(inspired by an interview of H. Em. Appiah Cardinal Turkson for Osservatore Romano)

On prudence with GMO seeds  in Africa and on other occasions

Knowledge of  the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) potential for better and  worse in African countries is for the writer of these line at the same level as that of H Exc Mons George Nkuo of the Kumbo diocese in Cameroon. That bishop  expressed with touching simplicity his puzzlement and continued lack of information on the topic of Genetically Modified Organisms while he was asked to  follow  a congress of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences on that topic.

His words will probably not be lost on the leaders of the Academy and the setting and preparation of future sessions  may be improved as a result.

I am also not enough of a judge on the question whether in this particular question there is a form of colonialism at work in this precise field. I think that question can be left asiede while we seek to find what sheer prudence would require from us.

The problem posed by GMO  comes upo often when a market experiences innovation from an outside source.. For markets to react in a satisfactory way  they need to have  sufficient numbers of participants and a sufficient level of knowledge and information  two recent examples may illustrate the point.


This example came to me in my work in China bringing together people professionally involved in climate protection and in the trading of CO2 emission rights. One of our event speakers related how important it was to have a good grip on the composition of a market if trading in emission rights was to be successful. He described the case of a market with a small number of big size industrial plants, where good supervision is guaranteed. In such a case the conditions for sufficient market participation and information are good enough for a successful experiment in “cap and trade”. The European IETA system (12000 participants) certainly fulfills that condition. A new market in China on the other hand might initially have difficulties as an insufficient number of participants may not make prices truly reflect demand/supply reality. In such a case carbon tax might be a better solution than “cap and trading”, he argued

The composition of markets is again a question which presents itself in Africa between weak and dispersed farmers, lacking information,  facing a concentrated supply of GMO seed.


The fact that a growing part of trading in stock exchanges takes now place outside the supervised open market, for instance in the “dark pools” of big investment banks who shortcut deals in their own house, is detrimental to correct price forming. Since 2008 such trading outside the official exchange reached 33%, and now already amounts to 45%.. This could lead to mistrust on whether published prices reflect true realities of supply and demand (Financieel Dagblad, January 2011). The GMO marketing in Africa suffers of similar deficiencies.


Is there indeed a valid parallel with the case of the African small traditional farmer? I think so.

A small farmer is encapsuled in a remote and often solitary situation, with few transportation options, few financing options and information about alternatives,  As long as he  produces enough to live with his family and still can keep part of the produce as seed for next year he could already be happy, as a hundred odd colleagues around him do.

But what happens if one of the hundred farmers has a little more cash at hand, get a little extra financing and then doubles his production by buying and using GMO seeds? That could set off a destabilizing movement in the village and break down traditional patterns, until they find a new equilibrium, perhaps with much fewer small farmers dependent on a foreign firm, and having to fear for their tired exhausted earth. The others farmers have meanwhile left to seek other ways of livelihood in the big overcrowded cities of Africa.

Comparing such various experiences concerning markets I felt considerable interest in the warning which H.Em. Cardinal Appiah Turkson sounded in the interview given in January 2011 to Mario Ponzi (Osservatore Romano:  Intervista al cardinale Appiah Turkson, presidente del Pontificio Consiglio della Giustizia e della Pace).

Apart from the two above cases I could also mention some parallels with experience in China where I noticed great traditional caution in handling any new experiment, and keeping it secluded so as not to endanger the wider nation.

Often that caution is well described by saying that the Chinese prefer the method of “crossing a river while (still) feeling the stones”. No daring courage, which makes you lose touch with the ground. ”Wade rather than swim”.

In keeping experiments secluded, self-sufficiency plays a big role in China. In that vast country the need to care for so large a population is a daily worry. Its provinces are already so vast that it would simply not do to rely fully on a national wide transportation system for China’s primary necessities. The habit of provinces to count on self-sufficiency therefore became deeply ingrained.

We saw even an excess of that in the ‘80”s as entire provinces closed off their borders against neighboring provinces because they had unwisely engaged  in poorly planned industrial ventures without first  making a thorough marketing study in their own province, let alone at the national market level, or even the international markets. If things did not work out well, closing the provincial border to trains and trucks from neighboring provinces was then a solution, truly an excess of prudence. But in other times the same self-sufficiency has saved millions of people from hunger.  I even visited an old city in the North which was itself divided in quarters closed off by internal walls, as high and thick as the city’s outside walls. Why? again prudence. Against the risk of fire, and perhaps also against that of social uprising. It shows how far the self-sufficiency principle could occasionally be taken.

