Out of Africa: is the cult of organic keeping people poor?

Robert Paarlberg, a professor of political science at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, thinks he knows why African farmers are poor: they've been systematically denied the benefits of biotechnology, cut off from modernizing forces by a cabal of European donors and stupid African governments. In his new book, "Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa," Paarlberg makes a cogent case for why how genetically-modified seeds and biotech generally can help African farmers. He also examines the perverse incentives African governments receive for continuing to oppose GM crops.

Paarlberg wrote in The International Herald Tribune on Friday: "In Europe, meanwhile, some official donors and nongovernmental agencies are working to block farm modernization in Africa. Despite Africa's worsening soil nutrient deficits, European donors like to promote costly organic farming techniques as the alternative to chemical fertilizer use. This is not how European farmers escaped poverty. Only 4 percent of cropland in Europe is currently being farmed organically (and less than 1 percent in America), but European NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace tell Africa's poor this is the path they should follow."

I've seen first-hand in Africa some of the costs of promoting organic crops: lower yields often mean less money for farmers, even when their organic crop fetches higher prices. Mark Wood, an agricultural expert from Zimbabwe who most recently has done wonders in Uganda, is fond of telling people that the organic movement is immoral so long as it continues to deliver lower incomes -- and more poverty -- to Africans.

The answer isn't always to say no to organic crops. In Uganda, the Memphis cotton trading enterprise, Dunavant, has shifted nearly all of its production to organic, in one swoop becoming the largest single buyer of organic cotton in all of sub-Saharan Africa. Dunavant's Uganda chief, Pacu Patel, and I discussed the shift on my recent visit to Kampala. Patel waxed enthusiastic about the potential for "inter-cropping" other organic crops along side of cotton. Dunvant, he promises, is prepared to buy and market these crops internationally.

So there are organic success stories in Africa. Paarlberg is wrong to dismiss these. He also overlooks the costs of importing exotic biotechnologies into Africa. Some of these costs will fall onto farmers themselves, not their governments. And these farmers must ask, are the benefits (in higher revenues from crops) worth the added cost? Often additional "input" costs are not recouped in Africa.

To be sure, I have advocated myself that the biotech revolution must come to Africa in an essay for Arizona State University's Consortium on Science, Policy & Outcomes, "GM Comes to Africa (sort of)." The time is surely right, what with prices of wheat, corn and coffee -- all grown in Africa -- at very high levels. There is no question that GM seeds will make African farmers more competitive in cotton, for example. Important work is also being done by Ohio State University in cassava, a root crop that is a basic staple in many parts of west and southern Africa. Monstanto, meanwhile, continues to push governments in Africa to follow the lead of South Africa, where biotechnology is being used to good effect.

The potential for massive gains in African output seems only possible with an assist from biotechnology. But Paarlberg's argument is not simply about science and technology, of course, but about politics. African politics is strange indeed, and the role of donors in pushing their own agendas hardly stops with agriculture. So I am unconvinced that the situation is as dire as Paarlberg insists.

Biotechnology is coming to Africa, and should make a larger impact, sooner, than many think. Professor Paarlberg, understandably, is impatient.

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