Calestous Juma And The Debate On GMOs

by Louisa Reynolds | 2014/15 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow

December 04, 2014

I recently discovered that I’m not the only journalism fellow studying here! MIT also hosts the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship program and their fellows are just around the corner from my office.

Two weeks ago, I contacted Wade Roush, who’s in charge of the program and he kindly invited me to attend some of their events. I had the chance to meet Kenyan science writer Calestous Juma and to listen to his fascinating talk about the GMO debate, followed by a very pleasant evening of board games, mulled wine and good conversation with the science fellows. I’d definitely recommend future Neuffer fellows to reach out to this amazing group of journalists during their time at MIT.


Calestous Juma | Credit:

Juma was one of Africa’s first science and environment journalists and served as Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. He is currently a Professor of the Practice of International Development and Director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at Harvard, where he is working on a book on engineering for development and resistance to new technologies.

The core of his argument is that we need to have a sober and rational debate on GMOs and weigh up the pros and cons of using such technology depending on each specific context. All too often, he says, the debate has been clouded by prejudice, politics and an unwillingness to listen to the other side of the argument. “Nobody has had the courage to get to the meat of this debate”, says Juma.

When the debate on this issue began during the late 1980s, says Juma, many Africans compared GMOs to radioactive waste and strongly believed that Africa was being used as a dumping ground for a potentially catastrophic new technology.

Negotiations at the United Nations took on strong political overtones and the positions on the issue often bordered on the absurd. “When someone spoke from the US, the position was ‘something is safe until proven risky’. As soon as the US spoke, France raised its hand and the position was ‘something is risky until proven safe’. The UK’s position was: ‘products are risky even when proven safe’, Japan said: ‘products are either safe or risky’ and Africa said: ‘products are risky even when they do not exist’”, says Juma with a strong dose of irony.

Juma draws on Schumpeter’s notion of the “creative destruction” that occurs when technological innovation is introduced in the economic system and argues that the controversy over GMOs is not dissimilar to the debates ignited by the discovery of coffee more than a century ago.

According to Juma, some of the studies on GMOs have provided solid evidence to show that these crops are not as potentially lethal as we tend to believe. “An increase in resistance to weeds has been attributed to GMOs but there’s also resistance to herbicides in areas where there are no GMOs. It’s just the natural rate at which mutations occur”, says Juma.

He adds that contrary to what those who oppose GMOs have predicted, studies conducted in the US show that farmers who grow these crops have benefitted from the suppression of pests.

What about dietary staples such as corn? I asked Juma. Isn’t it highly dangerous to tamper with crops that many Latin American countries are heavily dependent on.

Juma replied that he wouldn’t recommend introducing GMOs in areas where there are many wild relatives and where hybridization is likely to occur. I thought this was interesting given recent events in Guatemala, where a Law to Protect Plant Varieties, dubbed “the Monsanto Law” by its critics, has just been repealed in the wake of huge opposition from peasant and indigenous groups.


Mayan women in Guatemala protest against the “Monsanto Law” | Credit: Cristina Chiquin

The new law offered the producers of transgenic seeds strict property rights in the event of possession or exchange of original or harvested seeds of protected varieties without the breeder’s authorization. This meant that local farmers who possessed seed varieties without authorization or used the product of plant varieties derived from the protected variety, even if this was done unintentionally, via contamination could have faced a prison sentence of up to four years.

“I don’t take the position of being pro or anti. I wouldn’t do GM for sorghum in Africa and I would be careful with corn in Mexico. You have to do this on a case by case basis”, he argues.

Personally, I believe there are strong arguments why we should stay away from GMOs, especially when this technology has been monopolized by powerful and mighty transnational corporations. Nevertheless, I think that Juma’s call for a balanced and sober debate on the issue is worth being heard.