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African governments are under intense pressure from within but also from big agribusiness and Western governments to embrace GMOs. Governments must resist all forms of arm-twisting and food colonialism and make their biotechnology choices based on the facts

For weeks now, an interesting controversy has been raging in Kenya about a popular seasoning product made by the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant Unilever. The government through the National Biosafety Authority announced it would stop the sale of Aromat in the country because it contains genetically modified ingredients that could harm consumers. Kenya banned production or importation of genetically modified organisms in 2012.

Unilever has gone to court, arguing that Aromat has been on shop shelves for 13 years in Kenya and that the GMOs ban, although a Cabinet decision, is not backed by any law. The multinational further argues that the government has not tabled any evidence indicating that Aromat has any adverse effect on consumers arising from its GMO ingredients.

While the hearing of the case is awaited, Aromat remains in the shops. But there is now a bizarre twist to the whole issue. It has emerged that the government of Kenya is in fact planning to lift its ban on GMOs. So, why purport to stop the sale of Aromat? Last week Deputy President William Ruto told an international agricultural conference here in Nairobi that the government was considering allowing GMOs to boost food production and alleviate poverty.

Still last week, the country’s governors (heads of the 47 counties created by the 2010 constitution) asked the government to lift the GMOs ban. They said the ban had contributed to food shortages in Kenya. Kisumu Governor Jack Ranguma, chair of the governors’ biotechnology committee, said the conventional methods of farming no longer met the country’s needs.

Pressure is piling on the government. It is not just politicians and corporates like Unilever who are pushing for GMOs. The country’s researchers and academics have in recent months used various platforms, including conferences and the media, to urge the government to embrace biotechnology.

And it is not only in Kenya. Throughout Africa, GMOs - organisms that have been biologically modified to incorporate genes with desired traits - are now being touted as a major solution to hunger and mass poverty. Supporters of biotechnology, like Kenyan-born Harvard scholar Prof Calestous Juma, believe that with GMOs Africa, which has 60 per cent of all the arable land, will be able to feed not just its people but the world.

‘Genetically-modified (GM) crops or any other breeding methods on their own cannot solve the challenges related to food quality, access to food, nutrition or stability of food systems. But their role cannot be dismissed for ideological reasons,’ Prof Juma wrote recently. ‘GM crops already benefit smallholder farmers in several major ways. For example, they help farmers control pests and disease. This leads to higher production and increased income, which in turn provides them with increased ability to consume more nutritious food.’

Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete is a recent enthusiastic GMO convert. He has appealed to Tanzanians to change their negative mindset about biotechnology, arguing that as long as there were no proven negative impacts of GMOs, he saw no reason why the technologies should not be used to modernise agriculture in his country.

South Africa has been the biggest proponent of GM crops on the continent for well over a decade. Genetically modified maize, cotton, soy beans and other crops are now grown commercially. In January, the government launched a new bio-economy strategy, which it said would boost food security, improve health care, create jobs and protect the environment. The new policy promotes multi-sector partnerships and increased public awareness on the benefits of biotechnology.

Last week, Nigeria’s National Agricultural Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) announced that the federal government had put in place necessary regulatory guidelines to fast track the adoption of GMO crops. A biosafety law will be passed to promote research and development in biotechnology, according to NABDA director-general Prof Lucy Ogbadu.

So far, only four African countries grow GM crops commercially (South Africa, Egypt, Sudan and Burkina Faso). But from the way things are moving, it will not be long before the GM gospel is embraced across the continent. GMOs supporters say biotechnology holds the key to prosperity in Africa where agriculture accounts for about two-thirds of full time employment and for more than half of the export earnings. Genetic modification will increase yields, improve nutritional quality, help crops to withstand adverse weather conditions and protect plants and animals from pests and diseases, among many other benefits.

Figures published by the European Academies Science Advisory Council indicate that in 2012, 17.3 million farmers planted genetically modified crops. Globally more than 70 percent of soy beans and more than 80 percent of cotton are of GM origin. Of the 28 countries that planted GM crops in 2012, 20 were in the developing world.

A rosy picture, no doubt. Any real examples of GM success stories? Oh, yes. Argentina was an early adopter of GM. By now its cumulative gross economic benefit is estimated to be more than $72 million, mostly from soybean production. Bt cotton, approved for use in India in 2002, is genetically altered to kill bollworm. The use of Bt cotton has brought about a 24 percent increase in yield per acre, and a 50 percent gain in profit to smallholders.

Well, but is this the entire story about GMOs? If so, why is there such relentless resistance to genetically modified food in Africa and globally? There are numerous organisations in Africa and elsewhere leading the opposition to GMOs. Nearly 50 countries around the world have either banned GM crop production outright, or have put in place extremely tight restrictions on the production and use of GM products. Could this vociferous rejection be misguided?

There are three basic concerns about GMOs. First, the science is at best inconclusive regarding the safety of genetically engineered organisms on human health and the environment. The bulk of research that supports GMOs is funded by agribusiness. Still, there is evidence that GMOs could have deleterious effects on people and the environment. The second concern is about food sovereignty. Opponents are convinced that the campaign for GMOs is part of the neo-liberal agenda to place agricultural production in the hands of a few corporate giants through seed patents and deny small farmers control of production. It is instructive that 95 percent of genetically modified crops planted worldwide come from Monsanto, the world’s leading biotechnology and genetic engineering company.

Finally, the GMOs crusade distorts the debate about food security and poverty alleviation. The problems afflicting small farmers everywhere have very little to do with technology, but almost everything to do with unequal access to land, water, affordable inputs, markets and other resources. Biotechnology helps industrial agriculture and yet it is small farmers, largely made up of women in Africa, who feed the world. Additionally, it has been shown that hunger, which afflicts a billion people today, is not a result of inadequate food production, but about issues of access. That is why people starve to death in one part of the country while food rots in another.

In this special issue of Pambazuka News, we carry articles arguing on either side of the gripping GMOs debate. It is true that African governments are under intense pressure from within but also from big agribusiness and Western governments to embrace GMOs. We believe that African governments must resist all forms of arm-twisting and food colonialism and make their biotechnology choices based on facts and the realities facing their own people. Where the science is uncertain, we urge caution.

* Henry Makori is an editor with Pambazuka News.



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