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GM crops: continuing controversy

In 2002, the international press was full of headlines such as ‘Starving Zimbabwe Shuns GM Maize’. This was repeated again in 2010. The context was the refusal to import whole-grain GM maize from South Africa, as regulatory approval had not been granted, and there were fears that the food aid grain would be planted when GM crops had not been approved for release by the national regulatory authorities. The 2002 episode in particular caused a massive furore, with the governments of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique cast as villains, at odds with the needs of their people.

The debate has re-emerged recently with calls from a number of quarters, including the CZI and CFU, for Zimbabwe to accept the inevitable and formally approve the planting of GM crops. Of course GM crops, and especially maize, are planted widely as so much maize grain has been imported through informal routes from South Africa in recent years. An official acceptance of GM crops would, it is argued, increase productivity, reduce food aid dependence and tackle poverty. GM for some is the silver tech bullet that Zimbabwe urgently needs.

The Zimbabwe debate, not surprisingly, almost exactly replicates the international discussion that has heated up recently too. In the UK a group of science advisors to the Prime Minister have recently reported their view that the UK should lift its moratorium. The UK Chief Scientist, Sir Mark Walport, argued in his covering letter that ‘people will go unfed’ if such a response was not forthcoming. Some extreme press coverage, including in the normally restrained Sunday broadsheet, the Observer, has backed the advisors, with claims that such a move would help solve the global food crisis and world poverty. A similar narrative is being pushed by some commentators in a debate this week convened by SciDev.net.

Most sensible scientists would not go so far. Indeed these days much of the advocacy of GM crops is presented in terms of seemingly balanced positions on technology choices. The same lead author of the recent advisers’ report also led an inquiry for the Royal Society on ‘biological science-based technologies’ for crop production. Professor Sir David Baulcombe is a respected plant scientist from Cambridge, but also an ardent advocate of GM solutions. Yet the position of his 2009 Royal Society report seems at face value completely balanced: GM is only one part of a wider array of technologies, both genetic and agroecological:

Over the next 40 years, biological science-based technologies and approaches have the potential to improve food crop production in a sustainable way. Some of these technologies build on existing knowledge and technologies, while others are completely radical approaches which will require a great deal of further research. Genetic improvements to crops can occur through breeding or GM to introduce a range of desirable traits. Improvements to crop management and agricultural practice can also address the constraints identified….. There are potential synergies between genetic and agroecological approaches. Different approaches will be needed for different regions and circumstances. There is a need to balance investment in radical new approaches that may have major consequences on productivity with investment in approaches which deliver modest improvements on a shorter timescale.

What could be wrong with that? The strapline is ‘reaping the benefits’ from science-based ‘sustainable intensification’. Seemingly all good things – although see next week’s blog on some of the hidden politics of the ‘sustainable intensification’ buzzword. In his more recent report, Baulcombe is less circumspect: GM is most definitely central to the answer. Five years on there is a greater determination it seems to change the policy landscape, and deal with what they term ‘dysfunctional’ regulation imposed by the EU. Also the composition of the advisory group is distinctively different with strong industry links: no troublesome agroecologists amongst their number this time.

As someone who has tracked this debate now over 15 years, and studied the role of GM crops and the politics of regulation in India, Africa and the UK, it is interesting to note the changing patterns of discourse. Today the advocacy for new technologies to solve global food problems is particularly shrill. Yet where is the evidence for such approaches being ‘pro-poor’ and enhancing ‘food security’? Dominic Glover did a very detailed analysis of the available data, and found very little in the way of hard evidence to support the claims made. Others have provided similar assessments. Yes, GM pest-resistant cotton has been a success, but has it always benefited the poor and improved food security? Probably not.

This is of course no reason to reject a technology as part a mix, but the near obsession with GM solutions can act to crowd out alternatives. As explained by Gaëtan Vanloqueren and Philippe Baret in an excellent paper, agricultural innovation processes can become locked in to particular trajectory: through R and D funding flows, the need to recoup investment costs through intellectual property sales and via the biases and motivations of particular scientists’ professional careers. The GM hype that reached its apogee in the early 2000s has created such a dynamic, and some companies, most notably the US multinational Monsanto, have hooked their fortunes on GM technologies. As funders of much so-called public research, the big companies reinforce this too. This dynamic is unhealthy, and means that alternatives are not identified, funded and developed.

