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Squeamish About Biotech in Africa

Planting in Kenya
Planting in Kenya

Flickr, World Bank

Planting in Kenya

Boosting agricultural productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa is critical to the fight against poverty and improving health on the continent.

The question is how.

Last week, the Gates Foundation came under criticism for significantly increasing its investments in Monsanto. Many took it as a clear sign the world’s biggest philanthropy is championing the use of genetically modified crops, since this is the company leading the world in the production of GM seeds and crops.

It was taken as a sign because the Gates Foundation has been relatively silent on this issue, usually noting that its primary support for agricultural improvement in Africa is for a project known as AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) and that AGRA is “neutral” on the issue of GM crops.

This is a bit disingenuous, and disappointing for those interested in honest and open dialogue.

The Gates Foundation has made a significant number of grants supporting research into the use of transgenic technologies to improve seeds and crop yield. Clearly, the philanthropy believes in the potential value of using biotechnology in agriculture.

If the philanthropy does believe biotechnology could be a benefit to African farmers, why avoid the debate? Bill Gates has long been an ardent and vocal supporter of vaccines, another technology which certainly has its share of loud and angry critics. Why so shy on the subject of GM foods?

Later this week, Nobel Laureate and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan will preside over a meeting in Accra, Ghana, at which African heads of state, farmers, civil society representatives, scientists and others will discuss how best to launch a Green Revolution for Africa.

Annan is the chairman of AGRA and here’s his video pitch:

The Rockefeller Foundation is a big partner with the Gates Foundation on AGRA, a sponsor of the meeting in Ghana and was the philanthropy that drove the first Green Revolution.

This effort, which took place from the 1940s into the 1970s, did boost agricultural productivity in many parts of the world. But it was often at the expense of poor “smallholder” farmers who were displaced by the promotion of large-scale, industrialized Western-style agricultural methods.

There are health and safety concerns about transgenic crops as well, but some of them appear to be based more on the fear of an unknown rather than on any proof of harm. Of greater concern to many is the neglected issue of who will own these modified seeds. If they are a patented product owned by Monsanto or some other company, will poor African farmers ever be able to afford them?

There are many legitimate questions about all this. But there is no question that Africa needs some kind of a green revolution.

Agriculture represents a huge portion of the economies of many African countries. Most Africans are farmers and most farmers are women. Yet hundreds of millions of Africans today do not have reliable and steady access to food. The discussion over how best to achieve a green revolution for Africa needs to be done boldly and openly if it is to succeed.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.