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GM Technology: Africa Should Not Stick in the Mud

A Nairobi-based plant pathologist, Florence Wambugu advised students to be more flexible and not just settle at having degrees. Speaking in UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources where she was keynote speaker, the crop expert told them that, "Life calls for moving and not just becoming stuck someplace."

In a ceremony that was marred by protests from a handful of graduating seniors who disagree with her views on the use of biotechnology in combating hunger in Africa, the CEO of Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International explained that moving forward entails taking risks.

At a time when over 200 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are chronically hungry and undernourished; most agricultural activities are done on patches of impoverished soils; and pests, disease and natural disasters are putting the agricultural industry in jeopardy. Africa cannot afford the luxury of immobility and romanticizing hunger while other regions in the world are making advances in food sufficiency and speaking from a position of plenty.

Deployment of plant technology is a matter that African elites ought to embrace and craft ways that will make it trickle down to the smallholder farmer. Already, such simple technology as grafting is bearing much fruit in many areas. Farmers in Eastern Kenya who used to wait for over five years to eat from their traditional species of mango trees can now harvest their crop in less than a year, and are assured of more yields at short intervals- thanks to the grafting technology. Maize seeds that take a shorter time to mature have been developed to take care of populations living in rain-scarce areas. It is now possible to manufacture pest resistant varieties as well as incorporate certain food supplements in plants that are vital body nutrients, hence keeping disease at bay.

Plant technologies will keep millions of Africans fed and healthy. The use of GM will not only release the talent of 70 per cent of the population locked up in inefficient agricultural quests but will also lead to higher food production, lower food prices and weaning from food aid dependency. Recognizing this fact, Heads of State at the African Union Summit held in Addis Ababa early this year, endorsed a 20-year bio-technology action plan calling for cooperation among States in specific regions to bolster biotechnology research and address bio-safety concerns. It is hope that this action is not mere rhetoric.

US farmers who produce two-thirds of the world’s biotech crops save an estimated $216 million annually on weed control costs and make $19 million less in herbicide applications every year. Using non –till methods made possible by herbicide resistant soybeans, farmers prevent 247 million tons of topsoil from being eroded.

Jason Boschetti, a student graduating in conservation and resource studies from Berkeley’s College notes that GM crops benefit producing companies more than the farmer who uses them. The President of AfricaBio, Prof Diran Makinde, who is also working with New Partnership for African Development however feels that "the reason no GM crops are being grown in Africa is because various countries are still in the process of formulating regulatory procedures to legalize the production of GM crops."

The EU, which has been involved in protracted battles with the US over GM foods is slowly softening its stand, according to the International Agro Biotechnology Research Specialist, Willy de Greef. He says that the EU is no longer opposed to the development of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Six EU countries are currently planting GM crops, with several more hoping to start soon. Spain is leading the way with 60,000 hectares already planted. France, Czech Republic, Portugal, Germany and Slovakia, have also increased their acreages fivefold in 2006, from 1,500 hectares in 2005 to 8,500 hectares in 2006.

Africa should approach and embrace GM technology from an informed perspective. A combination of biotechnology and economic policies can play a significant role in reducing hunger in Africa. Africa needs more Florence Wambugus who will translate their book knowledge into solutions to problems facing Africa, consequently making the continent to move forward.

By Josephat Juma
Mr. Juma is an African Executive Writer

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