Agricultural biotechnology and development: unintended consequences and unheard voices

 

Date palm tissue culture laboratory – Picture from FAO

GM crops have once again come under the spotlight with the recent news that Burkina Faso will no longer be growing Bt cotton (a genetically modified cotton variety, which produces a pesticide to counter the insect pest bollworm). Originally an early adopter of the technology, Burkina Faso became one of the first African countries to develop and release, with Monsanto, crosses of local and Bt cotton crops in 2008. As one of Africa’s largest cotton producers, their adoption of GM technology was ground-breaking. And, at least for some time, successful, increasing cotton production, yields and profits while reducing the number of pesticide sprays needed. With some 140,000 smallholders cultivating Bt cotton, it was also seen to de driving rural development, the average Bt cotton farming family reaping 50% more profits than families growing conventional cotton.

So why the reversal? The lint quality of Bt cotton varieties is poor and, as such, results in economic losses for the Burkinabè cotton companies that market it. Since they provide all seeds and inputs to cotton farmers, they have the power to phase out Bt cotton growing in the industry, which will take place over the next two years. In this case while the technology was boosting production and reducing pesticide use, an unintended impact on lint quality has become too big a hurdle for cotton companies to overcome. Now questions are being asked as to whether the same is likely to happen in other locations and situations, perhaps as a side effect of a “narrow, trait specific approach to addressing agricultural development”.

Despite this news from Burkina Faso, the argument in support of GM crops has somewhat intensified, with a recent article from Tim Benton, Professor of Population Ecology, University of Leeds reasserting that GM crops are one of a myriad of technologies and practices that we will need to feed the world. Since growth in yields are no longer increasing fast enough to meet projected food demand, we will need to expand crop land by an estimated 42% by 2050. This has broader consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem services as well as for greenhouse gas emissions, of which those associated with farming and food are currently set to push us past the 1.5℃ temperature-rise target set in Paris in 2015.

As Professor Benton explains, to avoid food shortages or the broader impacts of agricultural expansion we must either reduce demand for food or increase supply. The latter is about employing more efficient forms of agriculture, better land management but also technology to raise yields. How much of this technology will be comprised of biotechnology or genetic modification is unknown.

Some would like to see this be zero – for genetic modification to have no role in shaping future food supply. But could this opinion and the campaigning of anti-GM groups be harmful to food security? The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), in their new report, estimates that “the current restrictive climate for agricultural biotech innovations could cost low- and lower- middle-income nations up to $1.5 trillion in foregone economic benefits through 2050”. They also calculate that due to regulations and export limits that prevent widespread adoption of biotechnology, the lack of access to biotech innovations in farming has cost African agricultural economies at least $2.5 billion between 2008 and 2013. [Read more…]

The Global Competitiveness Index and other ways to measure progress

By Katy Wilson

The Global Competitiveness Index (GCI), developed by the World Economic Forum, measures and ranks economies in terms of their competitiveness, defined as “the set of institutions, policies and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country”. The details of this ranking and descriptions of the competitiveness landscape of individual economies are detailed in The Global Competitiveness Report, an annual publication designed to provide a “platform for dialogue between government, business and civil society about the actions required to improve economic prosperity”. This year the report covers 144 countries, which together represent 98.3% of world GDP. The GCI, in calculating competitiveness, combines 114 indicators under 12 pillars (shown in Figure 1 below). For more details on the methodology for compiling the GCI go here.

fig1.127212cfa1ab95162f74b8a4d3ab7002

In the 2014-2015 report, the 35th edition, innovation and skills are highlighted as being particularly important in influencing competitiveness, key attributes needed in the aftermath of global economic crisis. Alongside a recovering and unsettled economy, conflict and growing wealth inequality pose significant barriers to sustainable and inclusive growth, themes the report prioritizes. Political will and cooperation are of utmost importance in seeking a more resilient and fair global economy.

Sub-Saharan Africa is a region performing the worst in terms of global competitiveness. The top ten most competitive economies in SSA are:

sub-saharan-african-top-10

Of these only the top three occur in the first half of the league table and African countries fill 15 of the lowest 20 spots. Areas in need of improvement include health, education and infrastructure. A significant threat highlighted is the growing youth population – “by 2035, more people will be reaching working age in sub-Saharan Africa than in the rest of the world put together”.

The GCI has come under criticism for being opaque in its definition of competitiveness. On the one hand conflating it with productivity and prosperity while on the other having a high competitiveness score does not necessarily mean the country and its citizens are more prosperous than others. Instead the indicators are seen as being representative of WEF’s neoliberal politics. The WEF did, however, recently release The Inclusive Growth and Development Report, which engages with discussions to improve or develop new models of economic growth and development to expand social participation and benefit sharing. The report, which covers 112 economies, seeks to improve our understanding of how countries can use a diverse spectrum of policy incentives and institutional mechanisms to make economic growth more socially inclusive without dampening incentives to work, save and invest. [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Do Aid and Development need their own TripAdvisor feedback system?, From Poverty to Power

Rebranding bran: teaching nutrient-rich cooking in Mali, The Guardian

African hub set up to boost research autonomy, Nature

Global Food Industry Reluctant Leaders of Smallholder Farming Revolution, The Huffington Post

