Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa

  • Robert Paarlberg
Harvard University Press: 2008. 256 pp. $24.95 (hbk), $16.95 (pbk) 9780674033474 | ISBN: 978-0-6740-3347-4

Starved for Science is a troubling polemic. Political scientist Robert Paarlberg argues that genetically modified (GM) crops could solve Africa's hunger and poverty, but that, through inadequate investment, external lobbying and stringent regulations, farmers are being deprived of the technology and prevented from achieving agricultural success. He lays the blame largely with European governments and non-governmental organizations for trying to foist their affluent values and precautionary sensibilities on Africa's poor.

Transgenic crops are not a panacea in Africa, where low-tech farming methods can yield good results. Credit: S. TORFINN/PANOS

The book has quickly become influential. Paarlberg was asked to speak about hunger alleviation in front of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The book's arguments were repeated in a major policy speech by Nina Fedoroff, science and technology adviser both to the US Secretary of State and to the administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Economist Paul Collier of the University of Oxford, UK, praised it in an article in the journal Foreign Affairs, and British peer Dick Taverne described it in a House of Lords debate as one of the most important books he had read in years.

But Paarlberg's account is one-sided. Just as the heated debate about GM crops had settled around a position that recognizes they can be useful in some circumstances yet are not a panacea, this book unhelpfully polarizes the matter once more.

Large parts of Starved for Science are uncontroversial. Paarlberg is correct in saying that there has been long-term underinvestment in African agriculture, especially in scientific research and technology development. And few would dispute that funding agricultural research offers high returns and is a key weapon in the fight against poverty and hunger. That such arguments have been ignored by policy-makers and aid programmes is also well recognized.

Where we take issue with the book is its explicit assertion that the only kind of science-based agriculture worth investing in is founded on biotechnology, and on genetic engineering in particular. In its narrow focus, Starved for Science dismisses a slew of scientifically validated approaches to agriculture, including integrated pest and soil-fertility management, 'low-input' techniques that reduce reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and even other forms of biotechnology. Yet such methods have performed well in African contexts (J. N. Pretty et al. Environ. Sci. Technol. 40, 1114–1119; 2006).

Paarlberg's book reduces the vast and varied continent and its farmers to a series of gloomy generalizations. But a detailed look at the data reveals numerous successes. For example, in northern and western Africa, agricultural production per capita increased by more than 40% between 1981–83 and 2003–05, and total output value increased by an amount equal to that seen in Asia after the 1960s Green Revolution (see Another success is that of smallholder farmers who produce hybrid maize in Zimbabwe and Kenya and cassava and cotton in West Africa (see Results can seem mixed overall because each technology must perform within a particular social, economic, institutional and market setting.

Paarlberg also pays too little attention to the substantial efforts that have got under way recently in Africa. International donors have, for example, lent their support to two important strategic initiatives for agriculture: the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and the African Union's Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme. Meanwhile, agricultural biotechnology has received significant backing from within Africa itself — including a thoughtful assessment from the African Union's high-level panel on biotechnology (see GM crop research is also under way in countries as diverse as South Africa, Burkina Faso and Malawi.

Paarlberg argues that GM crops are being “kept out” of Africa because European lobby groups have forced the imposition of “stifling regulations” based on “extreme precaution”. His roll-call of bad guys is long, from Food First, Greenpeace and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, to the United Nations and the Ford Foundation. All are blamed for preventing a “science-based escape from rural poverty”.

In fact, the pro-GM lobby has been every bit as active, bombarding decision-makers and media organizations with slick marketing materials and free trips to their corporate headquarters. The US government has sponsored schemes in Africa that provide biosafety training programmes for regulators and that promote model legal frameworks. Such projects include the US Foreign Agriculture Service's scientific exchange programmes and the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project, part of the USAID Collaborative Agriculture Biotechnology Initiative.

Players on both sides of the GM debate have fought a fierce tug-of-war over policy.

Paarlberg's claim that external, anti-GM views have been the main influence on decision-making by national governments in Africa is not substantiated. Instead, international players on both sides of the GM debate have fought a fierce tug-of-war over policy, with African regulators and policy-makers often left as unwilling bystanders.

Meanwhile, on the ground, detailed, site-specific evidence on the performance of GM technologies indicates that a farmer's ability to reap the potential benefits depends on a range of technical, agronomic and institutional factors (see and For instance, the transgenic trait needs to be available in crop varieties that can perform in constrained environments. A good yield depends heavily on favourable soils and irrigation, which the poorest farmers typically lack. As the experiences of smallholder Bt-cotton farmers in South Africa have demonstrated, GM crop technology also needs to be supported by infrastructure and institutions if it is to benefit the poorest people.

These findings are in contrast to the triumphalism of reports that show the spread of GM crops around the world, such as that released annually by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. Studied closely, the 2008 report shows that only 8 of the 25 countries that grew GM crops planted more than a million hectares. Almost 80% of the global GM crop of 125 million hectares was grown in just three countries: 62.5 million hectares in the United States, 21 million hectares in Argentina and almost 16 million hectares in Brazil. Moreover, the GM crops that have been commercialized to date are mostly insect-resistant Bt varieties of maize and cotton and herbicide-tolerant varieties of soya bean, designed for and mainly used by large-scale commercial farmers.

African agricultural policy-makers have some difficult decisions to make. Biotechnology will surely be part of the mix of approaches required for the future, as indicated both in the World Bank's 2008 World Development Report on agriculture and in the 2008 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. But big uncertainties remain — including how farmers will gain access to markets where GM products are currently restricted and the potential risks of GM technologies to the environment or health. An informed 'wait-and-see' stance thus makes sense.

What of the future? One of the pivotal arguments in Starved for Science is that promising pipeline technologies and longer-term research are also being held back. To make his case, Paarlberg cites the effort to develop drought-tolerant GM maize, a major programme of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, it is working with a range of public and private research and development organizations. This broad initiative involves conventional breeding, genomics applications and genetic-marker-based selection as well as genetic modification. Yet Paarlberg zeroes in on the GM solution, maintaining that this is where the necessary breakthroughs will happen.

Blue-skies research into future agricultural techniques is essential.

Blue-skies research into future agricultural techniques is essential. But inflating expectations has major downsides. As occurred with medical biotechnology, hype can distort innovation. It diverts funds from other research and narrows the focus of study to genetics rather than taking into account the wider environmental, behavioural and synergistic dynamics (P. Nightingale and P. Martin Trends Biotechnol. 22, 546–569; 2004). A similar process will occur in agricultural science unless we retain a balanced perspective of the options available.

A dogmatic and unscientific stance on GM crops — whether for or against — helps no one, least of all African farmers. A more evidence-based approach than Paarlberg's is needed — one that should foster diverse development pathways for agriculture underpinned by high-quality scientific research and attuned to particular circumstances.