Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Will GM foods keep a hungry continent better fed?

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

World Agriculture output rose 25 percent between 1972 and 1982. But in Africa, it declined some 14 percent. Since then, the continent has been running to keep up with the rest of the world in terms of agriculture production. Its population keeps growing, putting strain on the environment. This is underlined by the fact that 16 of the 18 most undernourished countries hail from Africa. The major question we must ask: In these times of rising food prices, how will Africa provide affordable, healthy food for its people?

This story begins with a current event: Benin has decided to renew for five years its moratorium on marketing, import and use of genetically modified foods, Africquenligne reported.

The short article goes to state that Benin, like many other African countries, lacks the scientific skills and equipment to properly detect, monitor and control GMOs once they find their way into the country.

It has been said that on the whole Africans are very skeptical regarding genetically modified crops of any sort. Africans claim that GM products will harm the continent’s bounty of biodiversity. Governments also understand that a majority of the continent lives in rural areas and relies on the environment for their livelihoods, which most often involves growing crops on the small scale.

If I had to put my finger on it, I'd say the major complaints against GM foods is they have not been thoroughly tested – worries abound that Africa will become a testing ground – which will put the continent’s poorest at severe economic risk if these crops fail; (or, if they work too well, increasing yields will drive food prices down. African farmers only have to look at the U.S. and Europe to see cheap food and disenfranchised farmers.); also, GM seeds provides an upper hand to large international agri-conglomerates who will be able to profit from the work of African farmers. Finally, people could be put at risk for potential health risks from eating GM foods.

Here is a 2007 status report on GMO crops in Africa from the African Centre for Biosafety, from South Africa that I think provides a good window into the various debates regarding GMO.

The GM push in Africa has recorded several significant setbacks and failures, with Florence Wambugu’s GM sweet potato in Kenya and the Gates Foundation’s GM sorghum in South Africa being the most prominent. The rejection by South Africa’s GMO regulatory authority of the GM sorghum project is extremely significant, as this sets the boundaries that even pro-GM South Africa cannot cross: namely, that genetic engineering of a crop where Africa is the centre of origin will not be tolerated. Importantly, this rejection represents a huge set back for crucial components of the ‘New Green Revolution in Africa’ push, which is heavily funded by the Gates Foundation.

Indeed, 2007, has not been a good year for GE in South Africa. The first ever GM cassava field trials also faced the thumbs down from the South African regulatory authorities; a major retailer in South Africa, concerned about the possibility of GM potatoes still in field trials in South Africa having entered the food chain, publicly announced their decision not to stock GM potatoes until its safety had been proven. The South African sugar industry also strongly indicated their extreme reluctance to throw their weight behind GM sugarcane. The South African regulatory authorities also rejected out of hand, Syngenta’s application for commodity import of its GM maize for ethanol on food safety grounds.

Some Background
In 2006, more than 40 African countries received some form of food aid, which equaled about 5 million tons. At least three-quarters of the world’s food aid originates in the United States, where certain GM products can mix freely with others; a lack of labeling system has allowed these products to enter other food systems. Complaints by Zambia and Sudan (among others) lead to some changes in international food aid. The European Union, which favors donating money for food over sending food itself, stipulated in 2003 that its funds could not purchase GM foods.

In West Africa, a broad-based coalition against GMOs has been formed. At least 40 African countries are parties to the international environmental agreement regulating moving GMOs across borders. However, few countries have functioning systems to regulate GMOs, although several have imposed heavy restrictions on them.

Today, nine countries report field trials in various GMOs: Burkina Faso; Egypt; Kenya; Morocco; Senegal; Tanzania; Zambia, and Zimbabwe. A somewhat larger list of countries have the capacity to undergo tests.

In West Africa, Burkina Faso and Nigeria are probably the most pro-GMO countries. Burkina Faso, Africa’s biggest cotton producer, has allowed testing of genetically modified strands of cotton.

I’ll call it what I like
A side issue – in this specific post, but an important theme nonetheless – is the idea of “biofuels,” which has been renamed by some NGOs as “agrofuels” which, they say, is a better term to express what is really happening: Agribusiness producing fuel from plants as another commodity in a wasteful, destructive and unjust global economy.”

Whatever it is called, a variety of African crops have been earmarked for this new fuel tests: maize, soybeans, groundnuts, cassava, sugarcane, pumpkin seeds, and Jatropha.

The South African government attempted to propose to replace 4.5 percent of liquid-road-transport fuels with agrofuels by blending ethanol and biodiesel with conventional petroleum. Civil society organizations heavily criticized the draft strategy, claiming it would provide a chance to introduce different varieties of GM maize and soybeans into the country, which they claim already has a lax regulation system. As the report pointed out above, South Africa’s regulators denied an application by the firm Syngenta to import its genetically modified maize to be converted solely into ethanol.

