A Conversation with Dr. Barrett Brenton, Associate Director, Center for Global Development, and Senior Research Fellow, Vincentian Center for Church and Society of St. John's University

With: Barrett Brenton

April 28, 2010

Background: This discussion was part of a WFDD investigation of connections between faith and agriculture. Dr. Barrett Brenton spoke by phone with Katherine Marshall and Thomas Bohnett on April 28, 2010 about controversies around agricultural technology adoption in sub-Saharan Africa, especially as they relate to religious beliefs and the advocacy of religious leaders in the region. Dr. Brenton began by talking about his background in agricultural/nutritional anthropology and policy, which took him to Zambia in 2005, where he met with the Zambian-based Jesuits who led the protest against genetically modified food. He describes how he came to understand their protest not as reactionary, but as fundamentally rooted in Catholic understandings of sustainable development. Brenton went on to discuss the large-scale / small-scale farming debate in Africa, and the implications of industrialized farming for small holder farmers.

Could you start by telling us how you got into the specific issues of agriculture in Africa and the GMO controversy?

My first work in Africa was in Western Kenya, about twenty years ago. I worked with a USAID on-farm grain storage project. We looked at the social, cultural and anthropological dimensions of using appropriate technology. Then, as today, most people couldn’t afford to store what they have. This raises the question of how you bring models of appropriate technology into communities where most people can’t even afford the most basic things.

During my graduate work, my focus shifted to other parts of the world, and I ended up working with the Hopi in Arizona, who were reliant on maize and agriculture and whose religious relationship with maize is expressed in many deep ways. Facing highly contemporary issues like the loss of traditional foods, dietary change and the increased incidence of diabetes, you find yourself going back to this original discussion about the relationship between faith and maize itself.

I found my way back to sub-Saharan Africa about ten years ago, working on food fortification policies in South Africa. South Africa has the dominant maize milling industry in Africa. The government had dragged its feet in implementing any kind of national fortification policy particularly during the apartheid era. Interestingly, the United States national fortification policies only came as a result of World War II and of thinking at that time that linked a well-fed nation to a secure nation.

In South Africa, those in power during the apartheid era were not consuming maize, while the majority black African population was. Thus, fortification was not a major policy concern. Even so, there was research done on it. The government has not yet acted on all the research and the policy proposals but mills have begun to fortify, mostly due to private sector advertising—get your mealie-meal or nshima highly fortified for your children. However, fortified food remains out of a reasonable price range for most people.

In any case, this work brought me back to Africa. As you know, maize is the staple crop across eastern and southern Africa, and the work I did in western Kenya was on maize storage. Actually, the South African policies on food fortification brought me head on with the question of GMO crops and the policies related to that in South Africa and southern Africa more generally. Working along those lines, I became increasingly interested in HIV and food security, specifically household food security and the nutritional and food security implications of anti-retroviral treatment and the loss of parents.

Everything came together in Zambia with the collision of the drought period, the need for food security and for maize in particular, and the ultimate issue of fortified maize/soy blends as food supplementation in HIV/AIDS households. In 2002, all of these issues collided as Zambia refused food aid that had genetically modified elements.

My current area of focus continues to be on household food security and HIV/AIDS, in particular the nutritional interaction with antiretroviral treatment itself.

You were involved with Metanexus and a conference they sponsored around Africa and GMOs. What was that conference all about, and what happened afterwards?

The conference was just after I returned from Zambia. What I have been developing since then, in the context of the GM debate idling, is further research into the stance of the Catholic Church and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. As you may or may not know, the Vatican has not yet made a comment for or against GM foods, using the precautionary principle to evaluate their use and safety in society.

Surrounding the Zambian crisis were Pontifical Academy of Sciences meetings sponsored by USAID and Monsanto, groups that are clearly pro-GMO. In my opinion, what came about through these conferences was USAID and Monsanto clearly wanting to make certain technological directions moral imperatives in agricultural development. This current clashed with people on the ground in Zambia. In Zambia, I made contacts with Jesuits from the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection in Lusaka. The position of the Center is that while it is a moral imperative to feed the world, that fact does not determine that there is a single path toward development that we all must take, especially one using biotechnology.

You referred to the relationship between St. John’s and the United Nations. Could you tell us more about that?

I am referring to the Holy See Mission to the United Nations. The Vatican made a decision long ago not to seek to be a voting member of the UN but to have the ability to step back and provide context and perspective with their Permanent Observer status. Thus, the Holy See Mission is able to attend and comment on various high level conferences at the UN.

