Faculty Friday: Brian Dowd-Uribe

Every Friday, the International Studies Department will profile one of our amazing faculty members so you can get to know them better and see all the amazing work our faculty do!

Brian Dowd-Uribe is an Assistant Professor in the International Studies Department. Brian grew in up in Sonoma County, California and decided to change scenery and head to UC San Diego, where he earned undergraduate degrees in Latin American Studies and Ecology, Behavior and Evolution.

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As an undergraduate, Brian studied abroad twice to Costa Rica where he completed a senior thesis on different approaches to native forest regeneration in Monteverde, and got a crash course in salsa dancing. After leaving Costa Rica, he served for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small Kabiye village in northern Togo. While there he worked on multiple projects with local women’s cooperatives on soil fertility, income generation and fuelwood efficiency; he also took up a strong interest in locally brewed sorghum beer. Both the experiences in Costa Rica and West Africa led to a strong interest in rural livelihoods and how rural development intersects with the environment.

After a short two-year stint as a park ranger in South Los Angeles, Brian took up his graduate studies at UC Santa Cruz in Environmental Studies, where he earned his PhD in 2011. His dissertation explores the winners and losers of two of the most defining interventions affecting small-scale farmers in West Africa, the liberalization of agricultural commodity chains and the introduction of genetically modified crops. While conducting his dissertation research in Burkina Faso, he met his future wife, Kim, salsa dancing. Later, they lived together in the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, and then traveled to Southeast Asia for several months where Brian wrote most of his dissertation.

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After graduating, and marrying, Brian took a position as a Post-Doctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. There he worked on two projects, one exploring the social and environmental dimensions of community gardens in East Harlem, and the other examining the linkages between participatory water governance, water security and food security in rural Burkina Faso. Brian continues to work on and publish from both projects. Before joining USF, Brian took a position at the UN-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica, where he most recently served as Chair of the Department of Environment and Development. Brian’s work has been published in multiple academic journals and was recently featured by the BBC. A new edited book project examining Costa Rica’s attempt to negotiate environmental protection and development is under review at the University of Arizona Press.

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While not grading papers or writing articles, Brian changes the diapers of his 5-month old son Benjamin, and plays trains and baseball with his 3.5-year-old son Tomás. He has a strong interest in everything outdoors – camping, hiking, etc. He also tries to keep up on a regular running regime, and periodically plays soccer for a ‘grown up’ team. Brian and his wife can often be spotted at a local café, sipping on coffee, and plotting their next international adventure.

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Can GM crops help African farmers?

Written by Professor Brian Dowd-Uribe

Since serving in the Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa, I have been very interested in schemes to improve food security in rural Africa. One of the most promoted schemes is the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops. Proponents like Robert Paarlberg and Calestous Juma claim that they are needed technologies to boost agricultural productivity and address regional food insecurities. Moreover they claim there is a moral imperative to make these useful technologies available to poor farmers. If they are good for Global North productivity, why can’t they help African productivity? On the other hand, opponents such as Vandana Shiva and a host of non-governmental organizations claim they will primarily benefit the relatively rich at the expense of poor peasant farmers.

Before diving in to the debate, we should first explore whether GM crops have been adopted in Africa, and what we know about their performance. To date, only two GM crops – insect-resistant forms of cotton and maize – have made it into the hands of African farmers. Of these, GM cotton has the longest empirical track record, having been the first GM crop ever introduced in Africa, and the only one that has been grown in multiple countries – first South Africa, then Burkina Faso. The performance of this crop has received intense scrutiny, as it offers the best indication of how the suite of other GM crops slated for commercial approval may perform across the continent.

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In 2003, Burkina Faso, in partnership with Monsanto, became one of the first African countries to begin field trials of Bt cotton, the most commonly grown GM crop in the developing world. Bt refers to a toxin – Bacillus thuringiensis – that kills one of the world’s most common and pernicious cotton pests, the bollworm. Monsanto agreed to backcross the Bt gene onto local Burkinabè varieties, which were subsequently released to farmers in 2008. With more than 140,000 smallholder farmers cultivating Bt cotton, Burkina Faso has the largest number of total GM crops producers on the African continent, and is celebrated as an example for how GM crops can help poor farmers.

Farmers have enthusiastically adopted the technology, and for good reason. Despite the very high cost of Bt cotton seed, studies show that Bt cotton has increased yields and profits – with an average Bt cotton farming family gaining 50% more profit than from conventional cotton. Moreover, Bt cotton growers use significantly less noxious pesticides. The total number of sprayings has gone down from 6 to 2, reducing exposure of damaging chemicals and saving valuable labour time. Other studies, including my own work, acknowledges these benefits, but questions whether this is the most equitable development strategy; it may benefit principally those farmers who are already doing well – and be too risky of an investment for those farmers with small plots of land or less capital.

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But the development outcomes of Bt cotton in Burkina Faso may soon be a thing of the past. Our recently published work reports that the inferior lint quality of Bt cotton has caused severe economic losses for Burkinabè cotton companies prompting a complete phase out of all Bt cotton production over the next two years. Company officials and Monsanto representatives cite two problems with lint quality. First, Bt varietals produce shorter, less desirable lint. The shorter length means poorer quality, which in turn means a lower price on the international market. Second, even though cotton yields are up, the amount of lint ginning machines is able to extract from the picked cotton has diminished. In other words, Bt cotton produces both less cotton lint, and lint of an inferior quality.

Continue reading “Can GM crops help African farmers?”