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2-Plants: GE crops will fight hunger (4) - Kenia

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TITLE:  Time for Africa to join biotechnology revolution
SOURCE: Nairobi Daily Nation, Kenia
DATE:   July 15, 1999

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Time for Africa to join biotechnology revolution

There is urgent need for the development and use of agricultural
biotechnology in Africa to help to counter famine, environmental
degradation and poverty. Africa must enthusiastically join the
biotechnology revolution. The public debate on transgenic crops
in Europe is centred on fear and mistrust, quite possibly
resulting from the experience over 'mad cow disease'. A recent
report from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland to address
European Union concerns on genetically modified (GM) crops
concluded that there is no evidence that transgenic foods are

The report, by a group led by Patrick Wall, the authority's chief
executive, says that concern in Europe is based on ethical,
socioeconomic and anti-multinational issues; lack of knowledge or
misinformation; environmentalism; food labeling; and
consideration of the needs of developing countries.

Many of these concerns have nothing to do with food safety.
Transgenic foods are eaten daily in the United States, Australia,
Canada, Mexico and elsewhere with no reported undue effects.
Nevertheless, the experts advice does not seem to influence
public opinion in Europe, probably because in some cases people
have had good reason to distrust 'expert' pronouncements.

One example of Europeans' concern for the Third World is
'terminator technology' - plants engineered to be sterile. But
this technology is only a concept and is not being further
developed. No products are planned for Africa or elsewhere.
Critics of biotechnology have used the fear of this technology
lobby is still using them strongly to advance its case in Europe,
even though transgenic foods are rigorously tested for possible
toxins and allergens before commercialization.

Surely there are parallels to e drawn with an antibiotic such as
penicillin, which has continued to be used for many years despite
many people being allergic to it because the benefits clearly
outweigh the risks. Why is the same reasoning not applied to
transgenic goods, where risks at even this low level are not
proven? The anti-biotech lobby also cites as controversial the
recombinant DN processes used to develop transgenic goods.

But the same processes are used to develop numerous
pharmaceuticals for humans and animals, and many other industrial
products. The public seems prepared to accept the application of
GM techniques to new pharmaceutical products but not to food
production. Why should there be different standards for crops and
pharmaceuticals particularly in Africa where the need for good is
crucial for survival?

African Perspective

The critics of biotechnology claim that Africa has no chance to
benefit from biotechnology, and that Africa will only be a
dumping ground or will be end multinational companies, and
transgenic seeds in effect are simply an added-value improvement
to these hybrids. Local farmers are benefiting from tissue
culture technologies for banana, sugar cane, pyrethrum, cassava
and other crops. There is every reason to believe they will also
benefit from the crop-protection transgenic technologies in the
pipeline for banana, such as sigatoka, the disease-resistant
transgenic variety now ready for field trials. Virus- and pest
resistant transgenic sugar-cane technologies are being developed
in countries such as Mauritius, South Africa and Egypt.

The African continent, more than any other, urgently needs
agricultural biotechnology, including transgenic crops, to
improve food production. African countries need to think and
operate as stakeholders, rather than accepting the 'victim
mentality' created in Europe. Africa has the local germplasm,
some of it well-characterized and clean, being held in gene banks
in trust by centres run by the Consultative Group of
International Agricultural Research. It also has the indigenous
knowledge, local field ecosystems for product development,
capacities and infrastructure required by foreign multinational

The needs of Africa and Europe are different. Europe has surplus
food and has never experienced hunger, mass starvation and death
on the regular scale we sadly witness in Africa. The priority of
Africa is to feed her people with safe foods and to sustain
agricultural production and the environment.

Africa missed the green revolution, which helped Asia and Latin
America achieve self- sufficiency in food production. Africa
cannot afford to be excluded or to miss another major global
'technological revolution'. It must join the biotechnology
endeavour. Transgenic food production increased from 4 million to
70 milllon acres worldwide from 1996 to 1998 with measurable
economic gains and with sustainable agricultural production. It
would be a much higher risk for Africa to ignore agricultural
biotechnology. Africa's crop production per unit area of land is
the lowest in the world. For example, the production of sweet
potato, a staple crop, is 6 tonnes per hectare compared to the
global average of 14 tonnes per hectare. China produces on
average 18 tonnes per hectare, three times the African average.
There is the potential to double African production if viral
diseases are controlled using transgenic technology.

The African continent imports at least 25 percent of its grain.
The use of biotechnology to increase local grain production is
far preferable to this dependence on other countries,
particularly as the population growth rate exceeds food
production. The inability to produce adequate food forces Africa
to rely on food aid from industrialized nations when mass
starvation occurs. Although biotechnology is not the only answer
to this problem, Africa should certainly benefit in many ways
from its use, for example in improved seed quality and resistance
to pests and diseases.

