At its 19th Ordinary Session on July 15 to 16, 2012, the African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government declared 2014 the Year of Agriculture and Food Security in Africa. As the world’s countries scramble to fulfill the first Millennium Development Goal, Sub-Saharan Africa trails behind other corners of the globe in terms of its success in eradicating extreme hunger. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, over 214 million people, or one in three, are chronically hungry in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Ironically, despite such harrowing statistics, 65 percent of Sub-Saharan Africans are farmers— to put this in perspective, only two percent of the population of the United States are farmers. As many world leaders and scientists grapple with the overwhelming need for agricultural aid, reform, and even revolution, many look to genetically modified organisms (GMOS) and genetically engineered (GE) seeds as the ideal answer to many of Sub-Saharan Africa’s food woes.
Today, just three companies – Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont – control 50% of the world’s seeds. Of all three, U.S.-based Monsanto excels in terms of its influence, omnipresence, and infamy. In the United States, it is estimated that Monsanto is responsible for 90% of soybeans and 80% of corn. GE seeds like that of Monsanto are genetically tailored to have desirable genes, such as resistance to drought and pesticides.
Today, this agricultural giant worth over $58 billion desires to spread the use of its products into developing nations. Its website shows a plethora of evidence of Monsanto’s charitable endeavors as it not only campaigns for the necessary diffusion of GMOs in Africa, but also funds its seemingly benevolent agenda through organizations like AGRA (part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Helen Keller International, and Africare. In Burkina Faso, it has donated $400,000; in Kenya $195,000; in Tanzania, $200,000. Unsurprisingly, Monsanto is unreservedly convinced the only way to improve the agricultural practices and eventually eradicate hunger in sub-Saharan Africa is to use GMOs and GE seeds. This is best encapsulated in its Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) program.
96 percent of the agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa is dependent on rainfall. Yet, three-fourths of the world’s most severe droughts in the past decades have occurred there, with catastrophic results on the continent’s agriculture. Here’s Monsanto’s answer: WE1101, a drought resistant, water efficient maize strain. Maize is the most widely grown crop in Sub-Saharan Africa and is the main food source for over 300 million sub-Saharan Africans. Monsanto estimates that WEMA could produce an extra two million tons of food for 14-21 million people.
To some, WEMA sound like the perfect solution. The seeds that Monsanto offers to WEMA countries are free of charge, just like the other seeds and pesticides it has donated to Sub-Saharan African countries. Yet, many countries in sub-Saharan countries are apprehensive about having GE seeds within their borders, and many others are even steadfast in their rejection of them. Much of the reasons behind this lie in Monsanto’s history with patents.
Monsanto currently has around 4,000 patents in use and is famous for aggressively pursuing farmers who, they believe, infringe upon Monsanto’s rights. For example, Monsanto took to court farmers who used its seeds left over from a previous harvest for the next cycle without paying royalties. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Bowman v. Monsanto Co. that farmers must pay Monsanto to reuse seeds–proving that Monsanto was able to change a practice as old as farming itself. The company Today, Monsanto continues to bring suits against over 500 farmers per year over practices like this.
With this in mind, sub-Saharan African farmers are wary of Monsanto and its “free” gifts. Most sub-Saharan African farmers do not have the means to repay Monsanto every year for seeds that are byproducts of previous purchases; they save their seeds because they are imperative for having any sort of food security in the wake of climate change. Even though the seeds and aid that Monsanto offers is currently without charge, there is no evidence that Monsanto will not treat Sub-Saharan African farmers in a similar way if their GE seeds are widely adopted on the content.
Nevertheless, even if the issues of patents, culture and biodiversity can be overcome, the main obstacle to implementing GMOs and GE seeds as a solution to failing agricultural practices and widespread hunger is that many Sub-Saharan African countries simply do not want them. During the food crises in 2002 and 2003, sub-Saharan African countries such as Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia were so averse to GMOs that they refused to accept GM crops when offered to them as aid. eventually Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe accepted, but Zambia never relented.
According the UN, many countries, such as Angola, Ethiopia, Lesotho, and Malawi, have banned GMOs except those that have been milled, while countries like Kenya and Zambia have banned all GMOs. Countries like these fear the unintended side effects GE seeds and pesticides will have on the biodiversity and native agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. As has been seen in the US, when using GE seeds one must also use harsher pesticides as insects adapt to less extreme pesticides. In using harsher pesticides, all other forms of life in the area are under equal threat as the targeted insects.
Despite this, western organizations like AGRA and even USAID seem intent on bolstering GMOs in Sub-Saharan Africa. When using their influence, AGRA and corporations like Monsanto ignore the wishes of the governments of Sub-Saharan Africa by presenting GMOs as the only viable solution to agricultural and hunger issues.
On the other hand, the 2013 U.N. Trade and Environment Review, entitled “Wake Up Now Before it is Too Late” disagrees, calling for a “significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.”
As the battle for GMOs continues to rage across the world, both sides possess compelling evidence. GE seeds have proven to work wonders in the past, saving billions of lives in Asia with the widespread use of dwarf wheat. However, with the repercussions and legal intricacies uncovered in the last decade, it remains to be seen if GE seeds and GMOs are the best option for Sub-Saharan African farmers, even if allowed by all governments.
Furthermore, this is ultimately an economic debate. Can Sub-Saharan African farmers pay for Monsanto’s products? At this rate, probably not. If GE seeds are decided to be the right course of action for eradicating extreme poverty and hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa, much of the burden lies with the governments of Sub-Saharan African countries as well as the corporate giants like Monsanto.