Skip to World Faiths Development Dialogue Full Site Menu Skip to main content

A Discussion with Robert Paarlberg, Wellesley College

January 27, 2010

Background: This telephone conversation between Robert Paarlberg, Katherine Marshall, Thomas Bohnett, Claudia Zambra, and Hahna Fridirici took place on January 27, 2010 as part of a review of links between agriculture and faith undertaken by the World Faiths Development Dialogue, in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The discussion focuses on the GMO debates, with special reference to Africa. Paarlberg situates the debate within a larger and polarized debate about “Green Revolution” approaches, which some see as essential to Africa’s success while others advise a more “homegrown,” less technologically focused approach. In contrast, actual progress in introducing GMOs is more tied to regulatory frameworks; Africa now faces a regulatory paralysis and lags behind most of the world. Paarlberg highlights the significant roles that religious leaders, especially in the Catholic Church, play in many situations, including in Africa and the Phillipines, and specific work on GMOs at the Vatican. In Africa, positions are tentative, but open given the particular focus on escaping from poverty. The discussion explores several country situations including the Philippines (promising), Burkina Faso, Mali, Kenya, Sudan, Haiti, and Zambia.

In partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we are exploring the question, “What does faith have to do with agriculture?” In the course of this work the GMO debate has come up frequently, as has the broader issue of how science is relevant for new agricultural strategies. I did note from your report on the November consultation meeting that the topic of GMOs came up, but was rather “skirted.” What is your sense of the “state of play” around GMOs and biotechnology? One colleague commented that he was so fed up with the debate that he’s almost given up. You seem to be more immediately involved. Could give us a sense of who the players are, and what is significant in the debate right now. We would love to hear any ideas you have about intersections of the debate with religion.

The debate over agricultural GMOs is actually situated within and is part of a larger divide in the development community between those who want a Green Revolution for Africa based on increased productivity driven by scientific innovation and the uptake of new technologies—some brought in from the outside by the Gates Foundation or USAID or private companies—versus another camp that did not like the Green Revolution and doesn’t want Africa to go through anything like that. This is a group that has spent more time studying how the Green Revolution malfunctioned in Latin America, where land ownership is highly inequitable and most of the benefits were captured by an already-privileged, narrow, rural elite who had subsidies for new technologies and, because of the subsidy, overused them and subsequently caused environmental damage in addition to social inequity. This group fears that the same pattern might happen in Africa, whether you bring in real GMOs or new, conventionally-developed high yield varieties of the kind that Kofi Annan with the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa plans to bring through funding from the Gates Foundation and Rockefeller (these are non-GMO varieties accompanied by fertilizer applications). There is a camp that does not like either because they don’t like the larger Green Revolution model of introducing a technology upgrade into peasant farming. This is a group that believes that indigenous knowledge and traditional techniques should be maintained and local community control should be maintained. This is a view that is found most precisely in an NGO called La Via Campesina. They are not just against GMOs; they are against the Green Revolution itself.

The view is also articulated to some degree in a report from International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) that was produced in 2008. The World Bank and FAO and others sponsored the paper. Bob Watson was the chair and hoped to produce the same kind of consensus that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced for climate change. The report emerged from a stakeholder process and was authored by 400 people, including some who were not scientists, representing governments and NGOs. The report raised the notion that the Green Revolution was the wrong model to follow and that we needed to embrace agro-ecology, organic approaches, and local control.

Thus there is a huge divide out there between those, including the Gates Foundation, who trust and who see a necessity for bringing new science to bear, for giving small farmers a technology upgrade to make their labor more productive—which is how farmers all over the rest of the world have escaped poverty—versus those who don’t trust that technology upgrade and who want to hold on to traditional approaches. I would situate the GMO debate into this larger divide. Those who are opposed to GMOs are, almost without exception, also opposed to the Green Revolution (which did not include GMOs).

