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 , Correspondent

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    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.
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Just how controversial can a sweet potato be?

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?

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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.

Nearby Tanzania is launching new field trials for Bt Cotton, which it says could triple its cotton yield.

Within five years, Ghanaian GM food researcher Walter Alhassan thinks drought-tolerant corn and fly-fighting cowpeas could sprout across Africa's Sahel.

"There are a whole host of other food crops which are now receiving attention for research and development," he says. "This is technology that can help poor farmers."

The case for GM

The European Union maintains a de-facto ban on GM foods.

In America, the seeds are blamed for sprouting a crop monoculture, where whole once-sundry states have been reduced to sprawling cookie-cutter corn fields, and everything from apples to gas tanks to your soda-slupring stomach is coated in corn.

But Mr. Alhassan says new seeds would be widely welcomed in arid areas of West Africa, where food security issues are hot politics.

"African farmers have to spend a lot on inputs, especially in agro-chemicals which present health hazards to them," he says. "To combat the effects of climate change, we need to go easy on biochemicals. Using biotechnology we can reduce the quantity we use."

The case against

But Mayet worries that foreign agro-corps could stamp out Africa's splendid plant diversity, surrendering whole swaths of some the world's richest farmland into endless rows of untested Frankencorn.

That wouldn't just be unhealthy for the economy, she says, but for the human body.

"There has been no robust, independent, postcommercial testing [of most GM crops]," she says. "In South Africa, GM maize is consumed daily by millions of vulnerable people."

Moreover, Mayet worries that Alhassan's GM revolution would make the continent's family farms dependents of multinational seed corporations like the St. Louis-based Monsanto.

"The true beneficiaries of GM technology," she writes “are not farmers but those supplying seeds, external inputs, the grain traders, and the animal feed industry.”

For a hungry world, this is no small potatoes. Africa is hogging 60 percent of the world's unfarmed arable land. The question remains how those gorgeous stretches of leafy Congolese riversides, and sandy Senegalese steppes will be sown: By family farmers subsuming new techniques into their centuries-old farming routines, or by 21st century megafarms, sowing seeds on the behest of Monsanto.

Alhassan says he hopes that outcome will fall somewhere in between.

"The small farmer will always be there," he says.

But when it comes to cereals, he warns, "I can see farms growing in size. Small scale farmers will risk being displaced."

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