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2-Plants: Expert doubts Africa's gain from genetically-modified crops



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TITLE:  Expert doubts Africa's gain from genetically-modified
        crops
SOURCE: The Nation, Nairobi
DATE:   June 3, 1999

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Expert doubts Africa's gain from genetically-modified crops

Recent studies point to troubling effects of genetically
engineered insect-resistant crops on beneficial insects, the
director general of the International Centre of Insect Physiology
and Ecology, Dr Hans Herren, has said. These studies highlight
the need for testing of impact on non- target species before
genetically- engineered crops are approved for wide-scale use. He
was addressing journalists during a seminar on environmental
policy at the African Centre for Technology Studies at Gigiri,
Nairobi.

Scientists from the Swiss Federal Research Station for
Agroecology and Agriculture in Zurich, Switzerland, conducted two
studies that looked at the effects of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis)
toxin on green insects. In nature, these insects feed on the
(major) pest targeted by Bt corn, the European corn borer.
Lacewings, which are known for their appetite for aphids and
other insects, play an important role in maintaining the
equilibrium of insect populations. They are also important for
pest control strategies. In one study recently published in the
Journal of Environmental Entomology, researchers found that the
mortality rate of lacewing larvae increased significantly after
eating Bt toxin similar to that found in genetically-engineered
corn. On the indirect impact of GM crops on beneficial insects,
researchers compared the mortality and developmental rate of two
groups of lacewings - one that had been fed European corn borers
reared on engineered Bt corn, and another reared on corn borers
fed on non-Bt corn (the control group). The experiments revealed
that green lacewings fed on corn borers that had eaten Bt corn
had a higher death rate and delayed development compared to the
control group. More than 60 per cent of the lacewings fed on Bt
corn-reared corn borers died compared with fewer than 40 per cent
of the control group. The researchers suggest that the higher
mortality is directly associated with Bt-related factors. Among
surviving lacewings, those feeding on Bt-corn-reared borers
required an average of three more days to reach adulthood than
the control group.

In the third study, Scottish Crop Research Institute scientists
found that ladybird beetles fed on aphids reared on transgenic
potatoes experienced reproductive problems and failed to live as
long as lady birds fed on aphids from ordinary potatoes. The
researchers found that egg production of female ladybirds fed on
transgenic potato-reared aphids was reduced by more than one
third, compared with the control group. Nearly three times as
many fertilised eggs from engineered-potato-reared aphids died
before hatching, compared with fertilised eggs from the control
group. In addition, female ladybirds fed on aphids from
transgenic plants lived only half as long as females from the
control group.

Dr Herren broadly talked on whether we need genetically-
engineered crops to feed Africa. This question is at the centre
of several major controversies, ranging from intellectual
property rights to biodiversity conservation via social and
economic considerations. The major question really is what
choices science, industry and governments are proposing to the
farmers and the consumers.

In a paper entitled Potentials and threats of Genetic Engineering
Technology: Quest for an African Strategy at the Dawn of a New
Millennium, Dr Herren said despite chronic food problems in
Africa, genetic engineering will not offer any solutions to the
complex situation in Africa. He said the spectre of a new fiasco
lies very near, as African farmers are likely to be misled to
move towards biotech which seeks endorsement of solutions to the
developing world's food security problem from genetically
engineered food crops. Too many hopes and expectations are being
entrusted in these technologies to the detriment of more
conventional and proven technologies and approaches that have
been very successful. While acknowledging that in some instances
these technologies may be useful in increasing the quality of
food crops, this aspect only has relevance once abundance has
been achieved.

Africa needs a home-grown food security research, capacity and
institution-building and implementation strategy that is tuned to
its economic and social constraints and is in harmony with its
diverse environment," said Dr Herren. Despite the enormous
investments to date, the progress in developing new crop
varieties and livestock breeds and clones, although quite
dramatic in scientific terms, has so far lagged behind
expectations and promises, particularly in the genetic
engineering sector. When considering the many different products
arising from biotechnology and genetic engineering, of particular
concern are the newly-developed transgenic varieties of common
crops.

The agro-industry obviously has in mind its shareholders, who are
more interested in the short-term profitability than in the long-
term sustainability of any given production system, even for
their own food. Thus, if industry can sell a package that has to
be bought over and over again, perhaps at an increasing number
and cost per application, the better. This trend can be
illustrated by the packaging of herbicide-resistant seeds and
complementary herbicide. The latest development in this profit
to-use treadmill direction is the 'terminator' gene, which will
ensure that a given transgenic crop variety will not germinate in
the second season, forcing the farmer to buy new seeds every
season. On the one hand, this may assure better-quality seeds,
but on the other, what does it do for the sustainability of the
African farming system, and for the economics of the small farm
and the ever poorer rural and urban populations?

Given the wide variety of agro-ecologies found in the tropics,
Africa in particular, there is therefore a need for a broad range
of ecologically suited varieties. Sufficient evidence already
exists of past crop failures due to genetic uniformity to be
worried: five in the last 25 years. It seems that here also,
there is a problem in learning from past experience," said Dr
Herren. The use of new, high yielding and possibly pest-and
disease-resistant modified crops will bring with it the need to
invest in extra inputs, as shown during the Green Revolution in
Asia. With or without the transgenic crops, there will be a need
for extra inputs, but the seed costs alone for high-yielding
varieties - and more so for the transformed ones - is likely to
be above the means of most African farmers.

As it is, most Third World farmers can scarcely afford the
regular hybrid or improved open- pollinated seeds. It is well
documented that yield can be increased two- or three-fold in most
of sub-Saharan Africa and other tropical areas through increased
use of fertilisers both organic and inorganic), weed control and
utilisation of already developed and available varieties. One may
say that we need to prime the pump, and get the farmers out of
the vicious circle. Yes, that could have been done 25 years ago,
if it were feasible. The problem is the lack of policies and
will, at government level, to put agriculture at the top of the
agenda."

According to him, what Africa needs now is not transgenic crops.
It is a progressive policy environment, in which farmers are
given the necessary credit facilities, a tool box with manageable
solutions to their agronomic problems and access to markets. They
must be given the chance to buy, through micro-credit schemes,
the right inputs at reasonable prices, and on time. Without
micro-credit, no technology, either traditional or biotech-
based, can be introduced," Dr Herren adds. Dr Herren said Africa
is the origin of several major food crops. The wild relatives of
these crops are now in danger of becoming bio-contaminated with
stray genes from their genetically- modified relatives. This
scenario is real, and represents the most serious issue facing
the deployment of transgenic crops. In order to assess the
potential threat, there is a need to urgently undertake research
on gene flow of sorghum, cowpeas, coffee, etc. This research
could yield data to make informed decisions on the way to
proceed, and provide the training ground for specialists to
control transgenic crop experiments. The testing of these crops,
without proper information on potential unwanted gene flow, is
the biggest threat to bio-diversity.




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