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2-Plants: GE plants help to set African women free

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TITLE:  Biotechnology: Setting African women free
SOURCE: The Daily Monitor, Uganda, by Margaret Karembu
DATE:   10 Feb 2006

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Biotechnology: Setting African women free	

A trade dispute between rich nations could unlock the chains on the
world's poorest farmers--meaning most African women: the World Trade
Organisation's ruling on GM foods could help them conquer famine.

The World Economic Forum published a ranking last year of 58 countries
and their "gender gap," a big feature of the UN's Millenium Development Goals.

Only two sub-Saharan countries made the list, South Africa and Zimbabwe,
at 36th and 42nd. Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, Niger, Ethiopia and many other
places in Africa, millions of women, children and men were starving. In
my country, Kenya, today, close to 3.5 million are in the verge of starvation.

Instead of having careers and au-pairs, most African women are
subsistence farmers. In sub-Saharan Africa, 70% of the population depends
on agriculture as the sole source of income and women and children
contribute 60-80% of the labor. After all these efforts, 30% to 90% of
our crops are lost to drought, disease, pests, weeds and poor storage.

These women do not have modern labour-saving devices such as electric
ovens and washing machines, so the remainder of their time is spent in
more manual labor: fetching water and fuel, cooking and cleaning, and
raising children.

But a rapidly increasing population far outstrips food production: right
now 12 million Africans are starving and they are expected to reach 30
million in months.

It is not just drought and locusts that oppress us: weak property rights
in most African countries means farmers have little incentive to invest
in their land, no collateral for loans and no motivation to improve land
they could lose from one day to the next. Women, generally, have even
fewer property and financial rights.

Reduced labour

Lately the HIV/Aids plague has more than decimated the farm labour so
badly needed to increase food production, thus exacerbating aid-
dependency, conflicts, ill-health, malnutrition and the resurgence of
communicable diseases such tuberculosis and hepatitis.

The situation in wealthy countries could not be more different. Farmers
(both male and female) sometimes constitute as little as 2% of the
population yet food is abundant and farming has been modernised by high-
yielding seeds, pesticides, fertilisers, good agronomic practices and
machinery. Their market economies encourage profitable research and
development and have the infrastructure for transport, refrigeration and

Biotechnology has been the most rapidly adopted technology in
agricultural history because of its social and economic benefits--but
nowhere could these be greater than for women in poor countries in Africa
and beyond.

Freeing women

Not only would better crop yields from biotechnology free women to engage
in other economic activities and to get an education and thus reduce the
gender gap, it offers important health and environmental benefits for
poor countries. It improves the quantity and quality of food and cuts

By increasing the intensity of crops, there is less pressure to convert
marginal land to agricultural use and more chance of saving our rich
biodiversity. Future technological developments promise plants that could
withstand saline conditions, drought, pests and the other scourges of
poor countries.

So it is easy to understand why biotechnology would help us in so many
ways--but it is not that easy. A small group of activists has
disproportionately affected the global debate on biotechnology, and
particularly in the European Union, using enormous resources to generate
scare stories that regularly appear in the news and affect government
policy: Zambia rejected GM maize donated by the USA last year while its
people were starving--the same corn that Americans and Canadians have
been eating for years.

The WTO has ruled in favour of the USA, Canada and Argentina against the
European Union's barriers to GM imports: this will have a direct effect
on the ability of poor people to produce better food and to export it.
But even if the EU barriers come down, origin and labelling rules will
still threaten GM produce or even produce grown in a country with GM crops.

To overcome these barriers we must move away from the polarised positions
that have defined the transgenic debate so far, to a rational discussion
of GM food. We African women hope that one day we might share the same
concerns as our Western sisters about juggling careers and family life
and attaining that elusive goal of gender equality. Right now, however,
we face the problem of survival--and biotechnology offers a big part of
the solution.

Dr Margaret Karembu is a senior researcher for the International Service
for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications AfriCenter, Nairobi


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