Cover image courtesy of CNN, January 2015
–by Nick Gedig–
GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) have been a contentious issue in the past few years. There is furious debate as to whether or not they are safe and actually beneficial for the world as a whole. The same debate rages in the developmental world, with NGOs on both sides of the issue. This essay looks at one of the more vocal anti-GMO NGOs, ActionAid, and how they have been fighting to stop the spread of GM crops in East Africa. Both sides of the debate will be considered, from GM crop health and safety to organic and sustainable farming practices.
Back in May 2015, The Independent released an article about ActionAid Uganda, a wing of the massive Johannesburg-based NGO ActionAid. The article asserts that ActionAid was running an “aggressive anti-GMO campaign” in Uganda, including telling local farmers that GM (genetically modified) crops would end up giving them cancer. Frederick Kawooya, the policy and communications manager for ActionAid Uganda at the time, told The Independent that it was part of an effort to communicate the “risk” of GMOs to farmers in the simplest way possible and that “research [had] been done” proving that GMOs caused cancer in rats. Following the exposé, ActionAid apologized and stopped all work in the area, saying “[Our] policy is not to campaign on any health concerns over GM foods”. While this particular idea seems to be an isolated incident, ActionAid has been vocal in their opposition to the proliferation of GMOs among developing countries, especially in East African countries like Kenya and Tanzania. This is not uncommon in the NGO world as many groups think that GMOs are terrible for development, but the issue also isn’t as black and white as many organizations want the world to believe.
Many of us in the Western world have suspicions of GMOs, many of them baseless according to scientific research. These concerns are intimidatingly wide-ranging in scope, from organ damage stemming from GM crops and allergenicity of GM foods to added genes somehow manipulating the human genome once they are ingested. These claims are mostly based off the idea that there has not been any research done into their health effects, and as such they could have unintended consequences for the human body. This claim is also unfortunately baseless. Many scientists and organizations across the world have done research on the health effects of GMOs and none have found them to be any more dangerous than conventionally grown foods (Taheri 9). Organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have made statements in the same vein. In fact, the AAAS said in 2012 that while “the consensus of more than 130 research projects over the past 25 years is that crops which have been modified via biotechnology are not more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies”. An overwhelming body of research aside, these claims obviously still have supporters, and such misinformation can damage development projects in East Africa.
Another common misconception surrounds “Terminator seeds”, or seeds that are genetically modified so that they cannot germinate. This would force farmers to be dependent on companies like Monsanto to buy new seeds each year and deepen problems with development. Kawooya of ActionAid Uganda, the spreader of false GMO information that has since been disavowed, cited Terminator seeds in an official ActionAid newsletter as a sign that companies “are doing all they can to consolidate and monopolize the global market”. Unlike the supposed health risks, however, this fear could absolutely come true if Terminator seeds were really being used. Sterile seeds have never been sold commercially, and Monsanto themselves has made a commitment in 1999 to never further research or sell these technologies. Furthermore, what little research has been done on these seeds has found that there could be outside benefits for “weed, insect pest and disease control” (Dalazan). The idea that Terminator seeds are a reason to distrust GM crops is therefore not applicable in contemporary development work. That being said, if companies were to start using sterile seeds, it could severely impact the work of organizations like ActionAid, meaning careful attention should be paid to it in the future.
Fighting against GM crops because of what downsides they could have in the future ignores the very real benefits of using them today. Using GM crops rather than conventional methods or organic farming could have a significant impact on one of the most important development areas of all: food security. In a recent metastudy of GM crops all over the world, yields were found to be 27% higher than those from conventional farming techniques (Taheri 2). While right now GM seeds are only used on 10% of the world’s arable land, spreading them further could potentially lead to farms producing much more food worldwide. Beyond yield gains, Taheri reports that “recent data on the global status of GM crops show[s] very significant net economic benefits on the farm level”, including reducing chemical pesticide use by 37% and an average profit gain of 68% (Taheri 2). Those benefits can’t easily be ignored when considering development, because not only can GM crops increase the food supply, they can also help provide extra money for farmers to carry into their local economy. It is important to note that this study wasn’t done specifically on GM crops across Africa, and that environmental conditions there vary wildly, so it’s possible that GM crops wouldn’t have such a significant benefit. Either way, if used correctly, GM crops could make a dramatic difference in food security and should not be entirely demonized.
However, all of this doesn’t mean that groups like ActionAid are misguided. In fact, science points to other significant possible drawbacks for development. First among these is the fact that large agribusiness companies like Monsanto generally control the GM seed supply and the equipment needed to use them. In the same study highlighting the benefits of GM crops, Taheri notes that “GM as a new technology cannot really solve poverty issues”, and that it could in fact, “heighten the gap between the rich and the poor… by aggregating more power into the hands of large firms” (Taheri 8). This is a major concern of ActionAid, one which seems to make a lot of sense. After all, the growth of large companies has always led to the crushing of smaller companies as they fight to keep up. When thinking about farming, the small producers that make up a sizeable percentage of African farmers may not be able to stand up to large GM companies and be forced into depending on the largest of farms for food. According to ActionAid International’s 2011 briefing on sustainable farming, “small-scale producers provide half of the world’s food supply [and] contribute over 90% of Africa’s agricultural production” (ActionAid 2). Threatening their livelihoods by relying on large farms rather than traditional food systems could destroy a lot of the work that development has done for the communities these farmers live in. Furthermore, small-scale farms may not have access to the same kind of technology and knowledge that large farms have, and that gap is another potential obstacle for small farms trying to compete with bigger companies.
