Biotechnology and Rural Development

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Biotechnology and Rural Development

“Biotechnology and Rural Development:

    Implications for Southern African Agriculture”

    Noah Zerbe

    Department of Political Science

    York University

    Comments Welcomed: zerbe@


    Biotechnology and Rural Development: 1Implications for Southern African Agriculture

    Technology reveals the active relation of

    man [sic] to nature, the direct process of the

    production of his life, and thereby it also

    lays bare the process of the production of

    social relations of his life, and of the mental

    conceptions that flow from those relations.

     --Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1.


     Perhaps more than any other technology in recent memory, biotechnology has been celebrated with almost a religious fervor. Almost daily, it seems, there are new predictions for the heights to which biotechnology will take humanity. The Human Genome Project, we are told, will lead to cures for diseases and medical conditions as diverse as cancer, diabetes and hypertension, and the application of biotechnology to

    2agriculture will end hunger and malnutrition around the world.

     With such grand predictions, it is almost passé to raise questions regarding the social and economic implications of the new technology. Indeed, critics of biotechnology

    3are usually dismissed as Luddites who will condemn humanity to a future of poverty,

    disease, hunger and malnutrition through their irrational resistance to “progress.” Thus, a recent issue of The Economist concluded that, “the controversial science of genetic

     1 This paper grew out of a series of interviews conducted in Zimbabwe during the spring of 2001. I am indebted to those who shared so generously of their time. My thanks also go out to Carol Thompson, who partnered with me during that research. This paper was originally presented at a workshop sponsored by the Rural and Community Development Group, the African Studies Program, and the Centre for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (all of York University). I am in debt to those who participated in the workshop, and in particular to Ricardo Grinspun, Pablo Idahosa and Liisa North for their comments and suggestions. All errors and omissions, of course, remain the responsibility of the author alone. 2 See, for example, National Institutes of Health (2001), Council for Biotechnology Information (2001), and Guest (2001). 3 Luddites were textile workers in England who, from 1811 to 1816, covertly destroyed knitting machines which they believed were displacing workers and driving down wages. Later, the term came to be associated with anyone who opposed technology or technological progress. For a more detailed discussion, see Sale (1995).


    modification could feed the world, if only environmentalists would let it.” (Guest, 2001: 4) A similar argument is made by the biotech industry, frequently articulated in terms of rationality, science, progress and education. At the recent Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC) 2000 in Toronto, for example, industrial, scientific/academic, and governmental leaders focused extensively on overcoming „irrational‟ public attitudes—especially among European consumersperpetuated

    ostensibly by the fear-mongering media and fueled by „bad science.‟ Delegates stressed the need for „education‟ through initiatives like the Council for Biotechnology Information, a $250 million public relations initiative funded primarily by Monsanto, Aventis, DuPont and Novartis, with the aim of convincing North American consumers of the safety and necessity of biotechnology. (CBI, 2001)

     Individual corporations have launched similar endeavors. Monsanto, for example, has undertaken a campaign in Europe hoping to undermine public pressure for strict regulation of genetically modified (GM) foods and crops. Their newsprint campaign features pictures of happy children and lush green fields with captions reading, “If it weren‟t for science, her life expectancy would be 41 years,” and “Worrying about starving generations won‟t feed them—Food biotechnology will.” The subtext of such advertising is clear: Biotechnology is a necessary because only biotechnology will solve

    human health and nutritional needs.

     But is biotechnology the new messiah or a false prophet? This paper explores the promises and perils of agricultural biotechnology for Southern Africa. To that end, it begins by briefly exploring the development of agricultural biotechnology in the West. It then argues that a number of factors restrict the applicability of agrobiotechnology to the


    regional context of Southern Africa. Specifically it addresses the following questions: What does biotechnology hold for agriculture in Southern Africa? Who are the beneficiaries, and who will likely pay the costs? The paper concludes by highlighting both the potential gains and losses associated with the adoption of biotechnology in the region. Drawing on parallels from the Green Revolution in Asia, the paper argues that smallholder farmers in Southern Africa are unlikely to reap the benefits attributed to advances in agricultural biotechnology. Instead, the advances in and adoption of new agrobiotechnologies are likely to exacerbate rather than mitigate existing inequalities, undermine rather than protect African biodiversity, and facilitate dependence rather than development.

