food systems are definitely "slow." To serve maize meal (called nsima) to her family, an African woman must first spend a season planting, weeding, harvesting and storing her corn, then she must strip it, winnow it, soak it, lay it out to dry, carry it to a grinder or pound it by hand, dry it again, and finally - after walking to gather enough fuel wood - cook it over a fire.

Nearly all of Africa's farms are thus de facto "organic." Poor and non-productive, but organic.

In Europe, meanwhile, some official donors and nongovernmental agencies are working to block farm modernization in Africa. Despite Africa's worsening soil nutrient deficits, European donors like to promote costly organic farming techniques as the alternative to chemical fertilizer use. This is not how European farmers escaped poverty. Only 4 percent of cropland in Europe is currently being farmed organically (and less than 1 percent in America), but European NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace tell Africa's poor this is the path they should follow.

European governments and NGOs also promote regulatory systems that block the use of genetically engineered crops, including crops capable of resisting insects without pesticide sprays. Europe's own science academies have found no new risks to human health or the environment from any of the genetically engineered crops placed on the market so far, but since overfed Europe can do without this technology, underfed Africa is told to do the same.

In this fashion, and perhaps without realizing it, wealthy countries are imposing the richest of tastes on the poorest of people. The rich are, in effect, telling Africa's farmers they should just as well remain poor." (Thanks D.)

Robert Paarlberg a professor of political science at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and the author of "Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa" wrote the article from which these excerpts were obtained for the IHT.

The article ridicules Boston students (liberals?) who want to keep the African farmer in poverty in order to satisfy their conscience. The alternative, he says, is agribusinesses and genetic engineering. This great combination has had unmitigated success in India, where thousands of small farmers commit suicide every year, but where the lumped figures for growth are a source of pride to simplistic economics.

The author also denigrates organic farming. I am not a fundamentalist believer in organic farming, but I know, because I practice it and I teach it, that for most crops, yields can be just as high as conventional farming, and that organic farming does not mean "no-inputs, backwards, and subsistence farming". Organic farming involves a lot of serious science, and requires significant know-how and technology transfer. And soil enrichment is one of the most crucial steps in organic farming.

The article has other inaccuracies, such as the reasons underlying the decline in aid funding for agriculture, which has to do with a belief that was dominant in the last decade that investing in agriculture was not a good use for development money. This idea has changed now, with the increase in world food prices.

I guess the biotech industry also needs supporters who can also stir emotions and use moral arguments for leverage.

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