Giving farmers the freedom to make choices

By Jayson Merkley

November 16, 2017

Banana farmers sell their crop at a market in Uganda. Photo by Joan Conrow

In 2015 I was accepted into a fellowship at Cornell University that changed my life. I was one of 25 farmers, journalists, scientists and ag tech advocates from around the globe. Most of us were from developing countries where food security is an issue for hundreds of millions of people. We were brought together by the Alliance for Science, which seeks to promote access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability and raising the quality of life globally.

I was an unlikely candidate for this fellowship. I didn t have any academic background in science. I d never stepped foot on a farm. And I d never travelled far enough to be a global-scale thinker. But it gets worse.

When I moved to Oregon in 2012 I actually opposed some of the technologies that the Alliance promotes. I was securely seatbelted to the anti- GMO bandwagon. It wasn t a conclusion I reached through careful research and consideration. It was just an accepted assumption within my social group. It seems silly to actually write such thoughts on paper to admit that my beliefs were based on preserving my sense of belonging to a group, rather than any objective facts. But a critical evaluation of those beliefs opened my eyes.

I discovered there was a lot I didn t know. There was a lot of context I hadn t considered. I hadn t thought much about what it takes to feed seven billion people. There s never been a time in my life when grocery store shelves haven t overflowed with healthy affordable food. I knew that folks in other countries weren t always so lucky, but I hadn t considered how much biotechnology could help.

The anti-GMO narrative I’d heard was always framed around increased pesticide use and profits for reckless agrochemical corporations. That s scary stuff from a consumer perspective, and I still believe those are valid concerns. I ve learned, however, that the discussion is a lot more nuanced than I had been led to believe. Eventually I realized that to focus on a very narrow set of applications puts us at risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

I hadn t heard, for example, that small-scale farmers in Uganda are losing their matoke crop to bacterial wilt. The matoke is a starchy banana. It s incredibly important in Ugandan culture, where it is used as a staple food, for thatching roofs, for feeding goats and even for brewing beer. The wilt has a devastating impact. Many subsistence farmers are losing everything. Scientists have developed a matoke plant that resists wilt, but these long-suffering farmers are prohibited from growing it. After all, it s a GMO and well-fed Western-world influencers have told African leaders that GMOs are bad.

There are several other biotech applications being evaluated in Ugandan field trials virus-resistant cassava, insect-resistant maize, water- efficient and salt-tolerant rice, and biofortified banana to name a few. But with current regulations in place, these crops will not get into farmers hands. They will not be used to address food security and malnutrition. And they will not be able to help farmers afford to send their children to school.

During my time at Cornell, the Alliance trained a team of interested Ugandan stakeholders to plan a grassroots approach to this problem. I really enjoyed getting to know these folks. I learned a lot from them. They ve had a tremendous impact back home, and on Oct. 3, their Parliament passed a biosafety law that will finally get the ball rolling on legalizing cultivation of GE crops.

I m tentatively happy about the news, but I know Uganda faces more battles in giving farmers the choice to use modern biotech options. The Uganda team is just one of many that have benefitted from Alliance for Science training. The Alliance has helped grassroots organizers from Nigeria, the Philippines, India, Ghana, Mexico, Bangladesh, Venezuela and many more nations, each with a unique set of cultural and regulatory hurdles to overcome. There is synergistic strength in our massive network of farmers, scientists and ag advocates.

Nothing about this fight happens in isolation. Ag tech policy and activism in the United States has a massive impact overseas, on the folks who stand to benefit (or suffer) the most. This fact hit home during a poignant moment between myself and Daniel Otunge, a senior Fellow from Kenya. I asked what I could do to help Africa s struggle for access to these tools. His suggestion was simply to share their stories in my home state of Oregon.

Hunger and poverty are multifaceted problems. There s no single silver bullet solution. GE crops obviously won t fix everything. But problem-fixing requires tools. And the bigger the toolbox, the more efficient we can be. That s why it is an injustice for activists from the wealthy western countries to continue efforts aimed at denying tools to farmers in the developing world.

Farmers voices are crucial. Let s work together toward a world where all farmers have access to modern technology, and the freedom to make their own choices.

Jayson Merkley is a 2015 Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow and the director of Vegan GMO. This piece first appeared in the Oregon Women for Agriculture newsletter, The Cultivator.