UN’s insistence on organic food prolongs the needless starvation of millions on the globe’s poorest continent, says Bill Wirtz. 

This month the World Food Preservation Center in partnership with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, will hold the first “International Conference on Agroecology Transforming Agriculture & Food Systems in Africa”, in Nairobi, Kenya. The goal of this conference is to promote organic and non-GMO farming as part of a complete “socio-economic transformation” of Africa. A misguided and unscientific overhaul, it would devastate the parts of developing Africa that need innovation the most.

The fascination for increased organic farming isn’t new. In the UK, organic production makes up almost ten per cent of total farming, with Environment secretary Michael Gove being pushed continuously to do more for organic farming on a public policy level. The French government is increasing subsidies to organic farms in an effort to reach 15 per cent organic production by 2022.Germany and Luxembourg have set goals of 20 per cent organic production by 2025 and 2030 respectively.

Even the international development community has bought into the concept – but they’ve taken it to a whole new level. Led by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), development programs and assistance are increasingly being predicated on adoption of “agroecology,” which takes organic farming as its starting point and adds on a series of social and economic theories that seek to achieve the “total transformation” of agricultural production, and even society as a whole.

According to its original definition, agroecology is simply the study of ecological practices applied to agriculture. What started out as science, however, has morphed into a political doctrine that not only rules out modern technologies such as genetic engineering, advanced pesticides and synthetic fertilizer, but explicitly extols the benefits of “peasant” and “indigenous” farming and in many cases discourages mechanization as a way of freeing the world’s poor from backbreaking agricultural labor. Add on to a hostility to international trade and intellectual property protections for innovators (“seed patents,” which are standard in all advanced crops, not just GMOs, are a frequent cause of complaint) and you can see why agroecology’s promoters so often talk about it as “transformative.”

We should remember, however, that not all “transformations” are good. They can just as easily be bad, even catastrophic. A recent study by pro-agroecology activists found that applications of their principles to Europe would decrease agricultural productivity by 35% on average, which they considered a positive, as in their view Europeans eat too much anyway. It’s hard to see how a 35% drop in productivity among the world’s rural poor – a large percentage of the 800 million people who currently suffer from malnutrition – would be anything other than a calamity.  

As someone from a family that were peasants from their existence until the end of the last world war, I can only stand in awe at the idea of ridding agriculture of mechanisation. My ancestors worked 60-hour weeks of hard manual labour, and it was modern agriculture that was able to make them more productive and allow them free time: something they were never able to enjoy before.

There is nothing wrong with practicing “peasant farming” on a purely voluntary basis, within a community of people who enjoy being one with nature (and/or inflicting terrible back pain on themselves). In fact, in a Western world of mechanised farming, it is even sustainable to have some farms operate in such a fashion (even if it requires increased subsidies), for the purpose of pleasing nostalgic customers. However, what is truly disturbing is when agroecology activists and international institutions supposedly dedicated to alleviating poverty are willing to distort the scientific reality and impose their ideology on those who can least afford it.

The Nairobi conference

The conference held in Kenya is a combination of two events that were initially set to be organised at the same time. “The Eastern Africa Conference on Scaling up Agroecology and Ecological Organic Trade” and the “1st All Africa Congress on Synthetic Pesticides, Environment, and Human Health“. Scrolling through the list of organisers and participants, it’s most notable that agencies, institutions, and organisations that don’t endorse agroecology, or have a scientific view on herbicides and GMOs contrary to the pushed narrative, won’t be present. Seemingly, some people were not supposed to ruin the party.

And a party it will be. That is, at least, if you’re of the belief that the end justifies the means when spreading misinformation about pesticides and GMOs.

One of the speakers at the conference is Gilles-Eric Séralini, a French biologist and anti-GMO activist. He is famous for his 2012 study claiming to demonstrate that that rats fed with genetically modified corn reported an increase in tumours. What followed was coined the “Séralini affair”, with various regulatory authorities and scientists dismissing the study for deep-rooted methodological flaws. The study was later retracted, and four recent government-funded studies (three by the EU and one by France) have now thoroughly refuted the Seralini thesis. 

Other speakers speakers include fringe scientists Don Huber and Judy Carmen, both of whom have made similar – and similarly debunked – claims about GMOs, and Tyrone Hayes, who is famous for his claim, now championed by conspiracy monger Alex Jones, that the herbicide atrazine, in his words “turns frogs gay”. Such an invite would be discrediting for any major organisation, but seemingly the FAO doesn’t seem to care.

And still, even though the conference disreputes itself merely by its choice of speakers, agroecology is making leaps forward (pun intended). Through the FAO, these policies are increasingly being required by international governmental organisations and NGOs as a condition of receiving financial aid.

Now that it is expanding to Africa, which is in desperate need of mechanisation and of efficient farming methods, it needs to be called out for what it is: anti-science activism, based on environmentalist fantasies. Agroecology as a political doctrine, has no place in science-based policy discourse, and its promotion – given the scientific knowledge we have to today – is immoral. It needs to be stopped.

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