The Invasive Other: GMOs and Africa.
This jihad against the food and environmental health and thus, by implication, against sovereignty of African countries, so like the proliferation of military bases in the continent today, may have been based on self-serving and hypocritical motives, but it is not receiving attention in many parts of Africa; albeit often for equally self-serving reasons.
Each passing year Genetically Modified Organisms/GMOs/ (no one knows exactly how many) are making inroads in to the developing world particularly African countries. Some of the most pervasive insights concern big corporations such as Monsanto. The GMO spiral all too often meant plunder and obliteration to health, the environment and sovereignty. The worst victims are peasants and their small scale farms as well as biodiversity. Chemical agriculture does not return organic matter and fertility to the soil, to mention just the most infamous example of the impact to the environment. There are also ethical problems since industrial food systems have reduced food to a commodity, to ‘stuff’ that can then be constituted in a lab. On the other hand the toxic GMO model is often promoted as the only answer to economic and food security. Under the guise of charity and famine relief, the US controlled transnational corporations have extended their influence across African countries. It would have been good if those dual dimensions coincided, but often they don’t.
Some of the reasons are familiar: fast forward to food security. Really? Globally, more than a billion people are still hungry. So the argument is not only misleading but outright lie. Greed and control took precedence over other stated objectives. (And lest anyone think this is a romantic prescription for starvation, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has in the last few years published one study after another showing that small farms in fact produce more calories per acre.
Meanwhile the rapid heating of the earth from the destruction of soil, water and biodiversity is often underappreciated. It is interesting that the pesticide industry and the media tend to blame global warming for all environmental problems. This hypothetical example of the tension between science and society, on the one hand, and ethics, on the other, is admittedly extreme. On the contrary, there is an inherent tension between the search for scientific answers to food security which remains elusive and concern for the environment and rights and welfare of human subjects. One is the disruption of rural life by mass migration to the industrial cities, leading to the breakdown of family life and consequently of the values of which the family is the traditional custodian. This brings us to the central theme of GMOs: the destabilizing social, cultural, political, and economic effects of modern industrial food systems. This jihad against the food and environmental health and thus, by implication, against sovereignty of African countries, so like the proliferation of military bases in the continent today, may have been based on self-serving and hypocritical motives, but it is not receiving attention in many parts of Africa; albeit often for equally self-serving reasons.
Understanding it this way would be simple, fast, and conclusive. Even then, the debate remains decidedly blurred because some African leaders seem to genuinely believe industrial agriculture as led by big corporations could somehow increase the production level, hence the advantage by far outweigh the damage. This explains the less antagonistic relationship between the African elite in general and US corporations like Monsanto. But the debate is hard to reconcile, because of differences in objectives and agenda between the two groups. I think perhaps more could be said on this vital issue than has been the case, for it explains both why some African leaders felt the need to “save” their countries from hunger and why the transnational corporations had to fail in this enterprise. The orientation of the Monsantos has always favored a kind of technological process in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off traditional and peasant agriculture and replacing organic food with industrial food systems, which is a sadness, since beyond the environment, food also holds the potential for health and disease, depending on how it is grown and processed. Commoditization undermines the argument that “food is the living currency of the web of life”.
Scientists have done a remarkable job of getting the climate message out, reaching a workable consensus on the problem in relatively short order. Equally, doctors talk about health. However, the damage caused by GOMs is underreported. The usual escape route: There’s no “conclusive proof” that GMOs may be harmful to our bodies; there’s extensive proof, however, that following the introduction of these crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners who can afford the new technologies. This is precisely what happens when big corporations began to take over. Besides, given that more than half in Africa still work as peasant farmers, this accelerates the exodus off the farm and into hovels at the margins of overcrowded cities; there should have been a need instead to promote an economy which favors productive diversity, including small-scale food production systems, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing. The same applies to the environment. Instead of a narrow and focused contribution to the climate debate, the story surrounding GMOs might turn out to be much broader than a sweeping, radical, and highly persuasive critique of how we inhabit this planet — an ecological critique, yes, but also a moral, social, economic, and spiritual commentary.
This is not easy either as big corporations control big microphones. Indeed any serious effort to alter or even critique emerging trends in GMOs and agriculture is now scorned, often by the theoretical left as well as the right. The former by aspiring to increase production and the latter by downplaying the negative impacts on human health and the environment. A growing number of essays praising the ideals — if not always the results — of industrial production in the context of alleviating hunger and ensuring food security, the official name for the ‘toxic food model’, have been appearing in serious journals over the last years. The power of celebrity and the media to set the agenda, and its frequency has been impeccable. On those grounds alone, the case for industrial food systems has become one of the most influential documents of recent times. Many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centers and power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor in the developed world with little direct contact with their problems.
