Using GM technology to feed Africa

By Tunde Obadina

US President George Bush has accused European nations of blocking efforts to combat famine in Africa because of their unfounded and unscientific fears over genetically modified foods. GM foods could help end starvation in Africa but opposition in Europe to them had forced several hungry African countries to refuse American GM food aid, the president said in late May.

The pro-GM lobby argues that in the US people have been eating GM crops for years without any known side affect. What's good for Americans, they say, should be good for people elsewhere in the world, especially in Africa where millions of people die from inadequate food supplies. The US plans to sue the European Union at the World Trade Organisation unless it allows the sale of GM foods and crops in its member countries.

African countries have been reluctant to import GM food or invest in bio- technologies because they fear losing export markets in Europe if their crops become contaminated with GM seed.
The development of GM food has generated heated debate in the West. European consumers are wary of GM products, fearing that they may in the long-term impair human health, while environmentalists argue that the technology could have disastrous consequences on the environment. The health concerns seems to be fuelled by fear of the unknown rather than any evidence of illness caused by GM crops. Britain's academy of science, the Royal Society, recently said that there is no evidence that consuming GM food is any more harmful than eating non-GM food. In a report to the UK government, the society noted that the chances of GM crops and food triggering allergic reactions are in principle no worse than the chances of non-GM crops doing the same.

The use of bio-technology in agriculture is relative new and as such no one can be certain about its possible impact, good or bad, on the environment. However, the fact that uncertainties and unknown factors surround the development of GM technology is not sufficient grounds to condemn its use, but reason to proceed carefully.

In the absence of evidence that GM technology is harmful to humans or the environment there are compelling reasons for African countries to use and consume GM crops and foods to tackle their very real food crises. Every year tens of millions of Africans face famine and food shortages which more than anything else defines the abject poverty of the continent. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that yearly 40% to 50% of sub-Saharan Africa's population goes hungry and the region is worse off nutritionally today than it was three decades ago. Africa has the most undernourished population in the world and faces worsening food situation.

The most common cause of famine is drought, but there are other causes which argument or compound this natural phenomenon, including environmental degradation, mismanagement of food supplies, civil conflicts and corruption. As with shortage of rainfall, many of the man-made obstacles to agricultural production seem unlikely to disappear in Africa in the short to medium term.

Food shortage is also the result of the inability of African economies to pay for sufficient food imports. Hunger is the product of poverty rather than a reflection of country's ability to grow enough food. Many East Asian countries grow little of the food they consume, relying on imports to feed their people. So if African countries are able to generate more income they will be able to import more food to make up any shortfall in domestic food production. By the same token, if they have access to cheaper imported food they can consume more. Of course, from the point of view of national security it is preferable for a nation to produce most if not all of its food consumption, but this option is sometimes simply not available.

We need to question the common assumption that African countries are agriculturally resource rich - that they can though traditional and conventional farming methods become self-sufficient in food production. It is a myth. The land and climate conditions in most African countries are not naturally favourable to intensive agricultural output. Much of the land is fragile and low fertility. Take Nigeria for example, large stretches of the north suffers from desertification, while significant portion of the southeast suffer from erosion.  As a 1996 World Bank report noted, further increases in agricultural production in Nigeria must come from more productive use of the land. Increasing the amount of land under cultivation cannot be sustained without causing severe ecological degradation in the form of lower soil fertility, erosion and deforestation, the bank said.

African countries need to invest in modern technology, to enhance labour and physical inputs, so they can quickly boost their agricultural production to meet domestic needs and to compete in the international market. Needless to say, the technology must be appropriate but appropriate does not necessarily mean low technology or solely organic.

One of attractions of introducing GM crops in Africa is that they may actually benefit the environment, as for instance, some crops can be modified to be resistant to pest and so remove the need to spray with pesticide. The technology also holds the possibility of developing varieties that can flourish in arid conditions.

Accepting GM technology does not mean indiscriminately opening up African nations to the giant US biotech companies that own the patents to the crops and who may be inclined to use the continent as a testing ground for potentially dangerous experiments. African governments need to invest in the training of bio-tech scientists and technologists who can advise on the import of GM crops. The United Nations could also play an active role in advancing safe GM technologies.    

It is commonly assumed that the social-political problems of civil conflict, corruption and mismanagement of food supplies are the man-made causes of Africa's food shortage. We should consider the possibility that rather than be the consequence of social and political crises, Africa's low agricultural productivity and resource endowment is the cause of its social and political upheavals. If we look deep into the many ethnic and communal clashes that have killed several thousand of people in Nigeria during the past four years we will find that most have been conflicts over access to diminishing land resources. People are killing each other not because of nationalistic intolerance, but in a scramble for diminishing resources to feed themselves and their families.

To get out of this nightmare African farmers need to be more productive so that the land can sustain more people. And some countries will need to become reconciled to the dependence on food importation and seek to boost the exports of non-agricultural goods to pay for more food.

First published Vanguard Newspaper May 2003

Date Uploaded 1/23/2008
Copyright Africa Economic Analysis 2005