African food on table at summit

US-Europe divide over trade barriers and gene-modified food was aired Sunday at G-8 meeting.

The sound of a hymn echoes across the sun-burned valley here. "Sikwe thembile baba, usigcne kwaba la," the women harmonize as they move rapidly through the field, pulling corn ears from dry, golden stalks. "We believe in God. He has brought us this far."

It is harvest time, and the songs on Mfundeni Joseph Nkosi's farm are ones of thanks. Mr. Nkosi's crop - the first he's grown with genetically modified (GM) seeds - will be twice the normal size.

For Nkosi, the decision to plant GM seeds was a pragmatic one, based on yields and costs. He has little idea of the international battle being waged over the food's safety. Nor does he know that thousands of miles to the north, leaders of the industrialized world met Sunday to discuss, among other things, trade barriers, GM foods, and their relationship to hunger in Africa, where 40 million people are estimated to be short of food.

Policies discussed by the world's wealthiest nations at the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in Évian, France, could determine what and to whom African farmers can sell their goods, and whether African agricultural products will ever have a fair shake in the global marketplace.

'Africa is the battleground'

The summit's host, French President Jacques Chirac, wants poverty in Africa to be high on the agenda. And in addition to the $15 billion package to fight disease he signed last week, President Bush called on Europe Saturday to drop its ban on genetically modified foods and to cut tariffs and reduce subsidies to European farmers.

President Bush says European trade barriers and political pressure are preventing poor countries from embracing technology that could help improve food security. Europe says America just wants new markets for its GM food. Since the US is the largest single donor to worldwide food emergencies, and at least some of the donated food is GM, the issue will continue to haunt efforts to combat international starvation, as it did last year when Zambia refused US-donated food because of GM concerns.

"Africa is the battleground," says Alex Wijeratna, campaigner for Action Aid UK, a British charity, and editor of a new report on GM and food security released on Wednesday. "It's the excuse that [the US] is using why everyone else should accept GM."

Questions about GM's applicability to Africa are far from answered. The majority of the world's 143 million acres of GM crops were grown by commercial farmers in a handful of countries, not by the small farmers who comprise the majority of Africa's farming sector.

And, as opponents of the technology like Mr. Wijeratna point out, the drought-resistant crops GM proponents say will revolutionize African agriculture have yet to be developed. Although some projects to develop African-specific GM seeds are under way - Kenya for example has been working to develop a pest-resistant sweet potato - technology of this sort has yet to make it to the market.

In South Africa, the only African nation that has commercially licensed genetically modified crops, a few small farmers have begun experimenting with GM seeds. Here in Mlondozi, a poor rural area near South Africa's border with Swaziland, more than 1,000 farmers planted GM corn after trying small samples of the seed last year. Their success or failure could influence the way Africa bends on GM issue.

Although the specific science of genetic modification eludes Mr. Nkosi, a distinguished looking man with a white curly beard and cowboy hat who speaks Swazi and a smattering of English, he says Monsanto's CRN 4549Bt, or "the seed that resists stockborer," as he calls it, grows more corn for less work than his old seeds. Usually he has to spray his fields several times to control the pest, whose larvae eat the inside of the stalk, leaving it brittle and stealing nutrition from the ear. This year, he says, his ears were plump and full without any pesticide.

GM opponents dispute that the technology leads to higher yields or less pesticide use. They also worry that farmers like Nkosi will become dependent on purchased seeds and the companies like Monsanto who produce them. However, this dependence already exists to some degree, since many farmers rely on hybrid seeds that must be purchased year after year.

If Nikosi has one complaint about his new seeds, it is their expense. A 22-pound bag of GM seeds costs about 25 percent more than non-GM seeds - about $6 - although he said at least some of that cost is recovered by a reduction in pesticide use.

Still, Nkosi says he is happy about his new seeds. "I would love, God willing, to plant all my 10 hectares [25 acres] with these seeds next year," he says.

The wrong focus

Anti-GM groups worry that the focus on new miracle seeds fails to take into account the real reasons for the continent's food insecurity: poor soil, poverty, lack of good transportation networks, and unsustainable agricultural practices including having to purchase seeds. Instead, they say the solution to African hunger lies in organic and other natural farming processes. Not only will this help small farmers produce more, they say, it also could be a source of new export markets. Countries like Zambia and Kenya have recently had success in growing winter vegetables for European markets, which could be harmed by the introduction of GM crops.

"It's a fact that there is hunger in Africa," says Thabo Madihlaba, executive director of the South African Environmental Justice Networking Forum which last week protested outside a biotechnology conference in Johannesburg. "But we think emphasis should be placed on natural systems."

GM seed producers like Monsanto make no claim that their products are a panacea for Africa's food security problems. Instead, they say it is part of a larger solution that can help reduce pesticide use and increase yields, ultimately making small farmers more profitable. And they argue that since fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides are often difficult and expensive for small farmers to acquire, the more that can be packed into the seed itself, the better for the farmer.

"These farmers are not stupid," says Shadrack Mabuza, who runs Monsanto's smallholder project in Southern Africa. "They want to move away from subsistence farming and will choose the seed with the biggest yield."

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