Lab-grown burgers cannot provide a secure future for Africa

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Small-scale agriculture is key to feeding Africans, not expensive stem-cell burgers cooked up in a western laboratory, writes John Vidal.

John Vidal is the environment editor for the Guardian, a content partner for EURACTIV's Development Policy coverage.

Sergey Brin, the billionaire American businessman who co-founded Google, pays a Dutch scientist to develop a burger from stem cellsextracted from cow muscle tissue. These are cultured with growth-promoting chemicals to help them develop and multiply and, in a global TV event dreamed up by an international marketing company, the resulting €250,000 burger is billed as a triumph for science and ethics, a way to feed a future world population of 9 billion people, most of whom will be born in developing countries.

The general consensus in London is that science has a moral obligation to support this kind of research.

But the question must be why do rich countries want to push their industrialised food system on to developing countries?

Most of Africa and Asia used to be self-sufficient in food, but over the past 30 years nearly every developing country has become dependent on imports. Subsidised western-grown crops have been dumped wholesale to undermine local food production; barriers to markets have been torn down to allow the EU and US to better export their staple crops; diets have been undermined and changed; food aid has been shipped in vast quantities; and now Britain and the US want GM foods to be grown in every country.

Possibly in 10 years, after many billions of dollars have been spent scaling up and refining test-tube meat, poor countries are to be offered "Googleburgers" or, as they are being called, "Frankenburgers" in the name of feeding them and protecting their environments.

A very different take on food technology and agricultural research came last week from Kanayo Nwanze, the president of ?IFAD, the only UN agency with a specific remit to work for poor people. Opening the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa in Accra, Ghana, he did not talk about hi-tech burgers or the need for the mega-scale agriculture envisaged by some governments and "landgrabbing" corporations.

Nwanze argued that investment was needed in small farmers, not big science. "Africa can feed Africa. Africa should feed Africa. And I believe that Africa will feed Africa," he said. "For agriculture to yield the greatest returns, development efforts must focus on the smallholder farming sector. Small farms account for 80% of all farms in sub-Saharan Africa. In some countries, they contribute up to 90% of production. They have the potential to be key suppliers to Africa's burgeoning urban markets, as well as supplying rural markets. And growth in agriculture equates to a reduction in poverty. It has been estimated that for sub-Saharan Africa, growth generated by agriculture is 11 times more effective in reducing poverty than GDP growth in other sectors."

He laid the blame for the decline of African agriculture squarely on under-investment as a result of structural adjustment programmes forced on much of the continent by the World Bank. "In the 1960s and 70s, many African countries were net exporters of major food and cash crops, not importers as they are today. During that period, African nations directed some 20% of their national budgets to agriculture and some of their universities were home to top-notch research stations … These were the years when India was described as a hopeless case; when people in China died of famine; Brazil was dependent on food aid and massive food imports; and South Korea received assistance from some African countries," he said.

But Nwanze was looking ahead: "Agriculture holds the key to Africa's development, and development holds the key to a future where Africa is not only feeding itself, but feeding the world. We must reposition research and development so that it is research for development. This means measuring our results not by higher yields alone but by reduced poverty, improved nutrition, cohesive societies and healthy ecosystems. In short, it must be inclusive."

He insisted that agricultural development must involve women, who were "too often … the most disadvantaged members of rural societies. To farm successfully, women need agricultural resources and inputs, as well as access to rural finance, education and knowledge. They also need rights to the land they farm and a voice in the decisions that affect their lives."

The two visions of feeding the world could not have been more different. The laboratory burger served up in London by scientists proposes patented, heavily processed food that has been developed at a phenomenal cost in hi-tech laboratories and is shipped to the world's poorest people to keep them alive. The other proposes that agriculture reconnects itself with small farmers and once again becomes a way for countries to develop and to offer better lives for their populations.

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