What they have asked us to do through our University’s Vincentian Center for Church and Society (VCCS) is to make available our professors and VCCS Research Fellows. At the invitation of the apostolic nuncio, we attend UN sessions and conferences and participate as appropriate within each meeting and on occasion present interventions on behalf of the Holy See. We serve as quasi staff of the Mission and depending upon the session participate in various ways from the academic perspective. The various professors on the team provide input on what is going on in their field in areas like agriculture, nutrition, health, statistics, law, ethics, environment, economics, and women’s issues. We write up summaries after attending sessions and programs and provide the Holy See with our views on the different positions and issues raised during the course of the UN meetings. As “faculty experts”, we function as representatives or consultants from our various academic disciplines. The Vincentian Center also collaborates with the Holy See Mission and the Path to Peace Foundation in developing and sponsoring Side Events while the General Assembly is in session.

Sitting in on the UN Commission on Sustainable Development meetings for the Holy See Mission has given me more insights on addressing this issue of the agricultural development and the role of technology. For example, the IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) report released in 2009, “Agriculture at a Crossroads” is a five year, multi-nation investigation incorporating voices from across the spectrum of opinion about agricultural technologies. The next step or question appears to be thinking about how local communities can maintain or sustain any kind of technologically-based development. While there may be proof of an increased yield when using the product in some cases, there is no evidence of a capacity to deal with issues of safety in terms of biotechnology. This is in essence the question the Zambians had and still have: they didn’t sense they had in place the infrastructure or safety protocols at a national level to deal with the GM materials.

At this point in time, from the perspective of a Millennium Villages Project or Gates Foundation Initiative, no one is making direct or brash statements about GMOs, but obviously they are still working through this. The Conference of Bishops for Southern Africa remains very interested in the subject. In the case of Zambia, the concern is more about questions of food sovereignty and access and rights to their own seeds than it is the fear of unknown science and technology.

In an interesting way, the Zambian Jesuits’ position may have been caricatured by their supporters. Is that a fair statement?

I do think you’re right, some of these incredibly anti-globalization, anti-biotech groups (of which Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are the two major network groups) have extracted these things from their context saying, the Zambians don’t want this, without going into the larger political sovereignty issues behind why they don’t want it. Now they focus on the danger aspects of using the technologies in terms of using human health rather than getting into the structural issues of government, economics, and poverty.

At the other extreme, remember the Bush administration was basically accusing Zambia of committing crimes against humanity, saying that they were killing Africans, and we could not let Africans die because of these ideological divisions. This rather heavy-handed moral imperative argument is used by both the biotech industry and governments.

Something we have heard from a number of people is that the debate is at a stand-off. Sol Katz has suggested that moving forward may be timely. We’ve spoken with others who have suggested it is hopeless and almost anything you do would make things worse. This is by no means the only issue, but it certainly keeps coming up in our discussions. I wondered what you thought. Would you think trying to convene a quiet reflective group might help? Or do you think the positions are too set? If yes, how might one go about it?

I am always in agreement that there always needs to be lots of reflection, which obviously is missing in a many of these issues.

These issues keep coming up at the UN. At the UN last spring, while many reports were being introduced at a main event, there was a side event that was very anti-GMO, organized by the Friends of the Earth. You didn’t get quite a sense that there was dialogue.

The IAASTD report on agricultural development, mentioned earlier, covered lots of issues in agriculture, including environment, energy trade offs, and on and on. One section of that was related to the question of GMOs. It said straight out that there were lingering doubts about the efficacy and adequacy of the testing regulatory framework, questions about the suitability of GMOs for addressing the needs of farmers while not harming others, and about the ability of modern technology to make significant contributions to the resilience of small and subsistence farming systems.

Without saying we don’t believe we should be using this technology, they questioned the larger impacts on small holder farmers. The questions come back to the issue of how agriculture is going to go forward. During these meetings, everyone came to an agreement in reflecting about money spent on agricultural development. Everyone has ignored it for the last 20years. If you look at a graph of inputs of foreign aid on agricultural development, it simply went crashing down over the last 20 to 30 years. Now the sense is that we need to go back to the basics: re-implement projects that deal with water management and soil fertility. The stand-off comes when people say we should jump over that need to build basic infrastructures, especially at the smallholder level, and over the need to have the knowledge and training about soil management, crop rotation, integrated pest management, and water management. There is a sense among the pro-GMO crowd that these things will all take too much time to get up and running, and that if we influence the process and speed it up by feeding in biotechnology, this might be a way to bypass some of these constraints. That is where I think the standoff needs to end and more discussion needs to be had. I think the common ground is that no one would disagree about the need to have basic funding and involvement in agriculture infrastructure.

