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Issue Date:  October 1, 2004

Genetically modified foots get mixed response in Africa

Technology is not silver bullet to end hunger, critics say


Sam Musoke knows what his people will and will not eat. Like many farmers in central Uganda, Musoke doesn’t use chemical pesticides. Instead, he prefers manure and mulched tobacco leaves to fertilize the red, arid soil on his 10-hectare commercial farm in Nsangi District, where banana, mango and avocado trees grow in fenced plots.

But fences designed to keep his farm animals out have proved useless against the various pests and viruses that continue to ravage his crops -- a problem that has plagued many subsistence farms in the region.

Musoke says these poor farmers can hardly produce enough food for themselves, let alone for profit. Manure and pesticides are costly. Farmers want solutions, even if that means planting genetically modified -- GM -- crops.

“Farmers will not refuse crops because they are genetically modified,” he told me. “But if the food doesn’t taste the same, people will reject it.”

Like most African nations, Uganda currently forbids planting GM crops on its soil for either research or commercial purposes. Politicians, exporters and consumers believe GM crops could threaten the country’s organic sector, which has found a lucrative market in Europe.

So farmers like Musoke have to contend with various insect-resistant strains (hybrids) developed through conventional cross-breeding by the Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute, Uganda’s leading agricultural research body.

Musoke has planted several cassava hybrids resistant to the infamous cassava mosaic, a virus that has ravaged crops across Eastern Africa. But these strains take far longer to grow and taste bitter, which hasn’t made them popular with the locals. And he still lost nearly 40 percent of his cassava crop last year.

“The average person eats what is tasty and easy to prepare. If these varieties are not palatable, then I won’t waste my time with them,” said Musoke.

It has been said of Africa that beggars can’t be choosers. The Bush administration made that argument in late 2002 after famine-stricken Zambia announced it would not accept any GM grain from the United States. Almost 80 percent of food in the United States contains GM organisms.

The U.S. government continues to accuse anti-GM lobbyists and the European Union of impeding its efforts to reduce hunger in Africa. Shooting down calls for more long-term health and environmental testing, the United States insists any food good enough for its own people is good enough for Africans.

Dr. Florence Wambugu of Harvest Biotech Foundation International denies her native Kenya has been dragged into this global showdown.

“Nobody in Africa is going to use these technologies because the Americans or Europeans tell them to,” she said, irritated. “Our group’s vision is to fight hunger, poverty and malnutrition. We need to get science working for the poor.”

Famine has once again struck areas of northern and western Kenya. It is estimated that the stem borer pest alone destroys nearly 15 percent of the nation’s staple yellow maize crops every year.

Back in 1991, Wambugu pioneered research into a GM sweet potato strain for Kenya at Monsanto’s laboratory in St. Louis. While a skeptical media has proclaimed the ensuing three-year field trials a failure, the Kenya Research Agricultural Institute is pushing forward with similar trials for insect-resistant Bt Maize, funded in part by USAID.

Wambugu believes no Kenyan farmer -- not even her own grandmother -- would refuse GM seeds if they would bring higher yields. That doesn’t mean GM crops are African agriculture’s silver bullet. “There is no one technology that will end hunger. I don’t know why this argument is pushed in Africa,” she said.

She believes providing loans to small farmers, fixing roads and creating regional markets for future surpluses are all vital to solving Kenya’s food insecurity. “We need a holistic approach.”

* * *

Alwyn Botha has taken the plunge.

Standing beside 6-foot-high plants, the South African farmer explains why he decided to plant almost 60 hectares of Syngenta’s Bt Maize. “In the end, your yields are your profit,” he explains matter-of-factly. “When stem borer hits, you can lose big time.”

Although South Africa is one of the few African nations to have commercialized GM crops, Botha says many subsistence farmers refuse to part with tradition.

“They actually wait for the rains. If their yields aren’t good, it doesn’t bother them. But there won’t be enough for them to live off. If they can start using these genes, they would benefit in the end.”

The seeds are more expensive, Botha says, but he is saving on costly pesticides and insecticides. Still, only his animals consume the transgenic maize. South Africans only eat white maize, for which no GM varieties are available. Botha is confident GM plants will not be an issue in 20 years, but he admits he is at the mercy of the consumer.

That’s why Dr. Theresa Sengooba, coordinator for biotechnology research at KARI in Uganda, believes taste and technology must go hand in hand.

“It’s so difficult to get people to change their eating habits,” explains Sengooba, using the various banana hybrids her institution pioneered as an example. “People will say: ‘Yes, it is big and produces more. But that’s not what I eat.’ ”

That’s why Sengooba believes genetic modification -- if accepted in Uganda -- might be the only way to create resistant strains that people will also enjoy.

Once scientists are able to identify genes that can ward off the weevils or black sogatoga virus that destroy banana yields in the region, those specific genes could then be inserted into local varieties. That same procedure could also be used to improve beans, sorghum, passion fruit, sweet potato and ground nuts.

“What farmers look for is resistant varieties -- I don’t think he really cares if it’s GM or hybrid,” Sengooba says. “Still, we don’t want them to say we are shoving GM down their throats. All Ugandans better have the luxury to choose.”

And that’s exactly why Sam Musoke takes umbrage with the United States’ position. “They’re not saying we should have GM because it’s good for us, but only because we need it,” he says.

Musoke is well aware that most Western countries have refused GM crops. Farmers fear cross contamination and despise the idea of having to buy sterile GM seeds every year.

Yet as he stands among dozens of scattered mangoes rotting from a disease he can’t even name, Musoke reminds me yields are still his biggest concern at the end of the day. Passion fruit blight dries up his plants. Several of his banana trees recently went yellow from Panama disease and had to be uprooted. And then there is the cassava mosaic.

If a GM cassava resistant to the virus was developed tomorrow, Musoke said he would be the first to plant it. “As long as there are no side effects,” he added.

Robert Scalia is a freelance journalist based in Montreal. He recently visited Kenya, Uganda and South Africa on a fellowship sponsored by the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Canadian International Development Agency.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 2004

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