Cruel to deny Africa a hand up
IPN Critical Opinion articles
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is about to rule on the European Union's (EU's) resistance to genetically modified foods and this will have a direct effect on starving Africans.
Genetically modified foods are regarded with suspicion and opposition in Europe and among environmentalist nongovernmental organisations - Greenpeace panicked Zambia into refusing free genetically modified maize from the US when stricken by famine in 2002, although Americans eat it all the time.
The EU tightly restricts imports to a very few genetically modified products so African countries would face yet another barrier to trade if they took advantage of the benefits of genetically modified crops. All this is based on the vague "precautionary principle" that allows undefined fears of undefinable consequences to be presented as evidence in EU law and UN conventions.
But rich countries have enough food. Should we allow them to dictate to us what is best for Africa?
In Africa 70% of the population depends on agriculture as the sole source of income but Africa's crop productivity is the lowest in the world and 25% of grain is imported. Worse still, yields are falling.
African scientists are tackling the challenge by developing genetically modified crops with increased yields.
Africa is home to virulent plant diseases such as cassava mosaic virus and maize streak virus. In the 1990s Uganda lost nearly all its cassava (manioc) to cassava mosaic virus, which is spreading rapidly towards Nigeria, one of Africa's biggest producers. Varieties of maize have been bred by conventional means to resist maize streak virus but this resistance often breaks down when grown in areas for which they are not entirely suitable. Scientists in our laboratories at the University of Cape Town (UCT), in association with a local seed company, have developed genetically modified varieties that are resistant to the virus.
Witchweed attacks the roots of crops such as maize and strangles them, making it almost impossible to remove by conventional weeding. Field trials in Kenya using a nonmodified maize variety coated with the herbicide imazapyr have proven successful. Other scientists are developing similar resistance using genetic modification technology.
And then we come to drought, one of African farmers' greatest problems.
I was recently talking to small-scale banana farmers in Kenya. When asked what the major constraint to production was, they all replied "lack of water". Attempts to breed crops tolerant to drought by conventional methods have not been successful so a growing number of scientists worldwide are working on the development of drought tolerance using genetic modification.
At UCT we are using genes from the indigenous South African "resurrection plant", Xerophyta viscosa, that grows in cracks in rocks. This plant can survive for long periods at 5% of its normal water content. It loses all its chlorophyll and looks completely dead but add water and within 72 hours the plant resurrects in an amazing display. The first genes we have introduced into transgenic plants show tolerance to dehydration, heat and salt.
Insect-resistant maize expressing the Bacillus thuringiensis toxin has been successful in parts of SA, grown by small-scale and commercial farmers. As well as protecting the cobs from maize borers, it seems to protect them from post-harvest fungus infection. These fungi can produce toxins that can cause toxic hepatitis and oesophageal cancer in humans.
Other important initiatives in African laboratories aim to develop improved varieties of local crops such as cowpea, sweet potatoes, yams and sorghum. These are staples in many parts of Africa but, because there is no mass market for them, multinational companies have little interest in improving their yields: we have to develop them ourselves.
But Europe's resistance to genetically modified foods is affecting Africa: not only are genetically modified imports banned but the unscientific fears have spread too. Kenya is considering halting experiments, Zambia continues to ban donations of genetically modified maize for famine relief and even SA, with 645000ha placing it among the top 14 growers of genetically engineered crops, faces new restrictive legislation.
Our big hope is that the forthcoming World Trade Organisation ruling - in a case brought by Argentina, the US and Canada against the EU - will open up trade in genetically modified crops and free us to exploit this opportunity to fight famine and increase trade.
African farmers already suffer from drought, disease, internal trade barriers, corruption and lack of property rights; refusing them the benefits of genetically modified food is a cruel and nasty trick.