GMO issue divides African scientists

by Emily Wilson
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Opinion is divided among East African scientists on whether it is prudent to grow grain that has been genetically modified, in light of the controversy this issue has created in Europe and parts of Asia.

Leading the opposition against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is Dr. Hans Herren, the 1995 World Food Prize award winner and director general of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, Kenya. On the other side are a group of scientists led by the Nairobi-based Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, who argue that GMOs could help to address Africa's endless poverty and food deficiency.

Last month, the two sides of the GMO issue converged in Nairobi to discuss the implications of new agricultural technologies in addressing the continent's priority needs. The occasion was also used to launch the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum, a body that will devote its energies to researching new agricultural technologies.

"We cannot reject a science we have not applied," said Dr. John Wafula, head of biotechnology at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). "Let us have it and subject it to rigorous testing before judging its potential hazards."

Researchers believe that biotechnology in third world countries is premised on demand-driven initiatives, which are based on priority needs in agriculture.

Agriculture plays a major role in Africa, contributing to 30% of the Gross Domestic Product for most countries. It supports 90% of the population and 70% of the labor force, according to statistics.

The African continent imports at least 25% of its grain needs. Its inability to produce enough grain forces it to rely on food aid from industrialized nations when mass starvation occurs.

The average maize yield in Africa is about 1.7 tonnes per hectare compared with a global average of 4 tonnes per hectare. The World Food Program has warned that close to 15 million people currently face starvation as a result of poor grain harvest due to drought.

The East African countries of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and Somalia are facing erratic weather conditions as a result of the La Nina phenomenon, and forecasts predict harvests will likely be reduced by 40% this season.

Some African scientists are taking a pro-biotechnology approach on this raging controversy, which has deeply divided Europe and America, and are co-operating with research institutions in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Egypt and Kenya to research and develop transgenic crops.

Encouraging strides have been made in developing high yielding and disease-resistant varieties of maize, cotton, vegetables, tubers and oilseeds. Monsanto, one of the leading proponents of biotechnology, has developed weed-resistant cotton, which is currently being propagated to great success in South Africa's Kwa Zulu Natal region.

China began propagating the new cotton variety in Hebei Province in 1997. During that period, yields increased by 39% while net income shot up by 57%. No cases of destruction to the environment or food sources were reported.

A biotechnology transfer project also is under way in Africa to develop maize streak virus (MSV) resistant varieties, according to Dr. Florence Wambugu of the South American-based International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, an organization charged with promoting biotechnology research in Africa. The project is brokered by I.S.A.A. and involves KARI, the University of Cape Town and the John Innes Centre in the U.K.

Researchers at KARI are studying the mechanism of MSV-resistance and are trying to mark the genes responsible. Advanced biotechnology skills, including the use of improved agro-innoculation techniques and molecular markers, is at the core of this effort. A priority in Kenya is also to produce high yielding, drought-tolerant crop varieties to boost food production in the 71% of the country that is arid or semi-arid.

Organic farmers have used this technology for over 30 years and no toxic materials have been found in human food, according to presentations at the workshop. Scientists on the pro-GMO side said the use of GM technology has been practiced for many centuries and there should never be a controversy surrounding its application.

"Fermented porridge or traditional brews and baking bread have been with us for centuries," said Dr. Wambugu of the I.S.A.A. "These are examples of how great this technology has been."

She attributes the current debate over GMOs to fear, adding that the main goal of promoting genetic engineering in Africa is to find a balanced formula on how local institutions can participate in transgenic product development and share the benefits, risks and profits of the technology as they own the local germplasm needed by multinationals for sustainable commercialization.

"No scientific discovery has been foolproof," Dr. Wambugu said. She said the success of penicillin was hailed all over the world despite some patients developing allergies to the drug.

New GM grain varieties must not simply replace local ones, she said, adding that the removal of genes that were in public domain into the private sector is a sensitive issue in Africa.

One conference participant asserted that those European countries that are ardently opposed to GM crops had lost out in technological development and are worried that their industries will be rendered obsolete.

The opposition to GMOs is not science-based, said Dr. John Mugabe of the African Centre for Technological Studies in Nairobi. "The issue should be how it is applied, not whether it should be applied or not," he said.

Efforts are now being made to set up national biosafety committees by some governments to check the development of the technology. The committees will monitor its applications and safety to both the environment and humans.

One of the sticking issues about the disadvantages of GM crops is the development by Monsanto of "terminator genes," which destroys the plant seed's ability to germinate and would give the company the monopoly to market the seeds. Monsanto has promised not to commercialize its use.

Opponents of GM technology say that human resistance to antibiotics has been a direct result of use of GM crops and that it would also contribute to a further decline in wildlife. Dr. Herren warns of a fiasco, saying that farmers are likely to be weaned from pesticides only to be force-fed genetically engineered seeds. He said that before any genetically engineered plants can be used, independent research is needed to assure the stability of these transformations, with positive assurances that no undesirable and unexpected side effects will arise from the manipulations.

"Sustainable agriculture cannot be packaged in seeds alone," Dr. Herren said. "It is likely that most practices to reach sustainable production lies actually beyond the seed in crop and land management, crop diversity, input and output structure, credit availability, storage and access to markets."

Dr. Herren argued that the trend toward a quasi-monopolization of funding in agricultural development into a narrow set of technologies was dangerous and irresponsible. Too many hopes and expectations are being entrusted in genetically engineered technologies to the detriment of more conventional and proven agronomic technologies and strategies that have been very successful, he said.

Proponents say that biotechnology will alleviate hunger and reduce the need to use herbicides and fertilizers by up to 13%. They also claim that yields will increase tenfold if this form of biotechnology is adopted.

Though most African countries are supportive of GM crops, they have yet to start the widespread use of this technology. Most of their activities are still confined to research.

Kenya, for example, is currently conducting mock trials for sweet potatoes developed by Dr. Wambugu in Kakamega, Kisii, Mtwapa, Embu and Muguga. South African farmers in the Kwa Zulu region are growing the new GM variety of cotton.

Buong' Arunda is a writer for The Topic, a magazine published by the Association of Food and Agriculture Journalists in Nairobi, Kenya.