The average maize yield in Africa is about 1.7 tonnes per hectare
compared to average of 4 tonnes per hectare. Some bio-technology
applications can be used to reduce this gap, for example in the
case of the maize streak virus (MSV), which causes losses of 100
percent of the crop in many parts of the continent. A
biotechnology-transfer project is under way to develop MSV
resistant varieties. The project is brokered by the International
Service for collaboration of the Kenya Agricultural Research
Institute (KARI), the University of Cape Town, the International
Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya, and the John
Innes Centre in the United Kingdom. Funding is coming from the US
Rockefeller Foundation, and Novartis in Europe has donated some
technology to KARI.

Researchers at KARI are studying the mechanism of MSV resistant
and trying to map the genes responsible. Advanced biotechnology
skills, including the use of advanced agroinoculation techniques
and molecular markers, is at the core of this effort. A priority
in Kenya is also to produce high-yielding, drought-tolerant crop
varieties to boost food production in the 71 per cent of the
country that is arid or semi-arid.

Africa needs biotechnology to solve its environmental problems,
and there is unlimited public demand for agricultural
biotechnology products and services. In Kenya, the demand for
tree seedlings reaches 14 million per year, whereas the country
can only supply 3 million, a clear indication of the need for
tissue-culture and cloning techniques to curb deforestation and
boost reforestation using indigenous species threatened with

These technologies are being successfully used in South Africa,
and ISAAA has facilitated a project for application in Kenya.
There are issues of intellectual property rights and patents that
require hard work to develop or acquire, and advanced
agricultural biotechnology skills will be needed. There may also
be a need to work out collaboration agreements with the private
sector or with companies that already have patents.

Biotechnology in Africa is needs-based. After working at KARI for
nearly a decade to help improve sweet-potato production using
traditional breeding and agronomy methods, I made no progress. An
opportunity to work in the private biotechnology sector abroad
resulted in the development of a transgenic variety that isresistant to sweet- potato feathery mottle virus, which can r
duce yields by 20-80 per cent.

Control of this disease will improve household food security for
millions. This project involved collaboration between KARI, a
project called Agricultural Biotechnology for Sustainable
Productivity, funded by the US Agency for International
Development, and Monsanto. The work by Kenyan scientists focuses
on local varieties, and there will be a smooth and sustainable
transfer of the technology, which will be shared with
neighbouring countries.

Kenyan scientists have been trained in gene technology
techniques. ISAAA has been asked to help with the transfer and
licensing agreement. Similar projects are under way for bananas,
sugar cane and tropical fruits.

Needless to day, Africa has many problems - a shortage of skilled
people (especially in biotechnology), poor funding of research,
lack of appropriate policies and civil strife. Nevertheless,
countries such as South Africa, Egypt, Zimbabwe and Kenya are
taking practical steps to ensure that they can use biotechnology
for sustainable development.
African countries need to a
oid exploitation and to participate as stakeholders in the
transgenic biotechnology business. They need the right policies
and agencies, such as operational biosafety regulatory agencies,
breeders' rights and an effective local public and private
sector, to interface with multinational companies that already
have the technologies.

Consumers need to be informed of the pros and cons of various
agricultural biotechnology packages, the dangers of using
unsuitable foreign germplasm, and how to avoid the loss of local
germplasm and to maintain local diversity.

Other checks and balances are required to avoid patenting local
germplasm and innovations by multinationals; to ensure policies
on intellectual property rights and to avoid unfair competition;
to prevent the monopoly, buying of local seed companies; and to
prevent the exploitation of local consumers and companies by
foreign multinationals. Field trials need to be done locally, in
Africa, to establish environmental safety under tropical

The main goal is to find a balanced formula for how local
institutions can participate in transgenic product development
and share the benefits, risks and profits of the technology, as
they own the local germplasm needed by the multinationals for
sustainable commercialization. New varieties must not simply
replace local ones. The removal of genes that were in the public
domain into the private sector raises concern in Africa.

Africa must strengthen its capacity to deal with various aspects
of biotechnology, including issues of biosafety, creating and
sustaining gene banks, and encouraging the emergence of a local
biotechnology private sector. The great potential of
biotechnology to increase agriculture in Africa lies in its
'packaged technology in the seed', which ensures technology
benefits without changing local cultural practices.

In the past, many foreign donors funded high-input projects which
have failed to be sustainable because they have failed to address
social and economic issues such as changes in cultural practice.
The criticism of agribiotech products in Europe is based on
socioeconomic issues and not food safety issues, and no evidence
so far justifies the opinion of some in Europe that Africa should
be excluded from transgenic crops. 

-| Hartmut Meyer
-| Co-ordinator
-| The European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering
-| Reinhaeuser Landstr. 51
-| D - 37083 Goettingen
-| Germany
-| phone: #49-551-7700027
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