Will this revolution be skipped?
The first Green Revolution of the 1970s largely failed in Africa, says GlobalChange at the University of Michigan, because its climate does not tolerate the projects preference for crops of high yield, needing bountiful amounts of irrigation and fertilizers. Thus, the world’s higher crop yields between 1972 and 1982 were completely lost in Africa.

The second Green Revolution, brought to you by the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, is currently taking place and will concentrate on Africa’s small farmers who often cultivate without any machinery, fertilizer and irrigation. These farmers often live far from food markets, making selling their surplus expensive and wasteful. The underlying problem, says the Rockefeller Foundation, is that African farmers don’t grow high-yield crops.

They’d like to correct that with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa that will provide African farmers with better seed varieties, which will help grow larger harvests; better fertilizer use, including training in soil and water management techniques, and developing a better delivery system to get new fertilizers far from city centers; finally, creating better developed storage systems, transportation facilities and markets to sell the products. Finally, where possible, install better irrigation systems.

Here’s just a few harsh words GRAIN saves for this plan, which they claim is ill-suited for small scale farming.

Whether it is the new Green Revolution or the old, the first losers are farmers, especially small farmers. [Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa] sets out to replace the seeds that African farmers have carefully developed for their farms and cultures, with varieties suited to industrial monocultures. Such seeds will pave the way for the industrialisation of African food crops, opening the door to large agribusiness to come in and dominate.

West Africa, here we come
Continuing with the African Centre for Biosafety’s report, we can see the many international agencies attempting to persuade and enable West African governments to create more GMO-friendly legislation. The US Dept. of Agriculture currently trains scientists in biotechnology and a USAID program helps countries enhance bio policy and research. Another USAID-funded program provides support for expanding agriculture biotechnology, including genetic modification.

The report also has harsh words for the World Bank, which is attempting to get approval of a biosafety policy through the West African Economic and Monetary Union, WAEMU, although the proposal was only written in English, hardly any help for the French-speaking group. Some groups, such as GRAIN, have also claimed that the World Bank has attempted to undermine public debate on these programs.

ECOWAS, which is a grouping of all West African states, has also held meetings, sponsored by USAID, “in order to ease the way for GE industries in West Africa,” according to the report. Civil society groups across the region have stepped up pressure on ECOWAS to slow down the acceptance of GMO.

USAID’s Regional Biosafety Project, which counts Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and Togo as members – has been put in place to harmonize biosafety laws across the region. It also, the report asserts, acts as a method to establish Bt cotton into the region, one the few cash crops for these countries. The authors claim that Bt cotton in West Africa will distract attention from illegal U.S. cotton subsidies and provide a foot in the door for U.S. corporations into this lucrative commodity.

While Benin has extended its moratorium on GM foods, it continues to receive food aid from the United States, a probable source of GM foods.

  • Burkina Faso is currently testing bio cotton, but there are no dates when it will (if ever) be released to consumers. Scientists are also currently researching various GM plants, including those with drought tolerance, insect and virus resistant cowpeas. Burkina also accepts U.S.-based food aid, including cornmeal, which has a high likelihood of being GM;
  • Cote d’Ivoire does not currently have any trials on GM foods, but is of food aid. Same for Gambia and Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mauritania, Sierra Leone and Togo;
  • Ghana has a little GM testing going on today, but the clouds are gathering. The similar cowpea project as Burkina is going on in Ghana; cases have been made by Ghanaian scientists to test a tomato resistant to yellow leaf curl; also, proposals have been completed for eggplant, cabbage and cassava. The Statesman newspaper in Accra reported that international community began workshops and trainings to sensitize the population regarding genetically modified foods, code words for arm-twisting sessions;
  • Guinea-Conakry has sent government agents to trainings regarding GMO foods. However, there is currently no R & D going on in the country. It is a recipient of food aid;
  • Mali currently tests GM cotton, but the government halted plans to allow other tests. It is a recipient of food aid;
  • Nigeria is currently focusing on research in palm oil and has announced plans to begin testing on maize, cassava and sweet potatoes. Universities have been testing cowpeas and cassava, which came under criticism by a consumer rights group. Also, tests have taken place in yam and banana;
  • Niger is participating in the cowpeas tests and is a large beneficiary of food aid. Ditto for Senegal, which did test cotton, but scrapped it because the seeds failed.

1 comment:

jim schmidt said...

Despite persuasive PR assertions by agribusiness giants like Monsanto, very few genetically modified crops are developed to increase yields or provide more drought resistant food.
More often, GM crops are designed to withstand massive doses of powerful herbicides which are sold to the grower at the same time he buys the seeds.
These seeds cannot be legally saved and regrown by the farmer the following year. They are the (intellectual?) property of the company. There are well-publicized cases of Canadian farmers who have been sued for saving their soybeans to plant the following year.
Yields may indeed increase, but that is not why these crops are developed. They are developed to turn a healthy profit, and to further industrialize agriculture.
That is fine, and is actually an ingenious business model, but be careful when eyeing GM crops as the savior of agriculture on any continent.