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2-Plants: Drought-resistant GM seeds won't benefit Kenyans for the next decade

                                 PART I
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TITLE:  Drought-resistant GM seeds won't benefit Kenyans for the next
SOURCE: The East African,  Kenya, by Kevin J. Kelley
DATE:   31 Jan 2006

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Drought-resistant GM seeds won't benefit Kenyans for the next decade

US bio-engineers working to develop drought-resistant seeds say Kenyans
should not expect to benefit from such "miracle crops" for at least
eight to 10 years.

Those currently starving in parts of the country and those likely to
suffer hunger if drought conditions persist will have to look to
emergency food aid rather than to agricultural self-sufficiency, the
scientists say.

Maize and other biotech crops able to thrive despite scant rainfall will
not be planted in the United States until about 2010, says Christopher
Horner, a spokesman for Monsanto, one of the world's leading developers
of genetically modified seeds.

Such crops "will be introduced initially in the United States well
before they become available in other countries," Mr Horner adds. But he
notes that Monsanto is striving to "enable Africa to benefit in more of
a parallel fashion rather than a sequential fashion from breakthroughs
such as drought-resistant seeds.

"Kenya may be one of the first African countries where these seeds are
introduced, he adds.

"Kenya is a priority for us. We know they're trying to put in place a
regulatory system for this kind of technology," Mr Horner says.

The first generation of genetically modified crops was engineered to
resist insecticides and herbicides, notes Robert Horsch, Monsanto's vice
president for international development partnerships. Seeds designed
with these properties have proven easier to develop than those tolerant
of drought conditions, he says.

"The genome of plants and factors such as water uptake make for a more
complicated challenge in regard to drought tolerance," Mr Horsch explains.

Farmers in drought-prone areas should meanwhile lessen their reliance on
maize and plant more crops such as sorghum, cassava and sweet potatoes
that can better withstand lack of rainfall, Mr Horsch suggests.

Farmers struggling with temporary shortages of rainfall can meanwhile
prevent maize yield losses of up to 25 per cent by planting currently
available drought-tolerant hybrid seeds, adds an official with Pioneer,
a company affiliated with US-based DuPont.

                                 PART II
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TITLE:  African science must regain control of local resources
SOURCE: SciDev.Net, UK, by Kazhila Chinsembu
DATE:   01 Feb 2006

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African science must regain control of local resources

Kazhila Chinsembu says Africa risks being 'enslaved' by technology it
doesn't own and urges African nations to regain control over their
biological resources and indigenous knowledge.

Africa is the birthplace of humankind. Unsurprisingly, over many
thousands of years, its people have accumulated a vast amount of
knowledge about their environment.

Look, for instance, at how Africans have used plants to treat wounds and
disease. Long before the discovery of antibiotics, Africans had
identified plants that could treat bacterial infections. Families
guarded -- not patented -- such indigenous knowledge, passing it down from
generation to generation.

But in the modern age, Africa is in danger of losing custody of this
knowledge, even as acceptance of the power of plant-based remedies grows.

What about African agriculture? It used to be based on multi-cropping
ecosystems where crops such as cassava, maize and beans grew together.
There were no chemical fertilisers -- we used manure as compost instead.

But 'monocultures' of single crops, combined with chemical pesticides,
herbicides, and fertilisers -- produced mainly by multinational
corporations -- have replaced our environmentally friendly traditions.

And as the companies' profits grow, so does the reliance of African
farmers on their technologies. Seeds produced by new hybrid crop
varieties cannot, for instance, be saved for planting the following
season as they do not share their parents' genetic vigour.

But it seems Africans have not learnt their lessons. If we did, we might
not be so excited about genetically-modified (GM) crops.

Implications of ownership

An old African proverb says: 'if you want to test the depth of a river,
don't do it with both feet'. Although African scientists can earn
lucrative consultancy fees for developing and promoting GM crops, we
should think with our heads, not our stomachs, and advise our
governments about not only the technology's prowess and potential, but
also the implications of who owns it.

African agriculture has always depended on farmers owning and sharing
seeds, storing them to plant the following season. Farmers using GM
seeds made by multinational companies will lose this right.

We also risk losing control over some of the desirable characteristics,
such as drought and pest-tolerance, that farmers painstakingly selected
and preserved in our local seeds over hundreds of years.

I don't deny that African agriculture would benefit from some Western
biotechnologies such as molecular marker-assisted selection to screen
for seeds with characteristics suited to our different conditions.

We also need irrigation to overcome the droughts that can cripple rain-
fed agriculture. Such improvements, together with land, seed and the
collective indigenous knowledge about our fragile environment, are
cardinal to the survival of African agriculture.

But we must not try to solve our problems with technologies that could
enslave us because we do not own the patents on them. This is the prism
through which we should view GM crops.

Tapping African resources

This issue of ownership also relates to pharmaceutical research. In
fact, multinational companies have already been tapping Africa's
biological resources and traditional knowledge to develop drugs and
other products.

African scientists have been complicit, sending specimens abroad in the
name of research collaborations without understanding that Africa rarely
gets a share of any economic benefits that such research brings.

That is why I support calls by Stephen Lewis, the UN special envoy for
HIV/AIDS in Africa, for the "big multinational corporations that have
exacted such huge wealth from Africa's mineral, diamond, oil and other
resources over the decades, and... the pharmaceutical industry" to
contribute towards the US$7.1 billion needed for the Global Fund to
Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Time to wake up

That Africa will face new problems in the future is apparent. Human
health, for instance, is linked inextricably to a healthy environment,
and we are destroying ours.

A growing body of evidence suggests that new diseases are more likely to
emerge when contact between humans and wildlife increases as a result of
habitat destruction (see Conservation medicine's time has come
OP439ENG). The SARS and bird flu epidemics are reminders of how over-
crowded ecosystems fail to function and ultimately succumb to disease.

Meanwhile, the world's biggest producer of greenhouse gases, the United
States, has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, which would force it to
reduce its emissions. Researchers agree that Africa will experience some
of the worst impacts resulting from climate change.

African scientists must wake up, get out of the laboratory more, and be
alive to the intrigues of commercialism and politics that can cloud
science. African governments must invest in their own scientific
research if the continent is to leap forward on the path to genuine
sustainable economic development.

And African presidents must have scientific advisors, just as they have
political and economic advisors. Without engaging our own scientists,
how will our political leadership face threats such as bird flu,
bioterrorism, HIV/AIDS, SARS, Ebola, biodiversity loss, drought and
natural disasters?

We should be returning to the good old days when older people were
living libraries of knowledge critical for our survival. But our
sciences will be useless and our knowledge wasted unless they are used
to help the vast majority of African people.

Kazhila Chinsembu is a lecturer in the department of biology at the
University of Namibia, and a former lecturer at the University of Zambia
and researcher at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and
Ecology, Kenya.


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