3 March 2003
BETTER WAYS TO FEED AFRICA THAN GM CROPS
There Are Better Ways to Feed Africa Than With GM Crops
Sunday Times (Johannesburg), March 2, 2003
CAN Africa feed itself? Many people will answer this question in the negative, prompting the biotechnology industry to insist that genetic modification is the way to increase crop yields.
But this argument is based on a lack of understanding of the realities of food production in Africa.
The problem is not a lack of food. It is that areas of surplus are often deficient in infrastructure (roads, railways) to convey food to the places where crops have failed.
Ethiopia, often thought of as a place of famine, has generally produced more than enough food to meet its needs. However, droughts last year reduced crop production in some areas, and Ethiopia did not have the transport infrastructure to redistribute the food.
Similarly, the European Union has pointed out that GM-free locally produced grain is available in abundance in Southern Africa and that it is EU policy to buy this grain and pay for its transport to the areas where there are shortages. This has the advantage, for African farmers, of providing a market for their crops.
A problem with using biotechnology to alleviate African famine is that no GM seeds have been commercially developed with the purpose of increasing yields. Some 80% of the seed produced commercially is designed to resist herbicides. These can then be used extensively on crops to kill weeds.
However, this does not lead to improved yield but may decrease the labour requirements for crop production - a distinct disadvantage in Africa.
The biotechnology industry has overlooked the high cost of GM seed. How will farmers purchase seeds when poverty is the major limitation on small farmer production throughout Africa? Without money to erect fencing, they suffer neighbours' goats eating their crops. Without money for pipes and small pumps, they have to carry water from rivers during periods of low rainfall. Without transport they cannot get their crops to markets, and without storage facilities they cannot keep a surplus from one year to the next. GM seed does nothing to remedy these limitations.
Another problem is that GM seeds are patented. It is difficult for a farmer who has used his own seed for generations to understand that, as a result of policies determined in the US, there are intellectual property rights over living organisms. Policing these rights on behalf of Western multinationals would further deflect Africa's resources from where they should be directed: at feeding the poor.
Another issue which needs attention is the impression that Africa's rejection of GM crops and seeds has been instigated by Europe. In fact, the seven Zambian scientists who recently investigated the acceptability or otherwise of GM food aid visited the US and South Africa, in addition to Europe. They made their decision on the basis of food safety issues, including antibiotic resistance and the possibility of allergies. Dr Mwananyanda Lewanika, a biochemist, pointed out that, as maize is a staple food for the poor in Africa and people already have low immune systems, deleterious effects of consuming GM food were more likely than in the US.
So is there a way in which Africa can increase its food output without resorting to expensive technology?
Scientists have developed a natural system which dramatically reduces losses from stem borer beetle and from the Striga weed. These interventions have slashed losses from 40% to 4.6%.
The introduction of a wasp has reduced stem borer infestation by 53%. And these methods cost the farmer nothing .
Food shortages in Africa are a complex interplay of drought, poverty, lack of transport and storage infrastructure, shortages of agricultural extension officers and political instability. It is simplistic to contend that the biotechnology industry can alleviate these shortages by selling more of its expensive seed to the small farmers who produce more than 70% of Africa's food crops.
A final thought: what would happen if the R180-million that our government plans to spend annually promoting private sector biotechnology development were spent instead on removing constraints facing small farmers? Could we lead Africa into a food-production renaissance?
Krige is a development consultant who has researched poverty in Southern Africa
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