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Synthesis/Regeneration 32   (Fall 2003)

Dumping GMOs in Africa

by Lawrence Kojo Tsimese,
Agricultural Reform Movement (Ghana)

Food insecurity is one of the most terrible manifestations of human deprivation and is inextricably linked to every other facet of development. Poverty is one of the major causes of food insecurity, and sustainable progress in poverty alleviation is critical to improved access to food. It is linked not only to poor national economic performance but also to the political structure that renders poor people powerless.

So policy matters of a general nature, and in particular good governance, are of overriding importance for food security. The adoption of unhelpful economic policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) such as the Structural Adjustment program (SAP) by most African governments has rather aggravated the appalling situation. Farmers and farms are as usual the worst hit by such policies.


Africa’s lagging agricultural production is frequently blamed on its failure to adopt more productive farming technologies. Proponents of high-input agriculture argue that if the region’s predominantly smallholder food crop farmers could be supported to modernize their practices, then yields would increase dramatically as happened in Asia and Latin America with the advent of Green Revolution crop varieties and input packages. The Green Revolution promoted seeds that required chemicals, irrigation and other expensive investments that could only be adopted by larger, wealthier farmers, but not by smaller, poorer farmers. This allowed the larger, wealthier farmers to expand at the expense of the smaller farmers depriving them of land.

The Green Revolution created hunger amidst abundance.

During the boom years of the Green Revolution, from 1970 to 1990s, world food production did go up dramatically. Unfortunately, hunger increased in most parts of Africa and other parts of the Third World as well. The Green Revolution created hunger amidst abundance. Production goes up, but that production is in the hands of larger farmers, who expand at the expense of smaller farmers. These smaller farmers eventually lose their land, move to the cities, don’t find jobs, and can’t afford to buy the additional food that’s produced.


International trade policies, the domination of the food chain by corporate interests, unequal land ownership and the displacement of small farmers are the major forces driving rural poverty and hunger. For many agencies seeking to alleviate famine and cope with Africa’s crippling level of poverty, globalization is a key and controversial issue. Those who favor the process, like the former head of the International Monetary Fund, Michel Camdessus, contends that it will lead to the modernization of economies, the removal of trade barriers and to the elimination of want. He says the prospects are good for “achieving more rapid poverty reduction and faster growth.” But the argument is that trade liberalization has harmed Africa and that the freer trade, especially in agricultural produce, has worked to “threaten or destroy the livelihoods of millions of farmers” and to keep people poor. The perverse way that farm subsidies work in both the United States and European Economic Community, the US and Europe are dumping agricultural commodities on Third World economies at prices often below the cost of production. Local farmers can’t compete. Here is an example using sugar as a commodity in Kenya culled from a BBC report late last year.

...smaller farmers…lose their land, move to the cities, don’t find jobs, and can’t afford to buy the additional food that’s produced.

According to the report Selpha Maende Okweno is an 87-year-old grandmother living in Kenya’s Busia district. For decades her family had grown sugar cane and made a good living from it. But now it is threatened by trade policies which enable foreign sugar exporters to sell sugar more cheaply in Kenya than local producers. Her granddaughter, journalist Florence Machio, says that her “grandmother cannot afford to buy sugar, yet the crop that produces it stretches as far as the eye can see” near her home. Cheap imports of processed sugar undercut the prices Kenyan farmers need to survive and so sugar farmers are becoming poorer or are having to grow other crops the report concluded. The same report also quoted Kenya’s Director of Internal Trade, Seth Otieno, as saying that liberalization of trade has been a disaster for many in Kenya. “Globalization is a curse to many sectors, especially agriculture, in this country,” he said. (Keith Somerville, BBC News Online. Africa: Globalization or Marginalization?)

In Swaziland, the import of sugar products from the European Union countries has undermined the local industry. The sugar industry has lost 16,000 jobs and a further 20,000 have gone in transport and packaging. (Action for Southern Africa – ACTSA Report, March 2002)

Those in favor of globalization say Africa needs better economic management and more trade liberalization. These changes, argues Michel Camdessus, will enable it to be part of the new economic partnership offered by globalization and so increase economic growth. Many African leaders accept globalization as a long-term goal, but say it must be accompanied by reform by the developed countries to make the terms of trade fairer to Africa. President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, an originator of the pro-globalization New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), says that Africa must embrace the process but warns that it is leading to rising inequalities between and within countries. He says governments must “re-shape and re-direct its impact.”

…liberalization of trade has been a disaster for many in Kenya.

