Tag Archives: GM crops

Seeds for Africa’s green revolution: can India help?

Over the last year or so we have been doing some work exploring how the Indian seed sector might contribute to African agriculture, boosting productivity and assisting in particular smaller, poorer farmers. Could the seed sector replicate the great success of the generics pharmaceuticals from India that have revolutionised access to low cost drugs, with many benefits across the developing world?

The work has been supported by DFID-India, and has been led by colleagues linked to the Future Agricultures Consortium (in Ethiopia, Kenya and the UK), as well as at the RIS in Delhi. The final report, put together by Dominic Glover, is just out. It is accompanied by a shorter briefing paper too that focuses on the generics drugs-seeds comparison.

The briefing opens; “Experts agree that Africa’s farmers need quality seeds, but the continent’s share in the global seed trade is very low. African countries often lack the institutional capacity to support the growth of seed markets in the continent, an issue that cuts across regulation and other areas. The supply of breeder seeds is weak and improved crop varieties are introduced extremely slowly. Foreign expertise and investment could help build capacity in crop breeding and other aspects of the seed sector, including management, logistics, marketing and the integration of new technologies.”

This is the vision, but what of the reality? There are some parallels with the pharmaceutical sector, but they can be over-stretched. The big successes of generic drugs emerged in a particular period. Today markets are much more competitive, and many of the successful generics manufacturers have moved on, merged or been bought up. Seeds are also a rather different product, and we have to differentiate between different market segments. Low cost, high volume production of quality seed may be possible say for vegetable seeds, but it is less likely for grain crops for instance, given the costs of development, regulatory restrictions and the marketing/transport/logistics challenges. So how ‘pro poor’ will a top quality tomato seed really be, and will it really be any better or cheaper than one produced in Holland, France or China?

And then there’s the GM factor, an issue that has had less resonance in medical applications of biotechnology. Genetically-modified seeds – basically transgenics – have been highly controversial globally. And also in Africa, where there remain restrictions on their use in most countries, including Zimbabwe (despite widespread spread of GM crops informally, notably in Zimbabwe’s cases GM maize from South Africa). But the Indian seed sector sees GM crops as essential for growth. Bt cotton (a pest resistant GM crop) has been a massive success in India since its formal release in 2002 (and indeed before – although with some serious qualifications about its ‘pro-poor’ success). Monsanto, together with the Indian company Mayhco, pioneered it, but today many companies market the transgene backcrossed into numerous varieties. Bt cotton has filled the coffers of the seed companies across India, but now the market is saturated, and the extension of GM revolution in Indian agriculture has been stalled by controversies about transgenic food crops, notably the furore that exploded around Bt brinjal (aubergine) a few years back. Business managers in the seed sector see exports of Bt cotton to Africa as a next frontier.

There have been various attempts to make links, facilitated in part by the US government and outfits such as the Syngenta Foundation (closely associated as the name suggests to the biotech company of the same name). And the most recent development has occurred in Zimbabwe, with the purchase of a majority stake in Quton by Mahyco (and so with close links to Monsanto) from SeedCo in 2014. With cotton in the doldrums this acquisition has passed off without much comment, but Quton is a significant player, with some fantastic genetic resources and much skill and experience. It was originally part of Cottco, and formerly the Cotton Marketing Board (see a couple of earlier papers I did with James Keeley on seeds and agricultural biotechnology regulation in Zimbabwe). The genetics it has were built through public investment in the Cotton Research Institute. Quton has been toying with GM cotton for years, but regulatory hurdles have prevented it from moving forward. This acquisition certainly positions it as a major player for a future GM-accepting Africa, despite the concerns.

However, this Indian (and indirectly, American) investment is one of few direct take-overs. The expansion of the Indian seed industry in Africa has been slow and rather tentative. Most activity is in East Africa where business connections across the Indian Ocean and linked to diaspora links has been the most intensive. This is why we focused our research in Kenya and Ethiopia, both of which have Indian seed sector links. We identified a series of mechanisms by which these are forged, ranging from direct seed sales, to local multiplication, to company alliances and mergers. None have really boomed as yet, and we were really looking at only first-stage commercial engagements.

What were the challenges faced? There were many. First is the international business context. India often cannot compete with the hyper efficient logistics operations of others. It may have low cost production in India, but it is not so effective at the trade element. Second, regulations around seed are complex, nationally-focused and often quite political. Some companies have got in trouble as objections to the testing of food grains for instance were made – not so much on scientific grounds, but on the basis of unclear risks to importing grains on national food security. Seed testing authorities do not have standard approaches, and each country is different. With markets being small and entry costs high, this is a challenge. Third, moving into a country, acquiring land for seed testing and multiplication and developing a new business is challenging. The whole debate about ‘land grabbing’ has heightened awareness around foreign investment. And when things go wrong – as has happened with the Indian investor Karuturi both in Ethiopia (over land grabbing claims) and in Kenya (over tax bills and labour disputes) – this has ripple effects that are difficult to control.

Currently, India is a relatively minor player in seed exports to Africa, with less than two percent of the trade, and ranking only 14th. Trade with Africa is growing in a variety of ways, and there are clearly useful skills and technologies that India can offer. But how this will be ‘pro poor’ and so support developmental trajectories is less clear. The ‘Green Revolution’ experience is often held up as the example that Africa must follow. But as the report notes

“The development of India’s own seed industry, as well as India’s Green Revolution, were largely directed and supported by public investments and policy frameworks. Even then, the benefits of India’s agricultural transformation were not evenly or equitably distributed…. If Africa is to enjoy an agricultural transformation that creates broad developmental benefits, then the public sector as well as civil society institutions will need to play crucial roles. It is therefore not only a question of what profit-seeking seed firms from India might accomplish in pursuit of their own commercial interests, but how improving access to modern agricultural technologies might create broad benefits for cultivators and consumers, and for rural and national development”.

There is much hype about ‘South-South’ cooperation and the role of ‘business in development’, but in a complex and often rather unprofitable sector like seeds for poor, smallholders, a more developmental strategy is needed that gears investment, regulation and wider support in ways that private goods (and profits) work for wider public gain. Holding on to public genetic resources and deploying public policy and expertise in support of the seed sector – agriculture more generally – in alliance with business (from whatever source) is, as explained in a now old paper with Shaila Seshia, the big, usually forgotten, lesson of the Asian ‘green revolution’.

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

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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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