Agriculture minister's deeply flawed arguments against GMOs

Jan 18, 2012

Genetic modification of food crops is an emotive, deeply contentious issue almost all over the world, even in some countries where it is now established practice. So that Zimbabwe’s agriculture minister is against the practice is not unusual. But his stated reasons are embarrassingly, intellectually weak, especially for someone who has an advanced degree in agriculture.

Agriculture minister Joseph Made has long been an opponent of GM technology. A fairly recent change in Zimbabwe is that this is an issue undergoing a lot more public debate in the media and elsewhere than before. What was previously an esoteric subject discussed by very few is now of interest to the broader public. A lot of the opinions being expressed on the matter are increasingly in favor of the adoption of GM in farming. Some have expressed the belief that this will provide a significant part of the answer to low yields.

Just as with many of the anti-GM arguments, many of the pro-GM arguments are simplistic, but there seems little doubt that the idea of GM crops is gaining increasing acceptance. It has been pointed out that Zimbabweans already unwittingly consume many GM crop-derived food products imported from South Africa, neutralizing much of the argument against the uptake of local GM farming.

 ‘Made defends GMO ban,’ an article in early January 2012, said the government’s official opposition to GM technology was not about to change.

"Scientific research shows that GMOs contain toxic substances, are less nutritious than non-GMOs and have negative effects on humans and the environment," Made was quoted as saying.

In regards to debate on a matter as emotional for many people as GMOs, the expression “scientific research shows” should immediately set off alarm bells in anyone’s mind. There are ‘scientific research’ results seemingly showing anything on either side of the controversy that anybody wants to show. What campaigners on both sides of the debate do is simply pick and choose which research results fit their pre-conceived positions, and use those to make their case. This is one reason there is so much noise and heat, and yet so little clarity and light around this issue.

Furthermore, Made spoke as if there are blanket findings that provide uniformly negative answers about the toxicity, nutritional properties or human health and environmental effects of GM technology for all crops. This is obviously not possible. He was obviously speaking as a politician, to an audience that might not be able to interrogate him on these details, but just this brief single sentence has holes numerous and big enough to require many pages to interrogate.
According to the article:

Made said the government would, instead, concentrate on making available fertilizer, seeds, irrigation and other essential farm inputs to boost food production rather than use cheaper but unsustainable means which have a detrimental impact on the environment.

Is GM-based farming ‘cheaper’ than conventional techniques? According to what parameters, and for which crops? And ‘cheaper’ for whom?

One of the arguments against GM farming is that it could be more expensive for the farmer because of the up-front costs of the seeds, and the even greater need for accompanying fertilizer and water for the seeds to achieve their touted hi-yield potential. The counter argument is that these high initial costs will be compensated for by higher yields, but achieving them depends on other factors which the average African farmer can never be sure will always or even usually be in place (adequate water being just one.)

These are details that most people would not have much interest in, but they illustrate the falsely broad, generalized brushes with which Made makes his anti-GM case.  

The benefits of fertilizer are well established. But so are the negatives, such as the faster erosion of soil fertility and the poisoning of ground water. No one uses theses negatives to advocate for the avoidance of fertilizers. Or rather, few people do, with most accepting the trade offs. As with almost everything else in life, fertilizer is not intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Which it is depends on the context and manner of its use, and adoption/acceptance depends on whether the positives outweigh the negatives.

So Made could not argue that ‘making fertilizer available’ is necessarily any better for human health or the environment that GM technology. Both have their positives and negatives. The debate should not be on absolutes, but on whether the positives are more than the negatives. That is really the main issue, not whether GMOs (or fertilizer) has no potentially harmful effects. Almost nothing on earth is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in that narrow, absolutist sense. These value judgments we ascribe are more a reflection of our biases than of the intrinsic nature of what is being judged.    

He  said while GMOs were cheaper to produce, they were costly in the long-term as they contaminated the environment and harmed biodiversity. His ministry would continue to advocate non-GMO farming to ensure sustainability in the agriculture sector, he added.

“Contamination” is the controversial issue of GM crops lending some of their GM properties to non-GM crops in the normal, unavoidable process of cross-pollination. The argument is that once GM crops are adopted, they remove or at least significantly decrease the choice of nearby farmers to keep their crops non-GM.

This is a valid concern, and is just one of several ways that GM crops are said to reduce biodiversity. Over time this effectively ‘breeds’ out many of the varieties of a crop that could have natural genetic qualities that are useful in one way or another, and that it would be best to preserve for posterity. But even this argument weakens somewhat when it is considered that the hybrid seeds that are now of standard use in Zimbabwe can also be said to ‘harm biodiversity.’ The very process of their standardization in breeding, to select for desired growing properties, is a quite deliberate reduction in biodiversity. Non-hybrid (‘open pollinated varieties, OPVs’) seeds have a much wider, much less predictable set of genetic characteristics. Hence the much more uniform output/appearance of a field of hybrid maize compared to a similar field of OPV maize.

