GM looking more attractive

2013-06-14 00:00

AFRICAN countries that are keen to improve crop yields, reduce hunger and protect themselves from climate change, have begun to reassess their objections to genetically modified (GM) crops, after following Europe’s lead in largely banning the technology.


While North and South American producers embraced genetically modified crops nearly two decades ago, and use is spreading in Asia, many European and African countries have banned it, in part because of public fear of health risks. For many governments, those health concerns have eased after years in which GM food has been grown and consumed safely around the world. In a sign of changing attitudes, European authorities had only a muted response last week when U.S. officials said that an unapproved strain of modified Monsanto wheat has been found growing on a farm in Oregon.

Yet public opposition to GM foods is intense in some countries, and European officials say the easing of health concerns is unlikely to yield a big change in their policy soon. Countries such as Austria and France have blocked proposals to make EU cultivation rules more flexible.

But in Africa, where governments are searching for ways to feed growing populations, there are signs that restrictions could be lifted. “There is growing recognition that African countries will need to use a range of modern technologies, including biotechnology, to adapt crops to new ecological conditions,” Calestous Juma, a Kenyan professor of international development at Harvard University in the United States, said.

Approving GM crops in Africa has been slow. Until 2008, South Africa was the only country on the continent that allowed the commercial cultivation of GM crops such as maize, cotton and soya beans. That year, Egypt started growing small quantities of altered maize and Burkina Faso allowed GM cotton to be grown. Last year, Sudan also allowed GM cotton to be grown. They are the only African countries that did so. South Africa accounts for nearly all of the three million hectares of GM plantings in Africa, dwarfing the 129 000 hectares in Europe, but still a fraction of the 170 million hectares of global GM crops.

According to the African Biosafety Network of Expertise, an African Union-run network for regulators, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Uganda have approved confined trials of genetically altered plants.

The Nigerian parliament has voted to loosen the country’s ban on GM organisms (GMOs), with a bill awaiting presidential approval. “The bill is quite cautious. The government ... does not want to make Nigeria a testing ground for GMOs, as has happened with pharmaceuticals,” said Kola Masha, an adviser to the government on agribusiness.

GM cotton has been a test case, seen as safer than other crops because it does not enter the food chain. “This would be the first way in for GMOs,” said Masha.

Caroline Theka, an environment officer in Malawi, said that the country has approved trials for modified cotton, but not for modified food crops.

Elsewhere, trials are focused on crops tailored to local markets, such as insect-resistant black-eyed peas, and bananas that contain high levels of vitamin A, to help physical development. However, some African countries are going in the opposite direction. Kenya set up a biosafety authority in 2009, which approved a few applications for the import of GM crops, mainly humanitarian aid for neighbouring countries. But last November, citing potential health risks, the government imposed a ban, over the authority’s objections.

In Europe, the prospects for increased cultivation remain remote, even though health arguments are no longer at the forefront of opposition to GM crops.

Despite this, Europe imports more than 30 million tons of mostly GM animal feed each year. With no evidence of health side effects, opponents have turned in part to economic and political arguments, saying that GM food puts too much power in the hands of the firms that develop it. Greenpeace campaigner Marco Contiero said that Europe’s public opposition to GMOs “is focused on the companies and the role they play in the deployment of GMO products”.

Campaigners estimate that two million people in 50 countries took part in demonstrations last month against Monsanto.

“Monsanto spends more than $4 million a day on research and development to deliver higher yields and improve the sustainability of farming. Intellectual property is an important and completely legitimate means to that end,” said spokesperson Brandon Mitchener. — Reuters.

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