TCS Daily

Out of Africa

By Craig Winneker - February 5, 2003 12:00 AM

It's a welcome event in Brussels when you can get past the political posturing and double-speak and finally hear some straight, sincere talk. And, lo and behold, that's just what happened at a quiet press conference in a hotel basement recently when a group of African scientists and farmers came to town to talk about biotechnology.

They were barely heard above the din, however, of a transatlantic war of words on the subject between US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and his EU counterpart, Pascal Lamy. Zoellick and Lamy are friends and are of a piece: they both look like the kinds of guys who tuck their t-shirts into their briefs. But lately what they have been trading are accusations - each one claiming that the other is trying to gain political advantage from the tragic food crisis in Africa.

Zoellick accuses the EU of "bullying Africa into refusing to accept American food aid even though millions are malnourished and starving."
Lamy responds by accusing the US of "trying to impose GMOs on developing countries".

Is the EU really coercing African nations into refusing GM food aid in a twisted effort to protect its own farmers? Is the US exploiting a tragedy for political and economic gain?

These questions ignore the real problem, which is that southern African farmers are in a desperate situation and are looking for answers. And they are demanding action from the EU.

Recently in Brussels, as the European Commission held another of its regular talk-fest conferences on the pros and cons of biotechnology (the kind of event where there isn't a debate so much as an "interface with civil society"), a delegation of farmers, development aid workers, scientists and politicians from Africa and Asia arrived to help dispel some of the myths about GMO politics.

The EU-US war of words over GM food aid misses the point almost entirely - a fact that is not lost on the African farmer. "The African food crisis cannot be solved by food aid," said James Ochanda, professor of biochemistry at the University of Nairobi. "The African farmer must be given the technology" to grow his own crops more effectively.

What about the facts? According to Ochanda, population in Africa is increasing at a 3.5 percent annual rate, while food production is increasing 2.5 percent. "We need to advance the technologies that can address this issue," he said, "and we feel that biotechnology can do this."

Where Bt crops have been used, the results have been noteworthy. In South Africa, cotton yields increased by 27 percent and pesticide use was reduced. In Kenya, the use of GM crops has quadrupled the banana yield.

Added Bintany Kutsaira, a botanist and member of parliament in Malawi, "We are here to ask the European government to assist African governments who are waiting for technology like this."

As is by now well known, the problem is perhaps most serious in Zambia, which has refused US food aid because it contains GM maize. According to Luke Mumba, the dean of the School of Natural Sciences at the University of Zambia, 2.4 million people in the country are threatened with starvation, a figure that could rise to 2.9 million by next month.

"We feel that biotechnology, though not a panacea to Africa's agricultural problems, has a role to play" in alleviating the crisis, he said, adding that food aid - the bone of contention between the EU and the US - only "creates dependency. We do not want to be dependent on food aid."

And what about the US claim that the EU is shoo-ing African governments away from biotechnology?

Lamy and his EU colleagues protest that they do nothing explicitly to discourage African governments from allowing GM crops. But pro-GM African scientists and farmers accuse NGOs, many of which are lavishly funded by the EU, of doing this very thing.

Mumba said NGOs are playing a dishonest role, lobbying governments and farmers in Africa against GM, telling them they will not be able to afford patented seeds and will lose markets in the EU. Some even make completely unfounded claims that GMOs cause cancer.

"People in Europe are saying small-scale African farmers will not be able to afford the seeds," said Mumba. "But given the opportunity, small farmers will buy improved seeds" if it means they can increase yields and, by extension, profits.

He added, "It is not morally right to confine Africa to traditional agricultural practices."
T.J. Buthelezi, a South African farmer who has recently started growing Bt cotton on his land, said he paid twice as much for seeds but has been able to make a profit for the first time. "The farming business is about risk, and I took the risk," he said. "I was able to put money in my pocket, and put food in front of myself and my family."

The benefits of biotech can even extend into the social realm, according to Indian farmer Jaipal Reddy, who revealed that lately farmers have done so poorly in his drought- and pest-stricken region of Andhra Pradesh that women are reluctant to marry them.
Now, he smiled, with better yields as a result of Bt crops, "I think all women will come forward to marry farmers."

Finally, a new angle in this increasingly tiring dispute.

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