On the question of how far GMOs have progressed, that has been determined not by this larger debate but rather by the adoption of different regulatory systems. Different countries, including most African countries which have adopted the European system for regulating GMOs, have not yet made it legal for farmers to use the technology. GMOs are currently not approved for use in nearly all of tropical Africa. The only tropical African country, out of 40 or so, to have approved any genetically engineered crops for production is Burkina Faso, which in 2008 approved transgenic cotton. Only two other countries in Africa have approved any GMOs. One is the Republic of South Africa, but they have been doing it for 12 years, they are not a tropical country, and they have a different tradition. A second is Egypt, which just two years ago approved GMO maize. But in the poor countries of sub-Saharan Africa, the technology has not yet been approved by regulators because those regulators have been following a European lead, not saying yes to the technology until the precautionary principle has been thoroughly applied. Applying the precautionary principle means that you don’t approve something until every hypothetical risk has been carefully studied, and until the nth year of exposure has been considered. That is a recipe for regulatory paralysis, and that is where Africa stands.

Other countries are moving ahead more significantly with the technology. Twenty-five developing countries around the world have given approval to at least one variety of GMO crop. That list now includes some very significant countries: the Republic of South Africa (as I already mentioned), China, India, Brazil, half a dozen countries in Latin America, and the Philippines. These countries have given approval to GMO varieties of cotton, an industrial crop, and in some cases to GMO varieties of crops used primarily for animal feed, such as soybeans or hybrid yellow maize. But China just last fall finally gave commercial approval to a GMO variety of their main food crop: rice. This variety has been tested widely for ten years but was held off the market due largely to anxieties about being able to export it. This variety has now been given approval for commercial planting and China will now multiply the seed for distribution to farmers over the next year or two. So Africa is lagging behind the rest of the developing world in its approval of GMOs. But even elsewhere in the developing world the approval process has been sluggish because the technology has been a source of so much regulatory contention, particularly between the EU and United States.

As to why it has been a source of such contention—that is hard to summarize quickly. The key is to understand that the evidence of new risks associated with this technology so far is extremely weak. Over the last 15 years since this technology was first commercialized, a half-dozen European Academies of Science have all said in writing that they are unable to find any documented evidence of any new risks either to human health or to the environment from any of the agricultural GMOs that have been put on the market so far. That is the official position of the Royal Society in the UK and the French Academy of Sciences and Medicine, and the German Academy of Sciences. In fact, it is the official position of the Research Director to the European Union. Scientists in Europe have not found any evidence of documented new risks, but activist political campaigns against the technology have not been significantly slowed down by the absence of any documented evidence of risk.

Where is the opposition in Europe coming from?

Originally it came from European NGOs, particularly Greenpeace International and Friends of the Earth International, both headquartered in the Netherlands. When GMOs were first exported to Europe in 1996, these NGOs launched a campaign against the technology. It was relatively easy to attack because it was a still a new technology then: it had only been commercialized in the United States the previous year, 1995. So there was not a lot known about it outside laboratory testing that had been done by the companies that had technology.

It arrived in Europe at a very difficult time. It arrived in the spring of 1996, which was when the mad cow disease scandal broke. European regulators had told European consumers it was perfectly safe to eat meat from diseased animals. However, in 1996 it was discovered that it had not been safe but rather that one could actually develop a fatal disease from eating the meat. So when the same European regulators told the same European consumers it was perfectly safe to eat genetically modified soybeans, they had no credibility. As a result, the NGOs found it relatively easy to stir up consumer anxieties. It then spiraled into a competition among food retail chains to promise they would not put any GM foods on the shelf. They competed with each other to claim they were GM free. At that point farmers in Europe decided that if stores weren’t going to sell it, then they had better not plant it. So the technology was driven out of the fields very quickly. Then the furor became so intense that regulators were forced to impose a moratorium on any new approval of GM products. They did that in 1998, pending a rewrite of their regulatory system and the incorporation of much tighter standards for labeling GMOs and a new, burdensome, process of tracing GMOs through the market. Once those regulations came into play it became impossible for private companies to do research on GMOs or for farmers to grow them and sell them into the market, or even for food companies to import them and sell them in the market. The regulations in effect drove the technology out of the market in Europe. So when African countries embrace the same regulatory system the result is that it is driven out of the market in Africa.

