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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.

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

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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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