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Weighing Pros and Cons of Genetically Modified Crops in Africa

September, 2004

Should Africa embrace genetically modified crops to help feed its hungry people? That question is explored by a recent paper entitled “Debunking the Myths of GM Crops for Africa: The Case of Bt Maize in Kenya.” The paper compares the benefits of genetically modified crops to information available on the risks, and finds that most objections are not backed by evidence. Hugo De Groote, Stephen Mugo, and David Bergvinson from CIMMYT, along with Ben Odhiambo of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, conducted the study, which argues for a discussion based on scientific evidence and evaluation of potential benefits against concerns.

Genetically modified crops have been successful in many countries, including Canada and the US, where they have increased yields, lowered labor and cultivation costs, and reduced the use of chemical inputs. Genetic engineering has the potential to enhance food security and nutritional quality in ways not possible with conventional technology. Because the technology is contained in the seed, it is easy to distribute to farmers. This is particularly important in Africa, where extension services have largely collapsed and transport infrastructure is poor.

Concerns about deploying genetically modified crops in Africa include food safety, ethics, environmental risk, loss of landrace biodiversity, and the lack of appropriate biosafety regulations. Although long-term effects need to be analyzed, current studies by national and international organizations reveal no demonstrated toxic or nutritionally harmful effects of foods derived from genetically modified crops.

Sounding Out Public Opinion

The study by de Groote and his colleagues focused on Kenya, where maize, the main food crop, is planted on 30% of arable lands. It drew on a variety of data sources, including participatory rural appraisals and farmer and consumer surveys. De Groote thinks it is important to make research results understandable to the general public so everyone can participate in the debate.

To gauge awareness and attitudes about genetically modified crops, the researchers interviewed 604 consumers, only half of whom were aware of them. Many appreciated the benefits but worried about potential negative effects on health and the environment, especially on local plant varieties. De Groote says consumers are increasingly aware of genetically modified food and generally accept it, but their concerns about environmental safety and biodiversity have to be addressed.

Several seed companies in Kenya have expressed interest in producing and distributing Bt maize seed, which offers an effective and practical method for reducing stem borer damage in maize. Genetically engineered Bt maize contains a gene from the soil-dwelling bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a toxin that helps control certain pests but is not harmful to humans or livestock. The Bt gene was first introduced into the commercial maize market in 1996. It has provided control for many pests and could help decrease pesticide use.

“The major surprise was that, contrary to the usual claims, Bt maize is very likely to benefit poor farmers and small seed companies,” says de Groote. “Stem borers are a real concern for farmers, especially in low-potential coastal and dry areas.”

Farmers in Kenya lose 400,000 tons, or about 14%, of their maize to stem borers. That is roughly the amount the country imports each year. De Groote says Bt maize alone will not solve this problem, but could help reduce losses and increase food security.

The IRMA Project

In 1999, the Insect Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA) project was launched in Kenya to develop borer resistant varieties using both conventional breeding and biotechnology. Kenya already had experience with genetically modified crops and had biosafety policies in place. IRMA, a collaborative project between CIMMYT and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, receives financial support from the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.

Before initiating the project, all parties involved agreed that transformed plants would carry only the gene of interest, without marker genes; that transgenic crops would only be developed for countries with appropriate biosafety regulations; and that only genes in the public domain would be used. They also agreed that the project would work under the highest scientific standards. When the project ends, other countries in Africa will be able to evaluate results from Kenya’s experience and decide for themselves which path to follow.

“I hope that the results will be accepted not only by the scientific community but also by the general population, in Africa as well as in the developed world,” says de Groote. “I also hope they will put to rest some of the major concerns about Bt maize for Africa.”

To make informed choices possible, the researchers contend that scientists in Africa need hands-on experience with the new technology. They need to test and adapt it using the appropriate regulatory framework and precautions. Further, the researchers believe that the technologies need to be developed in a participatory approach, since African farmers and consumers have the right to choose technologies based on the best knowledge available. They should not be denied the chance to improve their livelihoods as a result of an academic debate in which they are not included.

For more information: Hugo De Groote or Stephen Mugo