Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation In Sub-Saharan Africa

Executive SummaryThis paper goes beyond the debates about hypothetical potential benefits and/or risks ofgenetically modified crops for small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. I identify five widelyaccepted criteria for evaluating conventional crop breeding, and apply these to three heavilypublicized genetically modified crops either currently grown or nearing release: stem borerresistantBt maize, weevil resistant Bt cotton, and virus resistant sweet potato. The fivecriteria include: demand-led, site-specific, poverty-focused, cost-effective, andenvironmentally and institutionally sustainable.The CriteriaSimply because technologies exist is not sufficient reason to utilize them—criteria are neededto select which technologies are best to develop and disseminate. Crop breeding has come torecognize that different farmers in different areas have different constraints, so agriculturalresearch will have to generate site-specific varieties. To ensure that research programs respond to farmers’ diverse, changing priorities, research must be led by the demands of poor farmers. Further, they recognize that these constraints encompass not only technical measures, such as yield, or pests, but socio-economic ones such as marketing, or laborrequirements. Increasingly, researchers are focusing their attention on poor farmers facingdifficult agro-ecologial and socio-economic conditions. Gone are the days when newtechnologies were thought desirable simply by virtue of being new or ‘modern’; there is nowa recognized need to prioritize and choose the most cost-effective technologies among themany at our disposal. Environmental sustainability encompasses not just secondgenerationaffects of the Green Revolution (such as pesticide affects on ecology and humanhealth), but also basic problems such as soil fertility. Donor fatigue has illustrated the needfor institutional sustainability.Sweet PotatoesVirus resistant sweet potatoes are being developed jointly by the Kenyan AgriculturalResearch Institute (KARI) and Monsanto, with additional funding from USAID and theWorld Bank. The initiative was not the result of farmers priorities or preferences, but, rather,resulted from pressure and existing technology of Monsanto and American scientists. Thisinattention is understandable given the poor links between researchers, extensionists, andfarmers in Kenya. Indeed, many farmers already have virus-resistant sweet potatoes, and formany others, different problems, such as weevils, are more important.To date, one unpopular variety has been genetically modified with a protein protectingagainst an American strain of the virus. The variety has not been tailored to meet farmersnumerous site-specific preferences for sweet potatoes (there are more than 89 different sweetpotato varieties in Africa).Sweet potatoes are an important food security crop, particularly for women, and are grownpredominantly in East Africa (Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, and Tanzania). Poverty inthese areas, however, does not result from inadequate sweet potato varieties, but rather fromcorruption, HIV/AIDS, declining migrant incomes, declining commodity prices, armedconflict, and large inequalities in land, wealth and income. Kenya, for instances, reportedlyloses 180 times more money to corruption than to sweet potato viral diseas. In the face ofthese constraints, the benefits of the new sweet potato are relatively insignificant.While econometric evaluations forecast a significant rate of return on the project (using amaximum projected yield gain of 18%), it did not consider opportunity costs. The sweetpotato project is now nearing its twelfth year, and involves over 19 scientists (16 with PhDs)and an estimated $6 million. In contrast, conventional sweet potato breeding in Uganda wasable in just a few years to develop with a small budget a well-liked virus-resistant varietywith yield gains of nearly 100%.In terms of environmental sustainability, as with the examples below, GM-resistance in sweetpotatoes is conferred by one gene, and hence one would expect, according to the principles ofevolutionary ecology, that new resistant pests would evolve. Evolution of pest resistance willdepend however on the extent of selection pressures (which depends partly on how widelydistributed the Bt varieties become).The dependence on Monsanto for funding lowers the institutional sustainability of theproject. The project has resulted in considerable training of KARI scientists in biotechnologytransformation methods, and in bio-safety testing. However, such discipline-specific capacitybuilding in biotechnology may produce a ‘lock-in’ affect diverting resources from otherpotentially productive issues and methods.CottonCotton differs somewhat from the other two crops because it was not developed incollaboration with a public agricultural research institute. Rather, Monsanto developed Btcotton for American farmers, and then transferred the technology to large farmers in SouthAfrica, and it has now reached the handful of smallholder cotton farmers in South Africa.The agricultural research and extension system in South Africa has historically been biasedtowards large, commercial, white farms, and is only slowly being transformed. It remainsheavily top-down, gender biased, unable to reach poor farmers with relevant messages orforums. Smallholder demand was insignificant in the development of the technology.The Bt cotton used in Makhathini was not tailored to the area or poor farmers at all. Thevariety was simply transferred from the US, where it was developed for large farmers andtheir main pest, the American bollworm. In South Africa, however, the pink bollwormprevails. Also, the Bt cotton varieties had smooth leaves, in contrast to South African hairyleaf varieties, and are thus susceptible to damage from jassids. Other new pests, such as stingbud, have appeared on the Bt cotton.Poverty in the area is not caused by poor cotton technology, and, in fact, the new technologymay be impoverishing smallholders by contributing to over-production, and hence lowerprices, in South Africa and worldwide. Since the introduction of Bt cotton in South Africa,prices have fallen by 40%, and more than 60,000 farmworkers in the cotton sector—one ofthe poorest segments of society—have lost their jobs. Flood-related cotton crop failures haveleft small farmers who adopted the expensive modified cotton with debts of $1.2 million.However, poverty in Maputaland—the area where the Flats are located—results not frominadequate technology, but rather from seven factors related to the lack of political andeconomic power of poor rural South Africans: unequal land holdings and slow redistribution,authoritarian nature conservation, elitist tourism, declining off-farm wages, declininginternational commodity prices, HIV/AIDS, and undemocratic traditional authorities.The effectiveness of the technology appears to have been