ENGARUKA, Tanzania — When the bell rang at midday, students fetched tin bowls and lined up under trees in the schoolyard for scoops of corn and bean porridge.
Not one of them displayed the food fussiness often seen in American school lunch lines.
After the rainy seasons shortchanged this Maasai village in northern Tanzania, children here suffered too many days when there was no porridge — no food at all to eat in their mud and stick huts. Drought is to blame for a good share of their suffering.
Scientists are developing drought-tolerant corn, something that could ease hunger across Tanzania and sub-Saharan Africa. But the corn can’t be planted here because it was genetically modified. Opponents of genetically modified crops have made a stand in Africa — and now villages like Engaruka are squarely in the middle of a global ideological war over agricultural technology.
Since U.S. farmers first adopted GM crops in 1996, 17 million farmers in 29 countries have followed suit. Europe rejected the crops, though, arguing that farmers would be exploited by large seed companies and that more research is needed into possible risks to the environment and food safety. And European activists have pressured Africa to do the same. Just four African countries — Sudan, Egypt, Burkina Faso and South Africa — have allowed them.
No one denies Africa’s hunger. World crop production has more than doubled in 50 years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. But Africa lagged behind, achieving some gains while losing ground in places like Engaruka where drought, plant diseases and other problems have knocked down yields and depleted the available food. Now that problem takes on new urgency with U.N. projections that Africa’s population will quadruple by the end of this century.
Still, the question of which approach is best for Africa remains hotly disputed. It tears at Tanzania, where 80 percent of the people live by subsistence agriculture.
African countries and research organizations, working together in the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project, have incorporated a gene from a common soil bacterium into corn, enabling plants to produce kernels even while short of water. The GM corn is expected to increase yields by 25 percent during moderate drought.
Tanzania is a member nation in the project. But regulations it adopted in 2009 have effectively blocked GM crops.
Under a “strict liability” rule, anyone associated with importing, moving, storing and using GM products is liable if someone makes a claim of harm, injury or loss caused by the products. Such a claim could reach beyond personal loss or injury to include damage to the environment and to biological diversity.
Under that policy, no research organization has dared to introduce GM crops into Tanzania’s fields.
At Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute in Dar es Salaam, plant virologist Joseph Ndunguru has genetically transformed cassava to resist viruses that are devastating the crop. Instead of starting field trials, Ndunguru is waiting for new regulations.
“There is a lot of fear,” he said.
As for water-efficient corn, Alois Kullaya said research has been on hold since 2009. He is Mikocheni’s principal agricultural research officer and also the Tanzanian coordinator of the corn project. Tanzanian scientists have not been able to conduct field trials with the corn they have developed in laboratories.
The scientists have urged Tanzania’s government to shift to a “fault-based” regulatory approach under which a heavier burden of proof would fall on someone claiming harm or injury.
The influence of Europe
Pushing the government from the other side is the Tanzania Alliance for Biodiversity, a coalition of environmental and organic farming groups.
“Whoever introduces GMOs should be responsible for what happens on the ground,” said Abdallah Mkindi, alliance coordinator.
Mkindi said scientists serve as a front for multinational seed companies. If regulations were relaxed, he said, companies could hold small-scale farmers ransom, and food security would be threatened.
“Multinational companies are simply here to expand their business,” Mkindi said. “GMO is not a solution to famine.”
Some coalition members argue that Africa’s food sovereignty is at risk if its farmers accept seeds and plant cuttings created by large, outside organizations. Some also say that a high-tech fix for Africa’s food insecurity is a false promise given the many other problems begging to be addressed — including poor access to land, water, credit, agricultural extension services, roads and markets.
Of 19 alliance members, 11 are European-based groups or have European affiliations. The expert authority the alliance cites for claims about GM crops is from London-based Earth Open Source.
Beyond grass-roots activism, Europeans have profoundly influenced African attitudes by rejecting GM crops, Ndunguru said.
“People go to the Internet, and they read the information put there by European anti-GM groups, and they ask, ‘If this technology is safe, why don’t the Europeans use it?’ ” he said.
Now, some experts are accusing European activists of placing ideology above Africa’s food security.
“Opposition to biotechnology in Africa started before there was much scientific research on the subject outside South Africa. So Africa’s first import was opposition to the technology before the products got there,” said Calestous Juma, a Harvard professor of international development and a native Kenyan. “This was because the [European Union] constructed a resistance industry and exported it through a variety of channels.”
U.S. groups make their mark
American advocates for GM crops have been busy in Africa, too.
Support for the Water Efficient Maize project came from the U.S. Agency for International Development as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates and the Howard G. Buffett foundations. The project’s drought-tolerance gene came from Monsanto, which has said the seeds will go royalty-free to African farmers. The project also produces conventionally bred corn.
Other GM research targeted for Africa also is backed by American money and know-how.
One target has been the vitamin A deficiency that causes blindness in millions of African children. Helen Keller International is involved in engineering orange-fleshed sweet potatoes to deliver extra helpings of the micronutrient that the body transforms into vitamin A. St. Louis-based Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is working in Kenya and Nigeria to boost that provitamin A and other nutrients in cassava.
Another goal is to address deficiencies in the resources available to African farmers. Dupont Pioneer, for example, is helping develop corn that makes more efficient use of nitrogen so that farmers could get by with less fertilizer.
Behind the individual projects, GM foes suspect a conspiracy to slip American agribusiness into Africa. In 2012, the Obama administration prompted a flurry of suspicion when it used a G-8 summit to announce the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, with the goal of lifting 50 million Africans out of poverty by 2022.
A working group of the German Forum on Environment & Development reacted with a statement saying the initiative “paves the way for radical opening of markets for international seed and agrarian corporations in African countries.”
That response expressed the essence of the tension that persists across Africa with American technology rolling forward against pushback from Europeans — and also from some like-minded Americans.
The controversy flared again this year after the World Food Prize Foundation announced that its prestigious annual award would go to three scientists who laid the groundwork for today’s GM crops 30 years ago by developing techniques for inserting foreign genes into the DNA of plants. The recipients are to be honored at a three-day international symposium in Des Moines beginning Oct. 16.
While the global debate rages, many families in Engaruka remain perilously close to starvation after recent droughts destroyed crops and killed 65 percent of the livestock.
Before 2009, Thomas Saitoti’o said that he owned 30 cows. Now he has just two. His family lost its cushion against the next drought. The family ran out of food in April and was saved by a government handout of corn.
At the end of the dirt path leading to the next house, Juliana Saitoti sat shelling beans. Thanks to rain this year, her family had food in September, even eggs for the children.
But, with the dry season, food would run out in October.
“Then we will not have enough to eat,” she said.
Finnigan wa Simbeye contributed to this report.