Calestous Juma, a professor at Harvard, is one of the leading propoenents of using genetically modified crops.
‘Technological intolerance’ has hampered adoption of GMOs, particularly in Africa, says Harvard professor Calestous Juma.
By: Kate Allen Science and Technology reporter,
When Calestous Juma was 9 years old, floods inundated his family’s village. Port Victoria sits on the Kenyan shore of Lake Victoria, just shy of the Ugandan border.
As residents began considering how to replant family farms on less land, Calestous’ father, John Juma, travelled to Uganda. He returned with cuttings of the cassava plant, a starchy, carbohydrate-rich tuber. At the time, cassava was unfamiliar in that part of Kenya.
The village debated whether to plant the cassava. Some wanted to wait until the water subsided and replant traditional crops. When wild pigs, displaced by the flood, came and ate some seedlings, villagers blamed John Juma’s cassava for attracting them. And “they were worried these plants would breed demons,” says Calestous Juma.
The cassava enthusiasts eventually prevailed, however, and Juma says the crop has become a staple in Kenya.
Fifty years later, Juma cites those debates as the fuel for his interest in agricultural innovation, the issue that knits together a career that has taken him from Kenya, to the U.K., Canada and the U.S. Juma is a professor of the practice of international development at Harvard, the director of the science, technology and globalization project at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the director of the Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
But the cassava story also explains the frustration that seeped from a speech he gave in Montreal, when he accepted an honourary degree from McGill University.
Juma, who calls himself a genetically modified crop “optimist,” titled the speech “A Plea for Agricultural Innovation” and used the platform to decry the “technological intolerance” that has hampered the adoption of GMOs, particularly in Africa.
He says the debates around biotechnology remind him of the cassava arguments in his village in the early 1960s. “Very often, we may overreact about the possible negative impacts of (new technologies), and make decisions that are based on emotion, rather than on evidence.”
Critics of biotechnology argue that the hesitation to adopt genetically modified crops is a matter of prudence, not fear: it reflects our limited knowledge of their effectiveness and safety.
But Juma says evidence in support of GMOs is growing, and hopes they will soon be as familiar as cassava, particularly in Africa.
“Sixty per cent of the world’s arable land available today is in Africa. All efforts to feed the world — not just to feed Africa, but to feed the world — in the next decade or more are going to focus on Africa. Which means Africa has to do it right, and have the scientific basis not to mess it up.”
The agricultural challenges of feeding 9 billion people — the world’s projected population by 2050 — “are sufficiently gargantuan that we are going to need every tool in the kit,” says Val Giddings, senior fellow with the Washington-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and a friend of Juma’s.
“He has quite understandably become less patient.”
Source of inspiration
If Juma’s early interest in agriculture was fed by his father’s attempts to introduce cassava, his early interest in science and technology came from watching John Juma work as a carpenter. As a child, Calestous became known in the village as someone with a penchant for fixing things. When he was 12, his parents excused him from church on Sundays to develop a small business repairing broken radios and record players.
Juma’s mother was another source of inspiration. She gave up farming to become a trader of fish, maize and other foods, learning a new language, Luo, in the process.
“Being able to think about new things, doing new things, experimenting, was always a big part of my early childhood,” says Juma.
The family didn’t have enough money to send him to university, however. So, at 19, Juma became a science teacher in Mombasa.
Classes ended at midday; Juma spent his afternoons at the local library penning letters about various issues to the Daily Nation newspaper. His letters became popular and editors eventually persuaded him to become a science and environment reporter. As far as Juma is aware, he was the only science reporter in sub-Saharan Africa.
After a year at the Daily Nation, he was hired by the Canadian head of a Nairobi-based environmental group launching a magazine funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). The connections he made led to a scholarship from Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) that sent him to the University of Sussex for a masters and PhD in science and technology policy.
After Juma returned to Nairobi, he established the Africa Center for Technology Studies, the continent’s first think-tank that applied science and technology to development issues. In 1995, he was hired by the United Nations to become the executive secretary of the convention on biological diversity. When the convention established its permanent home in Montreal, Juma moved to Canada.
His Montreal move in 1996 coincided with the first planting of commercial GM crops in the U.S., and the explosion of interest and concern in the technology.
At the UN group he now headed, there was massive debate. Many argued GM crops would harm the environment and only benefit rich, large-scale farmers.
“I had come from the environmental field, and I thought these crops actually could have the potential to help protect the environment, for example if they reduced the use of chemicals, or if they allowed you to use less land to intensify production.”
Juma used his speech in Montreal last week to argue that, 17 years after those first commercial GM crop plantings, research has confirmed his early views.
A total of 108.7 million hectares of land were saved between 1996 and 2011 through the efficiency of biotech crops, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a pro-GMO not-for-profit.
The ISAAA and other research has calculated that GMOs saved hundreds of millions of kilograms of chemical pesticides since 1996 and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by billions of kilograms.
