Different grains and seeds

This spring we’re exploring biotech’s biggest and greenwashiest claims in our series Are GMOs really going to save the world? This is the second piece in the series. Don’t forget to check out Part One of the series, Genetically Engineered Golden Rice: Real Hope or Misplaced Hype? and Part Three, Can a Lab-based Food System Save the World?

Drought is a major problem in agriculture. It always has been. A drought is a long, dry period that causes water shortages, which in turn compromise crop growth and development. Droughts impact agriculture more than any other sector. 

As the planet warms due to the climate crisis, scientists expect more frequent and extreme weather events, including droughts. The greatest impacts of a changing climate are already being felt across the Global South, including the drought-prone continent of Africa. 

Which all adds up to this daunting state of affairs:

    1. Climate change is an existential crisis for our species (and countless others).
    2. Droughts are likely to gain in intensity and frequency.
    3. Africa bears the brunt of both climate change and droughts.

At the same time, the population of Africa is projected to double by 2050, putting more than a billion people in the path of a warming planet’s worst impacts.

In recent decades, a truly dizzying amount of money has been spent under the banners of philanthropy and international aid. Programs such as AGRA (A Green Revolution for Africa) offer hybrid seeds and fertilizers, while WEMA (Water Efficient Maize for Africa project) supplies high-yielding corn (or maize) seed and, more recently, GMOs. 

Despite these and other programs, success remains elusive. In fact, one of the best-funded initiatives has had a net negative impact, increasing the hardship experienced by the people it was supposed to help. 

Who truly benefits the most from the adoption of GMOs, and is there even a place for genetic engineering in a warmer, drier and more densely populated Africa? 

field of crops in drought

Genetically modified corn for drought tolerance

Drought hits corn hard. When faced with water shortages for more than four days in a row, yield losses are virtually unavoidable. Drought tolerant corn has been in development for decades using a variety of techniques — traditional, modern and biotechnological. The genetically engineered version, Monsanto’s Droughtgard corn, only came onto the market in the last 10 years. (Monsanto has since been acquired by Bayer, who now owns the Droughtgard products).

The Union of Concerned Scientists described Droughtgard’s performance as offering “modest” yield improvements under moderate drought conditions. Under extreme drought conditions, they doubt that there will be much yield improvement at all. Nevertheless, Droughtgard corn is being sent to African farmers as a climate solution.

Corn acreage expanding on a dry continent

Corn is water-intensive to grow. It’s also a staple crop that supplies nearly a fifth of the daily caloric intake per person across much of Eastern and Southern Africa. Most of the corn produced in sub-Saharan Africa is destined for human consumption — a stark contrast from higher-income countries where corn is mostly destined for livestock feed and biofuel. 

The planting area for corn is expanding at a rate that is “considered unsustainable and is expected to come at the expense of crop diversity and the environment.” Meanwhile, droughts are getting worse and more are on the way.

The African Center for Biodiversity (ACB) argues that Droughtgard’s development rests on incomplete science and limited perspective. Droughts are complex things. The characteristics of a drought — its intensity, duration, when in the growth cycle it strikes — determine how crops fare. Adaptations to stressors such as drought are generally complex traits, meaning that many genes within the crop’s DNA are involved in their expression. Genetic modification operates at the level of a single gene or possibly a few genes, making it a poor tool for this particular job. 

The ACB isn’t the only stakeholder concerned about corporate control and GMOs in Africa. Environmental justice advocate Nnimmo Bassey argues, “The politics of GMO is about who controls the market, it is not about feeding the people.”

The industrial model of agriculture that gave birth to the Green Revolution has reached its apex. During its tenure, it has degraded the earth’s soil, depleted essential species diversity, contributed to economic inequality and failed to eliminate hunger. But we are at a crossroads. The choice is ours, whether we double down on an extractive model of agriculture that has failed to deliver and is deeply destructive to our fragile environment, or we can find a new path forward. 

We believe that the best solutions are based on local and Indigenous knowledge, evolving with the participation of small farmers. These solutions emerge with deep respect for the social and economic impacts of both action and inaction, they prioritize equity and autonomy, and they value food sovereignty over profit. 

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