As an agricultural and environmental scientist, I have worked for decades exploring the practical challenges faced by smallholder farmers in East Africa. These include controlling weeds that can choke out their crops and finding new ways to deal with pests or diseases that threaten their crops.
I focus on small-scale farming, as most of the food in the region is generated by farms that are only a few acres or hectares in size. And, while African economies are diversifying, most Africans still depend on crops and livestock for their income.
Across the region, there is a strong link between fighting hunger and poverty and improving the productivity and incomes of smallholder farmers. But we must be careful to avoid seeking solutions that harm the wider ecosystem.
In my research, I have explored how farmer innovations and local knowledge can help maintain crop varieties, livestock, pollinators, soil microorganisms, and other variables essential for a sustainable agricultural system. What scientists call agricultural biodiversity or agrobiodiversity.
My work puts me resolutely on the side of people who are campaigning today for an approach to food production called “agroecology” or “environmental preservation”. This means focusing on farming methods that protect natural resources and vulnerable ecosystems while respecting local knowledge and customs.
At the same time, however, in some contexts, I support approaches that are considered “wrong” by many contemporary advocates of agroecology. These include the use of certified commercial seeds for improved crop varieties, fertilizers and genetically modified crops.
The opposition of agroecologists is rooted in a mixture of concerns. With certified seed, there is concern about the cost to farmers and the impact on the common practice of saving seed from season to season. For fertilizers, the focus is on runoff caused by their overuse in places like North America and Europe. Opposition to genetically modified crops involves unease with the use of genes from unrelated species to improve crops. Added to this is the potentially higher price of modified varieties.
Although it may seem contradictory to some, I know that agroecology and advanced agricultural practices can coexist in Africa. Indeed, to ensure that African farmers and food markets can thrive while protecting local ecosystems – especially as climate change presents a host of new food-related challenges – they must co-exist.
In my opinion, the proponents of agroecology who strongly oppose new inventions are sincere in their beliefs that they defend the interests of African farmers and the preservation of vulnerable ecosystems. Unfortunately, if successful, these radical positions will reduce the options available in a way that will be detrimental to both.
Weigh the options
The three issues that seem most contentious to some agroecologists: fertilizers, commercial production of improved seeds and genetically modified crops.
Let’s start with synthetic fertilizers. The main concerns with fertilizers are related to their incorrect and excessive application. In some places, this has contributed to the degradation of freshwater and saltwater ecosystems. However, rather than an absolute ban on their use, I prefer strategies that consider their use safe and modest.
There are many situations on African farms today where modest amounts of synthetic fertilizers – applied in combination with other sustainable soil management strategies, such as crop rotation and intercropping – will do more for restore degraded landscapes than cow or sheep manure alone.
For the farmers I’ve worked with, the manure from their cattle may be enough to fertilize the little garden outside their kitchen, but it won’t be enough to fertilize entire farms. Especially if they hope to produce enough food to sell.
Some agroecology advocates also strongly oppose commercial seeds in favor of those saved by farmers over the seasons. There are concerns about the cost of new seeds to farmers and that crop diversity will shrink as the varieties that farmers have planted for generations are lost.
Again, I look for evidence of results, as do most farmers I meet. Overall, the farmers I have worked with in Africa are radically practical and carefully weigh their options. They will buy commercial seed if they see clearly that the investment is worth it. For example, that it offers higher yields, or other qualities, while maintaining the flavor and texture that they and their customers prefer. Otherwise, they will use seed saved from previous years.
Expanding their options with commercial seeds can empower farmers. It helps them make choices that can both improve household incomes and sustainably boost production to meet consumer demands. These results are consistent with agroecological principles.
Genetically modified crops
When it comes to GM crops, I focus on the traits they contain and the agro-ecological conditions under which they should be grown. Again, context is key. There are clearly contexts where genetically modified seeds – once carefully tested to prove they are safe – can be compatible with agroecology.
For example, varieties of maize, cotton and cowpea are being developed for African farmers and increasingly grown by them. Genetically modified traits are used to help control pests and other stresses, including drought. These crops are undergoing extensive testing and national regulatory reviews to assess their safety and consider making them available to farmers.
Of particular interest are new varieties of genetically modified maize and cowpea capable of controlling crop pests. They contain traits acquired from a harmless, natural soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt. It has also been used for decades as a biological spray for crop protection. Incorporating Bt traits directly into the crop itself reduces the need to treat fields with expensive and, in some cases, potentially toxic pesticides that can cause huge problems for people and the environment in the event of a improper use. In this context, genetically modified seeds — if they are affordable — could be the optimal choice from an agroecological point of view.
Bt cowpea was recently approved in Nigeria and Bt maize is being evaluated as an option to combat the destruction caused by the recent arrival of Fall Armyworms on the continent. Bt cotton is already grown in several countries in Africa where it offers higher yields and reduces the need for pesticides.
However, farmers in Burkina Faso no longer grow Bt cotton due to concerns about the quality of fiber produced by the variety available to them, but not its pest control properties. These quality concerns underscore the need to support local breeding efforts, as Nigeria is currently doing with its Bt cotton varieties, rather than rejecting the technology itself.
Read more: How power shaped the success story of genetically modified cotton in Burkina Faso
No perfect solution
The difficult problems associated with Bt cotton production in Burkina Faso are proof that there are no perfect solutions.
But we know the results of a lack of choice – where African farmers plant only the seeds of varieties they have grown for decades and have limited options for maintaining soil health and controlling crop pests. This has contributed to a situation where crop yields have stagnated, land is degraded of basic nutrients, consumer demands must be met by costly food imports. Those dependent on agriculture suffer from high rates of poverty and hunger.
We also know from the experience of farmers in other countries the pitfalls of overreliance on a small range of commercially produced crop varieties and the uncontrolled use of fertilizers and pesticides. .
But we will not overcome these challenges by limiting the options for meeting them. Instead, we should be open to a wider range of practices and innovations.
For me, this means embracing the main goal of agroecology – supporting environmentally sustainable food production that benefits farmers, consumers and local ecosystems – while avoiding the mass rejection of certain technologies that, in the good context, can help achieve this critical goal.