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Starved for science - How biotechnology is being kept out of Africa

By Robert Paarlberg
Published by Harvard University Press
Website: www.hup.harvard.edu
2008, 235pp, ISBN 978 0 674 02973 6 (Hb), £16.95

If you can get an ex-US president to co-write your foreword, you must have something important to say. And Jimmy Carter clearly believes Robert Paarlberg's indictment of the international community's reluctance to endorse agricultural biotechnology hits the spot.

In Starved for Science, Paarlsberg's prose is as hard-hitting as the title suggests. His argument is essentially this: science can save Africa's smallholder farmers, so chemical fertilisers and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should be welcomed with open arms, and the necessary research funding provided without delay.

But - and according to Paarlberg, it is a very big, bad but - a conspiracy of wealthy countries and myopic NGOs stands in the way. Their unfounded fears of "Frankenstein foods," have led to a preference for organic methods and diverted research efforts away from biotechnology. This, Paarlberg argues, is unacceptable for Africa, where two-thirds of the population are smallholder farmers desperate to boost productivity.

He writes: "Low income, food deficit nations are being advised by governments and pressure groups in privileged nations to reject agricultural biotechnology, mostly because this is a technology the rich countries themselves do not happen to need." As a result, African farmers are "planting heirloom varieties in polycultures rather than scientifically improved varieties in monocultures… In effect, rich outsiders are telling African farmers it will be just as well for them to remain poor."

This, clearly, is fighting talk and Paarlberg is not afraid to point the finger at the big boys - the UN, USAID and Greenpeace - all subject to the sharp end of his tongue. However, he will also face many wagging fingers for establishing a stance that deems organic practices unscientific.

Paarlberg highlights some mind-bending paradoxes, for example the refusal of drought-stricken Zambia to accept US maize for its three million hungry people because it was grown from GM seed. And the US$1.4 billion-worth of food aid given to Africa by the US in 2005, while less than ten per cent of that - only US$134 million - was provided for agricultural programmes.

When it comes to fertiliser, Paarlberg's "best technical solution", which is no great revelation, is to combine chemical and organic practices. This complementary approach, buried halfway through the book, amid an avalanche of accusations, seems a reasonable compromise for competing ideologues. What critics of Paarlberg will find frustrating is the extent to which the rest of his narrative jettisons organic farming as a luxury of richer nations - an indulgence of a people who can afford to be sceptical because they are not hungry.

It is no surprise that chemical fertiliser tops Paarlberg's shopping list for Africa's poor farmers. But there is no mention of how to cope with skyrocketing prices - driven by global oil price surges - which threaten to lock farmers into a system of fertiliser-dependency at a time when it is fast becoming unaffordable. What is surprising is that Jimmy Carter didn't give Paarlberg a gentle nudge at this juncture, presiding as he did over the 1979 oil shocks that turned his term in the White House into an uncomfortable era of thrift and stagflation.

Paarlberg makes constant reference to the much-famed Green Revolution in Asia as a showpiece for the power of science in agricultural reform. But again, critics will claim that it is not an easily-replicable model and may be unsustainable in the longer term. In Africa itself, Bt cotton has been one of the most widely-documented GMO catastrophes on record. Surely it is no wonder governments are sceptical.

Starved for Science adds to the growing body of work on the biotechnology debate, summarising clearly and fervently the arguments in favour of a more "scientific" approach. But while Paarlberg has clearly pricked the conscience of one former US head-of-state, convincing the rest of the world promises to be an uphill battle.

Date published: July 2008

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