GENTECH archive



May 27, 2000
New Scientist Magazine
Florence Wambugu, director of the African regional office of the
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications
(ISAAA), and the daughter of a subsistence farmer from Kenya who went
into agricultural research to help farmers like her mother, was quoted as
saying in this interview that, "A hungry person is not a myth. It's a person
I know." Other Q and As in this interview include:
Campaigners against GM food portray you as an apostle of Monsanto in
Africa. Are you?
Some people say I am fighting for the company. But I say I am a
stakeholder in this technology. It is twenty years of my life. I believe in
the benefits it has for our people. So I fight for the credibility of the
How can GM technology benefit the poor when it is an alien, expensive
technology controlled by rich countries and large multinationals?
GM may be better for Africa than older technologies, like those of the
Green Revolution. In fact the Green Revolution, which failed in Africa, was
alien because it came from the West. Africa's farmers had to be educated
in the use of fertilisers, for example. But transgenic crops can get round
that because the technology--to control insects, for instance--is packaged
in the seed. GM also means higher yields. Right now maize yield in Africa
is 17 tonnes per hectare; the global average is 4. But if you insert the Bt
gene as a genetic insecticide, 20 per cent of that shortfall comes back. I'm
not saying that transgenics alone will solve all the problems. But it will
to millions of tonnes more grain.
So unlike some people in Europe, you don't think GM technology is a bit of
an expensive luxury?
In Africa GM food could almost literally weed out poverty. In Europe, some
people oppose crops with herbicide genes. In Africa most weeding is done
by women--50 per cent of women's labour in Africa is tied up with weeding.
Reducing that would have a major impact.
In developed countries food is getting cheaper because they use more
and more technology, but in tropical Africa it is getting more expensive
because it is all manually produced. People with a small salary spend
almost all of it on food. If we can increase food productivity in rural
it will bring the price of food down, and generate more money for
investment to turn the wider economy round.
Surely what African farmers really need is fertilisers and better
irrigation? Won't putting money into GM technology divert attention from
these more basic needs?
I think that is like saying Africans don't need aircraft, we should go by
road. Or that we should be denied computers until everybody has bought a
typewriter and mastered it. We are part of a global community. Of course,
we need to look at why existing agricultural technologies have had so little
impact in Africa. Africa needs to pick and choose technologies, to learn
which ones are compatible.
Don't you think it's right for Europe to be cautious? This is an untried
technology and we don't know the risks.
Europeans tell us it is too dangerous. They tell us: "Africa, this is not
you. Keep off." You in Europe are entitled to your own opinion. But I think
it is dangerous when you tell everyone else what to do.
... But opponents of GM include some big-name scientists like Hans Herren,
director of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, a
big agricultural research centre, based in Nairobi.
To me Hans has a typical European view. Hans will tell you he is not
against GM but that not enough testing has taken place. Well, there has
been ten years of testing. We know enough to continue. How are we going
to know more if we ban field trials? What I am afraid of is being dictated
to from Europe. You have surplus food in Europe. There is no real need for
transgenic crops in Europe--nobody is hungry. But there is a real need and
real hunger here.