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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa

The escalating price of oil, the world’s growing population, and its increasing demand for food have all received blame for rising worldwide food prices. What is often overlooked is that a significant portion of the world’s population is unable to feed itself—because of politics. That is the greater, more frightening problem.

Today much of Africa remains hungry—almost a third of sub-Saharan Africa is undernourished. Since the late 1960s Africa’s agricultural production has been in decline: Farm productivity has dropped and food imports have risen. African governments are complicit in the continent’s hunger because they have hindered their citizens’ ability to grow as much food as possible.

In Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa, Robert Paarlberg argues that Africa fails to feed itself in part because of the limited use of biotechnology and blames African governments and their European counterparts for that failure. Starved for Science explains how the increased use of genetically modified seeds would benefit African farmers—and stomachs—and explains why the use of biotechnology and other agricultural science is so limited in Africa.

Paarlberg, who teaches political science at Wellesley College, makes the case for science in agriculture by detailing the dramatic impact the vast changes in agriculture have had over the past few hundred years. The book focuses on the latter half of the twentieth century, when the Green Revolution swept through Asia and, through the use of technology, hugely bolstered agricultural production.

Africa desperately needs similar changes—yields per acre in some African countries are less than a tenth of yields in the United States. African farmers would gain greatly from better technologies and seeds. Unfortunately, government policies stand in their way.

Paarlberg blames developed-world biases for Africa’s lack of agricultural improvement, especially a bias against genetically modified (GM) foods that dramatically limits Africa’s ability to grow more. In part these biases stem from the developed world’s ability to feed itself without a strong emphasis on the agricultural sciences or GM foods. Officials can therefore indulge environmentalist crusades against agricultural progress without apparent cost.

The European Union, non-governmental organizations, and the United Nations all played a role in exporting these biases to Africa, although the local governments also deserve a share of the blame. Instead of helping African farmers grow bigger crops to feed more people, European governments are doing the reverse, actively working to strengthen regulations in African countries, making the approval and use of GM seeds more difficult, and subsequently decreasing the potential productivity of African farmers. The governments of Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway, for example, have funded efforts to promote anti-GM regulatory frameworks and deprive farmers of the best tools they have. Similarly, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) exists not to help African farmers increase their output, but rather to increase the regulations that inhibit their farming.

Starved for Science makes a succinct case regarding the who’s and why’s of the barriers to Africa’s biotechnology use, but there are a few components of Paarlberg’s argument that could be stronger.

He spends little time discussing the specific problems that biotechnology can solve and the specific advantages of GM seeds. Although he details the possibilities of a drought-resistant seed, Paarlberg does not delve deeply into the successes of GM seeds in countries where they are currently being used, such as South Africa. With freedom to make their own decisions South African farmers are growing more food for themselves and their families and have enough extra to sell to others. Beyond increasing the local supply of food, having extra crops allows the farmers to increase the sizes of their farms, create jobs, start other businesses, and save money for the future.

The other incomplete aspect of Starved for Science deals with the incentives Africans face when debating growing GM crops. Even when they have the choice of using GM seeds they have to decide if it’s worth doing so, since European markets usually ban GM goods. The book would have been improved if Paarlberg had investigated the tradeoffs here more thoroughly.

Allowing free rein for biotechnology would be an important step toward eliminating the hunger that plagues Africa. The sad truth is that politics is apt to continue obstructing that and other avenues of progress.