Do you have the sense that it’s being applied? Africa has a “wild west” feel and there are lots of actors.

That’s a great question, because the technology has spread under the radar by stealth elsewhere, around Latin America for example. We know how soybeans moved into Brazil illegally, and were planted and replicated by farmers originally without government approval. GM cotton spread into India illegally: farmers liked it and replicated it, initially without government approval. That hasn’t happened in tropical Africa yet, because, first of all, the GM crops on the market, soybeans for example, are not widely grown in tropical Africa. As for maize, most of the GM maize on the market is hybrid yellow maize and in tropical Africa they plant white maize, and they plant not temperate or semi-tropical varieties, but rather tropical varieties of white maize. GM varieties of tropical white maize don’t yet exist to smuggle. Thus it has been a technology that hasn’t been smuggled into Africa for a number of different technical reasons. This may change now that Burkina Faso has approved genetically modified cotton seeds. It may be only a matter of a year or two before those seeds are smuggled into Mali. For an industrial crop like cotton there aren’t too many consumer resistance issues. However, in India cotton seed is crushed and fed to animals and cotton seed oil is a cooking oil. In Africa, cotton is almost always only grown for use in industry to be exported as fabric or garments. So it is less of an issue.

Is there a conversation going on, or are people just trading barbs in a stalemate?

It is pretty well polarized. The Gates Foundation has tried to have serious conversations about GMOs. In 2006, they launched their Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa with the Rockefeller Foundation, which included a new seed development project for Africa. They said that they would not “initially” be using any transgenic varieties, but the critics of both the Green Revolution and GM varieties immediately started badgering Kofi Annan, who was the nominal chairman of the project, asking: will you be using GMOs or not? And he announced, either carelessly or out of necessity, that they would not use GMOs. To the present day, this project has not used GMOs. You almost have to take that pledge or you will be targeted for incessant criticism. The Gates Foundation has sponsored research on GMOs, both GMOs with agronomic traits like drought resistance for Africa—they have a $45 million, five-year project they are sponsoring for that—and also GMOs with nutrient traits, bio-fortified crops. An example is bio-fortified sorghum for Africa, but that is moving very slowly.

If there would be a place where one could think the polarization would have been relaxed, it would have been in 2000, when Swiss scientist Ingo Potrykus developed a genetically engineered rice variety, so-called Golden Rice. The rice is high in beta carotene, the vitamin A precursor. The rice would have been useful way to address vitamin A deficiencies in children living in Asia. The groups that had been criticizing GMOs because they had come from Monsanto and had been developed to tolerate herbicides should have had no complaint about Golden Rice, since it was actually developed with money from the European Union and the a crop promised to reduce blindness among Asian children. But the critics did not give that a pass; they immediately criticized the rice because it was a GMO. The groups who criticize GMOs criticize all GMOs, and those who criticize all GMOs tend to be those who criticize the Green Revolution itself, evidence that the public debate is pretty well ideological and polarized.

From where you sit, do bishops, priests, and imams play a significant role in this?

Not in the U.S. or in Europe. It’s different in developing countries where the Roman Catholic Church, in particular, has significant political credibility. Where governments have not paid attention to the poor, the Roman Catholic Church has often stepped in and played a valuable role articulating the needs and interests of poor marginalized people in communities. Whether it is radical priests in Latin America; or bishops in Africa where governments are not democratic and are corrupt with an urban bias and neglect the poor; or in the Philippines with its history of dictatorships, the Roman Catholic Church played a role there as a spokesperson for the rural poor. In these settings the Church is a prominent part of the public debate.

A conference at the Vatican produced documents suggesting a quite balanced position. Is that just navigating between polarized sides or are there elements there of solutions?