Managing for Resilience: Framing an integrated landscape approach for overcoming chronic and acute food insecurity, Buck and Bailey

Agri-tech for Africa’s food security, development, SciDev.Net

Water-Smart Agriculture in East Africa, PAEPARD

New interactive tool brings malnutrition data to life, Devex

Fateful Harvest: Why Brazil has a big appetite for risky pesticides, Reuters

Denmark’s Drug-Free Pigs, The New York Times [Read more…]

A Modest Proposal for Feeding Africa

ID-100136355In his recently released annual letter, Bill Gates has made a series of “big bets” for development. One of these bets, that Africa will be able to feed itself by 2030, is a view I also share. But I don’t think we need a big bet to make it happen. Rather, I have a “modest proposal” that I believe can guide Africa towards a hunger and poverty-free future.  I call this a modest proposal, as the ingredients that will achieve food security in Africa are already known to us, and we already have parts of them working. Currently, average cereal yields in Africa are a little over over one tonne per hectare. In China, they are three and a half tonnes. Here in the UK it can be up to eight tonnes. Africa has places where European-level yields could be achieved. That is not the issue. It can be done, the question is how….

Gordon Conway writes for Huffington Post. Read the original post here

Myth-busting for African Agriculture

Farmers in Cinzana village, Mali. Photo by: P. Casier / CGIAR / CC BY-NC-SA

Farmers in Cinzana village, Mali. Photo by: P. Casier / CGIAR / CC BY-NC-SA

If you know anything about African agriculture, many commonly held beliefs about the sector will easily spring to mind. Most farmers are women. Uptake of fertilizer and improved seed is low. Post harvest losses are huge.

Yet according to a new project “Agriculture in Africa – Telling Facts from Myths,” the evidence upon which we base our decisions and views about agriculture and farming systems in sub-Saharan Africa is often inadequate or out of date.

The project seeks to tell facts from myths about African agriculture using the Living Standards Measurement Study – Integrated Surveys on Agriculture, or LSMS-ISA, a household survey project working to collect up to date agricultural data. It tests the validity of 15 commonly believed statements; statements that, although commonly accepted, may no longer be valid given Africa’s rapid economic growth and the new era of high food prices, amongst other driving forces of change. To date, surveys have been conducted in six countries — Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda — representing 40 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa.

We took a look at the preliminary findings to see where many of us may have been going wrong…or right. Here are some new facts about African agriculture that you may not know….

Emily Alpert and Stephanie Brittain write for DEVEX. Read the original post here

Align for inclusive development

By Stephanie Brittain

The African Union (AU) will meet on the 30th -31st of January for the 24th Ordinary Session, a high level event that officially closes the 2014 “AU Year of Agriculture and Food Security” and launches the 2015 “AU Year of Women’s Empowerment and Africa Development for the concretisation of Agenda 2063″. Also launched under this new 2015 theme is the AU strategy and roadmap for facilitating the transition of 2025 Vision on CAADP. The strategy came about when, at the end of the 2014 AU meeting in Malabo, Heads of State and Government adopted an ambitious set of goals to be achieved by 2025 in their ‘Malabo Declaration on Accelerated Agricultural Growth and Transformation for Shared Prosperity and Improved Livelihoods’. The Malabo Declaration asks the AU Commission and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) to develop an implementation strategy to turn the 2025 vision and goals into reality. The fact that the AU Malabo strategy is being launched during the AU Year of Women’s Empowerment is important, providing an opportunity for the goals of gender equality and agricultural growth to align. The roadmap calls for ‘inclusive’ development and without gender equality, development in Africa will be significantly slowed, and it will certainly not be inclusive.

Women’s rights are recognised in international agreements…

Photo credit: Eric Lafforgue, 2010

Photo credit: Eric Lafforgue, 2010

Women all over the world should be able to enjoy the same life prospects as men, as a basic human right. Not only is equality a human right, is the smart thing to do for development; if all members of society are equal and able to contribute, then their outputs will be far greater than if only half of the society are able to contribute. The need for gender equality for development is well recognized, cited in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The Millennium Development Goal’s and now the Sustainable Development Goal’s further support the vital role that gender equality will continue to play in the inclusive and sustainable development of all countries.

[Read more…]

Risks to global food security

Farmers discuss climate and weather changes. Photo C. Schubert (CCAFS)

Farmers discuss climate and weather changes. Photo C. Schubert (CCAFS)

This week sees the annual Chatham House conference on food security. This year’s theme is around the risks to food security that come from greater globalisation of the food system. The conference focuses/focused on the “geopolitical, supply-side and market-based threats” to the global food system, in particular generating discussion with senior policy-makers and business leaders on identifying risks and priorities for action to mitigate them in the hope of building a more resilient food system.

Many organisations aim to identify and map risks to the food industry and food security, climate change and its impact on agricultural production being a prominent one. Maplecroft, a horizon scanning, risk analytics organisation that supports global organisations in identifying, monitoring, forecasting and mitigating financial and other risks to their operations, investments and supply chains, recently published their Climate Change and Environmental Risk Atlas 2015, which provides risk data for 198 countries on such issues as climate change vulnerability, food security, emissions, ecosystem services, natural disasters and regulation. [Read more…]