As in course of time the situation changes, and dangers diminish, supply becomes safer, walls can and should come down.

There was as late as the ‘80’s a “wall”, a seemingly firm purpose against the importation of petroleum and against the importation of meat and grain. China proclaimed that such dependencies of the nation on international markets would never be tolerated.

But already in the ‘80’s it became clear that China would never produce enough oil to feed its industry. And a little bit later if became evident that Chinese people would like to eat meat as people in Europe and America do.

And so the wall against importing meat and grain was dropped when China could afford so. Since the international markets so far have functioned with great flexibility those walls could indeed come down without upsetting the prudent nation too much.

Closures and walls were also handy in trying out social experiments. Provinces in China were so scarcely connected that the government could safely say: “let us try out a farm reform, giving freedom to peasants, but let us first do it in the province of Sichuan, not in other provinces. Nobody thought that odd. Another try-out occurred later “let us try out whether the bankruptcy laws customary in the western world are a good thing to have in China. But let us first do it only as a trial in the province of Shenyang”. Nobody protested invoking the French revolution rule: ”The law is equal for all”.

These are very valid ways of reasoning. But change will occur :  in China the time for such limited local experimenting may  run out when the country gets unified modern banking and monetary and fiscal systems in place, because then the interconnections between provinces become  so strong that the scope for local secluded experiments will disappear.[i]

That may also happen in the future with GMO in Africa: when its countries are further developed, and the tools for farmers, the availability of land and financing, and better transportation, and agritechnical assistance are established, the need for caution with MGO may decrease (provided the sanitary considerations are also found satisfactory). Openness to GMO and access for Monsanto will then be less of a problem and nobody need then even to think of  neo-colonialism.

Even for us in Europe on a wider platform this type of wisdom and prudence would have applications in such fields as labor migration. At one point a French group of bishops expressed amazement that we had freedom of mobility for two main elements of our economies, namely goods, and capital., They asked: why not for labor? (“Eveques des deux cotes de l’Atlantique”  –  qvNd1snS.htm.part   –https://voicesofeurope.wordpress.com/ )

But there is no convincing reason in economics or any other discipline saying that those three elements should obey the same rules, for instance the rule of free movement. Labor is so intimately connected with personal wellbeing, with social cohesion, peace and culture, that it must be treated with much more care and prudence than the movement of goods and capital.

The type of questions we tried to descreibe here above, could perhaps also be expressed in terms of “externalities”. The adverse externalities connected with the free sale of GMO and modified seed in Africa are numerous and abundantly clear.  But I thought comparing the African GMO case with concepts of markets, and ask ourselves whether those markets are ripe or not yet, whether they are perfect or imperfect, offered a closer and more immediate analogy.

Even in a globalized world there are still valid reasons to put margins on free movement rules until enough essential conditions are fulfilled. That goes for GMO as it goes for migration. (note  [ii] )

It is good that governments and spiritual leaders and civil society keep the prudence with such deeply affecting new phenomena (in themselves magnificent achievements of enterprise and of human creativity) as long as circumstances will make it necessary.

. The need for prudence is already clear enough. There is then perhaps no need to speculate on dark neo-colonial schemes.

Recent giant size purchase of lands in Africa by emerging countries,  may more project a neo-colonial style, as also the way in which some very large projects are executed by outside countries in  great seclusion without sufficient back and forward linkages to society and wider  markets of the African countries. The voice of prudence will be needed.

Anton Smitsendonk Paris-Beijing Jan 2011



[i] Late news from another country : That in other countries the need  felt today to keep provisional lines short is shown by the appeal President Yudoyono of Indonesia just maedeto  his people to use their home gardens for planting food. 

Rising food prices, partly caused by climate change have already had a role in the revolutions of Tunesia and Egypt.

[ii] Christians love their “brother” the immigrant coming from far , just as they love their other, the autochthonic brother who suffers in the cities’ deteriorating  outskirts.  Such kind of love will not be the sentimental love against which the Author of “Caritas in Veritate” has warned us bseveral times, but it will be a reasoned, a serious  and, if needed, “tough love”, in contact with reality, both earthly and heavenly, “in Veritate”.


About dutasia

Former Ambassador of the Netherlands, presently National Commissioner for Thailand and for Indonesia in the ICC, the International Chamber of Commerce, the World Business Organization. Chairman of China Carbon Forum in Beijing, China.
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