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Frankenfoods or future crops?

By Gemma Ware in Montpellier
Posted on Tuesday, 25 May 2010 14:31

Concerns over climate change, drought and food

security have persuaded some governments to take crop modification more

seriously. But doubts persist about its impact on resources, ecology

and biodiversity

Read more on why Monty Jones, the scientist who invented the New Rice for Africa, thinks all tools necessary should be used to fight hunger.

For 17 years, scientists in Nigeria have been trying to find a way to make the cowpea moth disappear. Cowpeas are hardy, nutritious and good income generators, but the moths are resilient pests. Crop scientists have been trying a range of planting methods and natural breeding techniques, but the moths keep coming back. Now the scientists are thinking about genetically- modified (GM) crop solutions.

A vocal cohort of African scientists and the donors who fund them argue that GM-seed ?creation – which involves taking a gene from one plant and implanting it into the cells of another – should be one of the tools available to African crop breeders and must not be ignored in the face of climate change and concerns over food security.

The issue breeds acrimonious debate and African politicians have remained largely unconvinced about GM techniques. They are worried about their safety for consumers and the impact on the environment. Public reaction is no more accepting, stoked by a European-led anti-GM food lobby which decries a future where agriculture is dictated by companies whose crops could threaten Africa’s complex biodiversity.

“We really have a philosophical dilemma. What do we do with this crop?” asks Peter Hartmann, director-general of the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, where cowpea scientists are mulling their options. “We give up or we do GMO [genetically-modified organisms] and let countries decide.”?

So far, GM crops have been a footnote to African agriculture. Barring South Africa, which was one of the first countries in the world to begin commercial GM food production in 1997 and grew an estimated 2.1m ha of biotech crops in 2009, only Egypt (which grows maize) and ?Burkina Faso (cotton) have begun commercial production of GM goods. However, laws are gradually loosening.

Only a handful of other countries in sub-Saharan Africa – Zimbabwe, Kenya and Mauritius – technically allow GM crops to be produced under existing laws. If politicians agree, 12 others, including Nigeria, Zambia, Mozambique and Ghana, will allow trials of GM seeds to be carried out.

The US gene giants Monsanto and DuPont are active in Africa, but the continent has not yet become a large marketplace for the big biotech trait developers. “I don’t know that they’ve really been welcomed,” says Denise Dewar, executive director of plant biotechnology at CropLife, a federation representing the plant science industry.

The seed market in Africa is underdeveloped. According to CropLife, only 12% of the $4.4bn worth of seeds traded in Africa are purchased, compared to a global average of 50%. For foreign companies, seeds have to be developed locally and new entrants need to develop licensing agreements with companies to get their traits into local varieties. It is a high-risk and costly business, says Dewar.

In South Africa, the agribusiness sector is sophisticated and well-regulated, with GM crop production dominated by large-scale commercial farmers. It is illegal to export GM seeds for planting in another country without a permit, but South ?Africa exports maize for consumption within Africa.

In early April, 40,000tn of maize exported from South Africa were blocked at Kenya’s Mombasa port by protestors who claimed that the shipment contained GM grains. Although the the Biosafety Act passed by the Kenyan government in 2009 created a framework for regulating biotechnology, production of GM crops remains outlawed.

In South Africa, avenues have begun opening up for biotech companies to market their seeds to smallholders. In 2002, the government launched a seed and input-subsidy scheme in the Eastern Cape called the Massive Food Production Programme. It has been strongly criticised by the non-governmental organisation GRAIN, which says that farmers were coerced into planting GM seeds provided by Monsanto with little awareness of the need for buffer zones to protect against contamination or the chances of insect resistance.

Trial and error?

An embarrassing crop failure last year in South Africa did little to improve Monsanto’s reputation. The company paid around $42m in compensation for the 2008/9 season after 280 farmers growing three white-maize varieties experienced a 25% reduction in yields. Farmers were then sworn to secrecy. A spokeswoman for Monsanto says that the company is correcting the problem, which it says was caused by variable pollination in the fields where the seeds were planted.