From discussion about access to land and water and ways to have productive land, you begin to talk about ways to increase actual food production and move ahead towards integrating traditional methods with things like GMO when they are appropriate. I think the problem is that on the other hand the biotechnology industry, with their corporate profit motivation, starts proclaiming they have Vitamin A enriched rice, and the media picks up on it, while the reality is that on the ground nothing much has happened. The biotechnology side might say that is because there is too much resistance at the ground level, and the opposition would be saying this is harmful in this or that way. A better way might be stepping back and asking, “Are there already in place traditional crops and methods that we should enhance?” That is where I think the great work done on agro-eco health and agricultural biodiversity is another area of common ground that neither the biotech nor the anti-biotech world would disagree about. I think that navigating the common ground of basic agricultural knowledge and skills along with traditional systems of crop usage and biodiversity with nutritional/dietary diversity is where we should look to ground the conversation.

I know that the Millennium Village Project has noticed an amazing amount of biodiversity within these communities that can increase production and nutritional well-being alike, without a big increase in inputs. That is not saying that there is no need for other types of inputs. There are many critiques of the first Green Revolution, but in the end it was basic plant science. The spirit of the original Green Revolution was to decrease soil erosion and to increase plant productivity by enhancing traditional practices that were already in place. It is almost like we need to go back to the original starting place of that first Green Revolution and revisit what was actually being done: basic plant breeding, basic soil protection/enhancement and water management.

Do you get involved in the ongoing discussion on large versus small farming? What is your perspective on the merits and benefits?

There is a whole new dimension to that debate now. It is tainted from the start by this notion of “land-grabbing,” which is mostly talked about in reference to China’s leasing of huge tracts of land in Africa for industrialized agriculture. What is troubling to many people is that the Chinese are bringing in their own people to do the labor and the food ultimately goes back to China. The local small holders who have been displaced have not seen, and probably won’t see, any benefit from that. You could say that the government will benefit and there may be gains overall to the society, but it is hard to see how the small holder farmer benefits.

The U.S. has a system that allows it to produce large amounts of food very efficiently, although with costly inputs. Developing countries point to our being able to do this only through massive subsidies; they then ask why they should not subsidize large-scale industrial agriculture in their own countries. The tricky part is, where does that leave poor, small holder farmers in developing countries?

Industrialization in the U.S. allowed rural populations to move into urban areas and become part of the factory system, at the same time as we were industrializing our agriculture. The question for sub-Saharan Africa is, what are you going to do with the large, impoverished, rural populations ultimately displaced off the land to make way for industrial agricultural models? This shift could produce much more food, but what will happen to these displaced populations? What will guarantee them access to livelihoods or access to markets of affordable food? What we have seen in other countries is that most of the interest in profit will be in the export market; producers are able to make more money exporting than they can make in the country itself. That is, unless government intervenes and controls production and exports.

The lessons of history take us back to the polarization of development policies. Ethiopia is a good example and Somalia as well. In these countries you had large scale exports in the midst of famine. There is no guarantee in the political sphere a shift to the land lease/land grab model improves sufficient access to food for masses of people.

The other issue is the question of sustainability. We are finding sustainability issues here in the U.S. There are areas in the U.S. already experiencing declines in soil fertility and soil production, regardless of what kind of inputs are used to combat these trends. In a sense, some tracts of land are reaching their maximum potential. The small farmer model responds to this reality. It promotes a more sustainable, traditional system that deals with questions of local bio-diversity and small-scale agro-biodiversity. It considers the question of long-term, sustainable growth. It inherently invigorates the land through crop rotation, and letting some of the land go fallow for a time.

Climate change also comes into this debate. Large scale production is very much susceptible to climatic change. Local, small scale models are more able to buffer or at least deal with climatic transitions over time, whereas in contrast, larger models are not as flexible. Perhaps we could hope for a technological fix down the road, but I don’t think the policymakers in agriculture can say for sure that in the future we will develop these kinds of things.

You know far more than we about where the debate is and is not. Do you think urging Metanexus or even Gates to convene a quiet group to talk about the GMO and even the land issues would have a chance to make a difference, or does it appear to be “plowed ground,” so to speak?

