SIRC Editorial – Science and agriculture in Africa.
We are delighted to receive for publication an article by Boru Douthwaite of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria. Boru is the Impact and Adoption Specialist for IITA and is part of a team whose mission is to enhance the food security, income and well-being of resource-poor people – primarily in the humid and subhumid zones of sub-Saharan Africa. The institute conducts research on methods of increasing agricultural production and improving food systems, and on the sustainable management of natural resources. It works in close partnership with national and international stakeholders.
Boru's paper specifically addresses the role that biotechnology can play in meeting these objectives, arguing that it is one of many tools that can and should be employed to bring hope to some of the poorest farmers in the world. The paper is both balaned and persuasive. It identifies the real issues at stake – ones which are rarely addressed by groups such as Greenpeace and their allies who are prepared to "smash" biotechnology "whatever the cost." The cost, of course, is not one which will be borne by the members of Greenpeace themselves, but by those most vulnerable to insecurities in food production and supply and to the vagaries of climate and geography.
Boru concludes with the comment:
"There is nothing inherently evil or Frankenstein-like about genetically modified plants. However, if humankind does not concern itself with who controls this novelty generation and who decides which novelties to disseminate to farmers, then there is a real danger that large multinational companies may gain control over the food chain, driven by the economic logic of delivering higher returns to their shareholders, not the environmental health or sustainability of the planet."
This is where the debate must now be focused – not on fanciful, anti-science dogmas but on frameworks for the governance of new technologies. At the heart of many irrational attacks on genetic modification lie antipathies towards multi-national corporations and their sometimes less than benign motives, rather than towards the process itself. This may be understandable, but it does nothing to alleviate the plight of those who stand to gain most from biotechnology. It is also the case that the investment required to advance such technology is unlikely to be found entirely fom the coffers of NGOs and research institutes, even with the support of the World Bank and other international organisations. As in the case of medicine and pharmacology, major advances have often come from large corporations with an eye firmly on a return on investment and shareholder dividends. The pragmatist recognises this and looks for the solution which will provide suitable returns for the seed companies, but more importantly ensures the essential protections and safeguards in which sustainable benefits can be realised without exploitation or damage to fragile ecosystems.
We need to move on to a stage where real dialogue along these lines is possible. And already there are some small signs of promise. The 'think tank' on OneWorld's web site, for example, is a genuine invitation to such debate that should not be passed up. Louk Box, Professor of International Cooperation at Maastricht University, writes in the introduction to this debate:
"The battle lines are being drawn, alliances are formed. "All those in favour of introducing genetically modified organisms (GMO's), please stand on that side of the fence. And all those against doing so, please remain on this side." A middle ground seems to become even smaller, especially in Europe and the US. But what is in it for poor countries, especially those in Africa? Where could they stand? That is the question being asked in this Think Tank.
It is this 'middle ground' that is now so vital to establish. Without it the polarised and destructive rhetorics of extremists on both sides will continue to obscure the real issues and inhibit the fair distribution of scientific knowledge and its beneficial applications around our planet.
The full text of Boru Douthwaite's article can be found by clicking here.
Our thanks to Anne Moorhead, Chief Science Editor and Acting Head, Information Services, IITA.
Peter Marsh, 20 June 2001