AS California voters consider Prop. 37 to require businesses to label genetically modified food, people should consider that the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding research to develop genetically modified crops around the world instead of more natural products.
In June, the foundation granted $9.8 million to British scientists at the John Innes Centre to investigate whether a symbiosis of cereal crops and bacteria could be genetically modified to fix atmospheric nitrogen.
This Gates grant does not support locally defined priorities, it does not fit within the holistic approach urged by many development experts, and it does not investigate the long-term effectiveness and risks of genetic modification. The choice of a high-risk, high-tech project over more modest but effective agricultural techniques is problematic, offering no practical solutions for the present and near-future concerns of the people who run small farms.
Affiliated researchers have acknowledged that the research is exploratory and uncertain, but have also claimed that such crops would be environmentally sustainable and more affordable for small farms in sub-Saharan Africa, reducing the use of costly nitrogen fertilizer.
Katherine Kahn, senior program officer of agricultural development at the Gates Foundation, stated, “We need innovation for farmers to increase their productivity in a sustainable way so that they can lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Improving access to nitrogen could dramatically boost the crop yields of farmers in Africa.”
However, the project has not been developed with farmers’ priorities in mind. A 2006 Citizens’ Jury in Sikasso, Mali, debated genetically modified organisms and opposed research and development of genetically modified crops. The African Centre for Biosafety has also warned of the dangers unregulated genetically modified crop development, testing and production may pose for major staple crops, such as maize.
Genetically modified crops threaten conventional and organic production as well as the autonomy of African producers and nations. In 2002, Emmy Simmons, then-assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, stated that, “In four years, enough (genetically engineered) crops will have been planted in South Africa that the pollen will have contaminated the entire continent.” Biotechnology cannot coexist with agro-ecological techniques and traditional knowledge.
Professor Giles Oldroyd, lead researcher at the Gates-funded John Innes Centre, acknowledged that any possible results would take decades.
Some scientists have suggested that the money would be more effective if put toward agro-ecological practices and proven technologies. The 2009 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development,funded by the World Bank and the United Nations, recommended research that “would focus on local priorities identified through participatory and transparent processes, and favor multifunctional solutions to local problems,” and it concluded that biotechnology alone will not solve the food needs of Africa.
Mariam Mayet of the African Centre for Biosafety said of the Gates Foundation grant, “(Genetically modified) nitrogen-fixing crops are not the answer to improving the fertility of Africa’s soils. African farmers are the last people to be asked about such projects. This often results in the wrong technologies being developed, which many farmers simply cannot afford.”
She said farmers need ways to build up resilient soils that are both fertile and adaptable to extreme weather. “We also want our knowledge and skills to be respected and not to have inappropriate solutions imposed on us by distant institutions, charitable bodies or governments,” Mayet said.
The research that the Gates Foundation is funding may not be appropriate for small-scale farmers’ needs and demands, even if nitrogen-fixing cereals do prove to be viable. It would better serve these farmers by supporting existing work on effective, agricultural technologies and heeding the solutions, priorities and techniques already articulated by African farmers and organizations.
Ashley Fent, left, and Phil Bereano, University of Washington professor emeritus, are active in the AGRA Watch Project of the Commun-ity Alliance for Global Justice at www.seattle-globaljustice.org/agra-watch/