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Africa's GM Dilemma

Should Africa depend on GM crops from the United States to stop hunger?

July 22, 2003

Should Africa depend on GM crops from the United States to stop hunger?

Historically, the United States government has responded well to global development challenges, spurring change through use of various assistance programs.

Today, with the emphasis on helping Africa and alleviating its continuing battle with starvation and famine, the United States has again positioned itself on the forefront of those seeking to stop a vicious cycle.

U.S. President Bush has already pledged $1.185 billion in emergency aid to be applied worldwide and $200 million for a Famine Fund “to prevent and mitigate famine in developing countries.”

However, his idea of using genetically modified crops on Africa’s soil is the one he has most actively promoted.

Mr. Bush says this technology is the ultimate hunger solution.

The proponents of such a move argue that if Africa gives GM foods a chance — it will curtail hunger in every country on the continent — especially in countries where crops fail to grow because of drought, pest infestation or other natural causes.

Yet, what a lot of people do not realize is that the genetic engineering industry in the United States is a multi-billion dollar a year enterprise. The world leader in biotechnology crops — which posted $4.7 billion in 2002 revenues — calls St. Louis, Mo., home.

The Monsanto Company currently accounts for 90% of the world’s GM crop supply, while also holding a top position in the key corn and soybean market in North and South America, as well as in Asia.

The company posted first-quarter 2003 sales of $550 million in its seeds and genomics sector. All in all, Monsanto is to the biotechnology industry what Microsoft is to the computer industry — its Herculean prodigy.

While Mr. Bush’s interest in the plight of the millions who go hungry in Africa every day is laudable, the push for GM crops is not the perfect solution it is being advertised.

For starters, there is concern that biotechnology encourages monoculture and only lends itself to a large-scale, industrial style of agriculture — which is uncommon in Africa.

The introduction of genetic engineering might well destroy Africa's model of production and consumption, which sustains more than 70% of the continent's farmers.

Their production is split so that, as one-third of their seeds is sold, another is consumed and the last part is stored for the following season.

GM crops, however, are not “designed” the same way. Once genetically engineered seeds are sown, they are only good for one cycle depending on where they are grown.

African farmers, then, would not be able to use the harvest to replant — because the seeds are “programmed” to become sterile following the first growth.

Countries that decide to buy GM crops this year will have no choice but to go back next year — and the next — to purchase another round of seeds.

Instead of storing their own seed supplies for the following year — which they have done for centuries — Africa’s farmers would rely on companies like Monsanto to provide the supplies for them.

This could create a circle of dependency that — even with the absence of patents now — might continue indefinitely.

It is for this prime reason that GM organisms, in my view, are not the universal remedy Africa needs. Recent research has also shown that there are still many unknowns about GM foods — and like any other genuine debate — this one must take into account several pressing issues.

One of those important issues — especially with regard to Africa’s agriculture — is how this technology will best sustain existing practices and policies used specifically by Africa’s farmers.

This debate also has to answer the question of how Africa will expect to counter-balance industry-sponsored research from a large contingent of U.S. multinational companies.

Questions of human and environmental safety, labeling issues for consumer choice — and consumer participation in setting up national and international food standards — abound.

And amid all of this, it is important to look at the bigger picture.
Nearly 200 million Africans currently suffer from chronic hunger. At the start of 2003, the situation was so desperate that some 25 million Africans required emergency food aid.

I believe that in addressing the problem of hunger in Africa, it is perhaps most crucial to realize that it has many causes. The most important can be summed up as follows:

1. Access to and distribution of food

2. Politics (lack of good governance)

3. Civil wars/ internal strife

4. Imbalance in land distribution (such as idle land lying in waste)

5. Natural disasters (such as drought, floods, land slides)

6. Unfavorable international trade rules and regulations (such as access to patents, protectionist tendencies, lack of access to markets, subsidies making African farmers' products uncompetitive, over-production and price volatility)

7. Structural adjustment programs and their negative impact on demand (such as credit to farmers, subsidies on basic strategic commodities)

8. High cost of agricultural production inputs

9. Population pressure

10. Lack of rural-urban infrastructures

11. Lack of expertise or farmers' know-how

12. Inadequate food storage systems and monitoring mechanisms

13. Lack of adequate food processing technologies

In light of this broad range of challenges, it becomes quite obvious that the introduction of GM crops cannot be viewed as providing “the” answer. Many observers also worry that genetic engineering promotors are seeking to eliminate any possible competition from non-GM crops.

In particular, this affects traditional crops that are more tailored to a country's capacity to control its own future — and more appropriate to its technological developments and know-how. In addition, recent experience shows that countries — once they implement sound agricultural policies — can succeed without GM crops.

One year after Zambia ran short of food, and with no recourse to biotechnology, this nation has almost doubled its 2001-2002 maize crop production from 600,000 tons to well over 1.1 million. It may even start to export some of it soon.

The Zambian President's words — "Our good policies in agriculture are beginning to pay off" — speak more clearly on the misguided value of using biotechnology as the only means to solve the problem of poverty and hunger.

Yet, why is the U.S. government so keen on pushing biotechnology into Africa? Domestic factors such as the agribusiness’ political contributions to U.S. election campaigns certainly play a role here.

GM foods offered through U.S. development assistance made international headlines when a severe food crisis hit southern Africa in 2002.

At least 14 million people were facing starvation at the time. Food aid organizations around the world estimated that over $500 million in aid was needed to avert hunger. The affected countries included Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Lesotho, Angola, Mozambique and Swaziland.

The United States provided genetically modified maize to all the countries affected. Malawi, Mozambique, Angola and Lesotho accepted the un-milled corn. Zimbabwe accepted the aid on one condition — that its corn be milled.

But in spite of an estimated 2.4 million people in need of food, Zambia rejected the U.S. corn — after following recommendations from its national team of experts.

The scientists cited the absence of conclusive evidence on the food's long-term effects on several factors — including human health, the country's long-term food production capacity and the impact on the country's environment and trade.

The U.S. government perceived Zambia's decision as a blow to its humanitarian motivations. The United States then refused to supply the Zambians with non-GM maize — or to untie its aid, which it insisted could be obtained in kind only from America.

The U.S. market — as well as the Latin American, Asian and European markets — are already oversupplied with foods. In addition, the public in many countries has proved very wary of biotechnology.

In Africa on the other hand, there is little oversupply of food — and few people are aware of the potential risks of GM crops.

Yet, if genetic engineering technology is introduced on the continent, it will create new markets for seeds, herbicides and pesticides.

Multinational companies plan on using the new African Technology Transfer Foundation — funded by USAID, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Monsanto Company — to persuade Africans to buy into the technology.

The industry says it will donate patent rights, seed varieties and laboratory know-how free of charge to African scientists. The founders claim their support is altruistic — while acknowledging that they hope to open new markets in Africa.

African governments are not convinced. They are determined to regulate and control the introduction of GM foods and adopt high standards of safety for GM products.

In May 2001, the African Union (AU), a continental body of African states, brought together experts, lawyers and other bio-safety specialists to discuss ways to set up an Africa-wide bio-safety system.

The outcome was the African Model Law on Bio-safety in Biotechnology.

It carefully crafted a comprehensive framework of bio-safety regulations specifically designed to protect Africa's biodiversity, environment and the health of its people from the risks of GM organisms.

However novel the science of GM crops, the Bush Administration must realize that the improvement of food security and agriculture in Africa calls for more than just biotechnology.

Good governance, wise policies, infrastructure and investment are other key requirements. Africa faces particularly high hurdles in these areas.