So GM maize, for example, may indeed be ‘harming biodiversity’ compared to OPV maize (now rarely used in Zimbabwe, but still very common in many other African countries where hybrid seed access is not so widespread), but the same could be said of hybrid maize. Again, it is a question of human definition and of choice between desired characteristics, not of clear-cut ‘good’ versus clear-cut ‘bad.’            

Made clearly is in favor of hybrid seeds, which have over decades been shown to yield better results than OPV seeds in general. He would no doubt argue that the higher yield of hybrid seeds is more important than the fact that their development and use reduce biodiversity. In this respect, perhaps to a different extent, that is the same compromise that confronts the issue of whether adoption of GM crops, despite their effects on biodiversity, is ‘net good’ or ‘net bad.’ It is a value judgment by people based on their mindset, not a reflection of the intrinsic value of GM or hybrid seeds.

Made said it was economically unwise for Zimbabwe to practice GMO farming as this would negatively affect regional markets, which did not allow GMOs in their countries.

"Look at what Kenya has done. They have banned GMOs going into their country. “

Indeed, for now the vital European market for African agricultural commodities is virulently opposed to GM crops. There is a raging sub debate about why and how much Europe’s bias against GM crops should affect decisions in Africa. But clearly, you must pay close attention to what your most important customer does or doesn’t want.

However, adoption of GM crops in Africa is being debated/considered mostly for crops for local use, not for export. Advocates of GMOs are pushing for it not as the answer to, for example, increased frozen vegetable exports to the UK or of flowers to the Netherlands, but as one answer to local food insecurity. Even that is disputed by some, but the point is the pros and cons of adopting GM maize in Africa are not affected by concerns about exporting it to Europe.

As for how ‘GMO farming would negatively affect the regional market,’ this has some temporary, limited validity. Most of the countries of southern Africa are as frightened of and opposed to GM crops as Zimbabwe. But they all depend to a significant degree on processed food imports from South Africa, a GM-embracing, practicing country. This alone neutralizes much of the anti-GM argument (harmful to human health). ‘Harmful’ or not, your people are already willingly consuming these products!

Contrary to the confusing assertion attributed to Made in the article, Kenya shocked many people by recently openly allowing the import of GM maize. And local cultivation of various GM crops in Kenya will soon go from testing phase to commercialization. One of the continent’s biggest economies and maize markets has set a trend that will inevitably be followed in the region in coming years. In almost all the countries of eastern and southern Africa, lobbying efforts (mostly American-led and funded) for the acceptance of GMOs are increasingly on the march, and more anti-GM dominoes are likely to fall in the next decade. Anti-GM activists hate to hear it, but they have largely lost this battle, for better or for worse. The pro-GM movement is still the minority side, but for now it appears that the momentum for official adoption in African countries is increasingly with them, rather than with the currently louder opponents.

Since poorly executed land reform, Zimbabwe has been a net importer of maize and of food in general. Agriculture is picking up again after a decade long slump, but no one expects any exports of maize, the region’s main crop, from Zimbabwe in the near future. Even if Made is optimistically looking far ahead to a future of Zimbabwean maize exports, by that time it is likely that GM acceptance in the region would have risen, with much of the current official opposition having fallen away like has just stunningly happened in Kenya.     

‘Fear of losing regional markets’ is simply going to be an increasingly weak reason for opposing the application of GM technology to maize for countries in southern Africa.

“Those who advocate GMOs have no scientific background hence they do not know the impact of GMOs on the environment," Made said. 

This little bit of arrogance from Made is interesting because many of the leading proponents of GM technology are scientists. There are scientists opposed too of course. The point is that the possession or lack of ‘scientific background’ on its own is neither here nor there in proving the validity of a person’s position on this emotive issue. Made may have a ‘scientific background,’ but there would be many pro-GM scientists who would consider his opposition to the technology to be un-informed and not based on science, just as he seems to be believe only those without such a background could ‘advocate GMOs.’

The debate about GM technology is useful, and it is anyway now unavoidable. It is good to get a good public airing of both pro and con arguments. This is an issue crucial to farming and food, which affect everybody, ‘scientific background’ or not.

There are indeed issues of grave concern about GMOs which do not yet have definite answers, hence the call of some for caution to be on the side of not adopting them. But for a continent battling with grave food security challenges, adopting GM technology as part of the arsenal of fighting this is simply going to sound irresistible to more African governments.

Zimbabwe’s agriculture minister, Joseph Made, should be an important voice in contributing solid, well reasoned and defensible arguments for his position on GMOs, to help the average person fully understand the issues at stake. There are strong reasons for, just as there are strong reasons against.

Based on this media report, Made sounds more like an activist opposing GMOs for ideological and emotional reasons; than someone making calm, convincing arguments based on his ‘scientific background.’


Post a Comment