17 November 2010

Africa: Are GM Foods a Solution for Continent's Food Problem?

The debate about whether or not Africa should turn to genetically modified (GM) food production as a measure to end hunger has been going on for several years now. The big question is why is the issue of adopting what clearly appears to be a short cut to the continent's huge hunger problem taking so long to be decided upon what appears to be the miracle solution to a problem they are otherwise working in vain to solve?

GM organisms are developed in laboratories by slicing genes from unrelated species into the host organism - unlike in the natural breeding system where select plants or animals with desirable traits are crossbred within a species to produce better crops or animals. Many scientists, like Andrew Taynton of Safe Age, a South African consumer movement, believe that there is a big risk in consuming GM foods.

"For example, bacteria or virus genes are sliced into food crops and then reproduced in each and every cell in the plant," he says. "This carries several risks as it is a random and imprecise process. It can scramble the genome, cause mutations, fragments, and multiple copies or turn neighbouring genes on or off. The main concerns about eating GM food are the development of new allergies, new toxins, new diseases, antibiotic resistance, and changed nutritional value."

A respected pan-African magazine, New African, devoted about 12 pages of its January 2009 issue to the debate of whether GM Food is good for Africa. There was hardly a sentence in the publication that could encourage any developing country in Africa to turn to GM food production.

South Africa, of all African countries, was singled out as already having adopted the production of GM food. The proponents of GM food for Africa like David King, director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University argue that if Africa turned to GM food, it would end its hunger woes just like India and China who went GM, did. He also attacked Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, for standing up for organic farming.

Prince Charles in The New African once said in August 2009, "Growing GM crops in the developing world, represents the biggest environmental disaster of all time. Multinational corporations who are encouraging the growth of GM crops are conducting a gigantic experiment with nature and the whole of humanity which has gone seriously wrong." Some industrialised countries such as France have their own reservations about GM food and are encouraging more the consumption of organically grown food for their nationals.

What most advocates of GM food don't say is the greed for money and profit of especially agro-chemical corporations. Africa is hungry and there is no doubt about that but in order to come out of that difficult position it must not automatically follow the examples of India and China. In the current issue of New African the former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has clearly indicated that the total land area available for agriculture in Africa is greater than that of Western Europe, the US, China and India - combined. Kofi Annan today heads the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra).

He is not talking about growing GM food, rather, he is talking about African governments investing at least 10 per cent of their annual budgets to support and develop small holder farmers, using improved seeds, environment friendly fertilisers and quality animal breeds. And as he has mentioned in the article written for New African, this month countries like Ghana, Rwanda, Tanzania and Malawi are already showing signs of overcoming hunger through these simple methods.

GM also is not so much about African foods like millet, sweet potatoes, cassava or yams and the various African vegetables. We need to develop our own food crops as we fight hunger and we don't have to automatically switch to foods from other continents. The more we adapt to western technology the more we have to spend on machinery and chemicals manufactured in the west.

After all, the industrialised countries will not buy our surplus food (including GM food) since they always have enough food and anyway they have safely put in place trade barriers that discourage African products access to their markets. Our food and poverty problems must be solved right on our small plots of land and by ourselves as farmers and researchers.

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