The counter to this is that the biotech and genomics revolution is throwing up all sorts of new possibilities. Certainly this is a frontier area of bioscience, and there are multiple exciting avenues being pursued. Indeed, many are not hooked into the transgenic GM promise at all, but more based on innovative applications of bioinformatics and genomics. The GM lobby for most of the past 15 years has promised an exciting ‘pipeline’ of new products that will solve inter alia constraints of drought, nutrients, aluminium toxicity and much more besides. Indeed, Baulcombe and colleagues provide a familiar list in their report. But while some may be forthcoming, others have been long promised. Unfortunately the hype fuels expectations, garners venture capital as well as public funding, and pushes R and D in ever narrower directions.

Despite the promises, GM science has yet to deliver anything approaching an effective product for tackling drought for example. Yet biotechnology and marker assisted selection has done wonders in improving drought tolerance in maize in Africa. This research, led by the CGIAR Centres CIMMYT and IITA, was pioneered in Zimbabwe, and has resulted in a suite of new varieties that have transformed farmers’ possibilities in maize farming. This work has used high-end biotech science, but it has not relied on proprietary technologies and has been publicly-funded. The result is a widespread use of drought tolerant maize, with traits embedded in well-adapted background genetics. In many ways this approach is far more sophisticated than the rather brutal technique of transgenics, where a gene (or a stack of them), usually owned by a company, is inserted into a variety that the company also owns. Sometimes, while the transgene may be effective, the background variety may be hopeless, and the net effect is negative (as was the case in the early years of Monsanto’s Bt cotton in India).

So should Zimbabwe hurriedly embrace GM crops? It’s a difficult question to answer generically. It depends on the trait, the crop, the intellectual property arrangements, the costs and risks relative to the benefits and the alternatives that exist. This is why a precautionary policy stance, backed by a solid regulatory framework, is essential, as I argued in a paper with James Keeley over a decade ago. This has been the position of the Zimbabwe government since the 1990s, and there doesn’t seem any reason to change now, despite the clamour.

Much of the simplistic advocacy of GM crops as the tech solution to ‘feed the world’, as illustrated by the recent flurry of reports and media articles in the UK, fails to take account of the political and social contexts in which such technologies (if they existed – remember most useful ones are ‘in the pipeline’) are used. It really does matter who owns, controls and oversees access. And when one technological track is favoured over others, then a whole raft of much more suitable and sustainable alternatives may be missed.

Contrary to the Observer’s claim that ‘there is no choice’, there certainly is, and the multiple choices available need to be thoroughly debated, including by those who are the users of technologies (as occurred in an interesting engagement on Zimbabwe’s food and farming futures in the early 2000s). We should always avoid being pushed in a singular direction by those who are (mis)using the authority of science, without a proper and open debate.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

 

 

 

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Appropriate technologies? Why neither tractors nor conservaton agriculture may be the right solution for Zimbabwean agriculture

A few weeks back I had the opportunity to discuss technology options for Zimbabwean farming with two different groups. They had very different ideas about what was appropriate. And neither seem to have asked farmers themselves. Nor have they taken account of the particular technological challenges of Zimbabwe’s agrarian structure. Both, for different reasons, seemed, to me at least, inappropriate technologies for the vast mass of Zimbabwean settings.

The first was a discussion around ‘Conservation Agriculture’ (CA) in Wondedzo Extension, a villagised A1 scheme in Masvingo district where CA is being promoted by an NGO, Hope Tariro. This low-till approach, involving digging planting pits by hoe in small areas to concentrate moisture and fertility inputs, is being pushed by donors in Zimbabwe in a big way. It is central to programmes led by the FAO, as well as across numerous NGOs. It is supported by the EU and DFID among other donors, and is backstopped by a range of technical support agencies. These include the River of Life Church and the Foundations for Farming, where CA is inspired by ‘callings from God’ and the Sustainable Agriculture Trust, led by a group of former white farmers and supported by substantial EU-FAO funds, as well as CGIAR Centres like CIMMYT and ICRISAT.

