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.

 

13 COMMENTS

  1. This is some of the most embarrasing nonsense I have ever seen. True fairytale stuff. Despite all the hyperbole about the promise of GM drought resistant crops, it took until December 2011 for the first GM drought resistant crop to be approved for marketing anywhere in the world. That crop is a Monsanto maize for cultivation in the United States – though even the US Department of Agriculture admitted that it was no more effective than existing non-GM varieties. By contrast, non-GM plant breeding has achieved success after success in producing a whole variety of drought resistant crops, including a series of drought resistant maize varieties, and these have been made available in many countries, including developing countries particularly vulnerable to drought. And far from reducing pesticide use, GM crops, which – surprise, surprise – are predominantly engineered to be tolerant of the chemicals companies like Monsanto sell, have led to a massive increase in pesticide use. And the National Academies of Science found no convincing evidence genetic engineering increases crop yields. In reality, GM crops aren’t so much a magic trick as a con trick.

  2. Its a perfect analogy: GMOs as a magic trick. An elaborate hoax, designed to astonish and deceive; and to separate the gullible audience from their money. And the GMO magicians also protect the secrets of their trade with intellectual property rights.

    Also it might be wise to beware of taking agronomic advice from a New York investor. Particularly if they believe in magic…

  3. You clearly have no understanding of African agricultural systems whatsoever. Despite efforts since the 1970’s even hybrids have not been taken up by African farmers. These huge seed companies are unable to cater for the diverse seed needs on the continent, they come with a skinny little portfolio of maize and rice, some few legumes. To replace Africa’s vast agricultural diversity with a few commercially viable crops is laughable at best and suicidal at worst. And then GM crops available are even far less, maize, cotton, soya, canola? You think that is going to provide nutrition for the continent?

  4. This article simply presents the false arguments of the biotech industry and their promoters.
    GMOs pose unique dangers to food provision in Africa, including by the singular fact that they erode biodiversity and thus agricultural resilience. Mixed cropping is at the core of food production in Africa and GMOs would simply upturn this very much needed system. Me recover, the risks that GMOs pose to human and environmental health in Africa is so grave that they should be banned outright. It is a failed technology, backed by political powers, in search of markets. Some of the markets are pried open after contamination of local environments with GMOs through various means including food aid.

    How could anyone suggest that GMOs have led to a reduction in the use of pesticides when some the crops themselves are pesticides? Who wants to knowingly consume pesticides as food? Besides, we only have to look at the spectacular failure of Bt Cotton in Burkina Faso to learn two things. First, farmers were losing money due to the poor quality of harvest. Second, the cotton harvest has greatly improved following the ban of GMO cotton in that West African nation.

    The most recent false argument for pushing GMOs into Africa has been that Africans are malnourished and the solution to this nourishment ‘deficit’ is the introduction of genetically fortified foods. This colonial industrial push ignores the fact that the so-called deficits can be bridged with a mix of vegetables and fruits that are threatened by dumping of junk food products from elsewhere.

    This presentation of this article as a joke makes the threat even more cruel. GMOs would have been jokes were they not wreaking so much open and hidden harms. The truth is that the promoters of GMOs are in search for new markets and new territories to conquer and colonize. Africa should be spared this assault. The future of our agriculture and food supply is assured through agroecology and the promotion of food sovereignty. It is certainly not in monocultures promoted by genetic engineering and its battery of agro-toxics. This much has been confirmed by science. Anyone in doubt should visit the report of the multidisciplinary International Assessment of Agricultural knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). See at http://www.globalagriculture.org. Spare us this gruesome chatter.

    • Explain how the use of GMOs prevents the use of mixed cropping. Is it the case for any GMOs or is there is specific genetic mix that is the problem. Please answer with data and concrete examples.

  5. Vaporware. Smoke and mirrors. 98% of all GMOs are designed to be sprayed with toxic chemicals = nothing else. All the other claims are false.

  6. What is truly magical is the utter BS and antiscience, industry propaganda this ill-informed article is spouting. Pure, antiscience, gibberish…

  7. There is nothing magic about GMOs. They don’t yield any better than conventional crops. They often require toxic chemical like cancer causing glyphosate that can not be washed off and they allow multi-national corporations like Monsanto to control the food supply where they own all the seeds. It is a scam and an attempt to control African agriculture for the benefit of the few.

  8. What a truly awful article. “They work.” They sure do! They work at destroying the soil in which they are grown. They work at creating untold disease and suffering from the chronic dosing of our population. they work at making Monsanto, Dow, Bayer Syngenta, etc. rich all the while putting farmers out of business.

  9. you also quote South Africa’s public understanding of biotechnology – saying that the public doesn’t understand what gmo’s are and are therefore swayed by sensationalist media. What you don’t say is that the 2016 survey found that the more educated people are the more likely they are to reject GMOs. This must have been a very tricky finding for the authors to deal with because this programme is shaped by the pro-GM lobby in South Africa.
    From the same report you say that 71% of organic and non-GM labelled food contained gmos – this says more about the inevitable contamination of our whole food system with GMOs than anything else.
    The biotech industry insists that those wanting to produce without gmos must bear the brunt of identity preservation and labelling and loss of markets when contaminated, instead of the industry & farmers who are introducing the unwanted element to be under regulation. This coup was first won when chemical agriculture was made normative and natural methods of farming suddenly became “alternative” and in need of expensive certification and monitoring. This has lead us to a place where healthy food is now only available for the elite. In South Africa our staple food is maize and our whole maize value chain is now contaminated so that even if it is labelled there is no choice – non-GM maize is simply unavailable. A few companies have started offering non-GM maize products due to demand, but have had to go to huge lengths to set up parallel storage, milling and distribution channels with costs being passed to consumers. This is just 1 way that gm foods are unfairly subsidised

  10. I find the GMO debate quite frustrating. The opponents have failed to show what harm is actually done by GMOs. Meanwhile, the industry instead of relying on the benefit of higher crop yields to promote GMOs, uses underhanded tactics like forcing small farmers to use GM seeds. Can someone on either side provide some data on crop yields, pest resistence and potential harmful effects?

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