European Union and US financial support for their farmers give them big advantages in trade and ruins African farmers. These countries protect their own farmers but demand that African countries cut/remove subsidies to our farmers. For ordinary African farmers the question of globalization comes down to issues of economic survival. Kenyan grandmother Selpha Maende Okweno’s view is simple: “Why should she plant sugar cane if there is no market for it?” The same trend runs through many African economies to threaten farmers. For instance, trade liberalization has affected rice production in Ghana in no small way. It is relatively cheaper to buy imported rice from the USA than to grow it locally.

Agricultural production strategies

African agricultural policies in the last decade have focused on export and high value crops as income generation and for economic growth. To increase staple food crop productivity, higher yielding or disease and pest resistant improved varieties have been introduced and farmers encouraged to use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Structural adjustment programs and economic liberalization measures have shifted provision of inputs and services to the private sector. The measures involved the dismantling or privatization of state-controlled crop commodity and food grain marketing boards; phasing out subsidies on agrochemical inputs; opening up local and national markets; and reducing government control over-pricing. How far have these policies and programs benefited our resource-poor farmers?

Improved varieties and pest susceptibility

Improved varieties of maize in Ethiopia and cowpea in Ghana have been energetically promoted for smallholder farmers to increase their productivity, income and food security. These varieties are directly responsible for increased pesticide use by farmers, often of non-approved and acutely toxic products. They are far more susceptible to attack by insect pests than local varieties, in the field or in storage. Ghanaian farmers do not apply any insecticide when growing local cowpea varieties but need to spray up to five times per season to avoid pest damage on the improved varieties. Five of the ten products commonly applied are intended for use on cotton only, including endosulfan, which caused dozens of fatalities in Benin in recent years.

Farmers recount how the improved maize will not last a month in storage without treatment against sitophilus spp. weevils. Insecticide treatment has become the norm and farmers’ experience is that without it, the net losses can cancel out the yield benefits. Most granaries now have chronic weevil infestations since the introduction of these varieties. Some farmers use approved products for treating grain. Yet these were not always effective, hence most farmers’ tendency to apply mixtures of non-approved products, frequently malathion with DDT. In Ghana, they often source pesticides from informal dealers who sell small quantities of unlabelled products. DDT is no longer approved for any agricultural use in most African countries but its sad to say that someway somehow they are present and readily accessible in unlabelled containers.

Benefit of improved varieties?

Most vegetable and cowpea farmers that we worked with in Ghana explained that few have been able to adopt the improved varieties because they lack the cash to buy insecticides. With rapidly rising input costs, poorer farmers are forced to cut back on the acreage under cowpea or reduce insecticide applications. This brings the question of why pest-susceptible varieties are being promoted for poverty alleviation and food security when the farmers with least resources are unable to benefit from them.

Ghanaian farmers do not apply any insecticide when growing local cowpea varieties but need to spray up to five times per season to avoid pest damage on the improved varieties.

The main disadvantage of local varieties is their longer growing period, risky if the rains stop early. However, some cowpea farmers know of early-maturing or high-yielding local varieties. These give good yields without spraying, as long as fields are kept weed-free. One is very high-yielding and the name is related to the labor needed to harvest it. An early-planted red local variety is also considered good because it can be harvested before any other crops, providing energy to work hard during the peak labor period. Women farmers cited another advantage of local varieties: they are never sprayed and therefore the leaves can be consumed, providing an important source of vitamins and iron. Why, therefore, are farmers urged to adopt improved varieties with the associated expense and health risks from insecticides? Funds and effort could be better spent on tackling soil fertility and lack of storage and marketing options.

Ten years after the initial introduction of improved cowpea, Ghana’s Savannah Agricultural Research Institute has started Farmer Field Schools for cowpea Integrated Pest Management, promoting the use of neem (azandiractha indica) seed extract to replace most of the insecticide applications.

Food safety

The definition of food security used at the 1996 World Food Summit stipulates access to “…sufficient, safe and nutritious food…” Studies have revealed high risks of harmful pesticide residues in food crops for domestic consumption and local markets.

There have been a lot of pesticides poison incidents among farmers and consumers in Ghana and other African countries. Ghana’s largest daily newspaper, The Daily Graphic dated 23 March 2001 stated that deaths through food poisoning was alarming. Post-mortem analysis revealed that many deaths resulted from misapplications of certain pesticides on farm produce and taken in by innocent consumers. Farmers are aware of the dangers but may be forced to consume treated grain if they run out of food, causing stomach pain, migraine, diarrhea and vomiting. The farmers had all experienced most of these signs and symptoms from chemicals. “We often inhaled most of the chemicals we store in our rooms. We sleep with our chemicals. They are very expensive so when we buy them we keep them in our rooms,” they said.

“We sleep with our chemicals. They are very expensive so when we buy them we keep them in our rooms…”

Another farmer reported that he always had intense facial burning as if hot pepper was smeared on the face. This made him sleepless at night. He said he had reported to the hospital but the doctor could not diagnose it but later found it was due to pesticides. He noted that it becomes intense at any time he does spraying.