over-rated. Proponents claim usingBt eliminates 9 sprayings, evidence shows it eliminates only 2-5. The amount of labor savedis also unclear. Alternative technologies, such as Integrated Pest Management, or agroecologicalmeasures, have not been explored to their full extent.With regard to environmental sustainability, Bt cotton has reduced pesticide usage—withbenefits to the environment and human health—but there are concerns regarding the impactupon natural enemies, as well as the possibility of evolving resistance to the Bt protein.Refuges and gene stacking/pyramiding could help delay this resistance, but have not beenimplemented/developed so far. Cotton does not have relatives in Africa from which ‘superweeds’ could evolve. Hence, overall, environmental sustainability is moderate, and could bestronger.As a largely private marketing venture, there has been little institutional capacity building. AMonsanto-funded farmer school has not produced any significant innovations. It has nothelped to reform—and may have exacerbated—South Africa’s disconnected and top-downsystem of agricultural research and extension.MaizeThe Syngenta Foundation is supporting work at KARI with CIMMYT (the InternationalMaize and Wheat Improvement Center) to develop Bt maize that is resistant to the stem borerthrough the Insect Resistance Management in Africa (IRMA) project. Several varieties havebeen developed by CIMMYT in Mexico, and are awaiting bio-safety clearance to begintesting in Kenya.Like the sweet-potato case, the deficiencies of the Kenyan RE system have impeded ademand-led approach. The Syngenta Foundation—a merger incorporating Novartis—has apoor record of supporting client-driven public agricultural research institutes, as illustrated bythe Cinzana research station in Mali. The extent of damage by stem borers was repeatedlyover-estimated based on ad hoc guesses. No rigorous assessments were done before theproject was started of the extent of damage by stem borers, nor of whether farmers felt theywere a significant problem. When the project did survey 30 villages throughout the country,none identified stem borers as the most pressing constraint upon maize production. As withsweet potatoes, project surveys found that many farmers were already using their ownresistant varieties.Scientists have transformed several maize varieties with different Bt strains—developedinitially by Novartis and CIMMYT—able to protect against 3 types of stem borers.However, they have yet to engineer protection against the most important stem borer inKenya, which affects 80% of the country’s maize crop. Rural surveys have identifiedpotential suitable local varieties to transform, but due to biosafety procedures, none havebeen engineered yet. Farmers prioritize numerous different characteristics of maize, and tobe acceptable, numerous different appropriate varieties will have to be identified andsuccessfully transformed.Maize is one of the most important crops in Africa, and is a basic staple for much of southernand eastern Africa, where stem borers predominate. However, stem borers are a relativelyinsignificant contributing factor to poverty in these areas. Of greater importance are otheragronomic constraints—such as droughts, low soil fertility, and the weed Stiga—as well asother socio-economic and political constraints—such as corruption, HIV/AIDS, poortransport, unequal land tenure, and political repression.The cost effectiveness of the project is still based on ballpark projections. In contrast, otherless generously funded projects have used a range of techniques and already proved capableof protecting against stem borers in farmers fields. As early as two decades ago,conventional crop breeders had identified and were working to improve borer-resistantvarieties. Farmers have long used their own techniques, such as disposing of crop residue,changing the time and type of crop planted, or adding soil, pepper, or ash into leaf whorls.Biological control methods—supported by the Dutch government—have been used to controlthe Asian stem-borer by introducing a wasp that is its natural enemy from Asia. TheInternational Center for Insect Protection and Ecology (ICIPE) coordinated this project andthe Asian wasp has now established itself in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, andseveral other countries, and is rapidly expanding. ICIPE has also developed economicallyviable ‘push-pull’ methods of intercropping using grasses that repel borers out of maize fieldsand pull them towards farm edges, and that have the added benefits of restoring soil fertility,reducing Striga, and providing livestock fodder. The methods—which have shown to reduceborers to negligible levels—have been tested in farmers’ fields and are already being adopted.There are serious concerns regarding the environmental sustainability of Bt-maize, given thelikelihood of evolved pest resistance. The IRMA project is attempting gene stacking, as wellas using conventionally developed resistance. Refuges may exist by default, but coulddisappear with widespread cross-pollination with Bt varieties. Another possibility is that thecomposition of stem borers may shift, so that African types (to which Bt maize is stillsusceptible) become more prevalent, as already observed in some areas.The institutional sustainability of the project is very similar to the sweet potato project, withcomplete reliance on company funding, and the possibility of a locked-in focus on geneticengineering of certain traits.SummaryTo summarize, virus-resistant sweet potatoes are also not greatly demand driven, sitespecific, poverty focused, cost effective, or institutionally sustainable. The environmentalsustainability of modified sweet potatoes is ambiguous. Bt cotton scores low on criteria ofdemand drive, site specificity, and institutional sustainability. It shows ambiguous results inpoverty focus, and cost effectiveness. Environmental sustainability is currently moderate, butcould potentially be moderate to strong. For Bt maize, the analysis shows low demand drive,cost-effectiveness, and institutional sustainability. It is too early too detect unambiguous sitespecificity or poverty focus. Environmental sustainability is currently low to moderate, butcould potentially be raised.There has been a great deal of excitement over these new engineered crops despite their lowsuitability. The maximum gains from genetic modification are small, much lower thanwith either conventional breeding or agroecology-based techniques. The heavy publicity maybe due to the politicized international debates about genetically engineered crops. Inparticular, biotechnology firms have been eager to use philanthropic African projects forpublic relations purposes. Such public legitimacy may be needed by companies in theirattempts to reduce trade restrictions, biosaftey controls, and monopoly regulations.Full document of ‘Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence’ is available for downloading below.

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