Some dispute those figures — particularly on pesticide reduction, since new research shows more insects are evolving resistance to GM crops.
Research on the economic boon to poor farmers is clearer.
In a 2003 article in the journal Science that has been cited more than 550 times, a German-U.S. academic team examined farm trials in India of insect-resistant GM cotton. The GM crops saw yield boosts of 80 per cent compared to the conventional variety — a much greater advantage than most U.S. farmers saw when switching to GM, since unlike the poor Indian farmers, the Americans had been using sophisticated chemical insecticides.
One of the authors of the Science paper published another study this month in PLOS ONE showing that small-scale Indian farm households growing GM cotton also saw better calorie consumption and dietary quality, as a result of higher incomes. The researchers estimated that the GM technology was responsible for a 15 to 20 per cent drop in food insecurity in those households.
In Burkina Faso, a 2010 study showed farmers who used GM cotton increased their yields enough to raise their annual cotton income by 31 per cent — an average income boost of $207 for farmers who earned just $657 from the crop.
Yet only four African countries — Burkina Faso, Egypt, Sudan and South Africa — allow commercial GMO crops. In some African countries, GMO field trials aren’t even permitted.
In Montreal, Juma pointed to a popular culprit for this reticence: policy-makers in Europe, where deep restrictions on biotechnology have been in place for more than a decade. In a 2010 poll, more than 60 per cent of European respondents said GMOs made them “uneasy.”
“The delays (in Africa) can be partly attributed to technological intolerance, much of which has been handed down by European anti-biotechnology activism,” Juma said in Montreal.
“There are several different channels of external influence on Africa’s policy area in this regard, and Europeans dominate most of those channels,” says Robert Paarlberg, a professor of political science at Wellesley College, who has known Juma for over a decade.
Paarlberg and others say the influence of aid money, post-colonial relationships, institutions like the UN, and activist organizations like Greenpeace have allowed European leaders to pressure and scare African governments into resisting biotechnology.
Critics, however, question the time, attention and money being heaped on biotechnology at the expense of other possible solutions to the problem of global food security.
“The assumption that’s being made by people like Juma is that we can only get there by using genetic engineering, and of course the implication is that other technologies can’t get us there,” says Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists food and environment program. “We simply don’t know that.”
Gurian-Sherman wants to examine solutions like conventional breeding techniques, improved irrigation and decreased food waste.
Juma says biotechnology is not a silver bullet — but we cannot afford to ignore its promise.
Growing more vocal
In 1998, Juma left Montreal for Boston (his wife, Alison, is from Boston, though they met in Ottawa; their son Eric is 15). Juma parlayed a fellowship at Harvard into his current array of titles. He says he left his UN job primarily because he didn’t want to see the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety passed under his watch; it tightly regulates the handling, transport and use of GM organisms, and Juma has called it the product of a “pessimistic world view.”
Today, Juma disseminates his own world view through talks, teaching, publications and a 35,000-follower Twitter account. He has also co-chaired high-level panels on biotechnology and innovation for the African Union.
Biotechnology is by no means Juma’s only interest. He is concerned with the poor communication between research organizations and teaching universities in Africa, which hampers innovation. And he’s worried about infrastructure: it’s no use using genetic modification to grow more corn per hectare if farmers can’t get the corn to market.
But Juma is growing ever more vocal about genetically modified crops as the papers mount and the problems grow.
“I follow the evidence,” he says.
“It’s not that I’m more of an advocate. It’s that there’s more evidence to share.”
Juma’s nearly 70,000 tweets mostly consist of shared stories and articles. But he also has a penchant for tweeting quotations. A few of the most recent:
“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” John Cage
“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”
“It always seems impossible until it is done.” Nelson Mandela
Often loud mouths hide small minds.
“Prejudice is the child of ignorance.” William Hazlitt
“Knowledge and ego are directly related. The less knowledge, the greater the ego.” Albert Einstein
Professor of the Practice of International Development; Director, Science, Technology, and Globalization Project; Principal Investigator, Agricultural Innovation in Africa
Member of the Board, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Calestous Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development and Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project. He directs the Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and serves as Faculty Chair of the Edward S. Mason Fellows Program as well as Faculty Chair of the Innovation for Economic Development executive program. Juma is a former Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and Founding Director of the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi. He is co-chair of the African Union’s High-Level Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation and a jury member of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. He was Chancellor of the University of Guyana and has been elected to several scientific academies including the Royal Society of London, the US National Academy of Sciences, the World Academy of Sciences, the UK Royal Academy of Engineering and the African Academy of Sciences. He has won several international awards for his work on sustainable development. He holds a doctorate in science and technology policy studies and has written widely on science, technology, and environment. Juma serves on the boards of several international bodies and is editor of the International Journal of Technology and Globalisation and the International Journal of Biotechnology. His latest book, The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, was published by Oxford University Press in 2011. He is currently writing books on engineering for development and resistance to new technologies. Follow @Calestous on Twitter.