GMO food is ‘Generally Missing Observation’ & Why Smallholders in Africa are so Against Growing it

To all of the converted – to those who turn to the quick, technical solutions of GM food for saving the ongoing food crisis – there is something you should know.

We actually have enough food in the world to feed everyone (FAO, 2014).

Those who are often the hungriest tend to be farmers (Watts, 2013).

Despite all of the gains we have made in technical improvements (we are producing 17% more food per person than we did 30 years ago) close to a billion people are hungry and this number has not changed for decades. In some regions, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the situation is getting worse.

So if hunger and malnutrition still exists despite improved technology and food production to meet the growing population, than what is going on? Why are so many people still hungry?

Like any technology, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) do not exist in a vacuum. Whether they are successful in increasing food production by deterring pests and insects, or add nutritious elements to the crop itself, this is by no means something that farmers want to grow or consumers want to eat.

Worse still, there is actually very little research conducted about GMOs. The recent article we published here finds very little evidence pointing to the health, environment or political economic gains from biotechnology.

Food for thought

In this paper we ask important questions about equality issues: will an innovation cause unemployment or migration in rural communities? Will the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? Have the negative impacts of an innovation been considered?

Uribe, Glover, and Schnurr’s (2014) contribution makes clear that contextual factors such as governance and policy frameworks, credit availability and seed markets, as well as local agro-ecological factors such as insect pests, shape food security outcomes of GMO technology.

So what is the actual evidence?

Evidence of positive gains from GMOs in Africa:
– In a most recent meta-analysis, Klümper and Qaim (2014) details that herbicide-tolerant crops have lower production costs although insect-resistant crops have higher seed prices.

– Production levels of GM crops for herbicide tolerance rose by 9 and 25% above that for insect resistance. For example, average yields for GM cotton in South Africa from 1998 and 2001 were 25% higher than for conventional cotton with average increased earnings of 77%. Additionally, in Burkina Faso Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton hectares increased by 126% in 2010 from the level in 2009. According to Clive (2013), biotech cotton in low- income countries increased the income of 16.5 million smallholder farmers in 2013, including success in India (Kathage & Qaim, 2012).

Despite the few positive studies, evidence of gains for most is quite mixed and uncertain. If one thing’s for certain, an overwhelming majority of farmers have collectively organized against GMOs across the continent of Africa. Particularly against the private-sector-led agriculture investment strategies for food security that pushes GMOs.


The evidence supporting farmers concerns in Africa are many:
– Cases exist where industrial agriculture pushed by large corporate investment and their respective technologies have contributed to a decline in community development and environmental conditions (Patel, Torres, & Rosset, 2005) because they have no mechanisms or incentives to ensure basic rights (Carney, 2012; Patel et al., 2005, p. 430; Shepherd, 2012; Yengoh & Armah, 2014)

– Related neoliberal economic models of deregulation policies to allow for technology have weakened government services that regulate markets, which push vulnerable smallholder farmers to give up farming and migrate (Kuuire, Mkandawire, Arku, & Luginaah, 2013).

– The focus on technical and short-term fixes by public–private partnerships shifts funding away from fundamental structural problems (DFID & Wiggins, 2004).

– Even the focus on incorporating the smallholder farmer into the value chain has been found to work for only the top 2–20% of small-scale producers, who are often only men (McKeon, 2014, p. 10) and typically excludes farmers themselves in the planning process.

-Generally, smallholder farmers are unable to afford traditional agriculture technologies and especially not the more costly new biotechnology (Patel et al., 2005).

– Due to the monopoly of power on biotechnology by certain major corporations, GM crops would result in the costs of inputs increasing and the diversity of seed choice declining (Shiva, Jafri, Emani, & Pande, 2000).

Terminator technologies ensure that farmers must either purchase new seed for each season or buy chemical keys to activate bioengineers’ crop traits, which will also put certain farmers at a disadvantage.

– Engineered genetic constructs may contaminate other farms unintentionally (Bailey, Willoughby, & Grzywacz, 2014).

-Leakages of GM crops into the food and feed supply have been reported with Prodigene corn, Syngenta Bt10 corn, and Liberty Link rice pointing to larger implications if done in places with poor infrastructure regulation (Bagavathiannan et al., 2011).

kill gene

In current political economic conditions, should we really be pushing this stuff?

So even though there is some positive evidence that points to increasing yields and lowering production costs for farmers in Africa, the political economy of production (cotton in South Africa for example) has resulted in inequitable profit-sharing, coerced eviction, and widespread indebtedness of farmers (Witt, Patel, & Scnurr, 2006). It is unclear in the range of studies accounted for in the meta-analysis (Klümper & Qaim, 2014) whether these factors are considered and how they relate to food security or nutrition.

“When are you people going to stop coming into our continent with your recipes for solving our problems rather than supporting our own solutions?” – USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah in Rome in May 2012 speaking to the National Alliance. (McKeon, 2014, p. 13)

Policymakers, planners, donors tend to blame farmers for being ignorant, backward, lazy and low to uptake the technology. The implication is that farmers do not know what is good for them. That they do not understand the vision for modernization and progress for the future of their agriculture systems and food security.

However, perhaps it is the farmers who know what is best for their own farms.

The bioethical concerns over GM crops and other biotechnology needs to be situated in the much wider related issues of poverty, inequality, and social justice that puts the smallholder farmer at the centre of analysis, which is why debates of biotechnology must be understood within the broader context of neoliberal agrarian policies.


One thought on “GMO food is ‘Generally Missing Observation’ & Why Smallholders in Africa are so Against Growing it

  1. Thanks very much for your insightful analysis about the GMO seed and smallholder farmers in African. I did study and implemented projects on climate change adaptation among smallholder farmers and my experience isn’t far from your analysis and discussion. One rhing that stance tall in my experience is the illequiped NGO fraternity implementing climate adaptation practices that almost equate improve seeds for adaptation to GMO seeds(most teams are not aware about the GMO seed dynamics as brand names suggest affiliation to synegenta ….pana and etc).
    I should say global seed companies are almost winning the battle in pushing GMO seeds under the pretext of improved seeds for improve yields….and are buying legislature to lobby government s to pass biosafety laws.
    There isn’t room for debate few policy makers are abreast with effect of GMO seeds technology appropriateness to sustainable smallholder agriculture.
    Alluding to your point on excess of global food production and yet lots go hungry can be seen in part as the results of unequal distribution which ties into the need for genuineness in transfer of appropriate and renewable technology across the global enclaves. But for we being homoeconomicus and the profit motives of corporations the current trend of pushing technologies that aren’t mutually beneficial to both carry greater weight into the future.

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