You’ll pardon a bit of a rant today, but I’m just going to come out and say it: I hate the GMO debate.
Not GMOs, mind you, the debate.
The GMO debate is boring. And not in a good way.
It’s not just because reasonable people temporarily take leave of their senses when they discuss it. (Though that’s part of it.)
It’s not just the creepy quasi-religious fervour on both sides. (Though that’s definitely part of it.)
It’s the way the GMOs constrict a debate that really ought to be much broader.
Take drought resistance. An almighty rumble has been brewing on drought resistant GMO maize (more properly “water efficient”) as a strategy to adapt to climate change. All the tired old tropes of the GMO controversy get trotted out. What’s weird, though, is that the whole thing happens as though there were no alternatives. As though GMO Maize was the one true way to skin a cat.
This is preposterous. African farmers have been dealing with drought for years, hell, for millennia. It’s been literally thousands of years since they domesticated sorghum and millet, crops uniquely suited to drought-prone agroecologies.
While you’re shouting yourself hoarse over some exotic lab-based technique, they’re out there doing what they’ve always done: planting crops that will grow even with stunningly little rainfall.
The GMO debate is blind to sorghum and millet, just like it’s blind to cowpea, pigeonpea, and all the other drought resistant crops farmers in South Asia have been planting forever to deal with drought. And since nobody (with some few, genuinely heroic exceptions) gives a crap about these orphaned crops, nobody gets really worked up about the boring old strategies that could hugely increase their usefulness as food security crops.
Take a particular bugbear of mine: the sorghum value chain. In East Africa, most sorghum is eaten as porridge. Sorghum porridge is – how to put this kindly? – really gross. It’s not very nutritious either. To increase the bioavailability of the nutrients naturally found in sorghum, you have to ferment it.And indeed some places in Africa have a tradition of making Kisra, which is a really yummy, injera-like sorghum-based sourdough bread.
It’s just that this is what that process looks like:
From beginning to end, it takes a week, and generally is too much work for people to take on except on special occasions. There is no industry anywhere in Africa producing Kisra, because there’s no basic research to understand the biochemistry of sorghum fermentation.
So we have a delicious, culturally-prized, nutritionally-rich product of a naturally drought resistant crop that smallholders are familiar and comfortable with…and it just sits there, while we’re off chasing the latest shiny transgenic controversy. I hate that.
The knowledge intensity bar to improving and formalizing kisra-making is way, way lower than the knowledge-intensity bar to genetically modifying maize. And yet is anyone seriously working on industrializing the kisra-making process? Come, now, we’re trying to have a serious debate here.
There’s plenty more disinterest where that came from: Basic agronomic research into pigeonpea improvement? Yawwwwwn. Developing the sorghum value chain? Zzzzzzzz. Investing in new millet hybrids that are even better adapted to drought? Be serious now!
You get crap click-through rates on stories like those. (Believe me, I know.)
But put GMOs in a story’s headline and suddenly, hey! it’s viral!
The same thing goes for Hybrids – a technology that, shockingly, even some people working in the field in Africa don’t realize is not the same as genetic modification.
I like to think of hybrids as the boringest development intervention – so dull eyes just sort of glaze over the second you say the word. But they do 90% of what GM Crops can do, at a fraction of the cost, with no transgenic manipulation, and have done for almost 100 years now.
You could end hunger in Africa next year if you could deliver the right amount of hybrid seed, fertilizer and agronomic advice to the right farmers. You could!
But are we talking about this?
No, we’re not. We’re talking about how the thought of putting a GM tomato in your salad makes you feel.
In a saner world we’d be discussing genetic modification for water efficiency as one item in a portfolio of strategies to adapt to climate change. But we don’t live in a saner world. We live in a world where this placard got made.
My conclusion? The GMO Debate is the Count Dracula of the rural development world: it sucks the life out of anything it comes into contact with. Its allure is magnetic, its ability to get people who’ve never given a second’s thought to the lives of African farmers to click on a link is legendary, its sexiness is undenied. Editors love that shit. And so what should be one (marginallish) aspect of a much broader discussion ate the discussion.
But it’s bad for us. We need to stop.