Global Policy Forum

Colonialism Lives In Biotech Seed Proposal for Africa


By Dennis Keeney and Sophia Murphy

March 20, 2010


Bill Gates and the biotech juggernauts are doing their best to keep Africa dependent on imported technology, just like in the bad old days of colonialism. Gates, Monsanto and Pioneer have joined the long list of those believing they know best how the continent should grow its food. If the history of colonialism and subsequent development practice have taught us anything, it is that all interventions must strengthen resilience, encourage diversity and be locally appropriate. The biotech seed proposal for Africa fails on all three counts.

A Feb. 17 Des Moines Register article - "Pioneer, Gates to Give African Farmers Biotech Seed" - implies that the U.S. model of crop production will be exported to Africa nations by giving African farmers biotech seed. Exporting a model developed specifically for this country to the 47 countries of sub-Saharan Africa is bad enough; worse, this model carries the high economic, environmental and social costs of producing only one or two crops on the same land year after year. It has caused enormous problems in the United States. Why would we want to export it?

Biotech corn is designed for monoculture production on large acreages like we have in the United States. African agriculture is overwhelmingly small scale (on farms of less than one acre) and diverse, allowing for a more diverse diet as well as greater overall output given the dependence on rain-fed agriculture and the very limited access to external expensive inputs, such as fertilizer.

It's often claimed that biotech seeds will yield larger crops. In fact, there is no evidence that crops from biotechnology seeds produce higher yields than do crops from conventionally bred seeds. Both Pioneer and Monsanto claim they will make the seeds available royalty-free. But nothing is said about providing seeds at cost. Nor is anything said about the biotech industry's stringent rules prohibiting saved seed. Biotech becomes a vehicle to introduce a need for a slew of expensive inputs, many of them fossil fuel-based, which African farmers have historically provided for themselves on-farm.

If Gates is going to be responsible for spending hundreds of millions on agriculture in Africa, we need his foundation to do better.

So, what are the alternatives to high input agriculture in Africa?

The Nigerian National Variety Release Committee is set to release improved corn varieties that address drought, low soil fertility, pests, diseases and parasitic weeds. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) developed these varieties in partnership with other African plant breeding programs in Nigeria. These include 13 open pollinated varieties with varying maturities and four hybrids with drought tolerance. They do not have the costs or legal hassles associated with genetic engineered varieties, and will be suited for small farmers.

Another example is the work of Pedro Sanchez, who spent his career developing low-cost and comprehensive soil rejuvenation programs for eastern and southern Africa and other food-deficit nations. Sanchez, the 2002 winner of the World Food Prize, has shown how biodiverse small farms are able to not only produce more local food but also build soil fertility and rural economies. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development - now endorsed by more than 50 countries - reached similar conclusions.

In the United States, the biotech industry has dictated the terms of the technology, trampling over the interests and concerns of farmers and the public alike. Biotech crops have resulted in fewer farmers growing more agricultural raw materials and less food, exactly the opposite of what is needed in Africa.

We suggest Gates support ongoing African research rather than import capital-intensive technology developed to address problems that are far from most Africans' concerns.

The privately patented and tightly controlled model epitomized by biotechnology is all wrong for the estimated 33 million small farms that make up 80 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's agriculture.


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