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Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa

Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa by Robert Paarlberg. Harvard University Press, 2008, 235 pp.

Robert Paarlberg, a political science professor at Wellesley College, argues for the use of biotechnology in Africa to help solve food production problems in this, the most rural continent. The author makes the case that Africa is “starved for science” in that the continent needs the scientific advancements only possible through genetic engineering to increase the drought tolerance of crops. Most African countries have, however, come to oppose the use of biotechnology. Without the necessary science, Africa will remain caught in the trap of poverty.

Paarlberg makes an intricate but compact argument, maintaining that Africa has not readily adopted GMO (genetically modified organism) crops due to a confluence of many factors—some within its control, but most thrust upon the continent. On the domestic front, African countries do not invest enough in their own agricultural science (p. 10). They are thus dependent upon international assistance, mostly from Europe, and hence are vulnerable to political pressures, including those against the use of biotechnology. Western hostility to GMOs comes from the fact that those societies have food surpluses and do not need the added benefits available from GMO crops. The West, however, readily accepts GMOs in medicine, for it wants the benefits from these biotechnologies, and quickly adapts these advances without protest (p. 35ff)!

Because the West does not need the increased yields available through genetically modified crops, the debate has turned from the scientific to the political arena, dominated by nongovernmental organizations (NGO) which see GMO crops as intrinsically dangerous. They believe these crops are unsafe, and reliance on GMOs would give too much influence to a few large seed companies. These fears motivate NGOs to campaign against African adoption of these crops along several lines of attack, both direct and indirect. For example, due to NGO pressure for GMO-content labeling in Europe, African countries have been discouraged from trying these crops for fear of losing European markets. The United Nations system has relegated the regulation of GMO crops to the environmental (not agricultural!) ministries, moving the focus from potential yield increases to possible hazards. NGOs have significant influence in these environmental ministries and use it to good effect.

After making the case of why Africa, in general, has rejected GMOs, the author argues that the continent needs this technology to create crops with greater drought tolerance (p. 157). Drought vulnerability is one main cause of African poverty; if farmers could stabilize yields through better technology, they would be able to accumulate capital and invest in their own futures. Paarlberg contends GMO technology is indispensable due to limitations of conventional breeding, such as the narrow range of genetic variation, long time delays, and the possibility that other desirable traits may be lost when breeding for drought tolerance (p. 159).

Paarlberg definitely presents a convincing argument for Africa to adopt some GMO crops to create its own “green revolution” and lift itself out of poverty; however, a few themes demand further exploration. His argument rests upon the contention that biotechnology has been proven to be effective without being a danger. Competent authorities in the United States and Europe have thoroughly tested various GMO crops and judged them to be safe (p. 26). While these judgments carry much weight, this historian wonders if the roughly 10-year evaluation period is too short. Can the long-term effects yet be measured?

Paarlberg bases his argument upon large sets of statistics about “Africa.” He generally deals with the whole continent as a single entity and thereby hides important differences between countries and ecosystems where other, non-GMO solutions are very workable. For example, on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, mixed cultivation of bananas, coffee, and maize had made the Chagga people fairly successful, but a combination of domestic politics, low prices, and deteriorating infrastructure has steadily eroded their achievements since the 1970s. I do not doubt that Paarlberg’s solution of more science would work in many parts of Africa, but I would assert that real solutions for most of Africa lie less in the technical realm and more in the political, economic, and structural realms, as on Kilimanjaro.

Paarlberg’s biotechnology solution, even if greeted with African enthusiasm, still rests on the ability of someone to pay for it. He discusses cooperation between a large seed company such as Monsanto and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (p. 170). A partnership such as this could effectively solve the problems of research and distribution in the short term but would create a dangerous long-term dependency. If the foundation’s focus changed, could or would African governments fund such programs? This is an important question for the many farmers who would have to endure the brunt of changes. If the GMO crops programs did not continue, could the African farmers revert to less science-intensive agriculture without a problem? Science may replace the traditional methods but comes with the price of scientific dependency, something the African countries may not want and the farmers may not be able to trust.

For those interested in security policy, Paarlberg implicitly (and unintentionally) provides food for thought. By championing GMO-aided yield stabilization, he is trying to help improve food security and, ultimately, increase the motivation for farmers to remain in the rural areas. Over the past decades, the general lack of agricultural prosperity has contributed to rapid African urbanization and the creation of huge peri-urban slums, often a fount for discontent and crime (and, dare I say, potential recruits for anti-Western groups?). Since farming will remain a mainstay for a large plurality of African citizens far into the future, it behooves us to connect agricultural assistance with security considerations. The new Africa Command (AFRICOM) is trying to help promote African stability through a broad range of measures, not just military. The command must consider the critical field of agricultural assistance—proactively support rather than reactively help displaced farmers. Paarlberg provides a way of doing this: through the long-term provision of GMO crops which would help the farmers to successfully and predicatively produce.

Overall, Robert Paarlberg provides a captivating argument in Starved for Science, making a very persuasive case for African use of biotechnology to create a new “green revolution” for the continent. He removes much of the emotion from the anti-GMO arguments in the press, presenting the reality of the technology and how it could potentially assist millions of farmers. While an academic, Paarlberg approaches the subject in an easy-to-read manner and has written a book which should clearly remain in the discussion over the future of African agriculture.

Maj Robert Munson, USAFR, PhD

Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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