Rome is trying to keep all the bishops and cardinals happy, and that is a tough job. There was a conference almost a decade ago that produced a fairly non-committal document. There was also a conference in Rome in May [2009] at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. I was there and participated. The Pontifical Academy itself, as far as I know, did not produce a finding from that conference. The participants in the conference, most of whom were scientists who supported the technology, drafted a statement on their own initiative. The statement had the support from some of the cardinals and bishops in attendance who had asked questions and participated in the discussion. But the statement was not endorsed by the Vatican. Some in the Church tend to take a hard line against GMOs, primarily because the technology has been left to be developed by private companies, and particularly in Latin America private multinational corporations are frequent targets. Monsanto becomes public enemy number one.

Monsanto absolutely. In Latin America the Church is skeptical, first because multinational corporations have such a bad reputation among the poor in Latin America and second because the Green Revolution has a bad reputation among the poor. Some from the Church in Africa take a more positive view of the technology as they are more focused on escape from rural poverty rather than targeting multinational companies, which historically have a smaller presence in Africa. But even in Africa the Church remains tentative, and calls for more research.

Do you have a sense of what lines of investigation we should pursue? Would you urge us in any particular direction?

I don’t know how large a project this is going to be. I find it interesting that the Roman Catholic Church in particular, even when it criticizes the technology, does not do so within the same framework that environmental NGOs do. The Roman Catholic Church puts people first. It certainly wants the environment protected but it wants the environment protected for the benefit of people in a way that would please God because it is good for people, particularly poor marginalized people. I find that to be an extremely valuable and attractive perspective compared to the sometimes misanthropic vantage point of extreme advocates for ecology and the environment, as though people didn’t matter. I think that’s a powerful force and it is something that I value that faith brings to the debate.

This suggests that they could temper the extremes of the polarized debate.

Yes, I think so. The Roman Catholic Church can itself be polarizing when it comes to human biotechnology, where they draw bright lines that go beyond what most secular commentators would accept. When it comes to the biotechnology of other species, they are more accepting of science based modifiations. They don’t worship nature.

Is the Golden Rice issue relevant in Africa right now?

No, it’s not really relevant in Africa right now; it is more relevant in South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Is it in active production there?

No, it was a discovery made in 2000. Until last year field trials had not been permitted anywhere in Asia. Field trials were conducted in the United States. Field trials were at long last permitted in the Philippines a year ago but it is not legal for any country in Asia to plant Golden Rice commercially, and it is not legal in any country in Asia to import Golden Rice for consumption. This is of course a deep frustration to Ingo Potrykus. Ingo was a leader behind the meeting at the Pontifical Academy last spring.

A topic like that might be a good way to provoke discussion, but it would need to be taken out of the abstract—it needs to be in a place where it can make a difference.

Yes, I sense the Philippines would be an interesting venue for that. The Philippines is the host to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). IRRI is in the Philippines and is the custodian of this technology within the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) system. The Philippines is also home to a powerful, prominent, politically-influential Roman Catholic Church. Nuns and priests have, in the past, been opposed to the use of genetically modified maize in the Philippines. I don’t know if they have taken a position on Golden Rice. Golden Rice should be different because it is a bio-fortified crop that is good for consumers, not just an agronomic crop good for producers.

You gave a remarkable talk at Purdue in early December. You walked through the debates surrounding biotech legislation in Kenya. Were debates in Burkina Faso similar? Were there religious voices in these debates? Did they advocate for certain positions? Did people call on religious vocabulary to defend their positions?

I don’t think so. Burkina Faso went ahead and approved the technology but without a great deal of debate, in part because the government there is not fully democratic. In Mali, a neighboring country and a democracy, these things were debated endlessly and approval has not been forthcoming. There would be greater opportunity for the voice of the faithful—Catholics, and also Muslims—to be heard there. To learn about that you could explore an NGO that campaigned in Mali against GMOs through a citizen jury project. They put the technology “on trial” before a jury of local people. They may have chosen local church people to be part of the jury or they may have chosen local church [mosque] people to give testimony at this citizen jury trial. This citizen jury exercise in Mali might be a good place to learn if the church has weighed in one way or another. The NGOs involved include the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) plus the Swiss biosafety institute, RIBios. Google “Citizen jury, GMO, Mali” and you should get an immediate link. IIED is a British group, and some very strong opposition to this technology comes from environmentalists and organic farmers in the UK. The former British environment minister Michael Meacher has actually been one of the lead campaigners against the technology in Africa.