Predatory agribusiness companies have already had an impact on the daily lives of farmers. In August 2016, ActionAid reported on a successful suit against agribusiness companies in Yala Swamp in Kenya. Dominion Farms, a U.S company, had been grabbing up land in the swamp normally used for smaller farms through shady tactics. They have also poisoned the land with pesticides and generally pushed the people who live there out of the way. While the people of Yala Swamp were successful in fighting back, the World Economic Forum created an initiative called Grow Africa, backed by the G8 summit (now G7), in order to make it easier for international companies to invest in Africa. ActionAid’s fear is that such initiatives could lead to further land-grabbing and have even exposed more of the same issue in places like Tanzania. Overall, ActionAid mainly fights against the secondary effects and industrial control of GM crops, fears which have a lot of merit in the neoliberal world of today.
ActionAid’s answer to GM crops is “sustainable agriculture”, a term referring to “the ability of farms to produce food indefinitely, without damaging soils and ecosystems, or human capital” (ActionAid 3). Sustainable farming generally involves more organic farming practices and utilizing local knowledge to fit specific ecosystems, something that ActionAid says is “especially suited for poor and marginalized communities” (ActionAid 3). In the same briefing, ActionAid also points to the many benefits of such farming for the environment and for economic and food security resilience (ActionAid 6). In East Africa, where environmental conditions can shift drastically from year to year and greatly affect food supplies, more resilience to change would make an enormous difference in food security, something that sustainable agriculture can give. However, there is some debate as to whether or not organic and sustainable farming practices could provide enough food for the world. Taheri notes that organic farming has been found to produce 25% lower yields, though it depends highly on “context and local characteristics” (7). Other studies, however, have pointed to organic farming being the best possible route for African farms in particular and that yields are sometimes higher than conventional farming methods (Arah 600). Sustainable practices are also much more readily used without special technology, giving more control to small-scale farmers and allowing them to continue to produce food within their communities. When taking into account the potential of GM crops to cause economic disparity and environmental damage compared to organic farming, it becomes clear why ActionAid and other NGOs are trying to stop their spread.
The world of developmental agriculture is a complicated one, with many different opposing viewpoints and seemingly conflicting data. However, when considering the whole picture, both sustainable farming and GM crop farming could have major benefits towards food and economic security of farmers in East Africa and across the world. ActionAid has good reason to fight against the spread of GM crops, but that position also ignores the benefits of their usage. Spreading misinformation to help stop their spread can be even more damaging, especially when it delegitimizes their work as it did in Uganda. If GM crops and sustainable farming practices were to be combined, taking the benefits of each while carefully monitoring the potential for abuse, they could potentially revolutionize food and economic security in East Africa and genuinely improving the lives of the average farmer.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
 Wright, Oliver. “ActionAid Are Spreading ‘Groundless’ Fears over GM.” The Independent, The Independent, 22 Mar. 2015, web.archive.org/web/20150325220221/http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/actionaid-the-charity-spreading-groundless-fears-over-gm-10126504.html.
 “Response to Criticism of ActionAid Uganda’s Genetically Modified Foods Campaign.” ActionAid UK, 8 June 2015, www.actionaid.org.uk/latest-news/response-to-criticism-of-actionaid-ugandas-campaign.
 Gertsberg, Deniza. “6 Reasons To Avoid GMOs September 29, 2010 – Blog.” Non-GMO Project, 29 Sept. 2010, www.nongmoproject.org/blog/6-reasons-to-avoid-gmos/.
 Taheri, Fatemeh, et al. “A World without Hunger: Organic or GM Crops?” Sustainability, vol. 9, no. 4, 2017, p. 580., doi:10.3390/su9040580.
 “AAAS Issues Statement on Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods.” CCST Spotlight, California Council on Science and Technology, 1 Nov. 2012, ccst.us/news/2012/1101aaas.php.
 Kawooya, Fredrick. “Sustainable Livelihoods ActionAid Uganda.” June 2013.
 “Myth: Monsanto Sells Terminator Seeds.” Monsanto, Monsanto, 10 Apr. 2017, monsanto.com/company/media/statements/terminator-seeds-myth/.
 Dalazen, Giliardi, and Aldo Merotto Júnior. “Genetic Use Restriction Technologies and Possible Applications in the Integrated Pest Management.” Ciência Rural, vol. 46, no. 11, 2016, pp. 1909–1916., doi:10.1590/0103-8478cr20160105.
 Smallholder-Led Sustainable Agriculture: An ActionAid International Briefing, ActionAid International, 2011.
 Hertzler, Doug. “Important Victories Against Agribusiness Land Grabs in Kenya.” ActionAid USA, ActionAid USA, 31 Aug. 2016, www.actionaidusa.org/blog/important-victories-agribusiness-land-grabs-kenya/.
 Arah, Isaac Kojo, and Ernest Kodzo Kumah. “Organic Agriculture and Food Security: The Story of Africa.” Journal of Advances in Agriculture, vol. 5, no. 1, 26 Oct. 2015, pp. 591–605.