Other poisoning had been through contaminated water from pesticide containers for household storage of water; eating treated seeds and other causes. One farmer described how he normally treats cowpea for selling later to buy maize:

You wait 5 or 6 months before you can sell treated beans to get rid of the poison. But if you have a cash emergency and need to sell early, you might not respect this period. You try first to find other ways to raise the cash because you know the cowpea is still full of ‘medicine.’

Traditional methods of grain protection using ash or plant-based preparations have been abandoned by many farmers as pesticide reliance became widespread. One Ghanaian farmer lamented that “we don’t know how to treat stored cowpea safely, without chemicals.”

Income, livelihoods and food provision

A research survey undertaken by the Pesticides Action Network, UK (PAN-UK) in Ethiopia, Ghana, Benin and Senegal revealed that one of farmers’ most pressing concerns was their declining revenue from crop sales, due to rises in input costs and/or a drop in the price their produce fetches. They identified pesticide reliance as contributing to the vulnerability of their farming livelihood and to decreased food stocks, as they now rely on cash for over 50% of their food provision and have to sell food crops to cover costs. Vegetable cropping is often viewed as a lucrative activity but Senegalese farmers explained that farmers with few resources are becoming much poorer under current conditions, with growing food insecurity one indicator. Cotton has likewise been promoted as a profitable livelihood for resource-poor farmers in the savannah zones of West Africa but for cotton farmers in Benin has failed to improve food security. Food availability has declined at household, village and district levels with the expansion of cotton, combined with falling yields of crops and decreasing revenue from cotton. Farmers assessed that 90% of households were food secure in 1990 but only 3% by 2001, with 11% now in serious difficulties. Cotton farmers in Senegal expressed disillusion with high-input strategies, explaining how pesticides threaten the development of their community as “we have found that they only bring us problems, poisonings, suicides, increased production costs and debts, without increasing yields.”

GE crops promote monoculture.

Challenging assumptions

Many decision makers overestimate the benefits of pesticide use and overlook the economic, health and environmental costs. They presume that absence of synthetic inputs results in low yields and are often unaware of the potential of alternative methods to increase productivity. Farmers in many different cropping systems reveal that more intensive crop production without reliance on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers is feasible when using practices which regenerate agrobiodiversity, make better use of local natural resources or add new productive elements. Renewed donor interest in investing in smallholder agriculture for poverty reduction and food security is most welcome. The challenge is to ensure World Bank-funded agricultural investment programmes, governments’ poverty reduction strategies, the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and FAO’s Anti-Hunger Campaign, be spent on support for ecologically-based methods rather than dependence on agrochemicals.

How genetic engineering comes into the picture

I can’t conclude this piece on threats to farmers and farms in Africa without touching on genetic engineering and biotechnology. GE crops promote monoculture. In developing countries, farmers successfully control pests by encouraging biodiversity in their fields and encouraging beneficial insects and crops. FAO points out that more plant diversity has been lost to industrial agriculture than any other cause. GE crops will increase the problem. Scientists have shown that reductions in biodiversity have led to the evolution of aggressive pests and diseases more difficult to control than those from which they have been derived (RA Ennos, The influence of agriculture on genetic biodiversity, BCPC, 1997.) Millions of farmers in developing countries rely on farm-saved seeds for their crops: but once they buy GE they will be dependent on future purchases. Monsanto prohibits seed-saving (Monsanto Roundup Ready: Gene Agreement for Roundup Ready Soybeans, 1996).

The fact that such a technology is largely in the hands of the private sector in the North can lead to biases in the type of research. It is only logical that a large company would tend to aim at large world-wide markets. Such products might not be appropriate for farmers in developing countries, who work in highly variable and vulnerable ecosystems and need seeds that are location specific. In that sense, biotechnology might undermine food security rather than securing it. As famine took hold in southern Africa, many countries were opposed to GM food supplies. Zimbabwe and Mozambique resisted them and Mozambicans were concerned about them being transported across their territory. Zambia then joined the countries opposing GM. They were worried that if genetically modified grain was allowed into their countries, seeds might be planted before the governments had formulated policies on the GM issue. But many Western governments, including Britain, believe that the introduction of GM crops would boost yields in Africa. Zambia held out against GM foods and stopped the WFP distributing GM maize in a refugee camp. Before this decision, the government sent a scientific team to the US, South Africa, Britain and Belgium to examine the issue of genetically modified crops.

This article is based on the author’s presentation at the May 16–18, 2003 Biodevastation 7 Conference in St. Louis, Missouri.

[6 sep 03]

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