Kenya’s issues have been based more on environmental and food safety concerns rather than social justice. But a country where social justice has come up was Zambia in 2002, when Zambia was facing a drought emergency and needing to import food aid from the World Food Programme (WFP). Food was offered through the program but it had come from the United States and it was GMO maize. There was opposition inside Zambia to importing GMO maize. Some of that opposition came from Jesuit priests. They were expats from the U.S. who were running a local NGO that campaigned against GMOs, among other things. They had developed their own theological justification for doing without GMOs. It was not a theory that came from the Vatican, or was ever endorsed by the Vatican. However, they were using their authority as priests and they were using theological language to explain why GMOs should not be used: they proclaimed the inherent God-given right of all species, including plants, not to have their genetics altered. Zambia has a complete ban on GMOs that is still in place. They are getting their assistance from an NGO in Norway to enforce that ban. Their policy has not changed a bit. I don’t know if these two priests are still playing an active role in Zambian politics.

Have you come across anything from either Muslim groups or Evangelicals?

There is a general anxiety about growing GMO crops in Africa because maybe they won’t be able to export them to Muslim countries in the Persian Gulf. For the most part these Gulf countries have not yet given official approval to the import of GMO wheat, for example, though there aren’t any GMO varieties of wheat commercialized anywhere in the world so that wouldn’t be an issue. You might think Muslim countries would have objections to this technology but, until China finally approved GMO rice last fall, the only other country to have given a commercial approval to the planting and sale of GMO rice was the Islamic Republic of Iran. This didn’t necessarily enhance the global reputation of the product. Kuwait and the other Gulf countries have not approved it nor does there appear to be much discussion of approving it.

I would think that it might come up as a practical issue in Sudan and some of the other supposed bread baskets for the region.

It did come up in Sudan. Several years ago Sudan announced to the WFP that they did not want to import any genetically modified food as food aid. WFP said they could not be absolutely sure that the maize provided would be completely free of GMOs. Sudan, encouraged by Friends of the Earth International, came back and said you had better say it is completely free. In the end WFP had to re-source its food aid to Sudan and used non-GMO cereals that cost more and were less appropriate to the local diet. I doubt that Sudan was doing that because it was an Islamic country; it was most likely saying no because of NGO campaigns against the technology, just as in Zambia.

Is it an issue in Haiti? There will be massive food moving around in the next weeks and months.

I don’t know if we’re sending Haiti any maize or soybeans. One distinction that is sometimes drawn is between food aid that arrives as a whole kernel of maize that might actually be planted. It is viable, a living GMO, the kind of thing that comes under the control of the Cartagena Protocol (adopted in 2000). In contrast, maize flour that has been milled can’t be planted, it’s not a living GMO, so there are no bio-safety issues. Quite often countries that have doubts about importing viable seeds will go ahead and import flour. Zimbabwe is an example: it does not import GMO seed, but it does import GMO flour. If it has been milled they will take it.

Some people we have spoken to have highlighted what some term the “land grab” phenomenon. Do you see that as being at all tied to a power shift in how GMOs are discussed? Such that if China is buying vast tracts of land and also approving, developing their own seeds, would that be a means of GMO entry and acceptance in Africa?

I don’t think that’s a serious issue. The land grab scenario was a bit of a scare story. When the price of rice tripled and the price of wheat tripled, some countries in the Gulf and China wanted to secure sources of food from abroad, along with other raw materials and commodities that were also increasing in price at the time. And, some countries in the Gulf had more money than they knew what to do with, the price of oil being $140 a barrel. They were looking for places to invest so they started buying land. The same thing happened during the previous oil spike in 1974. Gulf countries bought up a lot of land and promoted food production in the Sudan, depicted at the time as a future bread basket of the Arab world. This too was a temporary phenomenon, driven by the temporarily high price of commodities. I don’t think it’s a serious food security issue. I don’t think any Africa country facing a food shortage is going to allow private land owners to export what is produced on that land without government permission. They have it within their control to block such exports.