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Calestous Juma on Being Pro-Africa, Why Africa Needs GM Crops, and How He Came to Be a Cheerleader

05/02/2014 04:30 pm ET | Updated Jul 02, 2014
Elisabeth Pollaert Smith via Getty Images

Calestous Juma is currently a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he also directs the Science, Technology, and Globalization Program and the Gates Foundation-funded Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project. He has also served in the United Nations as the first permanent Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity and claims membership to four prestigious scientific academies around the world. But when asked about his work, he muses for a bit. "Really, I am just a cheerleader for African leaders and youth," he responds, then bursts into laughter.

Calestous Juma's interest in agricultural biotechnology began with three seeds and a hard question. He was conducting research on indigenous plants on the slopes of volcanic Mt. Elgon in Kenya, where a river had recently dried up, leaving local residents with little arable land. There he met an elderly woman -- "she must have been in her seventies," he squints to remember -- and after they talked for a bit, she brought out a ball of wrapped banana leaves. Delicately peeling one leaf back at a time, she revealed three seeds from mbungo plants that used to grow along the river but could no longer survive in these conditions. "You as scientists," she asked Juma, "Is there a way you can make this plant grow where there is not a lot of water?"

The year was 1987, and seed biotechnology was still relatively new. After the encounter, Juma became interested in biotechnology's capacity to solve specific, local agricultural problems like that of the farmer. Several years before any genetically-modified (GM) crops had become commercially available in North America, Juma co-authored The Gene Hunters, in which he foretold biotechnology's immense potential to change Africa. At the time of its publication, the book focused on the national security implications of biotechnology, but its closing words still ring true today: "Africa cannot continue to ignore the imperative of socio-economic evolution: innovate or perish."

Twenty-six years later, Juma still champions innovation in Africa, but now with the clout of an internationally-acclaimed authority respected by leaders around the globe (and almost 50,000 Twitter followers). His sagely cloud of white hair hints at his decorated accreditation but is offset by a broad, easy smile and an unreined laugh. From an early age, growing up along the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria, Juma witnessed cycles of famine and forced migration due to damaged land and fisheries strained by human population growth. Season after season of observing the deterioration of both the natural environment and human livelihoods impressed upon him the importance of finding both economic and ecological solutions to sustainable development. It was through his early conservation work at Mt. Elgon that he found a key part to that solution, wrapped in a wad of banana leaves.

However, the reality today is that African countries still have not welcomed agricultural biotechnology, especially GM seeds. As a result, while agricultural productivity has significantly improved over the past few decades in Asia and Latin America, Africa has been left behind. In 2008, the UN Task Force on Trade, Environment, and Development reported a 10 percent decrease in food production per capita on the continent, which contributed to an alarming 20 percent increase in the number of undernourished sub-Saharan Africans between 1990 and 2008. Although improved agricultural productivity has been shown to be among the most effective factors in reducing poverty, Sub-Saharan African countries have been slow to adopt modern agricultural tools like GM seeds. To date, commercial GM crops can only be planted in three countries on the continent.

At the same time, GM crops represent only one part of a larger problem. "There is no use replacing your computer's processor if you don't have electricity," Juma quips. The entire agricultural system must be rebuilt, and in order to achieve that, he argues, government, industry, and civil society must take a cooperative approach to economic growth. In his recent publication The New Harvest -- a memo for African presidents -- Juma advocates for a relentlessly holistic model of development, whereby infrastructure, education, technological innovation, and entrepreneurship interact and co-evolve across borders. This feat is only possible with deft coordination from top-level leaders, and for this reason, Juma focuses on working directly with African leaders, particularly presidents.

He highlights, for example, how Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika brought his country from a dire state of underproduction and poverty to becoming a net exporter of maize. Decades of low rainfall, insufficient investment in agriculture, and nutrient-depleted soils led to record-low maize production -- half of what was expected -- and left over 5 million Malawians in need of food aid. In a series of actions Juma describes as "entrepreneurial leadership," wa Mutharika devoted $50 million to import improved seeds and fertilizer and make them available to smallholders farmers via subsidies. Despite criticism from the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the policy was implemented and received strong support from Malawians. Within just two years, Malawi produced its largest maize crop ever and began exporting its surplus to its food-insecure neighbors.

Juma pauses to comment that he does not consider himself pro-GM, even though that is usually how anti-GM advocates label him. Thinking back to the farmer he met at Mt. Elgon, he emphasizes that GM should be made available as one option in a toolbox of solutions, which may very well also include organic methods. He is pro-Africa, but notes that this is not just another way of saying "pro-poor," explaining, "Africans do not see themselves as poor. They see themselves as with opportunity to make their own decisions." When that is understood, even pro- and anti-GM warriors might make peace.

His "Freedom to Innovate" report is a prime example of productive consensus. In 2007, members of the High-Level African Panel on Modern Biotechnology in the African Union (AU) gathered to produce a report advising the AU of new technology policy directions. The panel featured a variety of African leaders on both sides of the GM divide, ranging from university professors and senate members to heads of environmental protection agencies and agricultural technology foundations. Juma points out that, despite their wildly opposing views on GM, within a couple of hours at the first meeting they were able to collaboratively construct policy recommendations based on one key common denominator: Africa should be able to make its own choices about biotechnology.

The blame (or credit) for tight anti-GM restrictions in so many African countries has been attributed to anti-GM European and international NGOs. European countries, which enjoy a large food surplus, can restrict GM in their own markets with little consequence to nutrition or food security. However, many African countries struggle with low agricultural productivity and lack access to the well-developed agricultural infrastructure that cushions food supply in Europe. For European NGOs to actively lobby and block GM in Africa -- Juma explains "that is mischievous and unethical and undiplomatic."

But this isn't just about gullible leaders, Juma continues. Opposition to GM from within Africa exists as well, but it is different from European opposition. Take Uganda. In 2003, the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) of Uganda established a new research laboratory to investigate genetic modification in bananas, in response to an impending bacterial banana wilt crisis. NARO was endowed $7.07 million from USAID through a partnership with Cornell University and is scheduled to release a wilt-free banana variety in 2016. However, Uganda's universities were excluded from funding and, thus, the opportunity to conduct research on their own. Resentment between universities and research institutions opened a space for foreign NGOs to enter and amplify the voices of Ugandan biotechnology dissenters in universities. Though concerned not so much with the hazards of GM as with their own exclusion from research, these dissenters influenced Parliament members to block GM in legislation.

Uganda is one of only a few countries on the continent that allows field testing of GM crops. Many African countries do not even have that option. Tight, precautionary European-style legal restrictions on GM that have already been passed through Parliament have limited many countries' own abilities to test new GM varieties. "They have tied their own hands," Juma sighs. "Fundamentally, if you can't do field trials, you cannot take a position. Restrictions on field trials tend to suppress decision-making because you don't have evidence of whether it works or not."

But the tide is shifting. In 2012 alone, six African countries elected engineers for presidents; in fact, Africa currently boasts the highest number of presidents with technical backgrounds in the world. Independent African think-tanks like the African Centre for Technology Studies that Juma planted in 1988 -- the first of its kind -- are generating African perspectives on science, technology, and development. Although the cacophony of global debate surrounding Africa often drowns out the voices of Africans themselves, Juma knows that African leaders and youth can be immunized from outside opinions and interests if they can just be empowered to form their own. As their cheerleader, that is his goal.

"Ultimately, all development is experimental. No one knows what they are doing," Juma chuckles. "Africans need the chance to experiment as well. They will make mistakes, but they can learn from them too."