Technological Fixes to Food Insecurity Lose Sight of Farmers’ Rights

Kenya is soon to become the next hotbed for genetically modified crops, with its government’s intention to introduce new GM cotton and corn varieties within the next few years. While proponents hail this development as a huge step in the fight against hunger, their notions of boosting productivity to “feed the world” are divorced from how GM crops would actually increase the vulnerability of Kenya’s poorest farmers. In fact, small farmers are the most susceptible to famine in Africa, and so any agricultural development approach needs to be evaluated in terms of its effect on farmers.

GM crops render the agricultural system highly capital- intensive, which is not the right path for Africa’s smallest farmers. The seeds themselves are expensive, and they require massive amounts of chemical fertilizer and water in order to grow. Here the social consequences of India’s Green Revolution must be heeded: the deployment of high- yielding crop varieties and chemical inputs were inaccessible for the nation’s smallest farmers and benefited only large-scale growers. India may have raised its food output, but it came at a great cost to the rural poor. And today, even the greatest beneficiaries of the Green Revolution are now suffering, as farmers’ indebtedness—due to reliance on costly chemical inputs—has led to their suicides.

The development of GM crop technologies sets the stage for agricultural research institutions and multinational seed corporations to trample on farmers’ rights. Many of the seeds controlled by multinationals actually contain traits found in farmers’ traditional crop varieties. They take copies of farmers’ local seed varieties, add new genetic traits, and then sell the seeds back to those same farmers. What an injustice–farmers now have to purchase the genetic resources over which they once had control. When in the 1990s Kenya was forced to slash public funding for agriculture because of World Bank- imposed structural adjustment programs, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute was starved for cash and had to turn to the private sector. The result: international corporations took control of the nation’s public research agenda, a reality that continues to this day.

If farmers’ rights are to guide the agricultural development in Kenya, then traditional seed varieties must be at the top of the agenda. Farmers can harvest and re-plant the seeds every year, shielding them from expensive seed markets. For the past two months I’ve been visiting smallholder farmers in Kenya, and my conversations with them have revealed that the local seeds are the best adapted to local climatic conditions, rendering them the best option for resilience to drought. Proponents of technological fixes to hunger often assume they have all the answers to dealing with drought, but neglect how farmers’ own indigenous knowledge—like traditional seeds—are a viable solution. Likewise, chemical fertilizer is not the only way to nourish soils; farmers can also employ nitrogen-fixing crops, crop residues, and livestock manure to provide nitrogen to soils.

Indeed, the farmers whom I’ve interviewed in Kenya have told me almost invariably that their biggest challenges are the high cost of seed and fertilizer. It seems, then, that what the development establishment and multinational agribusinesses hail as the answer to food insecurity—external inputs—is actually a key threat to farmers’ livelihood stability. Thus the problem with today’s corporate- controlled global food system is that it forecloses consideration of alternative forms of seed and soil nutrients, which are best suited to the poorest farmers. “Food sovereignty” is the umbrella term that represents these approaches contesting high-input agriculture.

Locally-controlled food systems also warrant a focus on the so-called “orphan crops”—sweet potato, cassava, sorghum, and millet. These crops have largely been abandoned in Kenya in favor of corn, which farmers told me they grow for market opportunities. Yet the orphan crops are important for nutrition, particularly at a time when the need to integrate agriculture and nutrition is garnering increasing attention in high-level policy forums. One challenge is to develop local markets for orphan crops as a way to complement their contribution to farmers’ own nutrition.

Farmers must have a greater say in the global agricultural research agenda in order to mainstream the sorts of approaches that don’t rely on external seed and inputs. The international research establishment— represented by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research —has largely focused on improving the productivity of globally-traded commodity crops while neglecting locally-important crops. Yet one promising development is that small farmers have their voices heard in the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA).

“Farmers have been able to initiate a lot of reforms,” said Philip Kiriro, the farmers’ representative on the ASARECA board and the President of the Eastern Africa Farmers’ Federation. “We’ve been able to get researchers to expand their insights to capture orphan crops that are very important for small farmers.”

Furthermore, the International Institute for Environment and Development recently convened a “citizens’ jury” in Mali that brought together farmers to make recommendations on the governance of agricultural research. They suggested a focus on the production and storage of traditional seed varieties, rather than hybrid or GM varieties.

Yet what’s striking to me is that high external-input industrial agriculture—the wrong approach for the poorest farmers—seems to be the prevailing view in Kenya. It is the approach supported by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which seeks to bring to the continent the same technical solutions seen in India and Latin America in the 1960s. But why are Kenyan government officials and prominent researchers supporting a type of agriculture that would be detrimental to their poorest farmers? I think this largely has to do with the hidden social costs of an agricultural system dependent on expensive chemical inputs and seeds. While large- scale food production systems in the West may produce massive amounts of food, government subsidies mask their social impact: after all, if farmers are guaranteed a minimum price for their crops, then they remain virtually unaffected by high chemical and seed costs. The fundamental problem is that industrial agriculture is judged narrowly by crop productivity but hardly at all by farmers’ livelihoods. So this model is problematic when transmitted to African countries, precisely because their farmers are affected by high input prices and crop price volatility.

It appears, then, that Kenya’s elites have been co-opted, by international institutions and corporations, into supporting a model for agriculture that would only exacerbate the susceptibility of its small farmers. We’re in an era where “good governance” means not only charting a course of market-led development but accepting as legitimate the arguments put forth by mainstream development institutions. Who, then, will stand up for the poor farmers at risk of losing control over their own food systems? Who will demonstrate that local, agro-ecological methods that don’t rely on high-yielding seeds and chemicals are perfectly capable of achieving food security?

The next few years are sure to be filled with activism on both sides of the crop biotechnology debate, and will serve as a test of whether the food sovereignty movement can effectively battle the intrusion of new crop technologies into Africa.