Biotechnology Advances in the West

    4 Since the discovery of recombinant DNA (rDNA) and the creation of the first

    transgenic organism over twenty years ago, biotechnology has shifted from the laboratory

    5to the marketplace. Particularly in the West, biotechnology is a rapidly growing industry. Already there are almost 100 biotech medicines on the market, with another 350 in late-stage clinical trials. (Feldbaum, 2000) In purely market terms, 50 biotech companies had market capitalizations of more than US $1 billion by the end of 2000. (Van Brunt, 2001) And the completion of a preliminary map of the human genome has only served to fuel future hopes. (NIH, 2001)

     4 Recombinant DNA, or rDNA, is the process by which most biotechnology products are created. It allows the insertion of segments of DNA from one organism into the genetic code of another, usually by employing bacteriophagesviruses that inject their DNA into host cells. For an accessible introduction, see Grace (1997). 5 A discussion of the political, economic and social context in which biotechnology developed falls outside the scope of this paper. For a more detailed discussion, see Zerbe (2002), Wright (1994), and Krimsky (1982).


     In agriculture, the rapid of growth of the biotechnology industry has been equally impressive. By 2000, 16 per cent of area under cultivation worldwide was planted to GM crops. In just five years, the global area under transgenic cultivation increased more than 25 fold, from 2.8 million hectares in 1996 to 44.2 million hectares in 2000. (See figure 1) More than three-quarters of all GM crops, however, are produced in the developed world. (James, 2000) Four countries in particular account for 99 percent of the total area planted to GM crops: the US (with 68% of the world‟s total), Argentina (10%), Canada (7%), and

    6China (1%), with nine countries comprising the remaining one percent. (Ibid.)

    Figure 1. Global Area Under Transgenic Cultivation

    by Country, 1996-2000



    All Others




    Million HectaresUSA




Source: Adapted from James (2000).

    The expansion of area planted to GM crops and the rapid growth of

    pharmaceutical biotechnology has been accompanied by increasing public opposition and

     6 South Africa and Australia each have more than 100,000 acres under transgenic cultivation. Bulgaria, Spain, Germany, France, Uruguay and Mexico also each have some land (less than 100,000 acres) under cultivation to GM crops. Ukraine and Portugal had some area under transgenic cultivation in 1999 but not in 2000. (James, 2000)


    resistance. In Europe, consumers have successfully lobbied for mandatory labeling of

    7products containing GMOs, and major supermarket chains have agreed not to carry GM

    products. Even in North America, where public reaction has largely been marginal at best, several major corporations, including McDonald‟s, Gerber and Frito Lay have announced plans to move away from using genetically modified crops in at least some of their products.

    Nevertheless, the rapid growth of area under transgenic cultivation suggests that

    8the technology may have something to offer. Its advocates contend that biotechnology

    has the potential to fundamentally improve agricultural production. In the West, improvements have largely taken the form of products engineered to be pest resistant (generally through the introduction of the Bacillus-thuringiensis (Bt) gene) and tolerant

    to specific herbicides (such as Monsanto‟s Roundup Ready or Pioneer‟s Liberty Link). While research into other traits, particularly increased yield, is currently underway, to date very few other traits have been added. Indeed, of the total area under transgenic cultivation worldwide, pest resistance (74%), herbicide tolerance (19%) or “stacked” (7%) cultivars, crops that incorporate both pest resistance and herbicide tolerance, comprise nearly all commercially available cultivars. (James, 2001) Further, research has to date been largely confined to temperate crops. The current generation of biotechnology is

