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‘Starving Africa’ cliché used to push GM: Harvard Professor

By Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn at the Milan Expo

- Last updated on GMT

GM is being presented as a silver bullet solution to malnutrition in Africa, says Harvard University's Professor Sheila Jasanoff
GM is being presented as a silver bullet solution to malnutrition in Africa, says Harvard University's Professor Sheila Jasanoff

Related tags Bill & melinda gates foundation Africa Genetically modified food

An over-simplistic image of impoverished, malnutritioned Africa is being used to push the case for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a senior Harvard professor has warned.

Sheila Jasanoff, professor of science and technology studies at Harvard University's John F Kennedy School of Government, made the point in a talk about how we ‘frame’ risks.

How a risk is framed effects how we perceive it – drawing the parallel to how one might frame a picture.

She said GM technology was being presented as a silver bullet solution to issues of hunger and malnutrition in Africa as a whole.

“If you think science’s mission is to save an entire country, then you can argue that to deny that solution is to starve a continent,” ​she said at the opening talks of the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) conference at the Milan Expo.

She argued risk assessment science was an “impure science”​ in that this framing of a risk and the subsequent assessment was deeply influenced by cultural values – and this was something risk assessors and policy makers must consider.  

Speaking with us after the event, Professor Jasanoff said in reality Africa was a complex continent made up of many micro cultures and languages.

Just as it was important to refer specifically to certain regions and cultures within Africa, it was important to talk about GM in terms of specific genes, plants and purposes.

Examples of this framing of GM were numerous. In 2013 UK environment secretary at the time, Owen Paterson, said it would be immoral for wealthy countries like Britain to fail to help developing countries adopt GM technology.

Prevention of death, blindness, hunger and herbicide overuse were some of the reasons listed. 

Indeed Professor Jasanoff shared the stage with UK government chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport who took on the theme of innovation.

He questioned what he called "asymmetric incentives"​ in risk assessment.

“If regulators allow something bad to happen, they will get into a lot of trouble. However, if they block something happening that could have done a lot of good, nothing happens. So the incentivisation process is a problem.”

Into Africa

GM has become something of a new frontier for the controversial plant technology, with projects from the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation taking centre stage.

The Foundation has highlighted the need to increase agricultural productivity in Africa and the couple have talked openly about their support for GM.

They have funded projects like the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. 

The project saw the donation of Monsanto's commercial drought-tolerance and insect-protection traits royalty-free to all seed companies in Africa.

The improvements could produce an estimated two million additional tonnes of food enough to feed 14 to 21 million people. Harvest gains could also be sold to increase incomes and give farmers confidence to invest in improved farming practices,”​ Monsanto writes on its site.

According to 2010 figures the Foundation had 500,000 shares of Monsanto stock​ ​with an estimated worth about $23m (€20.17m).

The Foundation also funded a project with Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) to create GM bananas and backs the vitamin-A enriched ‘golden’ GM rice project.

According the World Health Organisation (WHO) figures, between 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.

Today is World Food Day​.

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