Columnist, Food

Under a program funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), cassava farmer Alberto Pinto of Mozambique is growing an improved variety of the tuber and is reaping much larger yields than before he made the change. (From Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa)

Joe DeVries is American, but he has spent three decades in Africa, helping farmers improve yields, fight pests and control disease. I met him in his office in Nairobi and asked how he’d ended up so far from home. He told me his career dated to one moment, when he was an undergraduate studying agronomy. “I was in the back of the class,” he said, “probably falling asleep. And the professor looked at us and said, ‘One of you will go out there and make the world a smaller place.’ Somehow, I knew he was talking to me.”

For DeVries, a smaller world is a place where tools for better farming — improved seed, appropriate fertilizer, access to agricultural and financial infrastructure — are available wherever people farm, and he’s making that happen as director of the Program for Africa’s Seed Systems at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a nonprofit organization devoted to improving African agriculture.

Say the words “green revolution,” and people take sides. For opponents, the phrase conjures visions of monocrop fields fertilized with chemicals and sprayed with more chemicals. For proponents, it evokes the tremendous efficiencies that have helped us feed our burgeoning population. For DeVries, a plant scientist by training, “it’s a period where agricultural productivity shifts upward.” AGRA isn’t trying to deliver American-style agriculture to Africa but to bring the basics to a place that has largely not seen their benefit. “By using a little bit of fertilizer with an improved seed, like a hybrid, farmers can double and triple their yields,” he said.

As polarizing ideas go, though, the green revolution’s got nothing on genetically modified crops, and in Africa, as here, that topic is dominating the debate about food. And there, as here, GMOs are a proxy for the excesses and dangers of an industrialized food system.

In the United States, that means we’re having all the wrong debates. We’re arguing about whether genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops have increased or decreased pesticide use, rather than trying to figure out how systems such as integrated pest management can help farmers grow food with fewer chemicals. We’re arguing over how evil Monsanto is, rather than asking how government can effectively regulate a system in which corporate, agricultural, consumer and environmental goals are often at odds. We’re wasting time, money and ever so much energy.

Take that proxy — arguing about GMOs instead of industrialized agriculture — to the developing world, and the stakes are much higher. Lives and livelihoods are on the line, and overwrought arguments about genetic modification will cost both.

And overwrought the debate about GMOs in Africa certainly is. While agricultural nonprofits like Grain and Practical Action oppose them in relatively sober terms, others, like ActionAid, use full-on scare tactics. The idea that GMOs are actively dangerous has taken hold to such an extent that one Ugandan scientist told me she heard a colleague — also a scientist — explain to farmers that genetically modified corn would make men sterile. There’s also the idea, promoted by activists such as Vandana Shiva, that the agriculture indigenous to the developing world — with small farmers growing traditional crops — is a tradition to be protected. Chemical fertilizers and seeds that can’t be saved are the enemy of that tradition.

Anne Wangalachi, the communications officer at AGRA, seems unswayed by ideas of tradition or dignity. “The people who push for this narrative are well-fed,” she said. “There’s nothing dignified about going hungry.”

While I was in Africa, I talked with scientists who were trying to improve agriculture from just about every angle. Some organizations have opted against using genetic modification (as AGRA has); Ravi Prabhu, at the World Agroforestry Centre, is looking for ways to improve farm productivity by incorporating trees. Others are going the GM route; Leena Tripathi, at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, has developed a banana resistant to bacterial wilt. Nobody was very focused on genetic modification per se; they were all too busy solving problems.

For the time being, DeVries is seeing huge advances with conventional seed but said “there are constraints that we can’t deal with through conventional breeding. Whether the answer is GM or not, the important thing is keeping science on the agenda and looking for solutions.”

After spending many hours talking with scientists, touring labs and visiting farmers, I came away convinced that the most important conversation we can have isn’t about GMOs, and it’s not about traditional crop varieties. It’s not about corporate control of the food supply, and it’s certainly not about dignity. It’s about money. Because there’s one thing — and, as far as I can tell, only one — that we absolutely cannot export to the developing world, and that’s the idea of farms that don’t make any.

We have a lot of them here. According the USDA, 59 percent of farm households have sales of under $10,000 and, on average, they lose money. But many of those are hobby farms, or farms created for tax purposes, so the more meaningful statistic is the 30 percent of farm households with sales from $10,000 to $250,000. Only 10 percent of their household income, on average, comes from the farm. Even when many consumers are willing to pay top dollar to opt out of the large-farm, industrialized system, smaller producers aren’t making ends meet. If you live in a place where there aren’t any off-farm jobs, and nobody’s willing to pay more than is absolutely necessary for food, farmers’ ends have to meet, and then some.

In Kenya, I asked a lot of people — drivers, guides, hotel staffers — how they ended up in Nairobi. Most came from surrounding rural areas and left for one reason: to find jobs. AGRA’s Wangalachi said that is the norm. “ ‘If you want me to consider agriculture, show me the money,’ the young people say. Farmers want to make money. They don’t want to do it as a pastime.”

And that was the theme of my visit. Everyone I spoke with emphasized that farmers have to make a living. “We want people to make money,” said Prabhu. “And we want them to do it in a way that’s sustainable.”

Nyiranaikubwayo Illuminee worked with AGRA-funded trainers to learn better agricultural techniques that she now practices on her small farm in Rwanda, which for the first time is bringing in income. (From Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa)

And so AGRA is focused on agriculture as enterprise. Growing enough to feed a family isn’t sufficient; there has to be money coming in. Improved seeds and fertilizer are critical to that. But so is infrastructure. So are loan guarantees. AGRA isn’t just helping people farm; it’s helping people start, and run, successful businesses.

If you think that denying those people tools because you’re afraid that’s how multinational corporations are going to cash in — by making farmers dependent on seeds and chemicals they can’t afford — ask yourself a couple of questions. Do you think African farmers are incapable of understanding how GMOs work and weighing the pros and cons? Do you think they don’t realize that hybrid or patented seeds have to be bought every year and make sense only if the yield improvement outweighs the increased cost? Do you think those are decisions African farmers can’t make, or that it’s math they can’t do?

Deploying powerful agricultural tools to Africa will have a downside; agriculture is a long series of trade-offs, and downsides are inevitable. Farmers have to do what’s best for farmers, and the fact that what’s best for farmers isn’t always what’s best for the environment, or what’s best for consumers, is a fundamental and difficult problem inherent in growing food. In fact, it’s one of those important problems we might be talking about if we didn’t have our knickers in such a twist about GMOs.

The way agricultural technology has been deployed in the first world has taught us a lot, and I haven’t encountered a single person who thinks our current system — vast swaths of corn and soy that go into meat, processed foods and biofuel — is optimal. The way to help other countries avoid our mistakes isn’t to deny them tools but to help them deploy those tools more effectively than we have.

In Nairobi, I had the chance to meet several scientists who, like DeVries, left the comforts of the developed world to spend careers in service to the idea that science can improve the lives of African farmers. They’re doing work that makes other jobs — like, say, journalism — seem cushy, even trivial. Widening options to help farmers lift themselves out of poverty is, I think, about as honorable as work gets. Any attempt to narrow them is advocacy gone awry.

Haspel writes about food and science and farms oysters on Cape Cod. Unearthed, winner of a 2015 James Beard Foundation award for the nation’s best food column, appears monthly. On Twitter: @TamarHaspel. She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: