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In a strongly worded editorial in Science magazine this week,
Calestous Juma, the director of the Agricultural Innovation in
Africa program at Harvard's Kennedy School, called for a
government-led initiative to introduce biotechnology into Africa.
"Major international agencies such as the United Nations have
persistently opposed expanding biotechnology to regions most in
need of its societal and economic benefits," he wrote.
Genetic modification has had a huge impact on agriculture
worldwide. More than 15 million farmers now plant GM crops on
almost 370 million acres, boosting yields by 10% to 25%. Despite
opponents' fears that the technology would poison people, spread
superweeds and entrench corporate monopolies, it's now clear that
the new crops have reduced not only hunger but pesticide use,
carbon emissions, collateral damage to biodiversity and rain-forest
Yet, while much of North and South America, Australia and Asia are
expanding the use of GM crops, only three African countries have
adopted them (a further four are conducting trials). Mr. Juma
argues that Africa is the place that most needs a boost from
biotech: Many of the continent's farmers cannot afford to buy
pesticides, so corn and cotton that are genetically
insect-resistant could make a big difference there. Over the past
five decades, while Asian yields have quadrupled, African yields
have barely budged.
Yet political squeamishness abounds. In an article this week for
the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), John Kufuor,
the former president of Ghana, argued that "Africa's agriculture
has been cut off from the scientific advances which have
transformed yields in many other parts of the globe"-but he did not
mention GM crops. AGRA, whose chairman is former U.N.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan, says that the group "does not fund
the development of GM crops."
Africa grows a diverse range of crops as staple foods: not just
corn, rice and wheat but cassava, yams, black-eyed peas and
bananas. Genetic modification has so far focused mainly on the big
commercial crops. Ironically, this is because of immensely complex
biosafety regulations demanded by environmental pressure groups in
the West, which don't apply to crop varieties produced by other
means, including mutation by irradiation.
Only big firms can afford this ordeal by red tape, and only for
big crops. The pioneering Swiss biologist Ingo Potrykus, who has
watched his not-for-profit invention of vitamin-enhanced "golden
rice" tied up for 13 years by regulatory procrastination, is no
longer in the mood to mince words. He recently wrote that he holds
"the regulation of genetic engineering responsible for the death
and blindness of thousands of children and young mothers."
Biotechnology's potential in Africa is illustrated by the case of
the black-eyed pea, a crop that is attacked by an insect called the
Maruca pod borer, which causes $300 million in annual losses to
small-scale farmers there and can be controlled only with expensive
pesticides that many cannot afford. A university in Nigeria has
developed an insect-resistant GM black-eyed pea, but Nigeria does
not allow the commercial use of GM crops.
In Uganda, where people often eat three times their body weight in
bananas a year, a GM banana that is resistant to a bacterial wilt
disease, which causes $500 million in annual losses and cannot be
treated with pesticides, is being tested behind high security
fences. The fences are there not to keep out anti-GM protesters, as
in the West, but to keep out local farmers keen to grow the new
"By creating institutions such as the Convention on Biological
Diversity that seek to smother biotechnology at birth," Calestous
Juma tells me, "sections of the U.N. are no more than the Pontius
Pilate of innovation."