Biotechnology, Agriculture, and Food Security in Southern Africa

June 16, 2005

by Steven Were Omamo and Klaus von Grebmer
In 2002, small domestic food supplies combined with strained domestic markets threatened to leave millions of people across southern Africa at risk of starvation. A similar combination of poor weather, policy failures, and market failures had left millions of southern Africans similarly exposed a decade earlier. But the food emergency of 2002–03 was different in one crucial respect: Thousands of tons of food were available to help cover shortages. Yet because it contained unspecified amounts of genetically modified (GM) grain, this food was considered suspect—or even poisonous—by some governments, unsure of the implications of GM food for human health and the environment. Biotechnology, like a host of other complex and multidimensional issues in the development field, has been characterized by marked conflict between different ethical and ideological perspectives. The implementation of agricultural biotechnology for food and feed production stimulates considerable controversy the world over, with strongly conflicting views not only about the technology itself but also about the ethical questions involved. What has contributed to making the differences so entrenched are the profound uncertainties regarding who will benefit and who may lose from the technology, what its unforeseen consequences may be, how long it will take for the impacts to be discovered, whether the effects can be known before irreparable harm is done, and who will make the decisions. Such complex and multidimensional policy disputes typically involve a high degree of scientific uncertainty, long time horizons, and decisionmaking at multiple jurisdictional levels and call for a wide range of political, economic, social, and scientific considerations. With these questions remaining by and large unanswered, different deep-seated beliefs about technology, nature, the global order, and the meaning of development on the part of the various stakeholders have come into play, increasing the intensity of the dispute and making it seem irreconcilable at times.