I talked to the local extension agent in the area who was preparing for the planting season with his demonstration farmers. He estimated he spent around 60% of his time during the farming season on supporting CA activities in the area. He was politely equivocal about the approach, but he was clear it was diverting his time from other activities. It is an extremely intensive gardening approach, which requires an area to be fenced off and all crop residues returned to the land. Farmers refer to it as ‘dig and die’ due the back breaking work involved, but they are glad of the free seeds (and in some cases fertiliser too). But is this an appropriate technology for the new resettlements?

On very small areas, with substantial labour inputs, yield increases are clearly possible, but this is not an approach which will deliver sustained growth in farm production in the larger arable plots of the new resettlements. Designed for micro garden plots, it may be appropriate for some areas, but not many. In a discussion at the nearby irrigation scheme, we raised the idea of testing out CA there. A woman immediately jumped up and exclaimed: “No! We will not do this! This is our cooperative irrigation. If we have the NGO here, they will make us irrigate with buckets!” There was general agreement: the NGO imposed ideas were fine to get hold of seed and could be done on small areas near the villages, but they should not disrupt their core economic activities on the irrigation scheme. The discussion moved to the problems of CA, and the usual list spilled out. Too much labour, small areas, burning of crops with concentration of fertiliser and so on.

The next opportunity to discuss farm technology came a few days later at the China Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centre , recently built by the Chinese Government on the campus of Gwebi College just outside Harare. This is being run by the agricultural machinery company, Menoble, an offshoot of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Mechanisation Sciences. The facility is impressive as is the shiny machinery in the courtyard. The Centre hosts regular training programmes for Zimbabwean farmers and extension officials. But with some exceptions, the machines are only useful for massive farms – of the order of 1000ha or so. The model, it was explained, is the large-scale commercial farms of NE China, where the company has its major market. What about the famous small-scale farms of China?, I asked. No, this is backward farming, not the future, it was argued by one official. Although later I was shown there are some maize and potato planters and harvesters appropriate to 20-30ha plots to show that ‘small-scale’ farming had not been forgotten.

Neither group had, it seems, thought about the demands of the new agrarian structure. Today, 90% of Zimbabwe’s farmers are smallholders, representing 80% of the farmed land. This is a dramatic change from the past. The argument of the donors and NGOs pushing CA is that many of these farms in the communal areas are very small – perhaps only one or two hectares. Here an intensive gardening approach may be appropriate, if the labour is available. But what about the new resettlements? The average holding per household in the A1 schemes is 30-40ha, with cultivated areas in our study sites in Masvingo increasing, now averaging 5-10ha. CA does not make sense in these areas. But nor does most of the Chinese machinery on offer at Gwebi. The Chinese company officials argue that production should occur on large, modern, efficient farms, equipped with the latest machinery (huge cultivators, combine harvesters and planters pulled by 15HP tractors). A familar tale about the supposed superiority of large-scale farming, and the need to transform a backward smallholder sector, forgetting of course how Chinese economic growth was supported by millions of smallholder farms following the reforms.

Neither the western donors and NGOs nor the Chinese seem to have thought hard enough about the contexts into which their technologies are supposed to fit. Nor have they discussed properly with their clients and customers. Of course Zimbabwean farmers are very polite, and will not turn away an NGO, in case its work can be redirected towards something useful. They are happy to take free inputs (worth around USD$40 per household), but, as with the outburst at the irrigation scheme and the derogatory nick-name for CA, they are reluctant to see this as a solution. Equally, extension workers and farmers alike will attend the Chinese training courses and marvel at the big machines, but will they take up the suggested technical options? Even if they could afford them, this is extremely unlikely. Only a small proportion of farmland is now over 1000ha, representing only a few farmers. Is this the target market for Chinese machinery, and could be basis for a long term business plan for Menoble? I doubt it.

So here we have two sets of inappropriate technology being pushed by two very different sets of donors, driven by particular perceptions and assumptions. Technology transfer has come back into fashion in the aid world, but all the critiques that Robert Chambers and others made way back on the problems with this paradigm still apply. In a new agrarian setting, there are some real technological challenges, but these will have to be met together with inputs from farmers and a much better sense of scale requirements and farmer needs and priorities. Perhaps the Chinese, the Brazilians (also offering tractors) and the ‘traditional’ donors could support this – focusing on rehabilitating Zimbabwe’s agricultural R and D capacity.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

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