Ouagadougou — Four West African presidents said this week that they were in favour of genetically-modified (GMO) crops to solve food production problems but that they wanted to be sure about consumer safety and would proceed cautiously.
At a three-day agricultural science conference in the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou that ended on Wednesday, the leaders of Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Ghana voiced their support for biotechnology that fitted the needs of the continent.
"We cannot and must not wait on the sidelines of this global debate and ignore scientific and technological innovations that are crucial to progress," Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure told delegates on Monday. "But our obligation to the people to provide safe food, means we must proceed with caution."
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates almost 200 million people annually suffer from chronic malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa, which has recorded lower growth in agricultural output over the last three years.
"This technology has revolutionised agriculture and could also be used to improve the performance of African agriculture," Niger President Mamadou Tandja said.
The FAO said another two billion people born in the developing world will have to be fed over the next 30 years and biotechnology could be used to supply disease- and drought-resistant crops or to make African staples like cassava more nutritional.
At the conference this week, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which footed the bill for the conference, signed a memorandum of understanding to share food technologies with the African Agriculture Technology Foundation, a public-private partnership.
"By cultivating and applying our knowledge and by working together, we believe that the power of technology can be harvested to unleash the productive and economic potential here in Africa," said John Penn, the US undersecretary for Foreign Agriculture Services.
Landlocked Burkina Faso was the first West African nation to make a foray into genetically-modified organisms, when it accepted a proposal from multinational Monsanto to test genetically-modified cotton on its land.
"It's imperative for Africa... to resolutely focus on an agriculture policy that works by adapting scientific research and new technologies to the needs of the rural populations in Africa," Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore told the conference of about 500 delegates.
But not everybody was jumping on the GMO bandwagon. News agency AFP reported that a group of environmental, development and women's groups in Ouagadougou had issued a joint statement, criticising the conference.
"The use of biotech products is a short-term solution without a future, which perpetuates our dependence on multinationals," the statement said.