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How genetically modified seeds can help - and hurt - Africa's farmers

Proponents say genetically modified seeds arm Africa's family farms in the war against pests, droughts, and depleting soil. Critics cite concerns about biodiversity and health.

By Drew HinshawCorrespondent / September 23, 2010

Farmers harvest cotton in the cotton-growing region of southwestern Burkina Faso in this 2006 file photo near Diebougou, Senegal. There is concern about the effect genetically modified seeds can have on the production of African family farms.

Ahmed Ouoba/Panapress/Newscom

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Dakar, Senegal

Just how controversial can a sweet potato be?

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Well, if you're talking about the Nairobi-bred Bt Sweet Potato, which is genetically-hotwired to sheen itself in an antiviral protein coat, it's hard to fathom a more contentious root vegetable.

Unless, perhaps, you're discussing the sweet potato's subterranean cousin, West Africa's Bt Cassava plant. Geneticists rewrote that crop's DNA to fight an endemic virus. Then there's Tanzania's Bt Cotton, which conveniently secretes its own toxic bacterial pesticide. The toxin shoos flies, but is that the kind of thing you want your tube socks made of?

Proponents of these lab-perfected plants say they arm Africa's family farms in their war against pests, droughts, and depleting soil. Climate change, they add, has hit the arid and famine-prone areas of Africa harder than most other regions of the world, altering regular rainfall schedules and causing failed harvests. Also, say backers of genetically modified (GM) seeds, without hardier seeds, the planters of the continent are essentially being asked to foot America's gigantic carbon bill.

But in its latest report, the African Center for Biosafety in Johannesburg, South Africa argues the counter case: Far from sowing prosperity for small farmers, South Africa's adventure into genetically modifying corn has bankrupted its agriculturalists.

The breadbasket's corn planters, the report says, have been left with a surplus of corn that they can't sell, thanks to international bans on GM crops.

"They are unable to really compete," Director Miriam Mayet says.

For the moment, such concerns are confined to South Africa, the continent's only country where GM seeds are commercially planted. (Many nations, like Malawi, won't even accept GM crops in their food aid shipments.)

Africa warms up to GM crops

But many of Africa's less food-secure countries are cozying up to the technology.

Consider Uganda: That's where humanity first domesticated the banana, delivering Africa's first great agricultural revolution.

Now, Uganda's Agricultural Research Center is tinkering with the millennia-old staple crop to pack more nutrients under its peal.

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