Efforts to expand the use of genetically modified (GM) crops in Asia and Africa were given a major boost last week with the announcement of a significant investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has pledged $US18.6 million. The grant will fund projects aiming to develop modified varieties of rice and cassava, intending to produce greater quantities of one or more nutrients to tackle malnutrition.
Since its beginnings 30 years ago, GM technology has claimed to be able to feed the world and eradicate malnutrition. However in this time, we have only seen the number of hungry and malnourished grow, along with new problems and ramifications of a technology that we do not yet fully understand. While we can transplant a gene from one species to another for its desired characteristics, we cannot yet know how to predict or contain its results.
In Kenya and many other African countries, more and more people are turning to the traditional knowledge of communities as the key to solving problems of nutrition, and see the spread of GM crops as a new sickness of the land. Traditionally, communities have reduced their vulnerability to the effects of climate change and crop failure by relying on biodiversity in food supply. A dry season might destroy maize one year so instead we survive on cassava. With GM crops, which require large surface areas for planting and an intensive monoculture system, we don’t have this safety blanket. Diversity in food choices also ensures that diets are varied enough to contain the required macro and micronutrients for good health, reducing the incidence of malnutrition.
As part of the funding, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will support the BioCassava Plus project in Nigeria and Kenya to manipulate an increased production of beta-carotene, iron and protein in cassava which is an important crop in many parts of the world. Several communities in Kenya depend on cassava as a staple food as it survives in adverse conditions. The introduction of BioCassava will interfere with and wipe out farmers’ extensive and tireless efforts to preserve and exchange traditional varieties of cassava that are well adapted to particular local agro-climatic conditions.
Furthermore, by influencing farmers to grow the same variety, the introduction and proliferation of GM crops also pose a problem of freedom, reducing producers’ autonomy by creating economic dependence on seed suppliers. In most cases, GM crops also require high external inputs such as chemical pesticides and fertilizers, which, as well as generating their own threats to human health and the environment, are often out of the financial reach of poor small-scale farmers. This creates a cycle that further impoverishes the farmers and turns them into slaves who are no longer in control of their own destiny, having to turn to the shops at every planting season.
The funding will also have a massive impact on farming autonomy and sustainability in Asia, where it will support the Philippine Rice Research Institute and the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute to engineer GM strains of “golden rice” to provide high levels of beta-carotene to decrease vitamin A deficiency in the local population.
To solve the problems of our times, we need to support and build on indigenous food systems, not stamp on them and wipe them out. The answers lie in the traditional agricultural knowledge that is held in the hearts, minds and hands of our small-scale farmers.
John Kariuki is vice-president of Slow Food International and currently works in his homeland of Kenya on Slow Food’s projects for biodiversity and food sovereignty.
Read Carlo Petrini’s 10 Reasons to Say No to GMOs.