I’ve always loved a really good magic trick. The kind that makes you think to yourself, “there’s no way he did that…” A few years ago, I went to one of those over-the-top, magic shows in Las Vegas while I was on vacation. During the performance, the magician did this trick where he took a fluffy, white rabbit and put it into his black top hat. He showed the audience the inside of the hat first to prove that it was completely empty. Then, once the rabbit was inside, he put the hat on a table that was on-stage with him, waved his hands above it, mumbled some magical, mumbo jumbo, and then presto, one by one, proceeded to pull out ten or so beautiful, white doves.
How did he do that???
Well, in a lot of ways, that magic trick was kind of like what genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are to farming. Because GMOs are also magical. They’re transformative. And they work. Africa suffers from cataclysmic food shortages like no one else on the planet. Many countries there have struggled through lost harvests due to drought, man-made land degradation, and declining soil fertility among other things. Coupled with surging population growth, that’s a bad combination, especially as the number of Africans is expected to double to 2.4 billion by the year 2050. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. And importing food to help fill the gap is costly. With government coffers across the continent severely constrained, largely because of the decline in state revenues due to the commodity slump, Africa will need to grow more of its own food. And on a continent, that, according to the United Nations, already has over 230 million people, or roughly a quarter of its population, facing hunger and malnutrition, this is a big, and very ugly, question mark.
Essentially, GMOs are genetic engineering, or a more precise method of plant breeding. They allow scientists to take a desirable trait found in nature, such as better tolerance of drought conditions, and transfer it from one plant to another. Given the severity of the droughts that much of Africa has suffered through recently, and will unquestionably suffer again in the future, using science that enables crops to have better moisture retention for instance, makes sense.
GMOs also help to increase crop yields and feed more people. In the Western world, where there is generally an abundance of food, eating organically is a “life-style” choice that, depending on your views, may be healthier for you. But in much of the developing world, where food is often-times scarce, multi-year droughts are common, and the soil has exhausted most of its value, GMOs help farmers level the playing field against mother nature. Or more precisely, climate change. In many ways, GMOs are like that magic trick from the show in Las Vegas. They make one bunny into ten white doves. Put simply, as it relates to Africa, they help to produce better performing crops in otherwise inhospitable and challenging environments.
And while GMOs are all the rage in the agriculture sector, they are also causing all the rage within political circles, depending on which side of the argument you’re on. Certainly, in the West. On the left, green activists will tell you that GMOs make food unhealthy for consumption, promote increased pesticide use, and can cause dangerous side effects, including new categories of food allergies. Not to mention their associated herbicides can harm birds, insects, amphibians, marine ecosystems, and soil organisms. On the other side of the argument, according to Matin Qaim, Professor of International Food Economics and Rural Development at the University of Goettingen in Germany, after combining the results of several investigations, he found the agronomic and economic impacts of genetically modified crops to be beneficial on a global scale. On average, according to Qaim, GMO technology adoption has actually reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22% and increased farmer profits by 68%.
But, irrespective of which side of the argument you fall, part of the problem is that many consumers are poorly educated with respect to GMOs, and simply allow social media and negative media buzz to shape their thinking. That’s certainly true in the US and Europe. Most people know a little bit about GMOs, but not much more than that. In South Africa, the problem is even worse. A government initiative called the “Public Understanding of Biotechnology”, found that of the 7,000 adults aged 16 and older that participated in the study, eight out of ten had no knowledge of biotechnology, or any real understanding of what GMOs are. The study also found that 63% of the respondents were unaware if they had ever eaten any food containing genetically modified ingredients. Furthermore, 71% of the products produced in South Africa labelled “GMO free,” or “organic,” actually contained genetically modified ingredients.
Africa’s population is exploding before our eyes. Its soil is hurting and its skies have been dry. It desperately needs an edge. Science and GMOs are like the magic fairy dust that can give Africa, and much of the rest of the developing world, the ability to feed more of their people. But government leaders will need to fully embrace GMO technology even more so than it does today. Like Africa, the rest of the world’s population is increasing rapidly too, and is expected to hit 9 billion by the year 2050. If these forecasts are reached, it will necessitate that we double the world’s current food production in order to feed all the people, according to most accepted projections. And with climate change continuing to impact, and diminish, the amount of earth’s arable land, GMOs are now vital.
This will not only require considerable internal support and commitment, but significant capital investment as well. Africa’s leaders need to work closely with agriculture giants like Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont and apply the newest, cutting-edge science available. If they don’t, they will face a gargantuan, if not impossible, task feeding their burgeoning populations in the years to come. But, if they embrace biotechnology and GMOs, they too, can have their own gaudy, glittering magic shows just like the ones in Las Vegas, and turn a single, white bunny into a giant flock of beautiful, majestic doves.
*Author David S. Levin is a Managing Partner at Nexus Capital Markets, LLC, micro-Blogging on all things Africa. A New York investor’s view of Africa and other emerging economies. Nexus Capital Markets is a leading Pan-African/U.S. investment bank located in NY and JHB.