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June 18, 2012

'Frankenfoods' argument is weak, ineffective basis for questioning gene modification's suitability for Africa

Chido Makunike

Amongst the repertoire of arguments that anti-GM food opponents use is that there is ‘proof,’ or at least the risk that people who eat them will/may become two-headed monsters.

No matter how genuinely held this worry is, this is an argument that simply sidetracks the discussion from the many more solid, more provable bases for asking tough questions about whether it is wise for Africa to take the no-return path of adopting GM farming.

For every argument that opponents provide to prove/suggest the harmful effects of GM crops on human health, proponents can provide a just-as-hard-to-disprove counter argument. There are ‘conclusive scientific arguments’ that can be used to ‘prove’ diametrically opposed conclusions. People generally choose which ones to believe and cite based on their pre-conceived ideas about GM technology, not any sort of basis that can be agreed on by all sides as being anywhere near to being considered objective.

The reference to GM foods as being ‘Frankenfoods’ is catchy but not particularly helpful to a rational discussion (if that is even still possible) of the pros and cons of GM technology. Besides, for example, South African maize is now almost all GM now, with possibly significant amounts of it quietly ‘leaking’ into many of the neighboring countries that are officially opposed to GM crops. Whatever problems South Africa has, there are not yet reports of two-headed monsters there that can be attributed to consuming ‘Frankenmaize.’

So no matter how passionate GM opponents are about this issue, they may be actually weakening their position by basing it on a point on which the empirical evidence available to the average person suggests is just not true.

Of course, there could be subtle, more long-term harmful effects building up, but anti-GM activists are not in a strong position to use this level of ‘caution’ to make their point. This may be a point better suited to opposition to GM in richer countries, rather than countries where the main issue is the immediate, provable health danger of food insecurity!

Real, today, more clearly Africa-appropriate questions about GM crops in Africa include:

* What protection do farmers have in the real-world, increasingly frequent scenario where producers do everything right, but have a disastrous farming season because of failed, vastly reduced or ‘mistimed’ rain? Farmers lose their much higher expenditure on GM seed and required accompanying inputs, and yet don’t have the currently available fallback option to save seed to try again the following season. Amongst farmers in any country this would be a big setback, but for poor farmers in a developing countries, this can spell long-term disaster.

* If the promised higher yields with GM seeds prove to be a reality rather than a mirage, will those higher yields really cover the higher costs? 20% higher yields are not much good if they are at the cost of 25% higher inputs and other production costs. In the currently experimental, subsidized early state of luring African countries to accept GM crops, this is a question that is usually dodged, and that would anyway be hard to get definitive answers to yet. In any case, production costs will vary from place to place,and from season to season. But one thing that will no longer be changeable is that many of the current coping strategies for lean times will no longer be applicable when GM seeds are the basis of production.

If when the answer comes and it is negative (about cost-recovery.profit-making with GM seeds vs conventional hybrid or own-saved seed), the affected farmers will not have the option to simply go back to their own-saved seed. The hard (impossible?) reversibility is one reason why GM cropping is far more potentially disastrous in an African setting of poor, mostly small holder farmers than in countries with industrial, often directly or indirectly government-supported industrial farmers.

* Promoters of GM make a big deal about how seeds will be ‘gifted’ to African farmers by subsidized prices and less onerous license protection efforts than applied in richer countries. This shows they recognize that the pricing of their product will be a problem for African farmers, who already struggle to afford non-GM hybrid seed and other inputs.

The history of agricultural subsidies in Africa is that they are almost never ‘permanent.’ What happens when the ‘subsidies’ that are being promised now to win over opponents are lifted and farmers must bear the full costs of the GM seeds and related inputs on their own?

The answers to this from India and elsewhere are mixed, but there is enough clear evidence that this is a real, potentially big problem that cannot be simply swept aside. Bt cotton may have increased India’s cotton yields, but it is just as true that it has left farmer/human/environmental devastation in its wake. That is not an opinion, it is simply the mixed reality of GM technology in poor countries.

A cotton farmer in Burkina Faso may not care whether his GM cotton will mutate into a Franken tee-shirt that eats its wearer. But whether he will be able to continue to afford the seed, fertilizer and other chemicals to sustain his cultivation of GM cotton will hold his interest and is more likely to influence his pro or anti-stance.

Likewise, a mother struggling to feed her children in a country whose government opposes GM farming will not care whether the maize that is availed to her is of the Frankenfood or the normal variety.

Transposing pro or anti-GM arguments from Western countries onto the situation in Africa simply shows how far removed the arguers are from practical local realities, whether because of distance or because they are passionate activists, but whose livelihoods don’t actually depend on farming.

There are genuine reasons to be fairly questioning of the advisability for Africa of taking up GM crops, of whether the promised benefits will more than make up for the very real potential pitfalls. But unfortunately, those genuine, most relevant reasons for skepticism are not the ones that are put forward. This works to the disadvantage of almost everybody with a stake in how the pro versus anti-GM turns out, which is really everybody.

African Agriculture

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