     7 Mandatory labeling requirements in the EU have subsequently been challenged by the United States as an unfair trade practice in the WTO. The US contends that the mandatory labeling requirements of the EU, which require that all products made from genetically engineered material be labeled discriminates against American exports. The EU, however, maintains that labels provide information which allows for consumers to make informed decisions, and that the US is attempting to impose acceptance of GM food on European consumers. The case has not yet made its way to the WTO. (Sipress and Kaufman, 2001: A01) 8 RAFI (2000a) argues that the adoption of GM crops by Western (particularly North American) farmers may have less to do with the advantages offered by such cultivars than with the lack of alternatives. Low producer prices combined with extensive concentration in the seed supply industry has created a situation of economic desperation in which conclusions regarding the adoption-cum-acceptance of GM technology by farmers are tenuous at best.


    focused on just four cultivars: soybean (58%), maize (23%), cotton (12%), and canola/rape (6%) (Ibid.) Much less emphasis has been placed on tropical crops of

    importance to most developing countries.

Promise of Agricultural Biotechnology for Southern Africa

    9 Given the importance of agriculture in Southern Africa, biotechnology has been

    greeted with a mix of hope and suspicion in the region. This dichotomy is reflected both in public and elite attitudes toward biotechnology, and in legislative frameworks that deal with its introduction and regulation. Thus, according to Abasai Mafa, Biosafety Registrar for the Government of Zimbabwe,

    In the future, bananas engineered to include malarial provolactics could

    prove to have great health benefits for the region. Bt cotton could reduce

    pesticide use, freeing much-needed foreign exchange and reducing the

    need for farmers to handle dangerous chemicals, and drought tolerant

    crops could reduce losses associated with bad weather. At the same time,

    there are many unknowns, which will take time to resolve. DDT, for

    example, was used for years before its cumulative effects were realized.

    We should therefore not move recklessly towards the adoption of GM

    crops. (Mafa, 2001)

    In their effort to expand production of GM crops (and with it demand for their products), agbiotech companies usually point to the potential of biotechnology to modernize agricultural production in the Third World. Increasing yields, they argue, will end hunger and malnutrition, and biotechnology will make agriculture more sustainable by reducing chemical inputs. Monsanto, for example, has begun marketing its herbicide

     9 Across the region, agriculture accounts for between 5 and 48 percent of gross domestic product and provides employment for between 65 and 80 percent of the labor force. Further, cash crops such as tobacco and cotton account for more than 60 percent of export earnings in half of the countries of the region. (World Bank, 1999b; Abdulai and Delgado, 1995) While such figures mask disparities in the region (between countries with larger industrial bases like South Africa, countries dependent on mineral extraction like Zambia, and countries dependent on agricultural exports like Malawi), such data nevertheless demonstrate the importance of agricultural production in the region.


    Roundup in Zimbabwe under the rubric of (no-till) environmentally friendly farming, as it allows farmers to reduce tillage, a major cause of soil erosion while simultaneously reducing the amount of labor required for weeding. In fact, according to Calvin Fambisayi (2001), National Seed Manager for Monsanto Zimbabwe, the AIDS crisis in Southern Africa will make Roundup Ready and other herbicide tolerant crops increasingly necessary. As AIDS reduces the rural labor available for weeding and other time consuming aspects of agricultural production, labor-saving technologies traditionally associated with Northern farming methods will become increasingly necessary maintain current levels of agricultural output. To that end, Monsanto intends to begin aggressively marketing Roundup Ready cotton and maize to communal area farmers as a labor saving technology once it receives regulatory approval in Zimbabwe, and has already started to market Roundup Ready cotton in South Africa.

Perils of Agricultural Biotechnology for Southern Africa

    10 But a number of factors limit the applicability of the current generation of

    biotechnology to the African context, and cast doubt on future biotech products as well.

