By Onyaole Patience Koku: Abuja, FCT, Nigeria
The statement just came to me: “Let Africans decide what is best for Africa!”
A European “expert” had offered a different opinion. In his view, African farmers don’t need cutting-edge technology because we don’t understand the risks. He wants non-Africans to decide what is best for Africa.
The scene was CRISPRcon 2019, a forum hosted last month in the Netherlands by Wageningen University and Research and the Keystone Policy Center. I was on a panel to discuss agriculture, science, society and the future of gene editing—and I couldn’t keep quiet in the moment or later on social media.
Why was a European lecturing me on what African farmers need and don’t need?
As an African farmer who grows seed corn in Nigeria, I know there are many opinions about the challenges of African agriculture. We face plenty of problems, but I can say with total certainty that a lack of access to technology is one of them that can be changed.
I know this in my bones.
The French have a phrase: L’esprit de l’escalier. In English, it means “the wit of the staircase.” It describes something we’ve all felt: coming up with an excellent rejoinder a little too late, such as when you’re out the door, descending the staircase, and leaving the building. In Nigeria we say I won’t go to fetch my answer.
On the panel, I experienced the opposite: My rejoinder arrived on time. As my co-panelist finished speaking, satisfied in his ignorance, a thought sprang into my mind. I spoke almost before I even knew what I was saying.
“Let Africans decide what is best for Africa!”
I’m willing to listen to helpful suggestions about agriculture, no matter who utters them. That’s one of the main reasons why I was eager to attend CRISPRcon 2019. Conferences like this are always a good way to learn about best practices and new ideas.
Yet we also have to separate the wheat from the chaff—and that means recognizing bad ideas when we hear them.
Many people in developed countries have a habit of regarding Africa as a kind of child who cannot speak for itself. This is especially true among Europeans who still have the mindset of colonizers. Like parents, they’re ready and willing to make decisions for us because they don’t think we can make them for ourselves.
That’s essentially what my co-panelist said: Africans are incapable of making informed decisions. We’re too ignorant to understand the risks associated with new technologies.
As an African, however, I’m more familiar with the hazards of neglecting technology. While the rest of the world enjoys splendid material progress, my continent continues to trail in almost every category of human flourishing, especially food production. For Africans, malnutrition is an ordinary part of life.
How many Europeans can say such a thing? The per-capita GDP of the Netherlands is far higher than the per-capita GDP of Nigeria, according to the World Bank. It’s safe to say that most Dutch have no idea what it’s really like to live without access to the technologies that they take for granted.
I’m fascinated by gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR because they may help farmers like me grow more and better food. Yet the potential applications go far beyond agriculture and include basic health.
My daughter has a sickle-cell genotype, which many black Africans inherit. She does not suffer the symptoms of the disease, thanks be to God! —but we’re eager to learn about how gene-editing technologies may minimize the harm of this affliction.
I am confident Europeans never would deny themselves a life-saving medical treatment. And while they may partake in the pointless luxury of denying GMOs to their farmers, they rarely have to worry about the source of their next meal. Europeans don’t fret about food shortages; they agonize over food wastage.
Things are different here in Africa: We need safe and proven technologies that will help us do simple things, such as grow crops that can resist weeds and pests, as well as the more advanced and speculative technologies that will help us defeat sickle-cell disease.
Let Africa not be hindered by peoples opinions, but rather let her farmers and citizens decide what is best for Africa!
Ms. Onyaole Patience Koku co-founded and manages Replenish Farms where they grow mostly maize under irrigation in Nigeria. Patience is an outspoken advocate for making sure that all farmers have access to innovative technology and is a member of the Global Farmer Network. This column originates at www.globalfarmernetwork.org