I think it could make a difference in part because the pro-GMO folks are obviously looking for ways to adapt to the market itself. They have also seen that in the past their products have jumped ahead of the reality of how those products could be applied. I am sure that, regardless of the polarization, they would be willing to listen to what some of the options are out there. If we cycle back to the faith-based issue, the questions become social justice-oriented. If you focus on the human person and the common good, for example, and begin with that reference point in a conversation, you center on the universal question: What are the different pathways that you can best guarantee livelihoods of individuals and ultimately of families, households and communities? In that context, issues like sustainability and intergenerational responsibility can also be explored.

The Earth Institute, for example has incorporated a Center for the Study of Science and Religion in part to stimulate this kind of dialogue among their own scientists and to open the conversation to the dimensions of faith, as well. I know the Earth Institute and its Millennium Villages Project has consistently aimed to incorporate all strains of thinking about agricultural development, in part because of their sensitivity to the critics they have. They’ve tried to deal with those criticisms by being broad-based in their thinking as they go through these development projects.

Metanexus can clearly play a role at the “nexus” of science, religion, and agricultural development. Those three frames are the most important place to begin the conversation.

I witnessed the initial agricultural development efforts you referred to earlier and it is sobering to see that we are back to the initial stages again after such a drop-off of funding.

I came head to head with this in Zambia. One of the reasons the drought was so dramatic in terms of impact was that traditional systems in southern Zambia had lost their traditional coping strategies, which were based on cattle. The Zambians were encouraged to sell off their cattle and try different, new strategies that led to the problems they have now. These were strategies that tried to turn farmers into larger grain holders, which of course didn’t work.

There are now all these discussions that recognize we basically gave up on agricultural investment and ask, what do we do now? That is where we come back to the rest of our discussion. Do we push forward to promote heavily the technical dimension? Or do we go back to basics and look at the small scale farmer and introduce these eco-health issues that potentially lead to more sustainable, holistic development at the level of the small farmer?

As we look at the faith intersections there clearly is this incredibly complex, fascinating, and difficult to pin down area of traditional practices and attitudes. We’ve seen gender and division of labor as a distinction that has some kind of religious link. Another component in this are the faith based organizations practicing in agriculture. We’ve found nearly every denomination has an initiative. In fact, nearly every diocese has an agricultural project. A third component is then advocacy. Have you reflected at all on what the faith side can bring to these discussions?

Yes, I have, most explicitly in the context of Catholic Social Teaching on subsidiarity and solidarity with the poor. The idea of the dignity of the human person impacts the work of CRS and also diocesan activities. What I find at the core of the motivation of these organizations and individuals is a sense of responsibility to their neighbors, community members, and the greater community. The church tries to facilitate those questions and discussions through the lens of social and moral responsibility.

Working through faith groups is a way of harnessing people to work together and weather conflicts. Churches also can be a focal point for resolving conflicts. They can mediate land disputes in the community and other flare-ups of that nature. These are the elements from which faith based organizations will argue they are different and are to a major degree free of mercantile motivations. Certainly they promote the idea that they are different because they are trying to gain funding for their enterprises. But Church principles of reconciliation and mediation are certainly fundamental to how the groups operate and are not just advertising tools to get more funds. In their words, these principles are transformational.

A person in our network, Stephen Carr, has lived in Malawi for years and years working for many organizations including the World Bank. He takes the view that in fact the network of the faith organizations is by far the most dense and potentially the most powerful way of bringing about some kind of real change. But he warns that unless you really take them by the scruff of their necks and basically giving them a dose of heavy training, what they do is almost counterproductive. That is an interesting view but I would be curious to hear your response.

I will go back to my time in Zambia. Some of the folks implementing projects in the diocese of Lusaka were frustrated with the difficulty of shifting the church from charity to development. The charitable idea is still important but when the charity overrides questions of sustainable development or long-term agricultural development, it is very frustrating for those on the ground. Many of those higher up in the church administration have not yet made that complete shift.

An important question is how to help facilitate dialogue within the faith based organizations about how to move from charity to social justice which in this case is sustainable development. The goal of sustainable development stresses “integral human development” or development of the human person within the community. The ultimate question is how to move from the core emotional motivation of human giving or charity to investing in sustainable long term development for individuals and communities for social justice. That is definitely a place that needs much more dialogue within the faith based communities themselves and with other groups.

Discover similar content through these related topics and regions.