     10 RAFI (2001a) argues that agricultural biotechnology has evolved over three phases or generations. The first generation of GM crops was designed to be resistant to pests or tolerant to particular herbicides. Products were designed largely in the interests of the agro-chemical companies that created them, and, broadly speaking, dealt only with input controls. By and large, only first generation biotech products have been commercialized. In this paper, first generation biotech products are referred to as the current generation of products. The second generation of products, just starting to enter market, focuses on output traits largely of interest to processors. The classic example of a second-generation product was Calgene‟s

    Flavr-Savr tomato, designed for a longer shelf life. The third generation of products, designed for the food, pharmaceutical and retail sectors, promise extensive consumer benefits. Through still years away (and largely speculative in nature), these products are touted as the future of biotechnology. They include edible vaccines, anti-cancer vegetables, cholesterol-reducing grains, crops fortified with micronutrients, and so on. RAFI believes that the corporate sector has largely been unable to capture public acceptance through first and second-generation products, and the fate of agro-biotechnology thus rests on the promise of biotech‟s

    „Generation 3.‟


    These limitations are, in large part, a function of Africa‟s position within the global

    political economy.

    Current research is not generally informed by local conditions in Southern Africa. In many ways this reflects the classic problem of development and “appropriate technology.” Development had historically been seen merely as a technical question to

    be solved through the application of modern technologies to the problems faced by the Third World. Thus, in the 1950s,

    There were few who doubted that technological progressthen conceived

    as powered by advances in science and engineering in the developed

    countrieswould lead to a better world. The world was then confident

    that the technology needed by developing countries was available to them,

    perhaps with minor modifications, in the developed countries and that the

    major problem of technology policy in the developing countries was to

    master that technology and to overcome cultural and institutional obstacles

    to its rapid acceptance. (Weiss, 1979: 1084)

    Following the adoption of the Green Revolution technology in Asia, however, it became clear that the importation and adoption of new agricultural technologies to existing political, economic and social institutions and networks was failing to generate anticipated results. While total agricultural production was increasing, higher yields were accompanied by higher levels of inequality, poverty and hunger. (Shiva, 1989 and 1991) There were thus widespread calls for “appropriate technology,” that is, technology sensitive to the local conditions in the developing world. Appropriate technology would be small-scale, labor-intensive, more subject to local mastery, repair and control and would meet particular cultural and ecological demands of the communities where it would be applied. (Weiss, 1979) Such technology, it was believed, would be more likely to result in successful development. (Stewart, 1979; World Bank, 1978)


    In this respect, commercial biotechnology reflects problems similar to those raised by the Green Revolution twenty years earlier. To that end,

    The green revolution focused on rapid production gains as a singular

    means to solve world food problems while stemming red revolutions.

    Indeed, the application of new technological packages, corresponding

    infrastructure development, and the growth of export markets are all

    legacies of the green revolution. This approach did lead to significant

    production gains. However, the contradiction arising from these

    developments also led to or exacerbated social, political, and economic

    inequalities within localities, nation-states, and regions of the developing

    and developed world. Moreover, the degradation of tropical agricultural

    resources has led to negative long-term environmental consequences

    resulting in profound ecosystem alteration, and in some cases the near

    extirpation of food production bases. The green revolution provides an

    important lesson with respect to the application of new agricultural

    biotechnologies: the ideology of inevitable technological process excludes

    consideration of the distributional and environmental consequences of

    such efforts. (Middendorf, et. al., 1998: 93-94)

    The current generation of GM crops under commercial production reflects the problem of inappropriate technology. They were designed for North American (and to a lesser extent European) farmers, not African smallholders, and focused on crops not usually grown by and adopt traits of secondary importance to most smallholder African

    11farmers. Soybeans, for example, one of the dominant commercial biotech crops, are almost exclusively cultivated by large-scale commercial farmers. The GM maize currently available is yellow maize, grown primarily as animal feed and considered unpalatable by many Africans. Similarly, the GM canola/rape currently on market is

    12designed for high oil output, as the crop is grown for oil production in the West.

    African farmers, however, grow rape as a household vegetable for domestic consumption.

     11 Ironically, this is the same reason why Africa was excluded from the Green Revolution. Green Revolution technology generally focused on rice and wheat, crops that account for approximately 80 percent of cereal production in Asia, but represent only about 13 percent of cereal production in Africa. As such, Africa did not benefit from the yield increases facilitated by the Green Revolution. (Lipton and Longhurst, 1989) 12 Kneen (1992) provides an excellent analysis of the development of GM canola.

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