A FEW weeks ago I read an article in The New Times by Henry I. Miller, titled ‘The GMO Stigma’. This piece was carefully woven to advocate for GM (Genetically Modified) food –much like efforts by the US government to push African governments to accept GMOs through various efforts.
The current debate surrounding GM food in Africa may be viewed from three facets: general mistrust in science, as pointed out by Miller, which may be expected of any scientific breakthrough (as was the case with vaccines); ignorance and the dearth of research in the field to address concerns about environment and food safety; and lastly, the battle on our soil between large biotech (mostly American) corporations, and Europe, where GM crops face strong opposition.
With growing questions and opposition within the US and Europe, biotech multinationals have set their eyes on Africa. Meanwhile European lobbyists also continue to apply pressure on African governments to resist the infiltration of GM food.
Countries like South Africa, Egypt, Sudan and Burkina Faso have allowed GM foods, and Kenya and Tanzania are supposedly running a few test programmes.
It is easy to rule out engineered-in-a-test-tube food here, until you read the worrisome Global Food Security Index where Rwanda sits at 97th place out of 107 countries – performing better than only 9 of the 28 Sub-Saharan Africa countries.
If that doesn’t have you in a panic, this will: according to the UN, Rwanda will be inhabited by 23.8 million Rwandans in 2045! To put this into perspective, at 11 million we are Africa’s most densely populated country.
With more than 80% of Rwandans as subsistence farmers, and the land pressure forecasts attached to such a population bulge, the prospects of GM foods couldn’t look better.
Drought and pest- resistant crops, vitamin-enhanced vegetables, and the catalog of benefits pointed out by Miller (who, according to GMO watch, is an avid GM promoter with links to biotech funding) present GM foods as a solution to Rwanda’s food security future.
But the picture isn’t all rosy. Engineered food will not address other issues like access to water, information (markets) and credit/financing for farmers; concerns about potential health and environmental risks have been raised as well (but as far as I know, not proven).
Much more important in this debate is the burden of depending on foreign corporations for seeds and pesticides; some have coined this ‘agricultural colonialism’.
There’s a quote I love by Desmond Tutu, “when the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray’. We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”
So here we stand again, with the deliverance of our food security in hand. What shall we make of these seeds? At what cost are we willing to feed our growing populations?
How do we take all these factors into account and still act in Rwanda’s best interests? How do we ensure that we don’t wake up and find ourselves paying royalties to biotech firms, having closed our eyes and inadvertently handed over our food sovereignty?
To be food secure, I believe that we need to harness technology and embrace GM foods. However, it is imperative that we approach it on our terms; first a sound regulatory foundation, and then investment in building local capacity in R&D.
This is where the biotech multinationals would come in: how do we build a model of cooperation between multinationals and our scientists as to ensure knowledge transfer whilst building a buffer zone of protection for our farmers with regards to royalties and exclusivity rights?
Hopefully over time, policymakers will provide these answers.
Currently there is not much open debate and dialogue on Rwanda’s vision for genetically engineered food.
Resources to the public also run scarce: other than a handful of The New Times articles, and a 2005 Bio-safety bill, there is not much information on the Rwanda Agricultural Board and MINAGRI websites.
I am hoping that by writing this I am stirring up a hornet’s nest…