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Stories

Africa’s path to self-sufficiency


The challenges for Africa are huge: it is projected that by the year 2050 the population will double to 2 billion people while, at the same time, the land available for cultivation will decrease by two thirds.
These two factors combined raise the question of how to produce food and nutrition for the growing population. Moreover, this will also affect the development of the volatile African economy, since 65 per cent of its labour force and 32 per cent of its gross domestic product currently come from the agricultural sector.

Field trials with genetically modified bananas in Uganda. They are resistant against the pathogen Xanthomonas. Since ten years these bacteria are spreading in banana plantations in central Africa where local farmers suffer damages of half a billion US dollars each year. Now the resistance technology is tested for the first time in the field

The traditional answer has been financial aid from Western countries, as well as humanitarian assistance from non-governmental organizations. Particularly in the agricultural sector, Africa’s dependency has created major problems. In 1980, Africa had a balanced agricultural trade, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, but since then imports have risen sharply, creating a trade deficit of USD 22 billion. This means that Africa, a continent of huge natural resources and biological diversity, is forced to import food in order to feed its population.

In recent years, however, a remarkable change has occurred. Many countries on the African continent have shifted their focus to their own strengths, with genetically modified crops playing an important role. While North and South America and Asia are well-known growers of GM crops, Africa is usually not associated with the latest biotechnological developments.

But as far back as 1998, South Africa became the first African country to approve genetically modified Bt cotton and is now the eighth largest producer of GM crops worldwide. Since then more and more African countries have followed suit.

Although only three other African countries – Egypt, Sudan and Burkina Faso – are currently producing GM crops, many more African countries are investing in research and field trials. Even countries that used to be opposed to GMOs are changing their minds. For example, in May 2013, after banning GM crop imports the year before, Kenya announced that it would rethink its stance and begin field trials in the coming year with GM bananas engineered to resist a bacterial disease.

This change of mind is a result of the opportunities that GM crops offer African countries. A lot of research is being carried out into indigenous parasites and plant diseases, which used to cause large-scale crop damage. One example is Nigeria, where the pest Maruca vitrata causes crop damage worth nearly USD 300 million annually. Scientists from the Ahmadu Bello University in northern Nigeria have developed a pest-resistant black-eyed pea variety to control this particular insect. Another example comes from Uganda, where the spread of Xanthomonas wilt has affected banana plants and costs farmers several hundred million US dollars annually. Ugandan researchers are currently working on a transgenic banana to control Xanthomonas.

Of course, there have been lively discussions about the pros and cons of GM crops. In Uganda, for example, a biotechnology and biosafety bill was hotly debated by lawmakers, scientists and activists, but finally passed at the end of 2012. This was also the case in Nigeria, where tensions over GM crops ran high and a biosafety law due to be ratified at the end of 2012 was halted. But in June it was announced that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan will sign the bill and the Minister of Science and Technology, Professor Ita Okon Bassey Ewa, added that the most populous African country will start selling GM crops by 2015.

While ecological concerns are important, one should not dismiss the economic and developmental significance of GM crops for Africa. This aspect is emphasized by Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr Akinwumi Adesina, who considers the use of biotechnology and GM crops to be critical for his country’s future: “Our view is that we are not going to be a museum of poverty,” Adesina said and stressed the economic impact of the agricultural innovation: “We have to be an ocean of wealth for our people and agriculture is the fastest way of doing that.”

But there is another problem for African countries growing GM crops: at the same time that Africa is discovering the advantages of GMOs, Europe – one of the potential importers of crops from Africa – has become more critical of GM crops, making the export of these agricultural products very difficult for African countries.

This is something Kenyan born Harvard professor Calestous Juma sharply criticizes. For him European policies on GMOs are harming Africa’s right to feed itself. Professor Juma strongly believes in the opportunities arising from growing GM crops. In his book The New Harvest (2011) he lays out a plan showing how technology and innovation could lead to self-sufficiency in Africa. For Professor Juma this could mean a new beginning: “We have come to the end of a century of policies that favoured Africa’s export of raw materials and importation of food. Africa is starting to focus on agricultural innovation as its new engine for regional trade and prosperity

 


An EU Research Project

What are the risks of growing GM crops?

What are the benefits?

Numerous studies have addressed the potential impacts of genetically modified (GM) plants. Yet the existing evidence on the effects of GM plants is often contradictory and the quality of scientific research varies widely.

Therefore, the GRACE project will establish new tools for assessing the quality of existing studies and will conduct comprehensive reviews to identify health, environmental and socio-economic impacts of GM plants.

More information

Animation: The Authorisation Process in Motion!
Applying, consulting, and making a decision: The long and winding road to GMO authorisation in EU
start animation
 Biosafety research:

Impact of Bt maize on
insect communities


Impact of Bt maize on
honey bees

More videos

 
Jenny asks: How does the PCR method work?


At Germany's Institute for the Chemical and Veterinary Analysis of Food (CVUA) in Freiburg they use the PCR method to test food for traces of GM plants.

 
Jenny asks: How does Agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer work?


Agrobacteria are a naturally occurring species of soil bacteria, which are able to transfer genes to plant cells. But how does this work? Jenny asks Thorsten Manthey of RLP AgroScience.

 
GM CROPS:

Promise and Reality

A Nature special issue

"The introduction of the first transgenic plant 30 years ago heralded the start of a second green revolution, providing food to the starving, profits to farmers and environmental benefits to boot. Many GM crops fulfilled the promise. But their success has been mired in controversy with many questioning their safety, their profitability and their green credentials. A polarized debate has left little room for consensus.

In this special issue, Nature explores the hopes, the fears, the reality and the future."

(Source: Nature)

Nature's special issue

July 5, 2013 [nach oben springen]

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