GMOs not panacea for Kenya’s food problem

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BY MATTHIAS DUCHSCHERER

More than a billion people are starving or suffer from lack of nutrition. Africa is particularly affected. The solution sounds simple:  More food must be produced locally.

A very popular propagated solution is genetic engineering, which is almost attributed as a panacea: dry-and salt-tolerant grain, virus-resistant corn, nutrient-enriched or generally more productive sorts. Too good to be true?

Although commercial genetically modified organism (GMO) cultivation is mostly confined to USA, Argentina, Canada, and China, biotechnology proponents argue that expansion of such crops to the Third World is essential to feed the poor, reduce environmental degradation, and promote sustainable agriculture. Such promises do not match reality.

Biotechnology is expertise under corporate control, protected by patents and IPR (Intellectual Property Right), and thus contrary to farmers’ millenary traditions of saving and exchanging seeds. With the today’s genetically modified (GM) seed and its very strict licence system the farmers won’t be able to follow their aged-old farming practice anymore. The farmers must pay licenses year by year.
Now, if loads of GM crops are introduced shortly to Kenya that might alleviate the situation up to a certain degree. But when the green genetic engineering is once firmly established, the enterprises can tighten the thumbscrews.

Because the enterprises profit from an economic system, which is not primarily aligned to repair the lack but whereupon, to produce it. That sounds paradoxical in a first perspective, because the seeds enterprises sell nevertheless crops, which is sown, in order to produce food or animal feeds.

Thus something will be created, which did not exist before. With this objection it is forgotten that the enterprises are profit-oriented. Their goods are somewhat worth only if the offer does not exceed the demand. Otherwise the price would go into the cellar. Therefore an agro enterprise must ensure, especially since self-preservation reasons that the demand does not diminish.

The government of Kenya reacts with its decision to an emergency, which is not only based on natural causes, but above all which implicates the question of the production conditions. You could call it a vicious circle of impoverishment:  In Kenya food shortage prevails. Therefore the government falls back to food of producers, those who particularly strongly profit from a global trading and economic system, which let such regions of lack exist.

Miguel Altieri, Professor at University of California-Berkeley already published a science paper in 2002 with a similar argumentation against GMO in the Third World. He is an advocate of sustainable agriculture and is highly critical of large agribusiness corporations. Beside him there are other scientists who argue against the propagated blessing of GM crops for solving the food problems in the Third world.
Beside potential negative socio-economical impacts for the farmers, GM crops pose a range of potential environmental risks that threaten the sustainability of small farming systems. The ecological effects of engineered crops are not limited to pest and climate resistance.

GM crops can produce environmental toxins that move through the food chain, and also may end up in the soil and water affecting invertebrates and microorganism, and probably ecological processes such as nutrient cycling.

Therefore the German Minister for Agriculture Ms Aigner banned Monsanto’s modified maize seed (MON 810) in 2009. MON 810 has been authorized for sale and cultivation in the EU’s 27 member states since 1998. But after an intensive analyse of Monsanto’s MON 810 study and the consultation of independent scientists and experts, the German Ministry of Agriculture saw an environmental thread through MON 810.

Needless to say that Monsanto, the world’s biggest agro and biotech enterprise sued the German government’s decision to ban the cultivation and sale of genetically modified maize. But a German court confirmed the decision and Monsanto failed with the legal action against Germany.

There are agro ecological alternatives to biotechnology that result in technologies that are cheap, accessible, risk averting, productive in marginal environments, environment and health enhancing, and culturally and socially acceptable.

It is urgent that international donors recognise the gravity of the problem, take a chance on new institutional arrangements led by NGOs and farmers’ organisations, and provide funding for a grassroots-based alternative and sustainable agricultural development approach in the Third World. Like our approach of a sustainable mill and farm development.

With our autarkic mill and integrated farm development master plan we want to afford a crisis resistant supply to the population with stable food at a fair price on the one hand. On the other hand with the concept we want to offer an option for a sustainable development of farmers business. The concept is modular structured. According to local factors, different modules can be combined and customised to the situation (http://www.prolightkenya.org/projects.html).

Matthias Duchscherer is a former university lecturer and president of Project Lighthouse Africa and chair of Project Lighthouse Kenya. The organisation is focused on the development of sustainable infrastructure projects within Africa. (www.prolightafrica.org)

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  • M_S

    The economical pressure behind expensively developed GMOs must be huge. So if seed producing enterprises see a chance to distribute their products in Africa, and get revenue from the disposal and the licences out of the poor farming system there, why shouldn’t they be interested? It’s a market. But as the article says, I don’t think it really solves the problem. Also, longterm consequences of using genetically modified organisms are still not clear. There are good reasons for banning MON 810.

  • M. Duchscherer

    And just an adding point in the running debate
    about GMO: The discussion about GMO should be balanced and not be
    overheated. But beside the German ban on genetically
    modified maize crops in 2009 also the
    GM potato is still on experimental status in Germany. And for that there
    are more reasons then only a stomach feeling by politicians and
    scientists. Especially the problem with licencing and patents is
    threatening a sustainable farming. Farming with GM crops is combined
    with the idea of big scale farming. Beside environmental threats, just
    think about the economical implications. Who will benefit of this GMO
    system and who will be trapped? If the big agro-enterprises get a
    multiple of profits by selling the crops for bioethanol production
    instead of selling maize for consumption, do you really think that these
    enterprises discover their philantropist side and develop the food
    sector? They are interested in a sustainable crops production. But the
    question is: How do these enterprises define sustainability?

  • Timothy

    Cool stuff… Parapet cleaners

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