Biotechnology: How to set African women free

A trade dispute between rich nations could unlock or tighten the chains on the world’s poorest farmers – meaning most African women. The World Trade Organisation’s forthcoming ruling on GM foods could keep them scratching at the soil for subsistence or help them conquer famine.

The World Economic Forum published a ranking last year of 58 countries and their “gender gap,” a big feature of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. It seems people in the world’s wealthier countries are very concerned about maternity leave and subsidised childcare so that they can return to their careers and working life. African women are more worried about family survival.

Only two sub-Saharan countries made the list, South Africa and Zimbabwe, at 36th and 42nd. Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, Niger, Ethiopia and many other places in Africa, millions of women, children and men were starving. In my country Kenya today, close to 3.5 million are in the verge of starvation.

Instead of having careers and au pairs, most African women are subsistence farmers. In sub-Saharan Africa, 70% of the population depends on agriculture as the sole source of income and women and children contribute 60-80% of the labour, mainly in small-scale farming with manual labour: ploughing, planting, weeding, hoeing, spraying, harvesting and processing. After all these efforts, 30% to 90% of our crops are lost to drought, disease, pests, weeds and poor storage.

These women do not have modern labour-saving devices such as electric ovens and washing machines, so the remainder of their time is spent in more manual labour: fetching water and fuel, cooking and cleaning, raising children and so on.

But a rapidly increasing population far outstrips food production: right now 12 million Africans are starving and they are expected to reach 30 million in months.

It is not just drought and locusts that oppress us: weak property rights in most African countries means that farmers have little incentive to invest in their land, no collateral to raise money for investments and no motivation to improve land that they could lose from one day to the next. Women, generally, have even fewer property and financial rights.

Lately the HIV/AIDS plague has more than decimated the farm labour so badly needed to increase food production, thus exacerbating dependency, conflicts, ill-health, malnutrition and the resurgence of communicable diseases such tuberculosis and hepatitis.

The situation in wealthy countries could not be more different. Farmers (both male and female) sometimes constitute as little as 2% of the population yet food supply is abundant. Farming in those countries has been modernised by technology such as high-yielding seeds, pesticides, fertilizers, good agronomic practices and machinery. Likewise, farmers enjoy the benefits of living in a market economy with profitable research and development and with infrastructure for transport, refrigeration and trade.

Biotechnology has been the most rapidly adopted technology in agricultural history because of its social and economic benefits – but nowhere could these be greater than for women in poor countries in Africa and beyond.

The general effect of a new technology is to increase the quantity of a good (in this case, agricultural crops), which can be produced from the same input or less (time, money, land). Efficient farmers would be able to feed more people than just their families – and this means that, like their counterparts in wealthy countries, more women would be freed to engage in other economic activities and to get an education.

Not only would biotechnology expand the freedom of choice for women and thus reduce the gender gap, it offers important health and environmental benefits for poor countries. It improves the quantity and quality of food and cuts pesticides. By increasing the intensity of crops, there is less pressure to convert marginal land to agricultural use and more chance of saving our rich biodiversity. Future technological developments promise plants that could withstand saline conditions, drought, pests and the other scourges of agriculture in poor countries.

So it is easy to understand why biotechnology would help us in so many ways – yet it is at a critical juncture today. A small group of activists has disproportionately affected the global debate on biotechnology, and particularly in the European Union, using enormous resources to generate scare stories that regularly appear in the news and affect government policy: Zambia rejected GM maize donated by the USA last year while its people were starving – the same maize that Americans and Canadians have been eating for years.

Citing the vague “precautionary principle” which gives undefined misgivings the status of evidence in EU law, these stories present a variety of purely hypothetical risks of biotechnology and none of the real risks of being an African. Today, African women and children in particular face the real risks of pests, drought, malnutrition, fungi and starvation.

For them, the question is how to fight those immediate risks: access to technology including genetically modified foods is one answer.

The WTO is due to rule shortly in a case brought by the USA, Canada and Argentina against the EU’s barriers to GM imports: the outcome will have a direct effect on the ability of poor people to produce better food and to export it. Even if the EU barriers come down, origin and labelling rules will still threaten GM produce or even produce grown in a country with GM crops.

To overcome these barriers we must move away from the polarised positions that have defined the transgenic debate so far, to a rational discussion of GM food.

We African women hope that one day we might share the same concerns as our Western sisters about juggling careers and family life and attaining that elusive goal of gender equality. Right now, however, we face the problem of survival – and biotechnology offers a big part of the solution.

Author: Dr Margaret Karembu is a senior researcher for the international Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications AfriCenter, Nairobi. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Feature Article/ 07 February 2006 - Policy Bulletin/ 23 June 2009
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