We'll Feed Our People As We See Fit

By Hassan Adamu
September 11, 2000 The Washington Post

It is possible to kill someone with kindness, literally. That could be the result of the well-meaning but extremely misguided attempts by European and North American groups that are advising Africans to be wary of agricultural biotechnology. They claim to have the environment and public health at the core of their opposition, but scientific evidence disproves their claims that enhanced crops are anything but safe. If we take their alarmist warnings to heart, millions of Africans will suffer and possibly die.

Agricultural biotechnology, whereby seeds are enhanced to instill herbicide tolerance or provide resistance to insects and disease, holds great promise for Africa and other areas of the world where circumstances such as poverty and poor growing conditions make farming difficult. Fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, machinery, fuel and other tools that richer nations take for granted as part of their farming regimen are luxuries in poorer countries.

Moreover, the soil in tropical climates, or in areas with inhospitable weather, cannot be farmed successfully in the more traditional ways. These circumstances demand unique agricultural solutions, and many have been made available through the advances of biotechnology.

To deny desperate, hungry people the means to control their futures by presuming to know what is best for them is not only paternalistic but morally wrong. Certainly, those with fertile lands and an abundance of food have every right to decide how they would like to grow their crops and process their foods. Organic farming, sophisticated methods of distributing food and other approaches are well and good for those who can afford to experiment. Starving people do not have this luxury. They want food and nourishment, not lectures, and we certainly won't allow ourselves to be intimidated by eco-terrorists who destroy test crops and disrupt scientific meetings that strive to reveal the facts.

It is wrong and dangerous for a privileged people to presume that they know what is best for everyone. And when this happens, it cannot come as a shock that those who are imposed upon often see this attitude as colonialist.

Millions of Africans--far too many of them children--are suffering from malnutrition and hunger. Agricultural biotechnology offers a way to stop the suffering. As Florence Wambugu, one of Africa's leading plant geneticists said recently, "In Africa, GM [genetically modified] food could almost literally weed out poverty."

With regard to agricultural biotechnology, Africans are not asking for others to come in and grow our food. We are not asking for others to provide the financial means to establish this system in our countries. We want to come to the table as stakeholders. We know the conditions of our fields. We know the threats, the insects and diseases. We can work as partners to develop the seeds that could build peoples and nations.

We do not want to be denied this technology because of a misguided notion that we don't understand the dangers or the future consequences. We understand. We understand that this system must continue to undergo study and careful use. We also understand that agricultural biotechnology has been deemed safe and nutritious by a host of nationally and internationally respected organizations such as the National Research Council, Nuffield Council on Bioethics, World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the American Medical Association and the American Dietetic Association.

We will proceed carefully and thoughtfully, but we want to have the opportunity to save the lives of millions of people and change the course of history in many nations. That is our right, and we should not be denied by those with a mistaken idea that they know best how everyone should live or that they have the right to impose their values on us.

The harsh reality is that, without the help of agricultural biotechnology, many will not live.

The writer is Nigeria's minister of agricultural and rural development.

Return to the home page of Better Foods