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A Harvard Professor Says "Starving Africa" Cliches Are Being Used to Promote GM Foods

Sheila Jasanoff, a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government recently argued that clichés of a “Starving Africa” are being used to push genetically modified foods as a cure for malnutrition.
October 20, 2015, 4:00pm

The image of a starving Africa has long fueled donations to aid groups, but Sheila Jasanoff, a professor of science and technology at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, argues that these portrayals may be exploitative. In fact, Jasanoff recently said at the European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA) conference at the ongoing Milan Expo that clichés of a "Starving Africa" are being used to push genetically modified foods on the continent as a cure-all for hunger and malnutrition.

There is an international web of organizations—including African groups—that work to fight hunger in Africa, often in partnership. Some of these, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, Monsanto, and others, have pointed to drought-resistant, fortified GMO crops as a potential solution to grow food in challenging areas. This isn't a "Western organizations" against "African voices" dichotomy, Jasanoff says, but the framing of the issue can result in a situation where a Western solution is presented as the best course of action.

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"There is, however, an alliance between … US policymakers and US companies and the academics they work with to represent Africa as needy, and GMOs as a silver bullet solution," Jasanoff wrote in an e-mail. "In general, the voices that highlight complexity—in ecologies, in farming practices, in regional dietary preferences and food needs—are getting less attention than they deserve, in Africa and the West."

Jasanoff argues that how you frame an issue can affect a subsequent course of action. If Africa is starving, then those with the disposal to do so must use available methods to address the problem.

"If you think science's mission is to save an entire country, then you can argue that to deny that solution"—in this case GMO crops—"is to starve a continent," Jasanoff said at the EFSA conference.

Africa is home to 220 million undernourished people, with 56 percent living in eastern Africa, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. That paints a dire picture. But it also risks oversimplifying the situation, which is that Africa is a diverse continent full of different climates and cultures and agricultural traditions, and that there are other approaches to solving the problem that don't rely wholly on GMOs. As Jasanoff told Food Navigator, it is important to talk about genetic modification "in terms of specific genes, plants and purposes."

Consider golden rice, a nutritionally fortified genetically modified type of rice not without controversy. Golden rice includes a big dose of vitamin A, and vitamin A deficiency leads to between a quarter and half a million children going blind each year, with half of them dying within 12 months. Golden rice, then, could be miraculous, but some have argued that adopting it wholesale could have consequences.

"A product like Golden Rice that is designed to cross the line between food and nutritional supplement could reduce dietary variation and reliance on local staple crops if introduced on a large scale," Jasanoff wrote. "That would have the effect of detaching people's eating habits from local ecologies and agricultural traditions, with potentially negative consequences for biodiversity and sustainability."

Perhaps one of the most notable outside organizations to push for GMOs in Africa to fight hunger is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation sees highly productive, drought-resistant crops as a fix for hunger in Africa in the coming years when climate change and a growing population will present new challenges. In the organization's annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates argue that increased productivity will allow farmers to grow a wider variety of crops and the opportunity to sell their surplus for supplements like vegetables, eggs, milk, and meat.

One focus seed is the DroughtTEGO, a drought-resistant corn seed at the center of a campaign called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), a partnership between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, USAID, Monsanto, and three other Western and African groups. The Gates Foundation notes that the average yield per acre of maize in Africa is about 30 bushels, while in the United States it is about five times that. DroughtTEGO was developed by Monsanto, which has given the seeds royalty-free to African seed companies. With crops like DroughtTEGO and improved farming methods, the Gates Foundation hopes to increase crop productivity by 50 percent across Africa. A video produced by Monsanto tells the story of a farmer in Kenya and her success growing DroughtTEGO.

READ: We Spoke to a Monsanto Exec About Solving the World's Food Crisis

Presented with such a choice, it can be hard for a farmer who lives on the edge economically to refuse, Jasanoff says, even if doing so can lead to reduced biodiversity and ecological resilience. For many farmers, the benefits of a GMO crop—increased yield, resilience to drought and insects—may be too much to pass up.

"When trying to help people from other technological and cultural contexts, it is important to avoid what I call the Mt. Everest syndrome: we will do this because it's here," Jasanoff wrote. "It is extremely important instead to begin by asking and understanding people's actual needs, and to take in the ideas of local populations about the changes they feel would most benefit their lives."

"Put differently, 'one size fits all' is hardly ever a good basis for public policy, least of all in agriculture and food production. Yet that is what often happens when Western solutions are exported to solve non-Western problems."