TCS Daily

Caught in the Middle

By James S. Shikwati - June 19, 2003 12:00 AM

Can genetically modified foods provide a solution to African food problems? The vice chairman of the environment committee of the European parliament, Alexander de Roo, has observed that "Hunger is a social problem, not a technical problem. To solve the hunger problem you need democracy. The world has enough food; the problem is distribution. Furthermore, the European Union has provided non-GM foods to Africa; however, it is up to the Africans themselves to decide. But I wouldn't advise them to consume these foods." The United States trade attaché to the European Union, Chris Wilson, recently argued that the genetically modified foods that the U.S. exports to Africa are the same foods Americans consume. "Nobody has been harmed by these foods. Why can't the Europeans establish scientific evidence of harm, if any? The world is on the verge of another agricultural revolution."

Most agricultural activities in Africa are done on patches of impoverished soils and practiced by smallholder farmers. Seventy percent of the African population is in the rural areas and depends mainly on agriculture. Sixty percent of Africans are in absolute poverty, with 80 percent of Africa's expenditures going to food. Repeated attacks by pests and diseases and expensive farm inputs together with natural disasters such as drought and floods have put this industry in jeopardy. Kenya's agriculture minister recently asked for scientists to step up work to get a solution against crop pests and diseases. Agriculture Minister Kipruto Kirwa observed, "The greater grain borer is currently a big threat to food security in this country, yet no collective professional input has come from researchers."

The U.S. is the biggest investor in the study of transgenic technology. In recent years about 50 percent of patents in the U.S. related to biological engineering, compared to 33 percent in the European community, and seven percent in Japan. Most of the top biological engineering scientists from Europe are said to be relocating to America. Africa, known for a long time as a ship to mouth continent, has also made some advances in this area, with Kenya, South Africa, and Egypt releasing products ranging from sweet potatoes, cotton and maize. Africa is lagging behind largely because of its legal structure, which makes it difficult for scientists to patent and protect their knowledge. On the other hand, her technology is very limited.

U.S. farmers, who produce two-thirds of the world's biotech crops, declare their products to be safe. These farmers save an estimated $216 million annually on weed control costs and make $19 million less in herbicide applications every year. Using non-till methods made possible by herbicide resistant soybeans, farmers prevent 247 million tons of topsoil from being eroded.

The European Union has legitimate concerns about GM products given its past encounters with mad cow disease and the carcinogenic dioxin in chickens in Belgium. Concerns on trade also emerge because of the potential GM technology has in altering the market share in food products. On the other hand, the U.S., having invested heavily in this industry, views this "GM Blockade" as another trade barrier.

Caught in the middle of GM warfare are Africans who are looking out for ways to feed their populations. Some of the benefits of GM foods include combating malnutrition through use of foods enriched with vitamins and other vital minerals. Deployment of plant technology can mean the difference between life and death, and between health and disease for millions of Africans. The use of GM food technology will not only release the talent of the 70 percent of the population locked in inefficient agricultural quests, but will also lead to higher food production. It will lower food prices and enhance the international competitiveness of Africa's primary industry. This technology can also help improve health and environment concerns in Africa. Yields per hectare will go up, with man and wildlife coexisting peacefully. Crop varieties that are able to grow in arid areas will transform unproductive land to valuable land.

However, Africans fear that this technology will create dependency on the big companies that produce the specially modified products. "I was used to getting seeds from my crop after every harvest, but now I have to keep buying seeds every year. With this new technology, though good, it is going to enslave poor countries, and we may soon be held at ransom in order to get high yielding pest resistant crops," observed a local university professor who owns a maize plantation. Things are made worse due to limited capacity in Africa to exploit biotechnology and or regulate its products to ensure that they are safe.

Africa needs this technology and must embrace it from an informed perspective. The agriculture minister's challenge to local experts should be addressed urgently. As Africans seek to expand productivity and join the world of trade, it is imperative that they shun any food aid -- be it GM or non-GM -- that will throw farmers out of business. Africa should import the technology and discourage "food help."

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