But national political leaders, beholden to the foreign interests and the rhetoric of defeating poverty, have been timid at best — several African leaders, for instance, barely mentioned the negative impacts of GMOs during election campaigns. Civil servants in several African countries are less absolute, and dependent on the judgment of top decision makers. Meanwhile, GMOs continued to slip in different guises. This also does put Africa’s regional organizations — a fairly rare places in voicing threats to security — in a difficult place. Hence, the narratives behind industrial food system is not only unchecked but it is also stuck in many African throats. What made the arrogance of GMO Corporations worse is that it has been made in the name of serving Africa on food security and that poor people who cannot feed themselves are not eligible to be part of the debate.
And yet, it is easy to understand, though impossible to commend, the apprehensions of the Monsantos of this world who feel threatened by the few critical voices here and there. Some court documents appear to have indicated the company paid chemical industry front group to claim cancer causing weed killer ‘safe’ and attack its critics. The vehemence of their apprehensions surpasses the degree of opposition but this is not unexpected. It does not take much to provoke such corporations — these are, as it were, part of their modus operandi. But this time, it seemed, they had really gone too far. There are reports that Monsanto’s representatives tries to attack GMO-critics during judge processes on the company.
Partly this is about bad intentions but also due to the shaky relationship between technology and food security. For the big corporations the progress we’ve made, before and since, has been technological, not moral; people have been pulled from poverty by expansion, not by solidarity. They went on to say that this justification was all the more convincing, because the modernization led to well-being. But technologies are tools. Tools need to be assessed on ethical, social and ecological criteria- they need to be deployed in service to our well-being. It’s not that technology shouldn’t play a part in productivity and environmental solutions. The new toxic food chain, by contrast, apparently explicitly forbid the debate on the impact on desertification. Those who speak, in the words of big corporations, the language of “nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions” no longer have a tenable case.
Take soil for instance. It is known, chemical agriculture will not return organic matter and fertility to the soil, and yet we continue to allow GMOs because doing so is easy to those decision makers and beneficial to the rich and powerful. Or take biodiversity, where it is no secret that caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation. Industrial food systems have destroyed the biodiversity of the planet both through the spread of monocultures, and through the use of toxics and poisons that are killing bees, butterflies, insects, birds, and leading to the sixth mass extinction. We are, to put it another way, systematically destroying the largest physical features on the planet, and we are doing it at a rapid pace.
But that alarm sounds somewhat less loud when, in the same way most airwaves are full of hunger and famine. This leads to asymmetrical policy discourse. A case in point is the debate around ‘fake meat’. At the time when the global movement to ban GMOs and Roundup is growing, promoting GMO soya as ‘fake meat’ is misleading the eater both in terms of the ontology of the burger, and on claims of safety. Yes, the industrial agriculture and toxic food model has been promoted as the only answer to economic security. However, more than three billion people suffer from food-related chronic diseases. It is thus not conceivable to argue that fake food is building on a century and a half of food imperialism and food colonization of our diverse food knowledge’s and food cultures. As mentioned above, it’s no use trying to categorize the text as left, liberal or conservative; there’s some of each, but it goes far deeper than our political labels allow. It’s both caustic and tender, and it should unsettle everyone in the developed world particularly Africa. No doubt the issue becomes political very much linked to global power relations particularly the sovereignty of African countries.
For one thing food sovereignty is essential. International corporations and GMO producers try to interfere in sovereign African State’s policy on food security in order to expand their biotechnologies across the continent. This symbolizes, in other words, all the bad things that happened to the continent since colonialism and after. It may, at first, seem strange that African leaders will allow this to happen. The negligence or voluntary consent of the elite is absolutely abhorring. Some may feel they are not doing it purposely but it is clear that African ownership and sovereignty is once again being sapped by GMOs. There are disparate voices from intellectuals but most of the elite have devoted lip service and gone on living largely as before.
It is clear however that human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; and in so far as it involves Africa on the one hand and transnational corporations on the other the relationship has to be seen as confrontational. Anyway, if the outcome of the debate is uncertain, the future independent destiny carries the political contest. Caution and resistance should be the order of the day. And this may be the only option we have. As of this writing it is still unclear how the strike will be settled, for the issues have proven to be not only persistent and deep but incendiary in ways that could not quite have been foreseen even for the most genuine and serious political leaders. And transnational corporations usually capitalize when there is an existing vagueness and uncertainity.The GMO industry will continue to benefit from these ambiguities which had plagued Africa on other policy issues. What had begun as a conflict between the big corporations and the poor, from climate to food security and many other issues in-between, is that a complacent political leadership finds itself allied with a broad coalition of organized groups in the North against its own national interests.
Indeed, the African spirit and renaissance got off to such a flying start at the beginning of this century that one wonders why it went so terribly wrong, so fast. In less than a decade after the motto of African ownership, African leaders are still beholden to global interests and narratives than their forefathers ever were. Africa literally would have to stop doing much of what it is currently doing in relations to global corporations. There should be an instinctive revulsion against GMOs, no matter how important the food security label and the scientific question. This includes a reevaluation of all the past agreements on industrial food systems. The GMO industry alone competing with the weak policy and regulatory instruments in the continent would invite untoward disaster. It would be difficult for Africa to seek true allies. But if it manages to unite and stand its ground it is natural that it finds those allies in other parts of the world.