In April 2010, Swiss firm Syngenta was one of a group of companies who launched a pilot called AgriCan, which targets smallholder farmers in Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape. The 18-month project aims to provide around 632 farmers with access to credit, fertiliser, GM and other hybrid seeds, and technological tools such as satellite imaging. The plan is to reproduce the scheme, described as a “development franchise”, across Africa.

Alongside these low-lying initiatives, companies are entering into private-public partnerships with research institutions. In Africa, agricultural research is dominated by the public sector, but capacity for effective research is limited. In November 2009, South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council was disappointed when the government rejected its GM potato because of biosafety concerns.

The most prominent public-private partnership is the Nairobi-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). The AATF is conducting trials of GM bananas and cowpeas, but its flagship crop is Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), the fruit of a partnership with Monsanto. It has been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet Foundations. A first non-GM variety of WEMA should be released by 2015, with a GM variety ready by 2020. The intellectual property usually carefully guarded by seed companies that are wont to sue ?farmers who plant GM seeds without a licence, will be distributed royalty-free and made available to smallholders.

Among the donors to the AATF are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, both prominent funders of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). The Gates Foundation hired former Monsanto vice-president Robert Horsch to its Global Development Programme in 2006, leading to accusations that the push for an Asian-style green revolution is just a Trojan horse for the GM-seed industry.

The African Centre for Bio-safety’s Miriam Mayet says that the need for an African green revolution relies upon the industrialisation of agriculture: “GMOs fit into an industrial agriculture model. They won’t be able to introduce GMOs to small-scale, poor farmers. They need a sophisticated, well-oiled agribusiness machinery.” There are still many unanswered questions relating to the level of pesticides used in conjunction with GM crop ?technologies, the impact on soil and water resources, as well as insect ecology and biodiversity.

AGRA does not currently support any GMO initiatives. It chooses instead to support local seed companies, community-based seed producers and agro-dealers. Using conventionally-bred seeds, African food production stands at around 1.2tn/ha. Improvements in infrastructure and better access to market and inputs could improve it to 4tn/ha. “Why put so much emphasis on GM crops?” asks AGRA president Namanga Ngongi. “If the conventionally-bred seed is not yet available to smallholder farmers, is it by magic that the GM seed will become available to farmers?”

But Ngongi said that when the time came and African governments were satisfied that GM varieties offered a real contribution to agriculture, AGRA would support their distribution through seed companies. He stressed that these were decisions to be made at national level but added that he thought it would be “almost foolish” not to use technologies that could solve a particular agricultural problem. Resistance to viral diseases and tolerance for soil toxicity are some of the problems scientists believe can be solved only by GM options.

Chinese competition

Attitudes toward GM crops are slowly beginning to change. The food-price crisis of 2008 brought G8 leaders round to the idea of using biotechnology to boost yields and tackle global food security. In March 2010, the EU approved production of a GM potato made by German company BASF and plans to publish proposals this June to allow member countries to decide for themselves whether to cultivate GM crops on their own soil.

Genetic modification is only set to get more important and it may be China that opens the door. Chinese researchers have been doing large-scale trials of GM food crops – rice, maize, soybeans and wheat – that are waiting to be released for commercial production. If the varieties are made available to African scientists, “the whole situation could change,” according to Gordon Conway at Imperial College London, who also sits on the board of the AATF. “It would be good because Monsanto needs competition. And actually we need much more public funding of GM so that you get material which is cheap or freely available,” he says.

What is certain is that African agriculture needs to step up to face the challenge presented by climate change and growing populations, particularly around urban centres not easily linked to areas of agricultural production. Whether GM crops offer a quick-fix solution to Africa’s 21st-century problems will be up to politicians to decide. The scientists are already convinced it cannot be ignored.

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